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A Stupid American in Afghanistan, Part 2

I almost feel embarrassed to say so, but I didn’t know what I was doing in Afghanistan. As a reporter and even as an editor, I had covered natural disasters – floods, tornadoes, hurricanes. I had spent two days with a serial killer. I also had covered local and state politics – disasters themselves, despite the well-intentioned. But I knew nothing about dropping into a place like Afghanistan – journalism calls it “parachuting” into a country for a story – and making sense of the experience.

I read at least six books about Afghanistan and its history before I left the states, and I read another one on the way over. I knew about the country’s encounters with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British, the Soviets, the United States, the Pakistanis, the Iranians, powerful oil companies. I knew about the country’s religions, I knew about its ethnic groups, I knew about the Taliban, about the “freedom fighters,” about the country’s kings. But I knew nothing about Afghanistan.

Nothing that helped me while I was there, anyway. I started getting smart about the place only around the time I had to leave.

Even two weeks into my, for lack of a better word, assignment, I was on the hill outside Karezi Kalan mostly because I foolishly thought a United Nations employee could get me an interview with Abdul Rashid Dostum or Atta Mohammad, powerful warlords at the time whose battles raged in the north even while, in October 2003, the U.S. government was trying to tell the world that everything was okay in Afghanistan, that “progress” was being made – a vague enough assertion to be true and meaningless simultaneously, for flushing a toilet in Afghanistan qualifies as progress. Not having to eat garbage qualifies as progress in Afghanistan, but even that measurement, sadly, was far from being met.

The truth is, almost all foreign reporters in Afghanistan at the time were stupid. A few – Kathy Gannon of the Associated Press and Paul Watson of the Los Angeles Times come to mind – actually knew what they were doing, having been in or around the country for so many years. But most of us couldn’t have found our heads, though they so clearly were rammed up our asses.

I’m not talking so much about reporters embedded with our troops, for their mission was clear: Write press releases for the Pentagon and call it journalism. That’s what embedded reporters do, intentionally or not. That’s why military officials, apparently clueless over the meaning of their own words, have referred to embeds as “our” reporters. I’m also not talking so much about the traveling journalists, those attached to the White House or the State Department or the Pentagon, who do, perhaps, some of the most damage. With airs of authority, they make pronouncements that they’ve just been fed by whatever chief they happen to be following around, all without really stepping foot in Afghanistan, the real Afghanistan. Sure, they may be reporting from a military base in Afghanistan, they may even be reporting from Hamid Karzai’s Presidential Palace. But places like these just happen to be in Afghanistan; they are not Afghanistan at all. Swanking out at Karzai’s place probably does make things seem right; but the devil can make us love fire, even while it encircles us, as the slums of Kabul surround the Palace, breathing sorrow, disease and death.

I’m talking mostly about the reporters who dropped into the country for a few days and came out with a story, any story. I call them the isn’t-it-great-that-the-Afghans-are-flying-kites-again stories. There were multiple variations, all with the same unspoken trajectory: Ain’t America done good? Look, they’re flying kites again. (The Taliban had forbidden kite-flying, citing a prohibition against gambling, a concomitant of Afghan kite competitions.) I couldn’t write such stories, though they were plentiful. Certainly, I couldn’t after watching a little boy, perhaps three, crawling around one of Kabul’s garbage heaps, trying to tie a string to the loops of a white plastic bag, which he wanted so much to be his kite. He tried to run with it. But he stumbled and fell, stumbled and fell, and the bag barely got off the ground. No kite stories.

Ben and I talked about The Story. We knew we really had only one story, and it had to be The Story. Trouble is, neither of us knew what it was.

“I don’t know,” he’d say.

“I don’t either,” I’d reply. “We could write about the horrors, but where would we stop? Could we stop?”

In the 33 days Ben and I spent in Afghanistan, for instance, about 30,000 Afghan children under the age of five died. That’s almost 1,000 a day, mostly from preventable causes, like dysentery, measles, mumps and polio – or through child-birth complications. The trend continued in 2004, according to UNICEF, when 359,000 of these children died – again, mostly because they lacked medical care. By comparison that year, about 1,000 children under the age of five died in Australia, a coalition partner whose population is roughly the same as Afghanistan’s. Or take this comparison: It’s as if 359,000 children under the age of five died each year in Texas, about the size of Afghanistan, where one-third of the land is uninhabitable, so the deaths are much more concentrated than they seem.

We attacked this country.

It’s called the “graveyard of empires,” Afghanistan. But it’s also the empire of graveyards, and they’re always open.

So Ben and I came to northern Afghanistan in pursuit of whatever The Story was. We came up in a small twin-engine aircraft piloted by an American who had moved his whole family over to Kabul just so he could, he said, make a lot of money flying over Afghan mountains and deserts – a  sizeable amount of international aid promised to the country, in fact, was winding up in pockets like his. A U.N. official directing the organization’s demining efforts from Kabul, Patrick Fruchet, promised an awesome view of the Hindu Kush, which we got, and a room at a U.N. compound in Mazar, which we didn’t get. The rules, we were told after we arrived in Mazar, didn’t allow journalists to stay in U.N. facilities.

Rules often change overnight in Afghanistan. Why not the U.N.?

Unless you’re a Kuchi nomad, camping out in Afghanistan isn’t an option, at least not a good one. (Recall the two German journalists who were shot and killed in 2006 while camping out somewhere around Bamiyan, made famous in 2001 after the Taliban blew up the Buddha statues.) So we spent at least a few hours just trying to find a place to stay for the weekend, shaking our heads at several places that, even the most naive could tell, weren’t conducive to survival.

We wound up at the Mazar Hotel, where we were lead to our room during a blackout, following a stranger with a flashlight. The hotel, while it couldn’t promise continuous electricity or anything but cold water and warm Cokes, at least was protected by a stone wall and had nominal guards with AK-47s at the gates.

That Friday, of course, for the most part was shot, except for dinner with Patrick and – the real reason we were here, I was starting to suspect – Patrick’s fiancée.

“What the fuck, Patrick,” I said to him in the hotel garden that day. “You didn’t know U.N. rules yesterday? We were promised a room at the U.N. compound, the protected U.N. compound. Now we’re in this fucking place.”

“It’ll be all right,” he replied, clearly perturbed by my harangue. “It has guards.”

“Yeah, guards who look like their fourteen years old.”

Were I Afghan and fourteen, I wouldn’t protect the dumb ass of an American stranger. I’d say, “Here Mr. Taliban, take my rifle. He’s over there, in that room.”

But what the hell. Not as if I could have done anything about it. What did that idiot Rumsfeld say, something like you go to war with the army that you have, not the one you want (as if that excuses sending troops to Iraq without proper armament)? Well, Ben and I had come to Mazar expecting professional protection; we got pubescent boys instead. And we probably had, between us, $5,000 of afghanis strapped to our ankles and legs – it wasn’t safe to leave the cash in Kabul. Not that it was safe, anywhere.

I hung around the garden for a while after Patrick left, knowing he’d be back in a few hours to take us to dinner.

It was early November, so what may have been a sumptuous garden, bright with colors and fragrance, looked like the garden that it was, declining toward winter. Hardly a green thing in sight.  The wind pushed dead vegetation along the walkways as the sky turned violet with the evening.