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An Afghan Thanksgiving

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On Thanksgiving Day 2001, my job was to take the turkeys out of the fire. I’d been out reporting most of the day, so when I returned to Jalalabad my contribution to dinner was to monitor four scrawny Afghan turkeys that were baking in Dutch ovens buried in hot coals behind the Spinghar Hotel. Once I was sure they were fully cooked, I sliced them up for a dining room full of war correspondents who were celebrating with an unhealthy amount of lousy Pakistani liquor.

As a foreign correspondent for The Associated Press, I had spent more than a dozen Thanksgivings with fellow hacks in Third World countries, fashioning holiday meals from whatever we could find in local markets. But Thanksgiving in Afghanistan was different. Sure, there were plenty of familiar faces from past wars in the old hotel that we had made the media headquarters. There were also acouple of household names at the table: CNN’s Brent Sadler, Fox’s Geraldo Rivera. But this dinner of turkey, mutton, cauliflower and potatoes was more emotional than others.

Just a week before, Taliban fighters had ambushed us on the road to Kabul. The bearded gunmen stopped two of the cars in the convoy and executed four of our colleagues. It took several days to get the bodies to Pakistan. Their faces were still fresh in our minds. The night before the holiday, The Washington Post‘s Pam Constable had decided to organize a dinner to break the somber mood, even as American bombs rattled the windows. We tried to blunt our trauma by raising glasses to our fallen comrades and treating ourselves to an American Thanksgiving.

Eight Thanksgivings later, U.S. soldiers are still celebrating their survival in Afghanistan, even as they ship home the bodies of their dead. Taliban gunmen are still launching ambushes on the Kabul road as American bombs rain down. Some Texas troops will be sharing a Thanksgiving meal on the sprawling Bagram Air Base, eating turkey and fixings supplied by Houston-based KBR, which has made billions in profits from the war. More will be sitting behind sandbags in frigid fire bases, eating ravioli out of plastic bags and peering down mountainsides, watching for the enemy.

Back home, many Americans will be thinking long and hard about what our troops are doing in Afghanistan and what they can hope to accomplish. Most important, they’ll be asking whether the fight in Afghanistan is worth what it’s costing us in blood and treasure.

While President Obama will make the decision about a new strategy, individual Americans need to answer these questions for themselves. Texans in particular need to think about Afghanistan, because 15,000 Texans serve in the armed forces. Lately, one Texan per week has died in Afghanistan.

The first thing to understand about Afghanistan is that it’s not Iraq. Nor is it Vietnam. The nation has not had an effective central government since the late 1970s, and since then living conditions have regressed in almost every way. There is also a vast gulf between average Afghans and the men who carry Kalashnikovs in the streets. One wants nothing but peace; the other is a mercenary.

I spent two months living with Pashtun fighters during the Battle of Tora Bora in 2001. These mujahedeen had only weeks earlier ditched their Taliban turbans to join the CIA payroll and fight al Qaida. They had no interest in Western ideas of liberty, democracy or fighting terrorism; they only wanted to drive the foreign fighters out of their country. At that moment the enemy was al Qaida, which made them our allies of the hour. These fighters had been educated in conservative religious schools, if at all, and they fought for clan leaders who made sure they got paid. They prayed five times a day, even in the heat of battle. Their goal was to simply be left alone.

I have no doubt that most of the mujahedeen I shared tea with in 2001 are now fighting against U.S. troops. The heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s battle plan for Afghanistan is to get these men to switch sides again. That strategy eventually succeeded in Iraq, after years of strategic blunders, but will be harder in Afghanistan. In Iraq, American officers could negotiate with the nationalist insurgents because they were led by men from the middle and upper classes, many of them with Western educations and secular views. The flat terrain also favored American tactics, making the insurgents want to talk.

In Afghanistan, there is no middle class. Most Afghans spend their lives following an ancient interpretation of the Quran. The country’s mountainous geography favors guerrilla tactics, which places the Americans in a weak negotiating position. The Afghans have also proven difficult to buy off, since clan and tribal loyalty are paramount in Afghan society.

When I interviewed Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch in Iraq in 2008, he chalked up U.S. successes there to the fact that American commanders had finally figured the country out. By McChrystal’s assessment, the Pentagon is still nowhere near figuring out Afghanistan. One key question is whether we ever will.

The litany of seemingly insurmountable challenges has led many to call for an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan. After McChrystal’s report leaked in September, Vice President Joe Biden floated a containment strategy in which the Pentagon would pull out and build a virtual wall around Afghanistan. We’ve tried that before, and we’re still doing it with another country I’ve reported from: Somalia. U.S. troops provide equipment and training to every country that borders Somalia, and a naval task force sits off the coast. The Pentagon’s goal is to simply contain the radicals where they can do no harm.

I could try to quantify the misery in Somalia using government statistics, but there has been no real government to collect data since 1989. Outsiders guess that unemployment is at 80 percent, but no one knows for sure. Infant mortality is horrifyingly high, but since most Somalis never see a hospital in their short, brutish lives, who can calculate a number? I can tell you that no more than 10 percent of Somali children see a classroom. Women are oppressed publicly and abused daily. Young men are heavily armed and drugged, either on a narcotic called khat or on a radical form of Islam that would make al-Qaida’s Ayman al-Zawahiri blush.

Those who would withdraw American troops from Afghanistan are condemning the Afghan people to a Somali fate. The people of Somalia did not elect the brutal warlords who rule their divided country, and neither would Afghans elect the radicals who would take power if left unopposed. We would be writing off millions of people to generations of suffering, and the female half would again become chattel. The cost in lives and money to the United States would certainly drop in the short term. The long-term costs to humanity would skyrocket.

I was late to that Thanksgiving party in 2001 because I had been assigned to write a heart-warming story. The headline read, “Girls at School in Eastern Afghanistan for the First Time Since 1996.” I wrote, in part:

Hundreds of girls were at school for the first time in their lives. The teachers did their best to calm them, but learning with others—instead of alone or in small groups at home—proved to be a powerful distraction. Throughout Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, 3,500 girls have registered for classes and 320 female teachers have returned to work.

Politicians and generals may talk about fighting terrorism, but frontline troops talk about the new school or the better hospital they’ve helped build. I’ve been on patrol with hundreds of young soldiers, and the one thing I’ve heard over and over again is that they can’t believe how horrible the living conditions are in Afghanistan. And once they’ve been inside an Afghan family compound, they would often say: “I get it, I get why these guys become terrorists.” They learn firsthand that defeating terrorism is not about killing people, but about defeating injustice.

The vast majority of Afghan civilians, of course, don’t become terrorists. Most people I’ve met want a country more like India than Iran. They certainly don’t want the medieval-style Islamic regime the Taliban operated. They want little more than to work, prosper and provide a better life for their children.

The question—for all of us—is how many American lives and dollars we are willing to sacrifice to help them achieve those dreams and, by extension, to bolster our security.

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