During the Global War On Terror, I have seen some interesting things, met some interesting people and played some interesting games. I have learned about other cultures, adopted some things and rejected others. I have made friends that I call brothers, and made enemies that I will never forget, even as many of them have departed well before their natural expiration date.
Throughout my wanderings, there has been a drive to know my fellow travellers. When I donned the uniform of a U.S. soldier, I adopted a dual view of humanity, necessary to balance my desire to know the native people I would be cast into a crucible with and the warrior's reality that I may have to kill them. Part of me was shaking hands and kissing babies, "building rapport" as we say in the biz. Another part of me was rapidly dehumanizing those around me in order to see my opponents as targets and not humans.
I can voice this duality and not see the hypocrisy of it, for I am glad for my time behind a gun. I revel in the camaraderie and brotherhood I have forged in combat, and as Hemmingway has noted, very few things are equal to war once you have spent time in the pursuit of hunting armed men. I am grateful of my mind's ability to forge synapses that allowed me enough cognitive dissonance to morally justify the actions I have taken in defense of the weak and disenfranchised.
I was lucky (read: unlucky) enough to cut my teeth in Afghanistan, a place that has more in common with a scene from Planet of The Apes than it does with Anytown, USA. Stark moonscapes peppered with thick walled mud qalats, reminiscent of Tatooine. Central to this post-apocalyptic landscape, is the imposing and stoic figure of the Afghan male. He is an easily maligned and misunderstood individual, by almost any understanding. He is pre-disposed to a variety of Western vices and as a result of his culture often doesn't understand the nuances of liberty and self-determination... At least as Westerners understand. It has been pretty damn easy for the Westerner to dehumanize the Afghan people.
Enter stage left: Ahmed Shah Massoud.
In a culture that I read about for years before my first deployment, and found I understood nothing about almost immediately, there is Massoud. A universally admired (except by radical Islamisicists) hero who we, as Westerners, get. His legend embodies the virtues we don't seem to find in most Afghans we see in the news, and he was and IS still loved. How? In a culture riddled with cronyism, patriarchy, corruption, misogyny, medieval sexual abuse, drug abuse, and violence we see a bastion of grace, intellect, egalitarianism and liberty that the Afghan people across many tribal and cultural divides look to as a model of virtue.
Here are a few quotes to frame his beliefs:
"Our policy was always to have a good and friendly realtions with everyone.But we never have accepted being oppressed and we will never accept it."
"We consider this our duty — to defend humanity against the scourge of intolerance, violence, and fanaticism."
"What we struggle for is something else: there should be Afghanistan where every Afghan finds himself or herself – irrespective of sex – happy. I am deeply convinced that this can only be ensured by democracy and a democratically elected government, based on consensus. It is only then that we can indeed solve a number of problems that have been besetting Afghan people."
Knowing the popularity and competence of Ahmed Shah Massoud, he was assassinated by AQ agents on Sept 9, 2001... days before the attacks on NYC. Despite his years of pleas to the West to back his "Northern Alliance", there doesn't seem to have been much stomach for aiding in the defense of democracy and freedom in Afghanistan without undue Russian influence in play.
So, how do we reconcile that men like "The Lion of Panjshir" likely exist in Afghan feudal culture even today? The ones I met were working with me as trusted partners. But, with poor vetting and even worse cultural sensitivity we continue to dehumanize potential "Massouds" and offer our support to the corrupt enemies of a fiercely free people. Pakistan and the poppy barons of Southern Afghanistan might be the horses we chose to start this race with, but they shouldn't be the ones we keep riding when we realize they are lame.
I don't have a solution to all the problems in Afghanistan, and I know it's foolish to get misty about a potential reality that isn't reality. The incidence of Blue on Green (When an Afghan dressed in the uniform of the national police or army attacks U.S. partners in a non-combat environment) is on the rise, corruption continues to run rampant, and Pakistan HAS to be getting tired from all the stirring of the pot they are doing. However, I think it's even more foolish to forget the lessons we can learn from others, blatantly ignore history, and oversimplify the way we look at any different culture/creed/race simply to justify the piles of them we stack up defending some universally misunderstood concept of "freedom".
In the absence of a clear solution, let us celebrate a lion: the Afghan Tecumsah.