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The Things We See but Don't Say in the Afghanistan War

Maj. Danny Sjursen in an Afghan poppy field. (Photo credit, Maj. Danny Sjursen)

Jordan, a young lieutenant at the time, calls it the “moment he realized shit was going to get real that year.” See, we (Bandit Troop, 4th Squadron, 4th Cavalry) had been in the country only a few weeks back in March 2011. This was Pashmul, Zhari district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan—the spiritual and geographic heartland of the Taliban. One morning, I and some of my officers awoke to the sound of outgoing gunfire from one of our allied Afghan National Army (ANA) guard towers. This, of course, was not all that surprising, even for newbies like us. Our base, a little sandbagged Alamo alongside the Arghandab River, got attacked just about every one of our 365 long days in Pashmul. Besides, sometimes the Afghans just liked to shoot at nothing.

Thing is, there didn’t sound like any incoming fire this time. That’s because there wasn’t any. They were shooting at one of their own guys. Turns out one of our Afghan army partners decided to jump the wall and take off on an early vacation back home. No shock there. After all, Afghan desertion rates fluctuate, but tend to hover at around 1 in every 7 soldiers. What happened next was unforgivable, and, truthfully, something I ought to have stopped sooner.

1st Lt. Jordan Rich enjoys a donated swing set in Charcusa, Afghanistan. (Photo by Maj. Danny Sjursen)

The grizzled Afghan army captain, who jointly commanded the outpost with me, ordered the captured deserter stripped naked, dressed in a white gown, and forced to crawl back and forth on his belly through the coarse gravel interior of the base. All the while, the captain trailed him, alternately whacking the prone crawler with a wooden stick and forcefully kicking him in the genitals. Jordan, Alex (another lieutenant) and I watched for far too long. I knew, heck, I could feel, what everyone was thinking: “Is Danny going to put a stop to this?” I didn’t—not soon enough, anyway. When the captain and I finally talked about the incident, he was apoplectic. How dare I, a 28-year-old American, question the way he, a 50-year-old veteran of 30 years of war, disciplined his own men. Through an interpreter, he told me it was “the Afghan way.”

* * *
Just as in Iraq, I met many lovely people in my brief sojourn to southern Afghanistan. Most folks, in most places, it seems, just want to live their lives, provide for their families and find a brief moment of respite in this too cruel world. Still, throughout that year, I came into contact, again and again, with our purported allies’ “Afghan ways.” Each time, the moral failures of our “partners”—and the broader fiasco of the entire war effort—came into clearer view.

The local people mostly hated our Afghan allies, especially the old captain. In fact, they preferred to deal with me, the Caucasian Christian, more than with anyone in the Afghan army. This was disturbing, seeing as how our whole strategy rested on transitioning power and security to these “good” Afghans. Looking back, though, it made sense. First of all, I had all the money. The Afghan army was broke, and the villagers knew where their bread was buttered. More than that, though certainly imperfect, my troopers were professionals, trained and disciplined enough to treat most locals with respect and basic human rights. That couldn’t always be said of our allies.

Maj. Danny Sjursen, left, and 1st Lt. Alex Lamb. (Photo credit, Maj. Danny Sjursen)

Besides, these Afghan soldiers—90 percent of whom were Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazaras from the far north—were as foreign to the Pashtun villagers of the valley as we were. Most ANA spoke Dari, and they, too, needed interpreters to communicate with the Pashto-speaking locals. These were foreigners: Muslims, yes, but still not to be trusted.

Plenty of the Afghan soldiers were drug addicts. One day later that year, I hopped on a patrol to check on the local police at a smelly dump of an outpost just up the road. They didn’t seem too happy to see us. It’s amazing these guys didn’t get overrun—they probably had a tacit agreement of sorts with the Taliban—because the guard towers were empty and the out-of-uniform commander seemed high as a kite. I asked to inspect their armory and barracks, you know, to take a look around. Sure enough, in one dank, dark room we found a pubescent young “recruit” shirtless and surrounded by officers. My soldiers found a large bag of hashish on the kid. “No, no, mister. No hash!” they yelled. Then, through the interpreter, he tried to explain that it was birdseed. The kid even tried to eat the “seed” to prove his point. We confiscated the bag—it wasn’t birdseed.

Drug use was common among the Afghan security forces. Why wouldn’t it be? Afghanistan is a cash-crop economy. Its biggest commodity: opium. Heck, we walked through marijuana and opium fields daily, mostly just ignoring the stuff and waiting for the next ambush. After 16 years of on-again, off-again U.S. drug eradication efforts, the Afghan opium crop reached record levels last year. That’s no surprise. The government is often in on it. In my district, one of my colonel’s favorite Afghan police chiefs, Shafi Khan, himself owned two-thirds of the poppy my troops fought and died in. Chalk up another defeat for the good old US of A.

Maj. Danny Sjursen, left, with his Afghan National Army partner, far right. (Photo credit, Maj. Danny Sjursen)

Corruption was, and is, rampant in Afghanistan. I was just a lowly captain, watching Pashmul’s local drug lords skim off the top of our development money—we euphemistically called it “cash for work”—all the while selling heroin to our Taliban enemies. All that was small potatoes. My mentor, then a senior colonel serving in the Afghan capital of Kabul, told me how his partnered Afghan officers would show him pictures of their opulent mansions in Mumbai, India, built, no doubt, on something other than a modest bureaucrat’s salary. Many Afghan government officials own such villas—called “poppy palaces“—and pay for them through drug dealing and money laundering. Counterinsurgency, so I’ve read, requires a legitimate, local partner to succeed. Tell me, can we honestly call the mess in Kabul “legitimate”?

* * *
Drugs, torture, corruption. All of that we could just about handle. Almost. It’s the child rape that gets to you. We weren’t in Pashmul too long before my lieutenants and I got invited by a local village elder to an upcoming bacha bazi (boy play) party in town. We politely declined after my interpreter explained the basics to me: See, a bunch of old, powerful dudes would sit around and smoke hash while prepubescent boys danced around in women’s clothes. Then the elders would pick whoever they fancied, and, well, you can guess what came next.

This sickening tradition was all too common in rural Afghanistan, and it still is. One American special forces captain even got disciplined by his superiors for physically stopping a boy’s rape. Sounds crazy, right? Well, on my outpost, one of our young interpreters, Shafa, barely escaped a gang rape attempt by our own ANA just a couple of tents over from where we lifted weights.

Another morning, I found out—and was pretty damn upset—that my “partner” ANA captain had kept a prisoner zip-tied to his bedpost overnight before transferring him to the battalion holding facility. I try not to imagine how that evening went. This stuff happened, and happens, all the time. Recently, there have even been reports that U.S. military commanders directed soldiers to ignore such “traditional” Afghan “culture.” I never experienced that myself, but given our priorities, such directives would hardly surprise me.

Maj. Danny Sjursen eating with Afghan security forces. (Photo credit, Maj. Danny Sjursen)

Look, Afghanistan is a mess, as bad as it’s ever been. Seven years ago, 100,000 American troops (of which I was but a small part) couldn’t change the “Afghan way,” or win an unwinnable war. What’s certain is there is nothing left to gain in that strategic sinkhole. Every minute of further occupation only dirties American hands further. Though it imagines itself as, and sometimes is, benevolent, the U.S. military is one thing for sure: complicit.

* * *
It’s long past time for the U.S. to take the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. Afghans are going to be Afghans, at least until they, not the U.S. military, decide they should act otherwise. As long as Uncle Sam is footing the bill, which ranges up to 90 percent of total Afghan GDP, the marginally legitimate, highly corrupt and morally dubious Afghan central government will stagger along—not quite losing, but nowhere near to winning—indefinitely. The U.S., which built and for decades propped up this Afghan state, must own its creation, in some ways a veritable Frankenstein’s monster, for years to come.

Shafi Khan, left, the poppy field owner and police chief, with Maj. Danny Sjursen, far right. (Photo credit, Maj. Danny Sjursen)

I’m told veterans ought to be proud of their service. I even used to believe that. In Afghanistan I saw little worthy of pride. That war, for me and for our republic, remains nothing but one immense moral injury. One, I fear, that we’ll live with for a long, long time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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