Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the war on terror most Americans have never seen.
There was no confusion about the reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan. In 2001, the international community backed the United States military by sending both armed forces and financial aid. Even France boasted of “European unity in international security.”
In most people’s minds, Afghanistan is the opposite of Iraq. It’s the “good” war, the “just” war, the authorized war – the forgotten war.
Unlike Iraq, the coalition presence in Afghanistan is notable. There are many armies here from many different places
The Japanese have donated funds for hospitals in the remotest regions of the country. The spirit of goodwill for the Afghans crosses all levels. Korean missionaries have sent what they feel is spiritual aid. Here, in Operation Enduring Freedom, there is international aid and a robust alliance. Military bases have a row of flags in front of them boasting of the united effort to stabilize the country. Yet this ragtag republic, once a kingdom and many times a conquest, garners less attention than its sister conflict in Iraq.
A land of extremes, Afghanistan looks deceptively like Denver, Colo., despite the occasional camel or the Mohave Desert, if it weren’t for the open fields of marijuana and poppies. The craggy landscape is vast and mountainous up north, smooth and flat down south.
This is the “good war,” we’re told. But just as in the story of the prodigal son where the obedient son who stayed behind to do everything right felt forgotten, Afghanistan is often overlooked in favor of the wayward wandering of its sibling conflict.
Standing in the areas where al-Qaida operated, and looking at the barren landscape, it is striking how far removed the dusty sheep trails of Gardez, Afghanistan, are from the emerald Sheep Meadow in Central Park in New York City. No plumes of morning steam escaping from manholes, here there is only the dust on rocky improvised roads, and the metal Midtown skyscrapers are replaced by ore-filled mountains. Two places with nothing in common, and yet it is difficult to comprehend how the attacks leading to the shattering of the modern Twin Towers were planned in such a low-tech environment. The world is small indeed.
From the C-17 aircraft, life in the Afghan landscape looks like so many beige dominoes tossed between the countless valleys.
Portuguese soldiers on Forward Operation base Qalat. Every nation has a different colored uniform
This country has known many visitors: Alexander the Great, the Mongols, Marco Polo, Genghis Khan, Persians, Turks, British, Soviets. Now, the United States is accompanied by several collaborating nations fighting under different banners – the International Security Assistance Force, Centcom, NATO and the “ghosts” operating in and out of national boundaries. The conflict in Afghanistan is both local and international, with as many rules and missions as there are interpretations of desert camouflage.
Unlike the luckless chaos of Iraqi violence, experts speak of Afghan flair-ups in terms of “seasons,” as if this ancient nation were a living organism with a rhythm for malady and mayhem. Clashes in the north follow events in the south, both in a pattern mimicking the age-old trade of the famous Silk Routes through which the rulers of Rome had tacit awareness of the Mandarins of China.
The landscape of Afghanistan has housed wanderers and warriors for centuries
A flight over country shows none of the urban sprawl of Iraq, the Afghan terrain being a natural fortress. Vast deserts could challenge the march of any army in the south, and jutting mountain peaks keep small communities isolated from their neighbors just over an impenetrable hilltop.
A picture of boys wearing sandals, robes and herding sheep at the snap of a long stick would fit right into any era before the birth of Christ.
The men are coiffed in thick turbans dignified of a Technicolored ’50s Hollywood adventure film. In their faces are the etchings of centuries past and the borders of race that do not fit so easily into census categories. On farms, little girls run barefoot through open fields, their sparkling traditional dresses visible even from the heights of a Chinook helicopter, as their mothers squat near the walls of the calats, managing the extra fabric of their burqas in their open hands or closed fists.
VIDEO: The calat, a typical Afghan compound that can house entire communities. The Calat is refreshingly cool in the hot summer. The walls are more than four feet thick. This calat was rented by the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Gardez.
Ask an Iraqi what needs to change and he’ll speak of sewage, electricity and jobs. Ask an Afghan his heart’s desires and he’ll mention roads, a bridge and to be left alone. These people in their mud-made compounds want less than creature comforts. Their ancestors have always fought, and despite the sense of “old” permeating the society, there is a young bravado, the daredevil carelessness of a teenager who doesn’t fear death because it’s too far away.
The people of Afghanistan come from different backgrounds: Hazaras in the west, Tajiks in the northeast, Daris scattered in the former centers of power and Pashtuns along the border with Pakistan.
Because of the vast distances in Afghanistan, helicopters are the preferred means of travel. Unlike Iraq, Taliban fighters will challenge a plane with small arms fire that ranges from bullets to sophisticated missiles.
The Taliban, or “the students of religion,” were the most successful at maintaining stability after the overthrow of a Soviet-backed regime and the consequent civil war. Fighting continued outside the cities, but in places like Khandahar, public executions were an advertisement of the new sharia rule religious leaders were determined to impose. Men packed into stadiums to witness the execution of a murderer or the whipping of an insolent. They made little noise and took care not to clap, since that too was against the rules.
Al-Qaida, or “the Arabs” as many locals called them, were allowed safe harbor in the Afghanistan of the Taliban, and some of the bases currently housing coalition forces were once training camps for Osama’s religious warriors.
Crossroads of the world, the people of Afghanistan do not fit into comfortable categories of race and ethnicity
The military is much more relaxed here. The Marines themselves sometimes wear the bright, green, happy woodland “cammies” that would be entirely out of place in the Al Anbar province. Afghanistan is a “war by committee” following the polyglot commands of a multicultural military.
To say America forgot Afghanistan is only a half-truth. From Austria to New Zealand, the voting populations that have sent troops have lost the sense of urgency to keep up the fight. Like a popular television series that has seen better ratings, American audiences know the conflict exists, even if they prefer to change the channel to something more entertaining. Yet, although the land of the Afghans is so far from the people of America it might as well be an imaginary place, this war is very real.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.