KABUL, Afghanistan — One of the first things you notice at an Afghan National Army training base is that there are roses everywhere. There are lovingly tended flower beds along each road and surrounding every barrack. The machismo of Afghan male culture apparently coexists with a little-noted passion for gardening. Not only are the center dividers of Kabul’s traffic-choked main avenues lined with well-kept rose bushes, but when you stop at checkpoints in the capital’s “Ring of Steel” you often see brightly colored flowers growing out of the top of Hesco barriers, the giant blast-proof sandbags that are one of the transforming technologies of the “War on Terror.”
It’s the sort of juxtaposition that makes you wonder, when you first see it, whether the ways of the Afghan soldiers and those of the Westerners who’ve trained them can ever really fit together. And the announcement Saturday that the United States will be keeping an extra thousand troops on the ground in Afghanistan for a little longer than planned—a total of 10,800 troops in the first few months of the new year—makes the question seem just a bit more critical. There have been so many stories of “green on green” and “green on blue” killings, when Afghan soldiers and police have opened fire on their fellow troops or their Western colleagues in ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force.
But the blast barriers themselves, like the roses, are so ubiquitous that once you’ve spent some time here you forget to register them or what their presence may imply about how people and institutions deal with the ordinary insecurity of life. The same applies to other visual cues that tend to go unremarked.
For instance, another thing you might notice at an Afghan National Army (ANA) training base is that very few Afghan soldiers on it are carrying weapons. There will be some sentries with American-supplied M16 rifles, and the foreign trainers may be carrying guns, but the great mass of troops are unarmed.
By contrast, at ISAF installations almost everyone you see is armed, including civilian contractors. Men and women who have never gone “outside the wire” at ISAF HQ in Kabul (except to travel to or from the airport), who are unlikely ever to do so, and who are protected by multiple layers of carefully designed military security, nevertheless carry pistols strapped to their hips.
The rules that allow the bearing of arms even by civilians at ISAF bases—and the fact that almost everyone who can chooses to do so—presumably expresses not just a rather extreme and fearful approach to “force protection” but also an understandable desire on the part of rear-echelon folk to look and feel warlike and badass. Both sartorial tendencies also reflect one of the most striking aspects of life in Afghanistan and that is a lack of trust, or rather a lack of trust of anyone who is not an immediate member of your family and tribe.
You don’t need a deep knowledge of Afghan history to have a sense that this is not a new or recent phenomenon: all you have to do is fly over the country. The big visual difference between Afghanistan (and Pakistan’s Pashtun frontier lands) and similarly mountainous or desert regions in, say, India, is that here there are high walls around everything. Every dwelling of any size, every farm outside the city (and it’s true also of many houses inside the city) is a fortress, a castle and perhaps a jail, too, at least for some of the females within.
It’s hard to know if this mistrust is justified, if without walls and weapons no man could expect to live undisturbed regardless of traditional honor codes. But of course, many middle aged and older Afghans have more than enough experience of violence and disorder to be cautious.
On the other hand, one of the striking things about urban life here is that it is much quieter and more civil than its equivalent in Pakistan or India.
In Kabul you rarely see people shouting at each other or getting angry in public. When on another trip here I once started to lose my temper with an Afghan colleague, the young Afghan fixer who was showing me around cautioned me to calm down, explaining that it would be dangerous to make an Afghan man lose face publicly. It is a bit like the stories you hear from American prisons in which inmates are surprisingly polite or at least careful not to bump into each other in the line for lunch, because any kind of perceived insult has to be answered with extreme violence. When I was in Kabul last year I was told about a female staffer at one of the big foreign aid organizations who publicly reprimanded one of her house servants. Her agency had to take her out of the country that very evening after it was made clear that the servant had sworn to kill her.
Some of the more notorious “green on blue” attacks have their origin in such outraged honor. rather than in ideology or Taliban infiltration. The foreign advisers engaged in training troops long ago learned that Afghans can take mortal offense at the use of obscenity and certainly at being called “motherfuckers” or something similar. But unfortunately some of the foreign troops performing guard duty can be less culturally sensitive: last year an Australian soldier provoked a fatal incident at a joint training base just outside Kabul by insulting an Afghan soldier.
In general, though, one of the things that is abundantly obvious if you visit the many bases where ISAF troops are training and advising the Afghan military and police, is that at this point, the NATO-led forces really do “get” their clients and are profoundly familiar with Afghan culture in all its good and bad manifestations.
Many officers and men from the 48-odd ISAF countries have done multiple tours, speak some Dari or Pashto, and have developed a deep affection for Afghanistan along with a relatively intimate knowledge of local ways. It makes it seem all the more unfortunate, that having finally achieved such understanding, most of those personnel are leaving.
ISAF is shrinking and will be gone by the end of the year; already only 30,000 foreigners remain from a force that once numbered 150,000. To the dismay of Afghanistan’s newly elected President Ashraf Ghani, and of many other people here ranging from ISAF commanders to leaders of Afghan civil society, the follow-on NATO-led mission, named “Resolute Support,” will have a maximum of only 12,000 troops and will itself be shut down within two years, regardless of the political, military and economic situation in the country.
It took years and many costly, bruising lessons to cultivate in the blighted soil of this country, the trust and mutual respect that you now encounter between Afghans and Internationals; soon these hard-won connections will become irrelevant and fade away like, well, like roses withering in blast barriers.