Desert Winds

The View of Iraq From Troops in Afghanistan

The recent Afghan elections should have been the big news, but even troops deployed to Afghanistan are distracted by the spiraling chaos in Iraq.


Last week, as the world’s gaze shifted toward Iraq, we stayed focused on supporting the presidential runoff election here in Afghanistan.

On Election Day we were prepared for trouble, but as the hours wore on things remained strangely quiet, at least in my small part of the war. The “120 Days of Wind” are now blowing here in Afghanistan. As the hot, dusty, and dry season invades, the Afghan runoff vote was an apparent success, though not without bloodshed.

News from Iraq drowned out the June 14 Afghan election coverage. Millions went to the polls. Some reports said at least 100 people died in bombings, rocket attacks, and shootings throughout the county. Both candidates alleged fraud. Taliban threats kept some Afghans from voting. In one village, insurgents hacked off 11 old men’s index fingers because they voted. One watchdog group reported shortages of ballots, technical problems, and ballot stuffing. One of the candidates, Abdullah Abdullah, said “he would not accept any result put forth by the country’s election commission.”

In spite of the attacks and allegations of fraud, most observers deemed the vote a victory. Headlines included AP’s “Afghans Brave Taliban Threats to Choose New Leader” and Reuters’ “Afghans Ignore Taliban Threats and Vote Again in Final Test.” Coalition country and U.N. leaders congratulated the government of Afghanistan on a successful election.

As I watched the reporting and took in the compliments on the Afghan election, ISIS atrocities flashed on the news. The searing winds and dusted Afghan sky reminded me of Iraq.

Over the last few days, with two feet in Afghan soil I’ve kept an eye on Iraq. As the jihadists push toward Baghdad, I’ve watched the coverage and followed the political rhetoric. Like one Iraq War vet, Brian Castner, wrote in The New York Times, “I find myself attached to the news cycle in a way I haven’t felt since I returned from Iraq years ago.”

The reporting of ISIS’ Iraq invasion reminded me of the 24-hour coverage of the 2003 U.S. invasion. It’s hard to look away. Even in the gym, I see troops set their weights down to read the words scrolling across the TVs, and those on treadmills run toward the black flags waving on the screens.

I worry about the Iraqis I worked with and the families left behind by those who escaped. Among countless atrocities, ISIS claims they executed 1,700 Iraqi soldiers rounded up at bases around Tikrit. Some discount the authenticity of the claims, while the governor of Salah Al Din province said many of those allegedly killed came from the Iraqi Air Force Academy—a place I once knew. In 2011, during the final days of our last Iraq war I spent time there, on the former U.S. base called COB Speicher. I snapped photos of the Academy’s half-sand-filled swimming pool and explored the bullet-scarred soccer stadium. I visited and laughed with some of the Iraqi students. They spoke of their training and plans. U.S. advisers there repeated the familiar mantra I heard many times during my tour in Mesopotamia… “Iraqi good enough.” As in, “Remember, the Iraqi standard won’t be the same as the U.S. standard,” or “We need to be satisfied with what’s good enough for them, they don’t have to be just like us.” Advisers use a similar term here, “Afghan good enough.”

During that deployment, as an adviser, I met with Iraqi counterparts weekly, sometimes more. After an hour or two of chai and conversations about our families, past, and the status of Arab Spring uprisings in other countries, we’d eventually talk business. Those discussions typically revolved around the ongoing sectarian assassination campaign against Iraqi government and military officials, equipment the U.S. could give them, and how we could help them get military training in the U.S.

Several times we got our Iraqi colleagues school slots for technical training in the U.S. We endorsed their efforts and hand-delivered paperwork for them to go. Each time our attempts failed when higher-ranking Iraqi generals took the slots for others.

More than once the Iraqis we worked with postponed our engagements so they could mourn slain colleagues. At one of our last meetings, the conversation halted when an Iraqi colonel’s cellphone rang. He answered, shook his head, and repeated prayers. Gunman had just attacked and killed one of his close friends on a Baghdad street just a few miles away.

Most of the troops around me have little interaction with Afghans beyond the local nationals who work on base, and yet, the future of our efforts belongs to them. Our own history, and some ways our fates, are entwined with those of people we don’t really know.

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Here, it’s dangerous to get too distracted with the turmoil in Iraq. We haven’t forgotten that we’re still in Afghanistan. Here, the winds have just picked up and it’s too early to tell if Afghan good enough will be enough.

Nick Willard is the pen name of a military officer serving in Afghanistan. He’s previously served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or United States government.