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From the sky: Typical Afghan compound.

01 October 2008
Mazar i Sharif, Afghanistan

Some days ago I visited the bazaar at Jalalabad, and took a bunch of colorful photographs and met many friendly people.  Walking through Jalalabad, one could almost forget there was a war.  But for the most part, this war is today being fought not in the cities, but the villages and small family compounds where most Afghanis live.

Urban counterinsurgency can be incredibly dangerous, yet the population has a common life.  City dwellers are dependent on civil services like water, sewage and electricity; they often have specialized roles in complex economies.  Their feelings and opinions form a political aggregate which both the democrat and terrorist must heed.   These elements of common life give the urban population a center of gravity which can reach a tipping point and shift, either toward the insurgent or the government.  In Iraq, most people live in cities or towns.  When the center of gravity in certain communities began shifting against Al Qaeda and other groups, the shifts had a profound impact on the war.  Also, Iraq, as Afghanistan, has powerful tribes which can behave like “voting blocs.”  Often they vote with bullets.

In Afghanistan, the cities are mostly won (for now), despite terrorist attacks that are often planned and supplied from militants in Pakistan.  For instance, I am today in Mazar i Sharif and have been going all over the city for several days with zero dramas.  I will not hesitate to walk on the street or go to restaurants.  The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming.  In places like Jalalabad and Mazar i Sharif, it’s easy to see why so many foreigners, including Americans, tend to like Afghans.  And even if the city dwellers are just as disgusted with the Afghan government’s corruption and our serial mistakes as an occupying power, it’s not so easy for them to turn away from the government, which they rely upon for so much.  Rural Afghans, by comparison, are much more autonomous, both logistically and in spirit, though so far I am finding most of them to be very hospitable.  These are the people that Taliban are bringing over to their side, either by sympathy, threats, or some combination of factors.  Just some days ago I was without the military very close to where the 10 French soldiers were killed near Sarobi.  I talked with men from the village of Speer Kundy, just near where the soldiers died.  I also obtained video and photos of Taliban wearing the French uniforms and carrying the French weapons.  Out of respect for the French, I have no plans to publish this material.  One of the men told me that the Taliban were trying to capture some of the French, who kept fighting after they were wounded, so the Taliban killed them.  Others were captured then killed.  The villagers said they hate the Taliban (though I am nearly certain that at least one man was Taliban), and they hate the Coalition.  They didn’t seem to have anything against the French, or the Americans.  They just want to be left alone.  But they also said that about half of the Taliban who fought the French were foreigners.  I talked with the men in the middle of bad-guy country, and their phones kept ringing.  They clearly have much outside contact.

If we’re going to win this war, we will have to win over the rural Afghans.  One compound at a time.

An old friend of mine has an airplane in Afghanistan, and I’ve hitched a few rides with him.  On one trip, I took aerial photos of compounds in Helmand Province, between Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah. Compounds vary in different regions, but many families and extended families live within compound walls. Large compounds in the seeming middle of nowhere. Some compounds are abandoned, and only the walls remain. Small farmers eke out a precarious existence. Afghanistan is a living museum. The compounds are part of the landscape.

According to some estimates, nationwide the literacy rate is just over 25 percent, and much lower in these rural areas.  But again, I’m finding on the ground, the folks tend to be very friendly even when I don’t have a gun, and there are no soldiers around.

Many Taliban grow up in compounds like this.  The word “Taliban” can be a vague term, used to describe local insurgents, foreign jihadists and everything in between.  A man with a gun is generally called Taliban.  But a civilian security expert named Tim Lynch told me that if a man is wearing tennis shoes, he’s mostly likely Taliban of some sort.  Sure enough, in the videos and photos of Taliban wearing French gear and carrying their weapons, most of the Taliban were wearing tennis shoes.

Compounds are small fortresses that offer the Afghans scant protection from the forces of history. Sometimes several families live together to form a large compound or small village. Water is wealth in this arid land. Anybody home? Several compounds grouped along the same road and irrigation canal.

Isolated from other habitations, a lone compound makes an inviting target for an airstrike when enemy are believed present.  We greatly depend on airstrikes due to lack of ISAF and Afghan soldiers.  Yet civilian casualties are turning the locals against us. The men from the village where the French soldiers were killed, told me that airstrikes had accidentally killed about 200 animals, including 27 cows, and they were never compensated.  I do not know if the numbers are accurate, but I sensed the men were being truthful that animals were killed.  They said four people from a nearby village were killed from an airstrike during the fighting, and they gave specifics which made me think they were likely telling the truth.  The men also said they liked the French and the Americans before the fighting, but they hate us now.

These and the next compounds almost qualify as a city.

The compounds are made of mud mixed with straw, unbaked and left to dry in the sun. Still in use, or ruins? Irrigation provides water to this parched patch of earth.  Americans built substantial irrigation here in southern Afghanistan in past decades.

These compounds offer a strong contrast to large American houses with front lawns ringed by picket fences.  The people who live in these compounds might seem very different from us, but they want basically the same things:  to earn a living and raise their families. But yet again, the Afghan people are caught in the crucible of history, and their homes are battlefields.  War is part of the character of many of these people.  They are not all innocent victims.  The ones I am meeting are very friendly, but fighting is life to them.  Afghanistan is a primitive patch of Earth.  By comparison, Iraq is very developed and modern.  Still, it’s easy to see why so many westerners like Afghan people.  They can make you feel welcome, so long as you aren’t shooting at them.

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