Conduct research on Pashtuns and you will inevitably find words like “warrior,” “fighter,” and “courageous” attached to this ethnic group of people. They are known for their warrior spirit, their bravery, their honor, and their Pashtunwali code (or way of life). The mujahideen of the 1980s that eventually drove the Russians out of Afghanistan (with a little help from the US) was primarily made up of Pashtuns. Pashtun warriors drove the British from Afghanistan in the late nineteenth century. Stories of bravery have been passed down for generations upon generations. Pictures of Pashtun men (and women) show intensity in their eyes not commonly found elsewhere.
Before deployment we are told how incredibly brave and proud these Afghan men are. What I found was a slightly different reality.
I could tell countless stories of Afghan National Army or Afghan National Police running away from firefights, leaving foreign soldiers to fend for themselves. Or refusing to drive into a village to assist because it was after dark, or because the “Taliban” are there. Or accepting bribes to allow the insurgent fighters through their checkpoints because they didn’t want to risk stopping them.
I worked in a valley full of men, young and old. Many of them old and young enough to serve their country, if not as Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF – the all-encompassing acronym for Army, Police, Border Patrol, etc.), then at least as neighborhood watchmen or Afghan Local Police (ALP) as they are called. The ALP program allows farmers and shopkeepers and other tradesmen to maintain their farms and shops while serving occasionally as the first line of defense for their village.
It makes sense… the people in the best position to know when things aren’t quite right are the people who live and work in the same area every day. I know when there is a strange car in my neighborhood. Not because I have a spreadsheet listing what everyone drives, but because subconsciously I’ve taken note, and when I see something new or different, I notice. It’s not any different in Afghanistan. They know who their neighbors are, who belongs and who doesn’t.
In Afghanistan, we tend to suffer from “they all look alike” syndrome, and it’s harder for us to know who to stop and search at a checkpoint, and who to let through. As a result, we stop everyone, backing up traffic for miles. It can be effective, but it’s not often efficient.
We were working to set up a new ALP program in an area which had already witnessed at least two prior iterations fail. However, the previous attempts relied on Afghans from all over the country, and this was about giving locals the opportunity and the responsibility to keep their neighborhoods secure. Security is good for economy.
The area was poor. Most farmers were sustenance farmers… they grew only enough crops to feed their families (if they were lucky) with nothing left over to sell. Nearly every family had to send at least one son to Kabul, Pakistan, or Iran to earn money doing road or well construction (think shovels and hand tools not Caterpillars and jackhammers). It was hard labor. And it still barely made enough for most families to scrape by.
Every person we interviewed said they wanted security and peace and more opportunities to earn money locally. And every person we interviewed said they thought the ALP was a great idea to help fill the economic gaps and promote the cause of security. And every person we interviewed refused to join or support the ALP. The Taliban had effectively intimidated the local population to such an extent that no one was willing to stand up for anything different. The closest thing to support we received was a promise that “as soon as [insert catchy Afghan village name here] village does it, we’ll do it.”
It was frustrating. Where were all the brave Pashtun men I’d heard and studied so much about? I asked the local villagers. They shrugged their shoulders and said they were cowards. Where was the Afghan pride and honor? They looked at me with their intense eyes now hollow, and found no shame. They were no longer warriors, only survivors.
One man made his way to our camp with his brother. He had seen enough. He was tired of the Taliban and their intimidation, threats, and murder. He wanted a better life for his family: his mother, and his brothers. He was ready to stand up. And he was confident that he could convince others to stand with him.
We called him Jerry Garcia. Why? Simply because the day he showed up on our camp, his appearance immediately brought to mind images of the late, great singer of The Grateful Dead. His hair was long. His beard was full. He had sunglasses on (which is an incredibly rare sight outside of Kabul).
Jerry trained hard. He was enthusiastic. He was dependable. He was anxious to make a difference. Unfortunately, the Taliban captured one of his brothers (the one he brought with him to join ALP) and brutally killed him in an attempt to dissuade Jerry from joining the ALP. Jerry took a few days off to bury his brother. No one would have blamed him if he gave in. But he didn’t. He came back, more ready than ever to defeat this enemy that cared so little for life.
Jerry accompanied us on many trips to the villages surrounding his neighborhood. He knocked on doors of boyhood friends and encouraged them to join the ALP. He stopped by the home of a young man who was known to support insurgent activities and pleaded with his mother to encourage her son to lay down his arms and join him in the cause of bringing peace and security. Jerry spoke to young men, still in school, and encouraged them to study hard and avoid joining the Taliban.
One afternoon, while Jerry was accompanying a patrol through the villages on his motorcycle, he was shot. The medics worked to stabilize him and he was MEDEVAC’d to the nearest surgical center. The bullet went through the shoulder, and he was expected to make a full recovery. Two weeks later, Jerry was back at our camp asking when he could go out again. Unfortunately, it would be several weeks before his wounds were healed sufficiently for him to patrol again.
Jerry was not afraid to stand up to the those who were terrorizing his village. He did not believe it was anyone else’s responsibility to secure his neighborhood. He knew if things were going to change, then someone had to stand up for those changes. He was willing to be that someone.
I don’t know what has happened to Jerry since I left Afghanistan. I don’t know if the band of ALP we worked so hard to recruit and train is having any success this fighting season in keeping the Taliban at bay. I don’t know if life is getting any better for the people of the valley. But because of Jerry, I have hope it is.
Jerry is the bravest Afghan I know.