Our Foreign Correspondence

Smog of War

More than a decade after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan—now our longest war—most Americans still know next to nothing about the people who live there, and the liberties denied them. Lessons from a rapid education.

Credit: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Thomas Dow/International Security Assistance Force.

U.S. Army Specialist Mihkel Gilmete spends his days flying in a UH 60 Black Hawk helicopter in Afghanistan. Two hours of show time, prepping the helicopter. Then six or seven hours in the air, looking down at the brown expanse of the Afghan steppes. Thousands of feet in the sky, he snaps a picture for Facebook through the open side-door of the helicopter. A door-mounted M60 machine gun is in the foreground; the vast yellow-brown plains of Afghanistan are far below. The shadows of high clouds dapple the desert. There is no sign of human activity in the desolate land below except a pair of tire tracks that appear to travel from nowhere to nowhere. He is sitting atop the whole of central Afghanistan, staring at it, as so many have, through the sights of his gun.

Gilmete, a Micronesian, spends hours watching Afghanistan from above. It’s peaceful, mesmerizing, almost like staring at the ocean from his home on the sunset side of a small island in the central Pacific. The Afghans below him would never guess that there is an islander hovering above, one of many U.S. military enlistees from tiny island countries all over the Pacific. In fact, per capita, there are more casualties from Gilmete’s home island of Pohnpei than from any U.S. state. Afghans who wonder what life will be like after the U.S. leaves should look to Micronesia, which the U.S. never really left after the end of the Cold War brought an end to its military significance. Basically: more political independence and more economic dependence. The Federated States of Micronesia is a constitutional democracy whose economy is now run by a five-member board—three Americans, two Micronesians.

Gilmete has been fired upon four times in the past year. A Black Hawk just like the one he rides was shot down near Kandahar in August, all crewmen dead. But most days nothing much happens: The Black Hawk crew transports soldiers where they need to go. Gilmete helps provide a kind of armed valet service in a country with few working roads.

Sometimes there is a distress call and an order. Then they swoop down and extract troops from these little nothing villages or ancient, dry waterways or steep mountains where, periodically, the enemy sees an easy target and attacks. The enemy? It’s better not to think about the enemy because there is no one cohesive enemy, no “Taliban,” to go attack. There are just locals, villagers, who one day are farmers and the next day “insurgents.” This lack of a fixed enemy poses a problem for big armies. There is no way to win such a fight short of just killing everybody, a tactic that some have tried. But wondering about the enemy is above Gilmete’s pay grade. He has just has one role: Move the troops. The rest is just flying and staring at the landscape. All of this time looking at Afghanistan and yet the country remains as abstract to him as it is to the rest of us. “I don’t interact with the locals too much because we fly,” he says. “We do fly low over the locals sometimes and it gives me great sadness to see these people living in such poverty.”

Years ago, I was Gilmete’s poetry teacher on the lush, tropical island of Pohnpei. He was a pain in the ass, spitting red juice from a cheek full of betel nut, defying me to teach him anything, wanting nothing more than to leave the island. He had no patience at all for the Romantics. That’s too bad because one could imagine the face on Shelley’s statue of Ozymandias, his sneer of cold command disappearing in the sand below the Black Hawk. Through the centuries, kings, warlords, traveling English gadabouts, Western-educated technocrats, and iron-fisted Soviets have contemplated the same blank map of Afghanistan from the same top-down perspective. They come to this country, declare some version of, “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!” and soon enough find their works ground into the dust. But Gilmete is just here to do the job he enlisted to do. He’s counting the days before he returns to his base in Hawaii with the rest of the Tropic Lightning Division. Most of the troops will follow him back home, far from the lone and level sands of central Afghanistan.


It is often joked that Americans don’t really know a country exists until we invade it. But even that isn’t always true. Even today, how many (few?) of us can actually find Afghanistan on a map, without computer help? Like most Americans, I knew next to nothing about Afghanistan when we began bombing the country in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks. Like most Americans, I still know next to nothing about Afghanistan. More than 2,000 U.S. soldiers killed, more than 3,000 civilians dead in just one year of the conflict (2011), and somehow it still doesn’t register. Why is that? There are reporters on the ground; we get updates when something particularly horrific happens; many of us read or watched The Kite Runner; and although the main author may be a shyster, there was Three Cups of Tea. Yet the whole decade-plus of war seemed distant and bloodless to me until I read a college scholarship essay written by an Afghan girl, Sabera, that made me pause to consider her country.

Through the centuries, kings, warlords, traveling English gadabouts, Western-educated technocrats, and iron-fisted Soviets have contemplated the same blank map of Afghanistan from the same top-down perspective.

“I was born in the middle of a civil war,” she wrote, “when people were running from one house to another to seek shelter from heavy rocket and mortar bombardment.” She was born in Kabul, in chaos, in a period when Mujahedin were fleeing the city and the Taliban were destroying it. In her essay, she wondered why they were fighting over pools of blood, piles of debris, the ashes of a city. “What were they trying to gain from each other when they had already destroyed everything the country possessed?” To read this essay—well, the poetry teacher in me must refer you to the Wallace Stevens poem “Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself” —Sabera’s essay, like the bird’s cry in the poem, caused “a new knowledge of reality.” I considered that there exist people, girls in particular, in that antique land that Gilmete gazes upon all day, who are targeted for death or beating or maiming because they go to school. There exist families for whom educating their children is so important that they would risk their lives to do it. There is nothing—not bombs, guns, tanks, missiles, God, love, or money—that so upsets the Taliban and other groups of their ilk as much as a girl who can read, write, and speak her mind. These girls, their families, and the country they could create deserve our support.

It’s a good policy to be thoughtful about one’s own righteous indignation, especially when one is feeling that indignation on behalf of other people in cultures one does not understand. As Teju Cole reminds us, there is nothing more frightening to much of the world than an American who wants to help fix things.

During my 11 years of teaching English at the College of Micronesia on Gilmete’s “developing” island of Pohnpei, I watched the once-daily plane disgorge any number of American helpers. I wasn’t one of them. I was there for purely selfish reasons: I just liked the island. The islanders knew what to do with helpers from abroad: take the American money or aid or computers or books or sermons or whatever was on offer and then retire to the village to have a good chuckle and go back to their lives. As soon as the Americans left on the plane, their donated books, lessons, schemes, and plans would be placed in a humid closet and eaten by giant cockroaches. There was a closet in the English department, for instance, that at one point contained the following: several large boxes, each containing one gross of U.N.-donated condoms, stacks of outdated California public school social studies textbooks, portraits of U.S. presidents through Nixon, and about 50 Olympus Pen 35mm half-frame cameras. It’s frustrating, these American do-gooders would complain, how we put all this money and effort into helping the locals and yet they refuse to change. There must be something wrong with them.

When I got a chance to talk to Sabera, I knew exactly what she meant when she asked me to “reverse this idea that it is the Afghans who fail.” Right now there are well-meaning Americans wondering why our billions of dollars and 12 years of intervention have not caused Western democracy to flourish in Afghanistan. I guess the Afghans failed.


I can’t be the only American who has avoided the subject of Afghanistan for fear of feeling powerless, angry, sad, or embarrassed. I ignored Afghanistan the way one might avoid a suspicious lump: I feared knowing. I queued the documentaries but didn’t watch them. I avoided the news reports. I have never been there and am not likely to go there. But the fact is that this is now America’s longest war. We will be spending millions, likely billions, of dollars there in the coming years, even as we celebrate our exit. The country where we have spilled so much blood will coalesce into a functioning political entity or it will fall apart. And this will happen whether we care to know about it or not. The only power you and I have is to hope to understand, just a little, this country where we have been fighting and dying. The map of Afghanistan should be filled in with more detail than what you can get by staring at it from a couch in Connecticut. So I began to read, especially Tamim Ansary’s excellent history Games Without Rules, and I talked at length with Sabera and her classmate, Nilofar.

There is nothing—not bombs, guns, tanks, missiles, God, love, or money—that so upsets the Taliban and other groups of their ilk as much as a girl who can read, write, and speak her mind. These girls, their families, and the country they could create deserve our support.

Here is lesson no. 1: Sabera and Nilofar are Afghan, not Afghani. If you call an Afghan an Afghani, you are calling them by the name of their currency. English speakers avoid calling someone Afghan because we associate the word with a crocheted blanket or breed of fancy hound. Don’t worry; Afghans won’t take offense at being called Afghan.

Sabera attends a small, Baptist college in a small, Baptist town in Kentucky. When her American classmates first meet her, they can’t quite believe that she is Afghan. It’s true that if you passed Sabera on the street you might think she is Mexican or Chinese or Turkish or, perhaps, Amer-Asian? Peruvian? As she passes you, you see a short, dark-haired, energetic teenage girl dressed in blue jeans, a black jacket, and a puffy blue shirt. There is nothing about her that screams out “Afghanistan.” Sabera does not wear a burqa, she only sometimes wears a headscarf, and she is not a terrorist. This is important: One of her American friends knew her for over a month before he finally worked up the nerve to ask her if she was a Taliban. “What a brave guy you are,” she told him, laughing, “for hanging out with a Taliban for so long!”

In America, Sabera says, “they think people in Afghanistan are really just killing each other. Just like in Afghanistan, they think everyone in the U.S. is CIA and everything they do is for a purpose and stuff like that. And they would be surprised that Americans are open-minded.”

When Sabera was an infant, her family fled the Taliban and escaped to Hazara Town, a section of Quetta, Pakistan. Hazara Town is part ethnic ghetto and part refugee camp. It’s a mazy, crowded area of small alleyways and cement homes. Many of these single-story dwellings have bright blue doors that contrast with the dirt-brown streets and walls. About 50 miles distant, beyond a line of snow-capped mountains, is the somewhat arbitrary border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Another 50 miles beyond this border is the city of Kandahar, the “hometown” of the Taliban. The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is called the Durand Line, after the mustachioed, 19th-century British diplomat who drew it up. It runs about 1,600 miles and neatly bisects the area traditionally inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns. In hindsight this border is, to be kind, a disaster. The Taliban are mainly rural Pashtuns. Any of them who feels one side of the border is a drag need only hop over to the other side.

Hazara Town, as you might expect, contains mostly ethnic Hazaras like Sabera. It has been occupied for more than a hundred years by waves of Hazaras fleeing persecution in Afghanistan—the most recent mass exodus occurred after a horrific genocide perpetrated by the Taliban in the 1990s. This is why Sabera’s family fled. But Hazara Town was by no means a safe zone. Even today, Hazara families are picked-off by drive-by shooters with numbing regularity. They are attacked by suicide bombers—nearly 100 dead in recent attacks. Many of the dead in the most recent attack were young men in a pool hall. This attack so angered the Hazaras that they refused to bury the bodies of the victims until Pakistan afforded them some protection. In short, Hazara Town is not a place you would escape to unless you absolutely had to.

I have avoided calling the Hazara “Shi’a” and their attackers “Sunni” because then the story becomes “sectarian violence” which is one of those terms that keeps the Afghan war at a distance. Let’s face it, “sectarian violence” basically translates into “crazy Muslims killing each other for vague religious reasons.” It’s like saying that Irish school kids were murdered over a disagreement about transubstantiation. The young Hazara men shooting pool probably didn’t care too much about who succeeded Muhammad in 632. They were probably focused on their game. Perhaps someone called, “eight ball, corner pocket,” before the room exploded.

As Ansary describes in Games Without Rules, Afghan refugees like Sabera were tolerated but not exactly welcomed in Pakistan. They were shunted into ghettos like Hazara Town or into refugee camps and left there with no legitimate means of earning a living. Sabera’s father, for instance, sold cheap socks on the street. Instead of buying medicine for himself, he used what little money he had to buy lamp oil so that Sabera could study. Sabera, though she was barely a kindergartner, had to do something to help. As she told me, “I was the oldest one and if I didn’t do anything… my family would starve. So I went to sell plastic [wearing] guys’ clothes. My dad would bring plastic bags from a big store and there was a small bazaar where people would sell.” At this marketplace, Sabera, dressed as a boy, sold her plastic bags to shopkeepers. “If you did this as a girl—you couldn’t, but you know you would be harassed and kids your own age would tease you. It was not seen to be good for the family and stuff. I didn’t know I was a girl, actually. I was just a person selling plastic.”

Sabera’s classmate in Kentucky, Nilofar, has a similar story. Her family also escaped to Pakistan in the late ‘90s. Her family fled, in part, because her father’s business in Kabul was selling Indian and Western DVDs. Movies, along with music, art, television, and photography, were outlawed during the Taliban era. “If the Taliban would find out that you were selling DVDs they would burn them. And they would just beat you, you know?” Nilofar says. Her family went to Pakistan with nothing and no way to survive. “Everyone was going to a country that they didn’t belong to, right?” she says. “And they were looking for jobs. It was really hard for them. They were criticized because people were saying that you have come from a country where war is going on and you might be terrorists or whatever, you know?”

Hazara Town was by no means a safe zone. Even today, Hazara families are picked-off by drive-by shooters with numbing regularity. They are attacked by suicide bombers—nearly 100 dead in recent attacks.

Nilofar is especially adept at speaking like an American teenager, liberally spicing up her English with “like,” “you know,” and “whatever.” This is impressive: She is attending college using her fourth language.

Here is the next lesson: Afghans don’t speak “Afghanish.” Sabera and Nilofar are native Dari speakers. In Pakistan they learned their second language: Urdu. When they returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, they had to learn yet another language: Pashto, the language of the majority Pashtuns. Later, they learned their fourth language: English.

Learning English in Afghanistan is a political act. Not everyone is supportive. During Sabera’s high school years in Kabul, young guys would come by her front yard while her father was working in the family garden. “Some of the guys told my dad not to let me be free,” she says. “One of them even told me that if I wear a colored veil, like a red scarf, they told me that if I ever wore that I would be beaten badly. But, you know, I didn’t really care… And that man again came to my dad and told him not to let me go outside. Which I did. I was always getting out of the house in the morning and coming back at night. I was going to the English center… And that man was telling me not to be alone out there or they would harm me or kidnap me. But we never listened to [him].”

Sabera’s family returned to Kabul before the Taliban fell. One effect of the Taliban’s pogroms was that much of the city was empty. Her family moved into two abandoned houses where they raised chickens and grew vegetables to survive. Sabera was in elementary school. One day something happened that most third-graders dream of but never experience. “The teacher told us, ‘You are free. You don’t have to come to school any more.’ And I was really happy, actually, because I wouldn’t have homework,” Sabera says. But permanently dismissing his classes didn’t save the teacher from the Taliban. He was tortured and executed for not teaching according to the Taliban’s version of Islamic law.

“After that, the bomb things happened,” says Sabera. Her first impression of America was created when the U.S. Air Force buzzed her home. Sabera jumped up and down with excitement at the sight of the pretty planes. The family’s chickens ran about excitedly, their squawks muffled by the chop-whirr of helicopters and the whoosh of bombers. Sabera climbed up on the roof of her family’s one-story home. First, a wave of sound knocked her over. Then she saw the airplane that dropped the bomb. All of the windows in the house shattered. In the confusion of the blast, she saw something even more gorgeous than the planes: “I saw this—mushroom I think it is. I think they’re called mushrooms. I didn’t know that was a fire, actually. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s so beautiful and colorful.’ After a while I saw the sky getting dark. Black clouds. And black smoke. And I was impressed. We were always seeing those mushrooms. I knew that people are coming to my country and, I don’t know, killing us or something like that. That was my impression.”

Imagine that your first encounter with a country is their bomb-blast busting your windows and knocking you over. Then, years later, you arrive in the country that dropped the bomb and are standing in the hallway of an American high school, wondering why the boys are feeding the girls like birds do, mouth to mouth. Most of these American kids can’t find your country on a map, much less understand what is going on there. Both Sabera and Nilofar spent one year in American high schools on a (now discontinued) scholarship aimed at bringing youth from Muslim countries to America.

“[American students] think that people in Afghanistan are all wearing burqas and that the Taliban is everywhere,” Nilofar says. “They think that people don’t work. They have to be at home. People are surprised when I say I am from Afghanistan. They say, ‘Oh my God, I thought they looked really different.’ They ask, ‘Did you ever kill people?’ And I’m like ‘Nooooo...’ Yeah, sometimes they ask really funny questions.”

We have spoken for about an hour and I say a polite “I better let you go” to excuse myself. She has more to say, though, and will not let me go. Speaking with her is like speaking with a very insistent, stationary tornado.

Unwelcome in Pakistan, misunderstood in America, and targeted for violence in Afghanistan, Nilofar and Sabera do, ironically, have a strong sense of home. It’s just that this home doesn’t exist yet. Nilofar imagines an Afghanistan where girls can play soccer, tennis, and “whatever fun stuff” just like boys. Sabera wants to build schools to help those who were not as lucky as she was: the 94% of Afghan girls who do not graduate from high school. But to get to this home, they, and their country, will have to confront groups of their fellow Afghans who would sooner kill them than accept what they think of as Western interference.

In July, just before she was to begin college, Nilofar and a group of women took to the streets of Kabul to protest the videotaped execution of a woman accused of adultery. While the women walked from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to a U.N. compound, they were flanked by journalists as well as curse-spouting Taliban sympathizers. “There were people shouting at us, saying, ‘Look at all these puppets from America, come in here and teach us how to live. Teach us how to treat our wives or how to treat our girls.’“ The marchers went on anyway. Nilofar carried a sign that read, “Where is the protection and justice for Afghan women?” More curses and, even worse, cell phones and cameras pointed at her, taking photographs the men can use to target Nilofar and her family. “They take a picture and say curses on you and say bad stuff about you and it’s horrible, just horrible. There are people who are against you and if they find you, they are just going to kill you. But the only thing that we are saying is that all women have a right to study. All women have a right to live, you know?”


This is the final, hopeful, lesson: Zoom in on that blank map of Afghanistan and you find young men and women who have braved war, dislocation, bombs, threats, and even American high schools because they believe in a country with education, with access to whatever kind of fun, with opportunities to live in the 21st century while respecting the past.

Mihkel Gilmete, as he turns his gunsights away from the vast Afghan countryside and flies back to his island, worries that this future may never come. “Without military presence or some kind of security, there won’t be any education at all,” he says. But young Afghans like Sabera and Nilofar will keep trying to create a new country because, really, what other choice is there?

“There is sometimes an option and there is sometimes not an option,” says Sabera. “I don’t have any other options. The women I see, they suffer. So what would be my point of living if I could not help them? Because of those women who really suffer, because of those women who burn themselves, I am here. I have been given an opportunity and if I cannot use this opportunity, I cannot help them, right? What is the point?”

When Sabera tells me this, I am speaking with her over Skype, and I am worried that I have taken up too much of her time. Midterms are coming and she is holed up in a tiny library study room with a stack of books on her desk and the weight of her country’s future on her shoulders. A year has passed since I read her scholarship essay and sent it along to those at her college who could assist her. We have spoken for about an hour and I say a polite “I better let you go” to excuse myself. She has more to say, though, and will not let me go. Speaking with her is like speaking with a very insistent, stationary tornado. She has a need to communicate, to tell her story, and it comes out in rapid-fire, fluent English. Before signing off she has more lessons for me.

About education: “You can fight for human rights much better with education because you change their minds, you change their attitude. If you fight them or give them money, it will not change their perspective and minds.”

About the Taliban: “The Taliban is a small group. You want to make peace with them? You will make peace with a small group. And still they will have their weapons.”

About Afghan women: “Even though my country is one of the worst in the world for women, still, when we decide something, we do it. Whatever happens. At risk of our lives.”

Finally, she says:

“Help to reverse this idea that it is the Afghans who always fail. If they can see and use technology, then they will gain the power to confront corruption and they will be good allies. Even now there are people who are organizing this. This will get bigger, and, inshallah, we will change the world someday. Change our world, actually.”