When I reach back and try to recall the ideals that impelled me to join the quagmire called Operation Enduring Freedom, it feels like swimming in memories from early childhood. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the desolation and horror that is life in Afghanistan. Never mind the medic duties of putting corpses back together. Sometimes it's just the little things. Yesterday I rode through Kabul and observed a young boy taking a shit on a dry patch of the Kabul River. Before the Soviets decimated the irrigation system, the Kabul River was an actual river with flowing water. People may have even drunk from it; I'm not really sure. All I know is that now it is a glacial body of putrid filth that somehow manages to sprout patches of grass on which the local livestock graze.
It's a strange feeling, being up in the turret of an 1151 up-armored humvee, behind a welded steel blast shield that houses an M249 machine gun, driving through the bustle of downtown Kabul. The lull in violence allows a complacency that is both lethal and serene. It almost feels like a normal city. Pigeons adorn a local mosque, and for some reason I don't quite understand, I think of Florence, a city I've never visited and in probably never will. I see the smiling faces of the local inhabitants and I wave.
Since the year began, the U.S. has lost 92 service members to contact with the enemy, two of whom were friends and former colleagues of mine. Chechens, Turkmen, and Pakis supplement and often lead the poorly trained, loosely affiliated rabble of Afghan Talibs. The number of U.S. troops fluctuates, but manages to hover just under 20,000. The coalition boasts around the same number, but the Brits, the Canucks, and more recently the French are the only ones engaging the enemy in real combat. This is no surprise, and not really a let down. We know where our seat at the table is, and we're grateful for the support.
The war in Iraq has hindered our efforts here. Of that there is no denying. Men, resources and public support are just a few of the key elements that have been repossessed and redeployed. It feels like we're playing triple-A ball, and the OIFers are grabbing all the highlights. I don't really have any problem with that. The last thing I want is a fucking F.O.B. (forward operating base) dedicated to my memory. But I am a little put off when I talk to someone from home, and I tell them where I am, and they say, "Wait a minute, we still have troops in Afghanistan?"
The war effort itself is slow going, and often stagnant. This allows downtime to contemplate the Afghan way of life, such as the country's bizarre sexual mores. I've written in previous articles about how all Afghan males are openly bisexual. The accepted philosophy within Afghan culture is that men are for pleasure and women are for procreation. Lesbian fornication is a capital offense, though laws in general vary from region to region, tribe to tribe. But the male-on-male sex parties every Thursday night, I'm told, are prevalent throughout the country. It is taboo to be a kuni--or "fag"--but it is within the boundaries for a man to fuck another man, so long as it is not a romantic affair. And yet premarital sex, the boy meets girl kind, is a capital offense for the woman, or girl as is more commonly the case. A girl's virginity is tested through the practice of blood spatter analysis. The day after an Afghan wedding night, the groom's mother confirms that the white sheet on which her daughter in law was deflowered features a crimson splotch, often contrived with a chalice full of sheep's blood.
Then there is the Afghan superiority/beggar complex. It is a widely held belief among Muslims that those of us who do not worship the moon-rock Five times a day are not worthy of breathing the same air as those who do. The Afghans who want our help (that is, the ones who would like to put an end to 30 years of warfare on their home soil) have no choice but to dilute this prejudice. After all, the infidel is the one with the checkbook, the weapons, the vehicles, and if the situation dictates, the nukes. The Afghan knows all this, and plays his hand just as we play ours. He will ask for things with a sense of entitlement in his tone. We never get the entirety of what he is saying, because it has to pass through an interpreter, but we get the general idea: "More, more, more, more..."