Excerpt from Killing the Cranes—A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in AfghanistanBy Edward Girardet
October 01, 2011
It was a warm Thursday afternoon on August 5, 2010, in a remote woodland of the Hindu Kush mountains when a band of men with full beards and ankle-length white gowns appeared out of nowhere. Brandishing Kalashnikovs, they walked up to a team of mostly foreign aid volunteers who had just picnicked near their Land Rovers following a medical mission in Afghanistan’s northeastern Nuristan province. The eight men and three women had been bringing eye care, dental treatment, and other forms of medical relief to an isolated highland valley. For two weeks, unarmed and unprotected, they had trekked with packhorses from village to village offering medical assistance to some fifty thousand subsistence farmers and shepherds living in this rugged high-mountain region.
The gunmen forced the workers—six Americans, three Afghans, a German, and a Briton—to sit on the ground. They ransacked the vehicles and demanded that everyone empty their pockets. Then they lined them up against a craggy rock face and executed them, one by one. Only the Afghan driver was spared. He had pleaded for his life by reciting verses of the Koran and screaming: “I am Muslim. Don’t kill me!”
The bullet-riddled bodies of the medical team were found the next day, and news of their assassination traveled swiftly. Theories abounded as to who murdered them and why. The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, both insurgent groups fighting the Western Coalition forces in Afghanistan, each claimed responsibility. Yet as with so many such attacks against civilians, the perpetrators were never found and never brought to justice.
Two of the executed Americans, Tom Little and Dan Terry, were long-standing members of the International Assistance Mission, a Christian non-governmental organization (or NGO) that has been working in Afghanistan since 1966. “Dr. Tom,” as he was known, was a low-key sixty-two-year-old optometrist from Delmar, New York, who had been working with his wife, Libby, in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. They had first started out helping wayward hippies stranded in Kabul. Running a series of eye clinics, they had remained throughout the Soviet-Afghan war and during the Battle for Kabul of the mid-1990s until the Taliban drove them out. The Littles came straight back after the collapse of the Talib regime.
Dan was a cheerful and dogged aid worker with a dry sense of humor who first visited the country in 1971. During the latter days of the Taliban, when they were destroying villages and killing civilians in central and northern Afghanistan, Dan had mounted a humanitarian relief effort in midwinter to bring food across the front lines.
Both were my friends.
For those familiar with Afghanistan, the killing of the IAM team underscored the brutal reality that much of this mountain and desert country at the cusp of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent had become a perilous, no-go zone. Whereas parts of the country, including Nuristan and the neighboring province of Badakshan where the murders took place, had been considered relatively safe for aid workers, the Afghan traditions of hospitality and protection of guests had finally and irretrievably been shattered. Decades of conflict, competing worldviews, and outside interests had turned Afghanistan into a land where neither the Western-backed Kabul government nor the insurgents are in control—and basic humanity seems to have vanished.
For me, the deaths of Dr. Tom and Dan marked the end of an era. They were “old Afghan hands” who, like me, had first ventured into Afghanistan in the 1970s and found themselves inexplicably drawn to this utterly romantic country of cultural contrasts and staggering topographic beauty, but also human tragedy. They kept returning despite being threatened, and despite the personal risk their work entailed. Although both were indeed Christians, they were not missionaries. They were in Afghanistan because of their own convictions and because they simply wanted to help a beleaguered people.
By the time of the IAM murders, the outlook for the future of Afghanistan was already bleak. One senior United Nations official in Kabul with years of Afghan experience was blunt: “It’s become an absolute disaster.” While NATO by early 2011 had largely accepted that there could be no military solution, Western governments were still placing too much emphasis—and funding—on their generals for leadership rather than investing in more imaginative out-of-the-box initiatives and longer-term civilian-led approaches, including talking with the insurgents.
The US-led invasion in October 2001, which was in response to the events of 9/11, helped oust the Taliban but has contributed little to overall security. The American intervention has moved from a limited “war on terrorism” coupled with other agendas, notably counternarcotics, to a full-fledged counterinsurgency. The presence of over 150,000 troops from the United States, Britain, and forty-six other countries as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has led to a situation many Afghans find comparable to the Soviet-Afghan war—a large occupying force, a weak central government, and endless skirmishes and attacks that kill innocent civilians and incite new recruits to the fundamentalist ranks. For a growing number of Afghans and foreign analysts, the Western military presence has proved a failure, with lost opportunities littering the trail of international intervention since the collapse of the Talib regime. Even the killing, by the Americans, of Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Laden in May 2011 was unlikely to bring about much change.
Not unlike their Red Army counterparts during the 1980s, the Americans and their military allies are increasingly perceived by ordinary Afghans as an unwelcome foreign occupation force. Their behavior and lack of cultural awareness often emerge as affronts to Afghan customs and their sense of independence. NATO forces also have been involved in bombing and other military assaults that have inflicted severe civilian casualties. While such incidents may be regarded officially as unfortunate “collateral damage,” Afghans consider them a blatant disregard for human life. This is disheartening for those among the Western troops who genuinely regard their role as one of helping maintain peace and bringing socioeconomic development to a desperately impoverished land.
The growing resentment of Afghans toward the Western presence is not because Afghans necessarily prefer the Taliban and other insurgents, but because they have always resented outsiders, particularly those who insist on imposing themselves. Even more disconcerting, many Afghans no longer differentiate between soldiers and aid workers. Western policies have largely undermined the recovery process by usurping the traditional humanitarian role through the deployment of military Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the deployment of foreign mercenaries and private contractors with little or no understanding of the country. Afghans also legitimately question the purpose of the United
States spending one hundred million dollars a day on its military effort given that such funds might be far better spent on recovery itself. If US troops were to pull out tomorrow, what would they have left behind? The Soviets spent nearly a decade fighting their war in Afghanistan. Little tangible remains of their past involvement today.
NATO forces have now occupied Afghanistan longer than the Soviets. In a war with objectives difficult, if not impossible, to define, Western military casualties have been swelling steadily since 2004, when the Taliban began to reemerge as a formidable force. By mid 2011, over twenty-five hundred American, British, French, German, Canadian, Italian, and other soldiers had been killed. More than half the injuries and deaths were not the result of direct combat. The insurgents have been inflicting increasing casualties by roadside bombs, booby traps, and other improvised explosive devices (or IEDs). In contrast, over eighteen thousand Afghans had lost their lives in less than a decade, at least half of them civilian. A further forty thousand, both military and civilian, have been wounded. While NATO analysts argue that current Afghan casualties are “modest” compared with the 1.5 million believed to have died during the Soviet-Afghan war, others point out that the current conflict could have been avoided had the West adopted a more realistic approach to Afghanistan during the early 2000s and not been obsessed by terrorism, narcotics, and other distracting factors—notably the war in Iraq.
The reality is that overall security, particularly in the countryside, is worsening. Former mujahideen whom I knew in the 1980s and ’90s, and who had contacts with the insurgents, apologized for not being able to take me into parts of eastern Afghanistan. “We cannot guarantee your safety,” they told me. Even friends whom I know are involved with the insurgents, but still respect traditional Afghan hospitality, are reluctant to take me through their zones of control. Traveling has become a highly hazardous undertaking. I had felt far safer trekking clandestinely through the mountains during the Soviet era than today.
But Afghanistan’s problems are not just a lack of security. Too much money, combined with expectations too high and unrealistic, has been thrown at Afghanistan, propping up an ineffectual and corrupt regime. The overall economy is highly artificial and largely dependent on international development aid, military expenditure, and narcotics trafficking. In addition to the foreign aid contractors, the bulk of the revenue has gone to a small but powerful privileged elite of Afghans, notably senior government officials, warlords, and businesspeople with the right connections. In 2010, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s most corrupt country, with graft permeating all levels of the administration, including President Hamid Karzai’s own family, who have benefited overwhelmingly from the recovery process.
Excerpt of Killing the Cranes used with permission by Chelsea Green, ©2011, Edward Girardet, all rights reserved. Author photo ©Shobhan Saxena.