As Afghans suffer

I tweeted this, this morning. 

Now I have some time, the baby is in bed, my wife and daughter are watching olympic gymnastics and I’ve hidden myself in the office to write some. 

From reports I see linked to from twitter things in Afghanistan have gone from bad to worse. Much worse. It appears a majority of provincial capitals have been captured by the Taliban. Evidently the Biden administration is deploying more US troops to better secure the area around Kabul. Some efforts are being made to evacuate not only Americans, military, civilian, and friendly nations, but also some portion of the 18,000 Afghan combat interpreters still in the country, and then there’s their families. Spouses, parents, children, brothers and sisters. 

I feel heavy. I feel sad. I feel a tightness in my chest again. I feel a major part of what I spent my youth in is worth less than I had hoped. I know men who died there, I know men who lost limbs there. I can see the faces of people who still live here. If they live still. 

My heart breaks most of all for the little girls. 

My own little girls get so much. They get to play safely at the park without even needing to be watched by their parents. They get enough food to eat, whenever they want it. They can have as much food of whatever kind they want, when their parents will let them. We have clean water. We have no real risk of violence to speak of. They dont need to vanish into a bag at a given age. They will choose who may touch them, when and how. They will marry only if they wish, and only whom they wish. 

It’s not that I’m surprised.It’s just that I’m realizing now how much hope I had been holding out that I was wrong, wrong back then, wrong a few years after when I said “if you think the collapse of Iraq is bad, just wait til Afghanistan goes.” I was hoping I was mistaken. I’m still hoping that. 

In 2010, in 2011, while there, we knew the civil war was inevitable. We knew the game we were playing was “get out of Afghanistan alive.” The runner up prize was always surviving the inevitable civil war.  We Marines played it by trying not to step on explosive devices, trying not to catch a bullet that came too near. Trying to keep a delicate peace with our Afghan Partners that we embedded with. Some of the Afghan military we mentored played it by trying to get us to fly them to the USA or to Germany for advanced medical treatment for bad backs. Some of the smooth talking local contractors we worked with lined their pockets with percents from the pay they got to build barriers in days that the coalition engineers would have taken weeks to get to. Saving to buy plane tickets to get themselves and their families to Dubai. Or as much of them as they could. Our interpreters pressed us to sign recommendation letters for Special Immigrant Visas for them to evacuate. And the people playing the long game, playing for runners-up, the villagers, the military members, they socked away money, and gear, ammo, night vision, magazines, trucks. The villagers played both sides socking away connections and reputation and vouchers that they hadn’t been on the wrong side. 

I hope they won. I hope they all won. 

I don’t keep in as good of touch with my Marines as I wish I had. I’m only in touch with a few of them to the point where they’ll return text messages. A smattering of folks from over the years. Various schools, training programs. A few from the first deployment. All the officers and a senior NCO from the advisor team. I wish I had been better about getting a real roster of personal emails and cell phones that would last longer on that fateful day we all went our separate ways from the armory. I tried to look them up again later, as I prepared to exit the Marine Corps, while I still had access to internal DOD systems. But I was at a joint command and not on the Navy and Marine Corps Intranet. And Facebook was already a more useful tool. Even that didn’t prove very effective. 

I did manage to establish good contact with the officers though, and one of them told me he had heard, maybe second hand, that our interpreters from that deployment had made it to the US. 

I’m hoping he was right. 

I’m flashing back to when we were working with those `terps. To when they helped us coordinate the rescue of 9 surviving civilians of a bus that rolled over a large IED ,no doubt meant for us. Or our Afghan Partners. To when they helped us embed and teach the basics to those local Afghan Army Partners on that most IEDed of routes in Afghanistan. To where they were able to provide much more of the security on their own, even American Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) began to trust them enough to set and hold a cordon for EOD to come out and disarm devices. Mostly I’m remembering how we received the motley crew of Afghan Officers and NCOs assigned to an “Operations Coordination Center Regional” (OCC-R). We were supposed to teach them how to perform modern Combat Operations Center management. For an entire Regional Command. Across Afghan Army, National Police, Civil Order Police, National Directorate of Security (NDS -dont think FBI think KGB) and government. We were supposed to teach them this from our vast trove of knowledge as Captains and Lts. But its OK, because a few of them had college educations, and only many of them could even read, a bit. Some genius wanted us to teach them the US Military Decision Making Prices (MDMP) -formal staff planning done by US Majors and LtCols. After a day of attempting this I called an audible and we switched to teaching them the basics of terrain analysis (KOCOA-W), and structured 5 paragraph orders (O-SMEAC). 

We had to teach our ‘terps first. Because obviously they had to understand anything we were teaching to the soldiers and police officers. Turns out the `terps were mostly more competent tacticians than the soldiers and police were. Or at least they could communicate the concepts to us much more clearly. Which brings me to what I’m flashing on the most. 

When we told our ‘terps that we didn’t want to sign recommendation letters to get them out of the country. That we though they needed to stay and fight for their country, for their people. My Intel Officer said it first. He put on a heartless face much of the time, and the idea of an Afghan brain drain wasn’t just ours, senior generals were saying it at the time too. But that same intel officer revealed his softer than advertised heart soon. Some period of time before we were heading out of country he surprised the `terps with signed letters of recommendation. I signed one for each of them too, most of us did. I think we got our Colonel to sign them also. 

So yes. I hope they made it. That their families made it. [Update: 15 Aug 21 – talked with one of our interpreters, He’s safe in Texas, his family is still there. And one of our Interpreters is currently stuck in Kabul. He went home to visit family. I hope he makes it out again safely, and that the others did too — UPDATE 19 Aug again my interpreter made it out through his own courage and persistence got on a plane and is in Qatar. Thousands more are trying.] But even if they did, there are thousands just like them that didn’t. There are thousands of solders and policemen that have been known to be such. And their families. 

And I hope the soldiers and police that are fighting win. [Update 19 Aug they did not win, they’re trying to escape and evade now.]

That they strike great blows against the Taliban to protect freedom, literal freedom for the people of Afghanistan against those that would control, subjugate, torture and kill them. Or that the surrenders are amicable. Or that the deaths are as quick and painless as possible. 

But I cant forget that there are real people there who are going to suffer. 

And the little girls. My heart breaks for them most of all. 

Some possible concrete actions

  1. If you are a US DOD or DOS veteran in ACTIVE contact with an Afghan ally on the ground trying to evacuate contact me.
  2. Donate to some of these orgs or find other well established charities helping [beware of scams!]
  3. Contact elected reps with call on them to evacuate wartime allies
  4. Ask military veterans, or Afghans you know how they’re doing. Listen.
  5. Even more ideas here

PS: I have much more to write, about what I remember. About how the thousands dying there compare or contrast to the thousands dying in my own country from a preventable illness. About how the changing climate imposes more struggle on all of us. On our girls and on our boys. I’m feeling all of these things and it is cumulatively heavy. But it doesn’t compare with the real suffering of those there now. Their confusion and fear, pain and heartbreak. So to them: As-salamu alaykum. May peace be upon you.