As I mentioned last week, I’ve been reading The Forever War, which is a chronicle of life in Afghanistan and Iraq by Times columnist Dexter Filkins. Anyhow, it’s been intense so far, but there’s one particular thing I wanted to share (mostly because I heard it before and it’s been playing in my head since).
In the middle of 2006, a special forces patrol was ambushed in Uruzgan. And a number of Americans and Afghans were pinned down in their valley for about six hours. The reason they were pinned down was because locals from three different villages within a few kilometers of the ambush site ran home, got their rifles and came back, and joined in the fight. And after the fight, our guys said to them, “You know, we thought you didn’t support the Taliban.” And they said, “We don’t.” And they said, “Well, why were you fighting us?” And they said, “Well, you have to understand how, A, how boring it is to be a teenager in a valley in Afghanistan. This is the most exciting thing that’s happened in our valley for decades. And if we’re going to wait this fight out and sit on the sidelines, that would be dishonorable.” But if you’re going to join in, you’re not going to join in on the side of the foreigner. You’re going to join in on the side of the Afghan. And so, these are what I call accidental guerillas. They’re people who are fighting us, not because they hate the West, but because we just turned up in their valley with a brigade, and the extremists come to them and say, “Whose side are you on?” And they choose their own people rather than the infidel foreigner. And I think that’s a perfectly understandable reaction by Afghans, but it’s one that we have to figure out a way to break. How do you get in there and provide security to the population, co-opt those who can be co-opted, and, frankly, kill or capture those who prove themselves to be irreconcilable, which is a very small number?
When I read some similar passages in Filkins’ book, I knew I had to post them. Towards the beginning he writes this about the war in Afghanistan:
Men fought, men switched sides, men lined up and fought again. War in Afghanistan often seemed like a game of pickup basketball, a contest among friends, a tournament where you never knew which team you’d be on when the next game got under way. Shirts today, skins tomorrow. On Tuesday, you might be part of a fearsome Taliban regiment, running into a minefield. And on Wednesday you might be manning a checkpoint for some gang of Northern Alliance. By Thursday you could be back with the Talibs again, holding up your Kalashnikov and promising to wage jihad forever. War was serious in Afghanistan, but not that serious. It was part of everyday life. It was a job. Only the civilians seemed to lose.
Now I don’t think I can add a lot of commentary to that, so I won’t really try. But I do find it striking that the common demoniator between the two quotes is the idea that both sides are partaking in different activities. The United States is fighting a War (capital “w”), Afghans are engaged in something entirely different.
While I haven’t read it in a few years, I remember being equally struck by this Rand Corporation piece called “Cyberwar is Coming” (hopefully it holds up).