The Theorist

From our continuing Afghanistan series, “Snapshots of a Fading War”

By Neil Shea | February 11, 2013
Jane Cooper/U.S. National Archives
Jane Cooper/U.S. National Archives


WARDAK TRIPTYCH—This man keeps his Marlboro Menthols tucked into a leather pouch sewn to the side of his cowboy boot. He wears a baseball cap and jeans, and his gray-white beard is long and reaches his chest. He works for the State Department, and so he has secrets.

“Come find me later, and I’ll tell you some of my theories,” he says. But he gives me a hint now.

“I’ll tell you, I think it’s good what we’re doing here, setting up the Afghan government, helping them stand up. But I think it’s gonna take us leaving for things to really change. Then they’ll be able to go back to what they are, which is brutal bastards.”

He does not say this as an insult to the Afghans, more like a statement of historical and anthropological truth. He is in his late 50s or 60s, age is upon him, certain and indistinct. He is entirely serious. I like him instantly.

“It’s all an eye for an eye here, see. And we come in here with our liberal notions and our liberal programs, trying to change their ways. I’ll tell you, I’m real conservative.”

He draws his hand across an invisible slate, wiping away nearly everyone I know.

“As conservative as they come in the States. But these people? I’m with Obama compared to them. Know what I mean? And we’re not gonna change that. We don’t have that in our country anymore.

“See, these people”—he gestures at the bleak hills around us—“they know where the Taliban are. They don’t tell us, but they know. They’re waiting, see. And once the government can stand up and get more people on its side, so that these people feel safer, they’ll give up on the Taliban.

“Then it’s just a matter of saying ‘Alright all you Taliban, stop. Or we’re gonna kill all of you.’ That’s how they do it.”

I can suddenly sense victory. “It’s like the government needs to become the only warlord here,” I say.

“That’s exactly it. You’re exactly right.”

He heaves his leg onto a palette stacked with shelf-stable food and he tugs up his jeans and reaches for the green cigarette carton. I have never understood menthols, especially in the heat. Black men have now and then tried to explain it to me, something about the way it cools you. Every few years I try one and it always feels like I have just maced myself in the mouth. The man from State lights up.

“I like it here, you know,” he says. “I like it better than Iraq. There’s a whole lot more to do.”

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