You Make Us Soft

The last report in our Afghanistan series, "Snapshots of a Fading War"

Kunar River, Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo)
Kunar River, Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo)


KANDAHAR PROVINCE—A major, a colonel, and a general, big men of the Afghan National Security Forces, sat at a small table in a bedroom made from a shipping container and talked over lunch about the good old days.

“Things were better under the Russians,” said the general, who had long ago been trained in Soviet Russia. “For one thing, there were no human rights.”

The general grinned and everyone laughed.

The major then told of an insurgent his men had recently captured as he planted an IED. The man was so frightened that he showed the soldiers the locations of several more IEDs. The soldiers disarmed the bombs, interrogated the bomber, and then turned him over to the national intelligence service for more interrogation.

A success, but also a failure. The major shook his head. What a shame. He would have dealt with the bomber differently. I asked how it would have gone in the Russian era.

“It’s simple,” the major said, brightening. “A man like that, in the old days we would have taken a tank and—” he ground his palms together.

Everyone nodded, affirming a sound method. Then the major asked me why America was not providing the Afghan army with tanks.

Later, I asked the colonel what he thought of human rights.

“Human rights is wrong,” he said.

The colonel didn’t believe the concept could work in Afghanistan. It is too abstract, he said. It is like a piece of clothing so big it is worthless, or a tool no one knows how to use.

“It works in other countries because the people are educated and the government and the police function,” the colonel said. “Here the people aren’t educated and the government is corrupt. If I catch a guy planting an IED, what am I supposed to do with him? I turn him over to the police, and someone bribes them or gives money to the judge, and they release him. Now he’s free to go set more IEDs—and he wants revenge against me.”

The colonel turned up his hands. It is simple.

“It’s better to just shoot him,” he said. “There should be no human rights in war.”

I am not sure we are all talking about the same thing when we say human rights. But the Afghans know the term, and whatever the specific meaning, they react immediately and mostly with disdain. Even the translator, 10 years my junior, waved off the idea. And he, more than the older military men, is the future of Afghanistan.

“You can’t do that here,” the young man said. “People don’t care about that.”

A luxury of the West, a kind of weakness. I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with a female employee of the U.S. State Department in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. No one talked about women’s rights anymore, she complained.

After lunch the Afghan officers and I drove through the low agriculture of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, past dust-flooded vineyards and cornfields and a vast green smudge of marijauna. It was a relief to see green again and to think of the water it implied. But this was weakness, too. We entered another large military base that seemed composed entirely of dust. The general planned to visit a friend recently promoted to the rank of general. He carried with him a gift for the new general—a plastic plant, a gaudy tower of green leaves, small white flowers, and red berries the size of eyeballs. He was re-gifting, as he himself had received the thing only a few hours before. But his office was already filled with such plants, like some freakish greenhouse, so he could afford to be generous.

The plastic shrub was placed on a large conference table where visitors could admire it. A cutting of marijuana would’ve been prettier. The new general sat before us on a brown couch, his face still blurry, having woken from a nap to receive us. He said he had also been mulling a problem of human rights.

“Recently, one of my soldiers was captured by the Taliban,” he said. “After 10 days my intelligence officers discovered the house where he was being held and we did a raid. We found the soldier alive. Now, I wonder why the Taliban kept him alive, but that is another story. In the house we also captured a man who was living there with his family. He knew my soldier was a prisoner there, and he did nothing about it. So obviously he supports the Taliban.”

The general paused, gathered a handful of raisins, swallowed a mouthful of tea.

“My point is that everyone in this region is Taliban. My question is what do I do with the man we captured? I am asking you. What would you do?”

Later we drove east, into the brownscape outside the provincial capital. On the horizon appeared old block apartments built by the Russians in a no-man’s land of trash and dirt and barbed wire. Many of the buildings had been damaged, perhaps by artillery. They were cracked open, like shells of giant insects, concrete and twisted metal spilling out. But certain wings remained undamaged. Rugs and laundry hung from porches. Some of the windows were open, revealing figures sliding through the upper chambers. People at home in the ruins.

I don’t know what I would have done with that captured man, or with the one found planting IEDs. Human rights are an intellectual scaffolding that Westeners haul along behind them. It allows us to work, makes us feel safe and righteous as we scale the exterior of another culture. When we leave we will abandon it to the Afghans with a shrug and crossed fingers. Sometimes I think we hesitate to withdraw because we fear what the Afghans will do to each other, and we fear we will be blamed.

Hours before, at lunch, my general had picked up a bottle of spring water, the kind the American military purchases and distributes and discards here by the billion.

“The Russians never gave us this stuff,” he said. “This is not what we drink here. But now our soldiers are used to it, they think they need it.”

His face knotted in disgust. “They don’t need it. But when they leave the American bases and go to our bases, they see they don’t get all this fancy stuff anymore, so they don’t want to stay. They go AWOL.”

The general set the bottle down.

“You give us all this stuff,” he said. “But it just makes us soft.”

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Neil Shea’s first book, Frostlines: Dispatches from the New Arctic, will be published next year.  


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up