The snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush are jutting through a dark layer of clouds this morning. My tired eyes are transfixed on the mountains as we speed through smoky streets, dodging buses and motorcycles. Groggily readjusting my body armor, I let my mind wander.
I grew up reading about these mountains. The trade towers fell when I was 11 years old and in the 12 years since, this mountain range has become legend. It’s rumored bin Laden made his escape through its harrowing passes, and to this day it provides sanctuary to disaffected insurgents. It never occurred to me that my own path might lead to its slopes. Still, just a year out of college and not wearing any particular uniform, I’m driving through Kabul, laden with weapons and gazing at the majesty of those icy peaks.
Kabul, Afghanistan is the buckle of the so called “Pashtun belt,” a term used to describe much of Eastern Afghanistan, where insurgent activity still boils over in the form of suicide attacks and roadside bombs. But this war was forgotten about a long time ago. There’s an emptiness and a sense of aimlessness everywhere you look. The dwindling contingent of Westerners in this country participate in the futile effort to prop up a democracy in a historically tribal land, but expending so much energy on a lost cause takes its toll. To stay the weariness that sends so many contractors packing, a large number turn to the bottle and the pill and the passing comfort of intimate companionship. And it is here that the wild, wild West has come back to life, where “cowboys and Indians” fight to excise a toll of blood from one another, and with enough saloons, reckless partying, and live-for-today justified debauchery to fill endless Louis L’Amour books.
Kabul’s streets are bristling with guns this morning. Police trucks with mounted machine guns speed around backed up traffic. Barbed-wire-topped walls crowd in busy motorists and donkey carts alike. The temperature dropped to -3C overnight, so most of the Afghan police have kafiyahs wrapped around their faces. My driver says to me that he thinks it will snow tomorrow.
Though I live and work here, I feel more like an observer than a participant. I’m not in Afghanistan to kick in doors and call in ordinance, though my contract requires me to carry weapons. I’m a civilian employee who uses a computer and some book knowledge from university to help find answers. Answers to questions like, “How do you run legitimate elections when every polling station official has his price?” Or maybe a more personal question, “How can we ask Afghans to trust us, when Americans would certainly rebel against any military that had occupied their land for 12 years?”
But there are not so many people like myself in this town. The truth is I am not the typical military contractor. I am 23 with no military experience, hired because I’m a “whiz kid” writer, a nerd who looks funny carrying a gun. So when the long day is done and I find myself at Kabul’s fabled Green Village compound (a haven for contractors), I can’t help but sit back and watch.
This is a nightly Special Forces reunion — a party that goes late with stories of badassery from days not-so-long-ago. Each man tells his story with bravado: glorious tales of heroism under fire in Iraq, Somalia, and countries that the teller arrogantly claims he cannot disclose. But I notice in the revelry an out-of-place anxiety. When the night gets old, and only a handful remain, that anxiety is practically deafening. It’s a blaring note of despair, a screaming reminder of worthlessness. Men who were once celebrated with yellow ribbons and salutes are here holding onto the night while it still echoes their stories.
A particularly lonely gunslinger put it simply when he said to me, “God I’d love to go home, but what would I do there? I don’t think there’s a war in Minnesota.”
At their best, these men quietly lower their heads at the news of an attack that killed Coalition soldiers. At their worst, they drunkenly harass waitresses before leaving to Skype with their wives. These are men who gave their best years to their country, and now are aimless, aging “knuckle draggers.” Of course there are exceptions, but as they say, they usually prove the rule.
And every morning, however late the revelry lasted at Green Village, people begin to congregate by armored cars around 6am. Hot breath clouds the air and bearded men stamp their feet to stay warm. These are the closing days of the longest war America has ever fought. But this cattle drive won’t end with pretty women welcoming the cowboys home — for many, their time in Afghanistan has lost them whatever homes and families they had.
As we sit here, stuck in a jammed traffic circle, those mountains are on stage, chest puffed out as if to say, “I won this war.”