On Standing Out in Afghanistan
I shook my lighter in frustration, trying to get enough flame to light the end of the crumpled cigarette hanging from my mouth. “Come on you worthless shit,” I mumbled. Noticing how aggravated I was, my Afghan colleague produced his lighter and helped me out. He smirked at me as I took a deep and overly dramatic drag of that cigarette. Adeeb knew that I don’t smoke cigarettes and that I was handling the stress of the moment poorly.
On this particular Tuesday afternoon, we were standing by our armored vehicles in the parking lot of a government compound in Kabul. Guarding cars is not my job, and there are few people less qualified to “pull security” than me. But my coworkers (ironically all former Special Forces guys) had a meeting to attend and left the new guy behind. So there I stood, looking very American in a crowd of people who all seemed to be scowling at me.
Sure, I could have taken off the Ray-Bans and tried to blend in a little. But if I was going to get shot, I wanted them to find my body and say, “Damn! He looked good today!”
This particular government compound was a bit of a disappointment, honestly. It resembled a really shitty community college in America, complete with trash-strewn lawns, dumpy three-story buildings, and overcrowded parking lots. I was also aware there had been a number of attacks against Westerners here. “Sticky bombs” are especially popular in Kabul at the moment. They are magnetic explosives that can be stuck to the undercarriages of vehicles and detonated by cell phones at inopportune moments. But for the chance to kill a six-foot-tall American standing in a public parking lot in broad daylight, an insurgent might be so bold as to try something more direct. As such, I was being a little more paranoid than necessary and was immensely grateful for Adeeb’s company.
“Mr. Charlie, what province are you from?” He could clearly tell I was on edge. Adeeb was quick with a joke and always ready to laugh, however serious the situation.
“I am from the province of California. It’s really beautiful — I can drive to the beach from my house in 15 minutes.” Adeeb had never been to a beach, but he smiled knowingly and said he would like it.
“What about you? Where is the best place in Afghanistan to visit?” He began describing rivers and lakes in the north of the country, places in the high mountains, places I knew were not safe to visit anymore.
As we watched streams of people come and go from the buildings around the square, we both became transfixed by a trio of women who did not look Afghan at all. They wore the traditional head coverings, but their faces looked more anglo/oriental than anyone I had seen in Afghanistan, and they were strikingly beautiful. Without my asking, Adeeb knowingly said, “Those women are Hazara.”
Afghanistan is a tribal land. Roughly speaking, the Pashtuns dominate the south and east, the Tajiks the north, and Hazaras can be found in the west. Of course, there are more tribes, but these are the three largest. Now and then you’ll even see a blond Afghan. These people still surprise me, because for years the only Afghans I saw on the news wore turbans and waved AK-47s.
As the trio of girls came closer, Adeeb and I both became very involved in our cigarettes and tried to look cool. The girls smiled and blushed and hurried past. Adeeb is a Muslim, so to be sensitive to his beliefs I refrained from making any jokes about getting their numbers. But he surprised me when he turned and said in his thick accent, “You can look, but don’t touch!”
Slowly relaxing, I lit another cigarette and stuffed my hands in my jacket pockets to keep warm. My eyes continued to dart from face to face. I watched hands, studied passing cars, and kept an eye on loitering people.
A fat Afghan National Army general walked through the parking lot with his uniformed entourage. Standing no taller than 5’3″, he looked like Danny DeVito with his shoulders thrown back and his gut protruding unnaturally in front of him.
I listened to Adeeb gush about Pop Tarts, girls, and soccer. I was impressed when a blind man asked him for money and he quickly handed over a few bills.
On the one hand, I want to blame the media for making most Westerners think the average Afghan speaks Arabic and wants to join the Taliban. There are good people here. There are people wearing Afghan uniforms who would (and do) die to make their country safe. The people you don’t hear about are the Afghan women who can walk around Kabul without a man escorting them. You don’t hear about the Afghan people who had to secretly watch Titanic on a tiny black-and-white television during the Taliban days, and who now listen to Celine Dion on the radio.
But on the other hand, I have to blame myself for being persuaded that any group of people could be so uniformly hateful. The extremists here have always been a minority — a powerful minority that uses fear and force to do terrible things, but still a minority. Even though I work here, I find myself constantly struggling to remember that the average Afghan wants peace. The unmentioned tragedy of war is that it forces us to be suspicious of innocent bystanders, especially if they happen to be ethnically similar to the people we’re fighting. Standing in that parking lot, I understood in a very real way how that suspicion works, and how distracting and unhelpful it is.
The afternoon continued to pass uneventfully, though I was careful not to become complacent. Adeeb demanded that we take a selfie, and that I hold my M4 assault rifle a little higher to get it in the frame. He wanted to post the picture on his Facebook so his friends would know he was a badass.
Afghanistan has been at war since Ronald Reagan was President, but many think that it is close to becoming self-sustaining. Maybe it’s not, and maybe things are about to get worse. But hanging out with Adeeb, you sure as hell wouldn’t know there was a war on. Author’s note: Some names, places, and times have been altered.