Cesar Chelala
Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer

The Afghan disaster

On learning that he was from Afghanistan, I asked my Afghan taxi driver his opinion about the situation in his country. “Americans don’t get it,” he said. “They are not going to succeed in Afghanistan. My father was a warlord who fought the Russians, so I now the situation there,” he told me. And he added, “I have a lot of respect for the Russian soldiers, who fought us fiercely. But I don’t have the same respect for the coalition soldiers who always overprotect themselves. They don’t seem to understand that we have fought for centuries against foreign occupation to my country, and we have always succeeded.” Years later, the words of the taxi driver proved to be prophetic, as the precipitous withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan proves. And a lesson hasn’t been learned.

In 2001, US writer Philip Caputo offered a unique insight into the Afghan psychology. He had spent a month in Afghanistan with the mujahedeen as a reporter, during the Afghans’ decade-long war with the Soviets.

At some point in the 1980s, he was accompanying a platoon of mujahedeen who were escorting 1,000 refugees into Pakistan. They had to cross a mountain torrent on a very primitive bridge, consisting essentially of two logs laid side by side. In front of him was a 10-year-old boy separated from his family, his feet swollen from several days of barefoot marching.

When Caputo realized that the boy was terrified thinking that he could fall into the rapids below, he carried him to the other side. With the help of his interpreter, he found the father and handed the boy to him. The father, rather than thanking him slapped the boy in the face and poked Caputo in the chest, shouting angrily at him. Caputo was obviously shocked.

He asked his interpreter about the boy father’s reaction and the interpreter explained to him, “He is angry at the boy for not crossing on his own, and angry with you for helping him. Now, he says, his son will expect somebody to help him whenever he runs into difficulties.”

Caputo concludes, “Well, that little boy probably learned. I don’t know what became of him, but in my imagination, I see our troops encountering him: now 31, inured to hardship and accustomed to combat, unafraid of death, with an army of men like him at his side.”

In a few words, Caputo magisterially captured the strength of the Afghan soldier, able to fight with the most primitive weapons against the greatest empires on earth. When these soldiers feel their land usurped by foreign forces, their strength is multiplied. And this is just one of the obstacles confronting U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Matthew Hoh, a former Foreign Service officer and former Marine Corps captain who became the first U.S. official to resign in protest over the Afghan war, had declared, “Upon arriving in Afghanistan and serving in both the East and South (and particularly speaking with local Afghans) I found that the majority of those who were fighting us and the Afghan central government were fighting us because they felt occupied.”

This also begs the question. Can any foreign army subdue a naturally proud and intensely nationalistic people? The failures of the past should have been a sobering reminder to the troops now leaving that country. Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires. It should more properly be called the graveyard of illusions.

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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