Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An Afghanistan Graveyard

Afghanistan’s barren hills have received the bones of countless foreigners down through the centuries — invaders, traders whose camel caravans linked Asia to Europe, soldiers of fortune, and men-who-would-be-kings. It’s most prominent mountain range, the Hindu Kush, means literally killer of Hindus.
America is but the latest in a long list of foreign powers that have sought to bend Afghanistan to its will.

America has its allies, and there are more different brands of foreigners in Kabul today than at any time in the country’s blood-soaked past. Forty-eight different nations have sent 131,730 soldiers to serve in the International Security Assistance Force, I.S.A.F. Many countries signed on to please the Americans, and Afghanistan was more acceptable than Iraq.

More than two thirds of the foreign troops are Americans, and you might call the I.S.A.F. a “coalition of the willing-but-reluctant.” Although those who serve are doing their duty, their populations and governments back home are losing enthusiasm for America’s enterprise. Vice President Joseph Biden says the United States will be willing to support Afghanistan after 2014, when it is hoped, unrealistically, that Afghanistan will take over its own security. But many allies are not prepared to stay on much longer.

Britons make up the second-largest contingent, numbering slightly less than 10,000. Germany comes in third, with more than 4,000, with Canada, France, Italy and Poland each having more than 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. On the low end, Austria, Iceland, Ireland and Luxembourg have less than 10 each.

Of course not all of the troops are involved in combat, and those that have been, such as the Dutch and the Canadians who saw heavy fighting in the south, are ending their combat role. Others, such as the Germans, were put in places that were thought relatively safe, but now that the insurrection has spread, they, too, are in harm’s way.

Others are on guard duty. I recently ran into Macedonian soldiers guarding the I.S.A.F. compound in Kabul, a rabbit warren of bunkered corridors and blast walls. The Macedonians like to say they were there first, because of Alexander the Great, who made his way up the Kabul River Valley two and a half thousand years ago.
I saw Mongolian soldiers, too, and some said cynically that when the Mongols were in charge Genghis Khan didn’t worry about hearts and minds.

Then there are the untold number of foreign civilians attached to embassies, private security firms, construction companies and nongovernmental organizations. India, for example, has one of the largest construction projects in Afghanistan, and a number of consulates in the provinces that drive the Pakistanis crazy.

Many nations help train the Afghan National Army and the police, which can be confusing for the Afghans because of differing languages and methods. But making a virtue out of diversity, I.S.A.F. personnel say this can be useful because other countries have skills the Americans lack. Russian helicopters are thought to be the best for Afghanistan, because of comparative simplicity and easy maintenance, but Americans have no experience with them. However, Czechs, Poles and Hungarians do.

Also, America has no experience with a national police force, but the Italians do.

Of course the greatest number of foreigners are Americans, and the American embassy, looking like a large, art-deco movie theater, is now the largest U.S. embassy in the world, having passed Baghdad. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry recently held a small ceremony to unveil the embassy’s ever-expanding building plans, just in case Afghans might think we are leaving anytime soon.

Visit the Sherpur district of Kabul, and there, behind a high wall, is the old foreign cemetery. British soldiers spruced it up, having returned to Afghanistan for the first time since their third Afghan War in 1919.

Lt. St John William Forbes of the Gordon Highlanders, who fell ascending the heights of Takht-i-Shan in 1879, lies there. A short distance away is a stone for Thomas Little, born in Kinderhook, New York, one of the 10 aid workers killed by the Taliban last year.

Gayle Tamsyn Williams, who was shot in a Kabul street in 2008, suspected of being a Christian missionary, is memorialized not far from Armin Franz, a German who gave his life in the service I.S.A.F. in 2010.

Over the centuries Afghanistan has had a fatal attraction for invading armies. They have not always fared well, but they keep trying, the triumph of hope over experience. Sir William Macnaghten, who went up to Kabul with a British army 170 years ago, famously said of the Afghans: “I fear these fellows will require many a hiding yet before they settle down and become peaceable citizens.” He was murdered for his troubles, and his army destroyed, but his message sounds strangely similar to the American command’s strategy for dealing with the Taliban today.
By H.D.S. GREENWAY for International Herald Tribune

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