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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Deeper Into Fathomless Afghanistan

January 18, 2011, 5:00 am

By MICHAEL KAMBER

Afghanistan still feels utterly new and fantastically complex. The dynamics, geography and people are completely different from Iraq, different really than anywhere I’ve ever been. As I spend more time here, I feel the war becoming more intricate, more complicated. Some of what is attributed to the Taliban is simply Afghan culture. Much of the war in Afghanistan is a war with the Pashtun tribes on both sides of the Af-Pak border. Yet there are other non-Pashtun groups fighting us all over the country — groups that are lumped together as Taliban when, in fact, they have nothing in common save for an antipathy towards coalition forces.



In early December, Alissa J. Rubin, The Times’s bureau chief in Kabul, takes me along on a visit to meet with the public affairs team at the International Security Assistance Force. I’m skeptical at first, but they turn out to be a smart, slightly ironic bunch who are tremendously helpful in getting us to where we want to go and furnishing us with updates. There is little of the mutual distrust I felt between the press and the military in Iraq. Weeks later, though, a high-ranking officer will call to complain about my written coverage: a quote from a Taliban spokesman has particularly incensed him.



Michael Kamber
Photographers at War


Interviews with:

Teru Kuwayama
Joao Silva
Stanley Greene
Tim Hetherington
Patrick Baz
Alissa and I take a day trip up to the Panjshir Valley, home of the legendary Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan commander who fought the Russians to a standstill for a decade, then later led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. The Panjshir is extraordinarily beautiful: clear mountain streams and green rolling valleys. You can still see Russian markings on the destroyed armored personnel carriers that litter the roadside.

Massoud read Mao and Che Guevara, and was once offered a scholarship to study in France. I expect to find the Panjshiri women “liberated.” (I had an argument with a close relative in New York before I left. “We’re liberating the women from the Taliban,” she had said.) In the Panjshir, a bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment, it quickly becomes clear that the Taliban are not the only impediment to women’s liberation.

The Panjshiris will not let me enter the village where I want to work; there are women in the village and I cannot lay eyes on them. I set my camera to auto and give it to our female translator. I go with the driver to the local kebab house. There are probably 100 men inside in the sweet smoky room, not a woman in sight. Outside, the women navigate the road in burkas down to their ankles.

A Panjshiri man tells me: “The Russians were terrible. They came into my house with guns in the middle of the night, in front of my wife!” I think back to the night raids in Logar that I photographed in 2009, the women and children led out into the pasture as the men were handcuffed and led away.



A friend in Ivory Coast e-mails me: the ultranationalist government, refusing to relinquish power after losing the election, is once again blaming the foreign press for its troubles. They have put photos of the journalists on state-run TV, a potential death sentence in this climate. The Ivorians have killed at least two foreign journalists in recent years. Many of the journalists have gone into hiding. Long distance, we worry for one another’s safety.



In Ghazni Province in mid-December, the Third Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne is in a daily fight with the Taliban. The soldiers have suffered 25 percent casualties since September. In the Hazara part of their district, there has never been a single attack upon them. In the Pashtun half, they are attacked as often as several times a day. Out of 100,000 Pashtun residents, exactly three voted in September’s parliamentary election. The Hazaras voted, and now control all the parliamentary seats for the province.

I pull on my flak jacket. The steel and ceramic cocoon offers an odd reassurance. We climb into massive, heavily armored vehicles. That which keeps us safe also separates us from the population.

Beside me, an Afghan, clearly an interpreter, introduces himself in accented English as Bob.

“What’s your real name?” I ask him.

“My name’s Omid. But on the first day at this job, the sergeant asked me my ‘terp’ name. I told him: ‘I don’t have a terp name. My name is Omid.’

” ‘Omid is too complicated for us to remember,’ he told me. ‘From now on, your name is Bob.’ ”


Michael Kamber for The New York Times

Dec. 16: Members of Bravo Company on a humanitarian assistance patrol in Ghazni Province distributed crank-powered radios, books, candy and drinks.


For most of the day, I watch and photograph as the Americans crawl in armored vehicles through fields in search of insurgents zipping about on motorcycles; as impoverished villagers step from their adobe homes to gape at the millions of dollars in American hardware bogged in their narrow mud lanes; as 19-year-old soldiers — abroad for the first time in their lives — swarm ancient compounds, finding bomb-making materials in haystacks and interrogating white-bearded Afghan elders.

It is an astonishing spectacle, bordering on the surreal at times. It is the very front line of the war in Afghanistan. A man in a turban drives by on a motorbike; his wife or daughter, draped in a baby-blue burka, sitting sidesaddle on the back.

“It’s like we are on the moon,” a soldier says. “Is there any place in the world more completely opposite to where we come from?”

That night, a sergeant is telling a story about talking to local villagers.

“I told the guy: ‘You think this is nice? This ain’t nothing! Where I live, I drive my car up to my house, press a magic button and a door opens up in the side of my house. I drive my car inside. Where I live, even my car has its own room! If you would just stop shooting at us, you could have that, too.’ ”



A few days later, at an Afghan government press conference, officials take the opportunity to press repeatedly for more economic aid and development from the West. An Afghan journalist turns to me with a laugh. “The U.S. is a big milky cow. We just milk it and milk it and milk it.”



In the middle of a January night, I’m standing in a wooden shack on an air base in Helmand, trying to get on a flight to remote Sangin District, where the fighting is heavy. The door opens and a face peers around the corner at me. It is Teru Kuwayama, another photojournalist. The last time I saw him, we were drinking beer on a warm Brooklyn night and arguing about the role of the media.

We embrace and talk for an hour or so in the darkness. Then I board a plane and fly off into the night. Teru will take a flight the next morning in another direction.

Source:
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/18/deeper-into-fathomless-afghanistan/?partner=rss&emc=rss

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