The Magazine

Nervous in Baghdad

From the July 25, 2005 issue: Do Americans have the will to stay the course?

Jul 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 42 • By AUSTIN BAY
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Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan

THE AFGHAN FARMER at Three Markets--Sayh Dukon in the local dialect--showed me how he killed the yellow-bellied viper. He flicked his wrist, cutting the air with his hand-held scythe, his smile vacillating between amused relief and grim satisfaction.

An American soldier skinned the snake and dangled its body in front of my video camera as a half-dozen Kevlar-armored kibitzers debated the snake's lethality. I moved from the snake to a pan shot of the farmer's wheat field and the Bagram plain, with snow-capped Himalayan peaks rising in the distance. Through the camera lens the vast range shimmered like a mirage.

I'd been on a motor patrol with the 164th Military Police Company, part of the U.S. Army's 716th MP Battalion, Ft. Campbell, Kentucky. We'd forded the Berq River, visited the village of Bakhshe Khil, and were returning to Bagram Air Base via Sayh Dukon. In Bakhshe Khil the villagers had talked about water--there's plenty this year--and one of them mentioned the next round of national elections, scheduled for September. At Sayh Dukon we'd stopped to inspect an abandoned, mud-brick family compound the Russians had used as a garrison in what our translator, Jdhooshi, called "the war against the mujahedeen."

For 60 years, Jdhooshi guessed, an extended family had lived in the compound, and they were probably driven out by the Russians. "The family grew grapes," Jdhooshi said, pointing to a two-story structure that had not quite collapsed. "The vines, they would drop from wood, from poles on the roof, to ripen into raisins."

"Jdhooshi" is a nom de guerre, but seems to fit the spry, gray-bearded 69-year-old Afghan. Actually, I should call him an Angeleno. For three decades Jdhooshi lived in Los Angeles. But after 9/11, when the war on terror came to Afghanistan, he knew he had to get involved. "This is a chance to change this place, my country, my first country," he told me. "It has suffered so much. Thirty years of war has left it with nothing. Now we, America, we are giving Afghanistan a chance. I knew I could help by working as a translator. For the military. The people, they now have hope, they know some things can be different."

Did last year's elections make a difference?

Jdhooshi grinned, his beard jutting forward, and I immediately knew the question was stupid. "Of course. The Taliban said it would not happen--but it did. But there is so much to do, so much still to do."

As for the snake? "It's poison," Jdhooshi assured me as we walked back to the MPs' armored Humvees.

I stopped to watch two farmers bury the snake in a hole the size of a shoe box. Another man had already returned to the wheat field, bending over the grain, reaching down into the furrow. This is how the war on terror will be won, I thought--when the elections are held, the men return to their wheat fields, and the snakes are dead.

HAS DICK CHENEY ever seen a snake die? Hitting a sidewinder on a Wyoming highway doesn't count. Snake death at close-range is a writhing, dangerous agony as the damned and bleeding thing lunges at your eyes, your hand, your knife, the boot its first strike failed to penetrate. Wipe the sweat from your face, glance at the nervous man behind you, swipe the tall-grass with the back of your blade, swat a bothersome gnat--take your eye off the enemy and in that instant the coiled, dying devil lands a fang. You killed it, but in its last throes it got you.

"I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency," Cheney told CNN's Larry King on May 30, when asked to appraise the warfare in Iraq. I'll give odds that he regrets that comment. During my June visit to Central Command's theater of operations--from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, to Iraq, and concluding in Afghanistan--I met U.S. soldiers in the field who found the vice president's off-the-cuff assessment at best perplexing, at worst ignorant.

"What in the hell is going on back there?" a Navy officer asked me. It was a rhetorical question--he is a man sophisticated in the ways of Washington. He laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair. I felt the ship roll ever so slightly, but the officer had a sailor's innate compensation, the roll absorbed in the tip and angle of his chair.

"Americans want business as usual," I said to the naval officer as the slow roll passed. "In Washington business as usual is fighting over power."

"They can do that because we've been fairly successful," the officer replied, as he dropped his feet to the deck--and he meant successful in fighting the war on terror. He stood up. It was 2100 hours, we'd had a long day in the northern Persian Gulf, but he still had duties.

"Go ahead and check your email," he said, pointing to his computer. "I'll be back in 20 minutes."