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Getting to Know You

The U.S. military maps the human terrain of Afghanistan.

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Getting to Know You

Omaha, Nebraska


In early 2003, a single American diplomat and more than 5,000 American troops were stationed in Kandahar, the second city of Afghanistan and the heart of former Taliban country. The troops mostly stayed on their base, penned off near the airport, isolated from the people of the city. One of the few American civilians then living in Kandahar, the former NPR reporter Sarah Chayes, would describe the tedious hours-long delays and “bewildering lack of system” that governed access to the base. Isolation reinforced ignorance, and under the Americans’ noses, the provincial governor, a former warlord named Gul Agha Shirzai, exploited his position to snag most U.S. contracts for his Barakzai tribe and to cover his private militia—issued American camouflage uniforms—with impunity for misdeeds from drug smuggling to stealing.

As a result, wrote Chayes in her 2006 book The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan after the Taliban, “much of the [U.S.] expenditure in effort and treasure that was aimed at building bridges and gaining friends in Kandahar did the reverse. It built a growing feeling of resentment against the U.S. troops.”

In those early days, the U.S. military in Afghanistan, for all its famous night-vision goggles, was blind to what has become known as the “human terrain”—the people it had come to liberate. No one has to explain to any soldier the tactical significance of a hill or a river or an airfield; whereas few soldiers on the Kandahar base had ever heard of Barakzais, much less the Popalzais and Alokozais and Ghiljais who had been left out in the cold. Their commanders similarly failed to recognize the mischief flowing every day from the fact that the interpreters on whom the Americans were wholly dependent—supplied by the governor’s helpful brother—were working for him.

Today efforts are being made to change that, as the military draws on a culture of “lessons learned”—the systematic practice of looking back at mistakes to see what can be done better. The generals in charge of the counterinsurgency strategy being implemented in Afghanistan are graduates of the hard school of Iraq, where the United States also paid the price of ignorance. Now, the generals—notably U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) chief David Petraeus and the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal—are working through multiple channels to build their forces’ ability to relate to the Afghan population. 

The whole thrust of counterinsurgency doctrine is summed up in the subhead to the “Guidance” McChrystal issued to the troops in August: “Protecting the people is the mission.” There is abundant evidence that commanders are reorienting the coalition effort to this end.

One small but telling sign is Sarah Chayes’s own career. After entering Afghanistan just behind U.S. forces in late 2001, she reported from Kandahar for several months. Her previous experience covering the aftermath of war in the Balkans enriched her perspective; so did her decision not to join the foreign media at the international hotel but to live in an Afghan family compound and adopt local dress. By the time she left Kandahar, in the heady atmosphere of the months after the fall of the Taliban, she had decided to give up her job and contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

She did so first through a group founded by Hamid Karzai’s older brother, Afghans for Civil Society. She raised money in her native Massachusetts to rebuild houses and a mosque destroyed by a U.S. bomb. She personally directed the work, learning firsthand what it was like to try to get something done under the thumb of Kandahar’s “arbitrary, predatory, brutal, if charismatic” governor. After taking a break to write her book, she founded Arghand, a cooperative that employs Kandaharis making scented soaps and lotions for export. All the while, she was deepening her local contacts—and gradually becoming an informal adviser to the U.S. military. Soon they were flying her to Hawaii to brief soldiers about to deploy to Kandahar, and to Fort Leavenworth as a guest speaker. (“She’s like no journalist you’ve ever seen,” gushed one who heard her. “She’s a hawk!”) Today she is a special adviser to General McChrystal. Her eight-page “Comprehensive Action Plan for Afghanistan”—published last January and available at—begins: “The United States should -redefine its objectives in favor of the Afghan people, not the Afghan government.”

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