It was a brisk winter day, but heat from a black wood-burning stove warmed the room. Sunlight streamed in from outside and the sound of the rushing river outside was audible over the din of voices inside.
Faded floral wallpaper covered the south wall and on a dusty shelf above the window sat a ceramic white vase with artificial flowers and a red-checkered plate.
Men with thick beards and gray cloaks sat in circles, scooping up lentils and beans with warm flat bread in their right hand, for there was no silverware, and hungrily chowing down. Their faces were leathered, evidence of years of toil under the sun and the scars of war, but through crooked, rotted, and mishapen teeth peeked smiles and laughter. A handful of tea kettles sat over the stove, sending up puffs of clear smoke as they heated. There were no women in sight.
In a country still embroiled in conflict this roadside restaurant was eerily calm. A small menu was presented in Pashtau but my guide was ready to order for the table. Chicken kabobs on a skewer for me, blackened over the fire and served with the same lentils and fried potatoes that others in the room were enjoying.
All eyes were on the foreigner in the room, but it wasn’t eyes of suspicion or even curiosity. Rather, it was eyes of uncertainty, for the future of Afghanistan is uncertain. In me they saw America, the coalition, and the bitter duality of autonomy and security.
Strife has befallen Afghanistan for the last century. First the British, then the Soviets, then a brutal civil war, then a hardline theocracy, then another bloody war that persists over a decade after it began, now the longest war in American history. Most Afghans do not know life outside of war. The only escape they have is through the pirated movies widely available in villages dotting the country and through the meals and conversation I found myself in the midst of.
I spent my time in Afghanistan talking to Afghan people. I interacted with men of all ages and most were eager to talk. And the overwhelming consensus I found is that unlike the occupiers of the past, the Afghans do not want American forces to pull out. They are scared for their country and weighed down by the burden of being unable to fend for themselves against a well-organized resistance hell-bent on restoring theocratic rule in the name of Allah and the prophet Muhammad.
And yet they desire freedom, liberty, and justice. They don’t use those words, opting for a practical manifestation of those great virtues. Ask an Afghan what he wants and the answer is what we are so quick to take for granted: the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear espoused in Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech in 1941.
My entourage was Muslim. Not just Muslim but devout—we stopped at several points during the day so they could pray. Every person I encountered outside the green zone was Muslim. But there was no—and I asked—desire to have a theocracy. One man said, “Let people believe what they want. Islam cannot be forced. That is not true Islam.” Others nodded in agreement.
As if I was an emissary of the Obama Administration, I was implored that American not “leave us again”, perhaps a reference to Charlie’ Wilson’s War, where after covertly supplying arms to the Afghan resistance to help expel the Soviet Union, America cut off all aid, leading to a violent power struggle and civil war instead of the cultivation of a civil society. Sadly, those weapons are used today to kill American soldiers.
I arrived in Afghanistan convinced that U.S. forces needed to leave—that is was time for the Afghans to defend their country for themselves. Now, I am not so sure, and the timing of the trip helps to explain why. I traveled to Afghanistan when I did out of fear I would never be able to do it again in my lifetime; that as soon as coalition troops pull out, the country will inevitably descend back into war. There is a tendency in all of us to look inward, to look around us and note the problems in our own communities, states, and nation then deduce that priority necessarily must be given to those issues before helping others.
Corruption is systematic and most Afghans I spoke to had no faith in their government to protect them from harm, provide for their basic economic needs, or even foster a system in which free enterprise could flourish. Billions of dollars in foreign aid has been squandered or stolen and the great promise of democracy in Afghanistan is hardly at the forefront of the yeoman mind when there is no running water, electricity, and fresh food.
All that argues against continued U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It suggests that there is only so much foreign aid can do and that if the Afghans cannot fend for themselves after 12 years of war, there is nothing more we can do.
Money is not the solution to this problem. Nor is artillery. The only solution is peace: creating an environment in which Afghans need not live in fear of when their country will fall again. Having a permanent presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan is not what anyone wants, but to pull out now will sacrifice the small but significant gains of the last decade. Militants stand waiting in the wings to swoop back in and retake control—my own guide dourly told me that he would be executed in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regained control, for shaving his beard.
In a time of austerity and weariness to war, keeping thousands of troops in a foreign land over 7,000 miles away from U.S shores is a tough sell. But U.S. and coalition forces have proved adept at doing what thus far has eluded the Afghans: keeping the Taliban, and with it their brutal oppression, away. All I can say is that the people of Afghanistan worry not merely about providing for their children or how they will weather uncertain economic times, but how they will survive. They are begging us to stay and help a little longer.
That is the Afghanistan dilemma.