Vanessa M. Gezari

The Tender Soldier
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Military architecture and the environment often clash in Afghanistan. A sign at the main U.S. military base in Khost hangs beneath a hillside where the name of God is spelled out in white rocks. Read the article on the Pulitzer Center site.

(Vanessa M. Gezari)
February 18, 2010 / Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

The Base, the Mosque and the Olive Trees

I went running. Away from the dusty plywood-floored tent where reporters stay, down the paved road that curved along the edge of the base, near where the rockets had been fired in a few nights earlier. I ran west into the setting sun. The hills were dark, the soil almost black, as if volcanic, yellowish-green grass sprouting from the slopes. The winter had been uncommonly mild, but even so, the balminess of Khost in January surprised me. It sat in the lap of mountains not far from the Pakistani border, in a valley that military people call “the bowl.” The road turned to gravel. It traced the barbed wire fence, passing guard towers where security guards looked out over the fields and hills.

On the hillside far above, visible from anywhere on the base, the emphatic name of God was spelled out in white rocks in Arabic script: y'Allah. On my i-pod, Biggie Smalls was singing about picking up girls at a bar, while across the fence, Afghan men moved between a big mosque and a scattering of mud houses a quarter mile away. I ran to where the fence curved tightly and the road doubled back, and there, just on the other side of the barbed wire, lay a small Afghan graveyard: piles of stones and tattered green and silver flags whipping in the breeze. My eye had grown used to the regimented lines of the fence, which interrupted the landscape as all base architecture does. Now the vivid, organic reality of Afghanistan was so close that I could have reached through the chain links and touched it.

The U.S. base in Khost is one of the oldest in the country, and it co-exists with its Afghan surroundings in a way that few coalition military bases do. A military base is not generally an attractive place. In Afghanistan, a base of any size is usually a blight on the landscape, a collection of ugly pre-fab buildings, connexes, warehouse-sized chow halls, tents and Port-A-Potties covered in dust, grime and graffiti that expresses the authors' profound discomfort with being there. “Fuck this God forsaken place,” someone wrote on the wall of a latrine at Bastion, a British base in Helmand, where I spent a few weeks this past fall. And the place was godforsaken. Yet the dry wasteland adjoining Bastion was where the Marines chose to locate their main base, Camp Leatherneck, when they surged into Afghanistan by the thousands last year.

Ever since that September visit to Helmand, I’d been wondering what impact, if any, the aesthetics of a military base have on the counterinsurgents who live there. How does the look and feel of a soldier or Marine’s temporary home affect his ability to connect meaningfully with the people he’s trying to influence and protect? What does it betray about his (or his commander’s) feelings for a foreign culture and its people? I’d been lucky enough to live in Afghanistan at a time when security wasn’t a constant concern, when I could walk city streets alone and unhurried, past hanging racks of meat, blacksmith shops with smoky fires and old men driving donkey carts. I’d ridden a horse through the bazaars of Kabul, drunk tea under spreading mulberry trees and hiked in the hills for pleasure, and I understood why the inscription on the tomb of the Emperor Babur described the city as “this highway of archangels, this theater of heaven.” Most American troops would agree that Afghanistan is a country of rare natural beauty, but for them it’s also a place of tremendous risk. The physical otherness of their bases – the hyper-practical ugliness, the rows of gravel-filled HESCOs that promote security over engagement – exemplify both the embattled nature of their relationship to Afghanistan and their unwillingness to succumb to the seductive contours of the land. And yet, the new NATO strategy is all about troops drawing closer to the people, lowering barriers, whether by taking off their sunglasses or living side by side with Afghan soldiers and police. So I wondered: would U.S. forces who felt at ease in the Afghan landscape be more or less effective counterinsurgents than their heavily fortified counterparts?

From Camp Leatherneck, the Afghan landscape itself seems an enemy. The base rises from an expanse of fine dirt and rock that Afghans call the Desert of Death. It’s not a place any Afghan would choose to live, though some have recently settled there, either to take advantage of the base’s security bubble or to farm the well-fertilized ground on either side of its sewage trench. In the construction of Leatherneck, security seems to have trumped all other concerns. The base is impregnable. A soldier in a guard post can see someone moving across the plain from miles away. It’s also one of the least pleasant places I’ve ever been. Wind blows dirt over the flat, rocky ground, coating everything. Dust works its way between your teeth and into the roots of your hair. If I lived there and never saw much more of the country, Leatherneck could make me hate Afghanistan. The Marine command seemed to revel in this self-imposed hardship, but the Afghan National Army soldiers felt differently. At the big Afghan army camp adjoining Leatherneck, soldiers and commanders planted flowers and vegetables in the plots near their barracks and carefully tended them. On the American base, there wasn’t a speck of green. I heard that an Afghan general visited the U.S. Marine commander at Leatherneck and observed that the Americans really shouldn’t live there without greenery. Shortly afterward, he brought or had delivered to the American commander a couple of potted plants. They were placed on the railing of the American general’s porch, which was attached to the command center. I saw them shortly after they arrived, and savored the tiny shimmer of green every time I passed. But no one watered them, and soon they were as dry and dusty and lifeless as everything else on the base.

Leatherneck was entirely different from the British base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s capital, where every civilian – and even some Marines – wanted to escape for a few days vacation. There, gray-bearded Afghan gardeners tended flowerbeds and pruned grape arbors, women wore tank tops to the office as if they were still in London and I heard about a recent base operations meeting at which someone had made an impassioned plea for additional ice cream flavors in the dining hall. At night, soldiers and civilians chatted on wooden benches in an outdoor courtyard and a man played guitar under the stars. The base felt luxurious and vaguely colonial, but at least it didn’t make you hate Afghanistan. It wasn’t until I got to the American base in Khost, though, that the balance finally felt right.

The base in Khost is named Salerno, after a beachhead from which the 82nd Airborne Division invaded Italy in World War II. The Italians originally occupied it back in 2003, and its longevity predictably makes it feel more organic to the landscape than a base built yesterday. It isn’t ugly as military bases go. The buildings are low and inoffensive, made of concrete or wood and painted pale yellow and other neutral colors. Some have flowerbeds out front. Like every other base, it is unavoidably both a living area and a launching pad for war. It has artillery ranges and a church with faux stained glass windows; a bright red KFC trailer and a detention facility surrounded by fences and big signs that say “Deadly Force Authorized;” a small building where a special unit plans nighttime missions and a coffee shop that serves cappuccino, macchiato and something called the “Mother Of All Coffee (MOAC): Four shots of espresso and our house blend in a 24-oz cup.”

But in some important ways, Salerno is different from other big bases I’ve visited. I saw more Afghans there, and the soldiers seemed more comfortable with and accommodating of them. Most big coalition bases employ lots of so-called “third-country nationals” – Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans – to cook and clean, because Afghans have historically been viewed as too much of a security risk. That puts an additional awkward distance between foreign troops and the people they fight among and robs Afghans of the economic benefits that a base can bring. At Salerno, that had begun to change. Local Afghans washed the soldiers' clothes. Afghans loaded wheelbarrows with bricks and put up a new building outside the tactical operations center. Afghans sold DVDs and rugs in the bazaar, where soldiers drank tea with shopkeepers. Afghans ran a restaurant that served kebab made with American dining hall meat and fresh hot local bread dusted with cinnamon and sugar that the soldiers loved. Afghan security guards protected the base alongside Americans.

The orchard had special significance given the country’s history. Trees are a problem for anyone trying to dominate the landscape, and as a result, the Taliban and marauding foreign armies have cut down many trees and vineyards in Afghanistan. The survival of these olive trees seemed both a wise aesthetic choice and an early example of effective COIN. I was told that years earlier, when the base had been built, local Afghans made coalition forces promise not to cut down the orchard in return for the right to use the land. Someone else told me that a powerful governor of Khost had helped plant the trees as a boy, and would be particularly offended if they were touched. No one had cared for the trees in a long time, but now an agricultural outreach team of Indiana National Guard troops had begun pruning back their limbs to spur new growth. In the shade of the olive trees, the agriculture specialists, many of them farmers back home, planted test beds to showcase drip irrigation, and an Indiana goat farmer tried to increase the offspring of a brown and white nanny goat by raising the protein level in her feed.

The mosque was another anomaly. I’d never seen a mosque on a U.S. base before, and I never saw an American step inside this one, though an American had been instrumental in restoring it. It had a portico and tall windows covered with white curtains, and because it was so big and painted bright blue, it stood out. It had been renovated in 2007 at the impetus of the first-ever Human Terrain Team, a group of social scientists embedded with the military whose original membership in Khost included a U.S. Army Reserve major from Nebraska (and practicing Muslim) named Bob Holbert. The mosque had been Bob’s project. Before it was a mosque, it had been a holding cell for the military police. When Bob’s team arrived in the winter of 2007, the mosque was badly in need of repair. The paint had faded, a line of Port-A-Potties stood 10 feet away and the roof leaked where an insurgent’s rocket had pierced it.

At the time, rockets were fired into Salerno so often that it became known as “Rocket City.” Bob hoped that restoring the mosque would not only please Afghans working on the base, but also counter the insurgent’s claims about the callousness of Americans and help cut down on rocket attacks. So they enlisted a local mullah’s support (he granted approval for American boots tramping around in the mosque during the repairs) and found funding somewhere in the U.S. civil-military maze (complicated, because by law, most U.S. government money can’t be used for repairs to religious institutions). Working together, Afghans and Americans fixed the roof, put in new windows and shelving and repainted the building. When I visited Salerno, an Afghan interpreter told me that they weren’t allowed to broadcast the call to prayer from the mosque. This was because “there is only one giant voice allowed on the FOB,” the chief public affairs officer on base told me, and that’s the voice of the American base controllers, who use an amplified sound system to issue security commands and warn of controlled bomb explosions. Nor were the Afghans allowed to bring in an imam to preach, apparently for security reasons, so Afghan workers filled the role informally. Despite these restrictions, Afghans gravitated to the mosque, gathering outside during their lunch breaks. They prayed there, both civilians and soldiers, leaving their shoes on the gravel. One day, I tiptoed onto the porch and peered into the big prayer room, with its cushions and carpets on the floor. I left quickly, not wanting to intrude. American soldiers, too, gave the mosque a wide berth, seemingly out of respect.

When Bob and the others started renovating the mosque, the rocket attacks on the base subsided. For an entire month, he told me, the fields were silent. Word of the mosque project was giving the insurgents pause, Bob thought. Who knew what building, holy or profane, they would hit if they fired a rocket or mortar onto the base now? But the silence didn’t last. Rocket attacks became commonplace again, and shortly after I arrived at Salerno this winter, in the middle of the night, three mortars landed inside the base. Sirens sounded, and I spent an hour and a half in a chilly concrete bunker in the small hours of the morning, talking to a young Army specialist a few weeks from returning home about the challenge he anticipated in mastering his son’s napping and feeding schedules. When the guys in the guard posts caught sight of some men crouching in the fields, they hit them with a 50-calibre machine gun, which is not a weapon that an insurgent in sandals wants to encounter at 3 am in a field, or really at any other time. The 50-cal was designed as an anti-aircraft weapon. When fired from the air at a target on the ground, it makes an unmistakable sonic th-th-th-thudding noise that sounds like a giant stamping out an insect with the heel of his boot. The only thing more fearsome to hear in the Afghan countryside is a howitzer, which sounds like the end of the world. It travels over mountains, hills and rivers, many miles, into a village in another district. Conceptually, this doesn’t make sense in Afghanistan, where men still travel by donkey. On the night of the mortar attack, the men in the fields fired back with AK-47s. Sitting in the bunker, I thought it sounded like a conversation, albeit a lopsided one. Because that’s what war is, after all: a conversation between belligerents whose main language is violence.

Big bases are, by definition, anathema to effective counterinsurgency. Soldiers at smaller ones are either more exposed, and thus more focused on self-defense and less effective in their use of soft power; or more at home in the landscape, like the Marines I’d visited at a little base in Nawa, near the Helmand River, who bought chickens in the local bazaar, cooked over campfires nearly every night and were the most effective counterinsurgents I’d ever seen. But for a big base, Salerno wasn’t bad, and this was mainly because leaving the base for Afghanistan didn’t feel like an interplanetary voyage. Even inside the wire, you could see and feel and taste what was good about the country as well as what was dangerous about the war. And if you ever forgot where you were, y'Allah was there, on the mountainside high above, to remind you.

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