Richard Reeves

Why We Are in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON -- Things do not look so easy in Afghanistan these days, do they? It's not that we are not winning the battles, such as they are. We are. We will win all the "battles" before we lose this war.

I know no more about what is happening there than anyone else who listens to Donald Rumsfeld explain things every day. No American reporters, or very few, do. The whole idea of the press campaign being waged rather effectively by the Pentagon is to keep reporters from the truth, or to be more accurate, the facts. U.S. officers have already pulled guns on reporters and threatened to shoot them if they took another step in the direction of the fighting.

The reporters closest to the scene of recent fighting have been generally restricted to Bagram Air Base, American headquarters north of Kabul. The best they can do, more or less, is ask a few questions of soldiers returning from the latest mountain bombing and shooting and body-counting.

But the soldiers being "made available" to the press -- and that is the term of art -- do not know what is going on either, except for the fact that they don't like people shooting at them and are obviously up for the fight with whoever is actually hiding in the caves and crannies of land that seems totally barren to us. One conclusion you could draw is that commanders can no longer explain to their men what they are fighting for.

The quotes coming back home, the voices of our men at war, more and more indicate that they have not really been briefed or persuaded about their role in all this. They have been briefed and equipped to fight, and seem to be doing it very well -- heroically, in fact -- but do they actually know why?

The best story I have read of arranged (or allowed) interviews was by Barry Bearak in The New York Times on March 12. The most amazing quote he recorded was from Pvt. Drew Alan Ramm of Fort Worth, Texas, a fine young man I'm sure, who came back from action and said: "These people here must like fighting for fighting's sake. Because there sure isn't anything here worth fighting for ..."

No, only their homes, their families and their way of life. Whatever Pvt. Ramm and I might think, they may love it because it is theirs; it was their fathers' and their grandfathers' back into the mists of time. Our ignorance can be astounding. I am not talking about Osama bin Laden, a rich Saudi, when I say that the people Ramm is talking about have been there for thousands of years, and they will still be there long after we have gone. I wonder if they think there is anything worth fighting for in Fort Worth?

Pvt. Adam Murphy of Van Lear, Ky., came back calling them cowards, saying: "I think they're wimps. They come out of the caves for a split second, hit you as hard as they can and then run back in. What kind of fighting is that?" It is the kind, almost word for word, that British soldiers complained about in April of 1775 when American farmers shot at them from behind the trees and rocks along the roads from Concord to Boston.

Bearak overheard a conversation between two sergeants. Joseph Noven of Valparaiso, Ind., said, "I don't understand this whole jihad, holy war thing. What does it mean?" Robert Balderaz of San Antonio answered: "They don't care if they die, that's what jihad is. They'll kill 10 of themselves just to kill one of us. It's really messed up."

Sgt. Paul Dominguez of Hillside, N.J., added: "They won't give up no matter how many bombs you drop. They're not right in the head. Obviously, they don't think the way normal people think."

Perhaps not. Perhaps that is why our planes are now dropping leaflets saying: "The Coalition forces are trying to restore peace and calm in our land. Please assist them."

But we do not seem yet to know who we are talking to, fighting with or fighting against. It may be that we have done as much as we can with as little damage as we could, and the time has come to declare victory and get out of there. Let the Afghans see if they can restore the peace and calm they have seldom known over the centuries. That is where they belong.

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