Few dates generate as much apprehension among coalition forces in Afghanistan as Sept. 11. Twelve years after the searing trauma from which the international mandate in Afghanistan emerged, the approaching anniversary still sharpens one’s focus on potential threats — which feel more imminent than normal: a dust trail approaching from the horizon, a discoloration on the road surface, a motorbike speeding through traffic, a sideways glance and a hand in a pocket.
Even in Herat, in the more verdant and calm western portion of Afghanistan where I’ll be stationed for the next few months, one finds little relaxation in the date’s taut expectations. Impassively, the citadel of Alexander the Great stands over the city he conquered 2,300 years ago, having watched waves of invaders crest and recede over the centuries, unsympathetic to passing dangers to transient armies.
So when gunfire erupted around the city the evening of Sept. 11, it seemed obvious that the worst potentials of the day had come to pass. A sprint to our building’s secure overwatch position, body armor over my shoulder and weapon on my hip, left me breathless but ready to make an attack on our compound as costly to an approaching enemy as possible.
Fortunately, the only cost of the sprint was to my pride. Looking out at the city, I saw that the tracer-lit gunfire all arced skyward. In the 97th minute of the South Asian Football Federation Championship, the Afghan national team had secured a 2-0 win over India, earning the nation’s first international soccer title and uniting the country in celebration not seen since long before the Taliban had banned sporting events and transformed soccer stadiums into execution arenas.
In Herat, the hometown of several national soccer stars, in downtown Taraqi Park — rebuilt in partnership between the city government and the Italian military — men embraced, danced, waved the Afghan national flag and fired anything that could brighten the night sky.
As the celebration continued, it seemed like the project of rebuilding an Afghan identity had taken a tremendous step forward, one that justified the sacrifices of the last decade. That warm night, it felt like the fever of violence, exerting such a tight grip on Afghanistan since before Sept. 11, was breaking.
The car horns and celebratory gunfire continued late into the night, and I put away my body armor with a sense of exhilaration.
A bit more than 24 hours later, I awoke on Friday morning to pounding on my door. I looked out my window to see a huge plume of smoke rising above downtown Herat. I grabbed my body armor, running again, and emerged into the early morning sunlight to hear that the U.S. Consulate, where a significant portion of our development planning is done in downtown Herat, had been struck by two vehicle-borne IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and was under direct fire.
For the remainder of the morning we watched helicopters overhead racing reinforcements to the U.S. State Department compound and carrying wounded back to a nearby coalition base for medical care. We aimed our weapons outward, waiting for the next attack.
The attack on the consulate, like the Afghan soccer victory and so much of what happens here, did not stay long in American news. Optimistically, the lack of coverage stemmed from the attack being largely unsuccessful, thwarted by effective consulate security and excellent response from the Afghan National Security Forces. In reality, perhaps many simply no longer want to be reminded of the effort here.
As I put my body armor away that afternoon, a bit burned by the heat of the Herati sun, the sense of exhilaration for any advances had dried up, replaced with disbelief that time here makes much difference. Why waste time cheering for the Afghan soccer team when I could be rooting for the Ducks back in Eugene? Why find my joy in the celebrations of a foreign city seemingly so hostile to our presence when I could find joy in the welcoming arms of loved ones back home?
Such questions are always fleeting in the military, subsumed by the next task at hand. On Saturday, business continued as usual. One of our task force’s main efforts in Herat, assisting local businesses in increasing their distribution reach, seemed all the more vital as damage to the U.S. Consulate forced other development-focused personnel to depart for Kabul.
The day took us to an agricultural processing facility to evaluate and discuss export opportunities for the company’s almonds, pine nuts and chickpeas in the United States and worldwide.
Walking through the facility, surrounded by bags of produce harvested in the province’s fertile countryside, spinning conveyer belts wrapping pounds of almonds into neat plastic bags for sale in local and international markets and by Afghan women sorting chickpeas into containers varying by degree of quality, I realized that progress in Afghanistan is not accurately measured by excited sprints, either in good times or in bad.
Instead, the progress can be measured in patient, enduring efforts — observed in each successful harvest, in each shipment marked “Made in Afghanistan” boxed and ready for export and in each of the 30 men and women I met who collect a paycheck at the end of the month.
The temptation to look to quick, exciting sprints to judge our effort here, as well as elsewhere in this part of the world, is seductive, but that process is dangerously dependent on good fortune and vulnerable to enemy action. To effectively measure the difference made in the lives of the Afghan people, and thus the enduring success of the coalition effort, it is better to measure it in the separation of chickpeas. That difference will certainly never make the news back in the U.S., and one wonders if it is enough after 12 years, but it makes all the difference in the lives of the people I have encountered here.