A pair of Afghan helicopters swoop down onto a farmer’s field in Mahageer, outside the city of Bagram, and disgorge squads of Afghan commandos carrying free radios and school supplies for local residents. It’s only a training event, with a small humanitarian component, but its narrow scope belies the mission’s importance—it is one of the first times that Afghan soldiers and pilots have worked together on an operation planned by Afghan officers, with no NATO input.
In Salang, the capital of Parwan Province just north of Bagram, a US Army patrol, part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force, arrives for a visit with Gov. Abdul Basir Salangi. In February, Salang suffered a devastating series of avalanches that killed nearly 200 people. NATO helped Afghan forces rescue thousands of people from the snow. Now the Americans want to know what Salangi is doing to prevent such huge death tolls in future disasters. What they learn is perhaps both unsurprising, and deeply discouraging.
And at a village just a few hundred yards from the NATO airfield in Bagram, another US patrol is looking for a man with a plan. Col. Marion Peterson, an Army agricultural expert, has come to put the finishing touches on a plan to build an irrigation system for the village’s parched vineyards. He sits down with a man named Wali, a medical doctor and farmer who also serves as the village’s chief engineer. Peterson is pleasantly surprised when Dr. Wali presents him with a fat stack of paperwork—everything the Army will need to secure foreign funding and local contractors for the irrigation project. It’s a rare display of what the Americans call ‘ownership.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The three events, all of which took place in the span of ten days in mid-March, illustrate a profound problem in Afghanistan, as well as the best solutions for it. They’re also indicative of a wider issue that arises whenever foreign powers attempt to boost developing or war-torn societies—broadly, how do wealthy nations assist poor or war-torn countries without turning them into permanent dependants? And in Afghanistan’s case, this means the question is how can NATO help prepare Afghan society to look after itself, so that NATO can declare victory and leave?
There were just two Americans aboard the Afghan helicopters for their air assault into Mahageer. US Maj. Todd Harrell was there to escort an American reporter covering the mission. Harrell, normally a media-relations specialist for US Special Forces, had volunteered to help out with news coverage of the commando training because, he said, it was an important story. Fully Afghan from beginning to end, the commando event underscores the real progress the Afghan army is making towards full self-sufficiency. That’s a clear prerequisite for the departure of foreign forces.
After the March mission, Harrell follows some commandos into a Bagram chow hall for lunch where he describes the pride the commandos take in their designation. To demonstrate, Harrell addresses a trooper. ‘Hey, commando,’ he says. The Afghan smiles widely, still flush with confidence from the day’s training.