Michael's Dispatches

Afghan Lunacy

[This dispatch was written by me in December 2008 in southern Afghanistan. It was never published though I recently found it in the unpublished archives. The photos came from the same period.]

Published: from Nepal on 14 October 2009

On May 25, 1961, the President of the United States of America said:

“Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides—time for a great new American enterprise—time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

And thanks to bold and visionary leadership, the collective intelligence, courage and commitment of Americans from coast to coast, America had seemed to achieve little more than a stunning list of public failures on the way to space. Our rockets exploded on the launch pad. In the air. Burned up on reentry. Or disappeared into solar orbit. But our grandparents never allowed us to be defined by our faults or failures; only how we greeted adversity. Failure after failure after failure. We got up and launched again, into failure. Fine astronauts were lost. And yet today, in 2008, after a dozen Americans have walked on the moon, citizens from no other nation have managed to land on the lunar surface. What inspiration kept the people at NASA going, when their early years were marked seemingly only by failure? The scientists, engineers and space pilots were living the American dream, not a dream of mere perfection, but of valiant and worthwhile effort. President Theodore Roosevelt said in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

And so I write these words from Afghanistan, as a grandchild of many great men and women who built “America” and bequeathed it to us. The challenges facing us in Afghanistan, and this region in general, are monumental. We have been failing in Afghanistan. We have been losing the war. But losing does not mean lost. Failing does not mean failed. Yet if we are to succeed in this endeavor, we must be realistic that putting people on the moon was more straightforward than lifting Afghanistan from the stone ages.


“Taming” this land and its human inhabitants into a civilized country will require great investments in time, resources, imagination and intelligence. Bringing Afghanistan out of the Stone Age is not a decade-long project; we are already seven years into the war, and it’s only getting worse. Some people say it will take two generations, but more realistically, a century will be needed. Afghanistan is not Iraq. This is a very primitive, almost lunar place. Yes, cocktail party correspondents can surf their way through meetings in Jalalabad, or Kabul, or Mazar-i-Sharif, and come home with reports of success. But they are wrong. And the counterinsurgency “experts” who come here on short trips, and fly home to America or Britain with poison dripping from their lips, spitting words that we are winning, are doing Great Britain, the United States, and our allies a great disservice. Those who came to Afghanistan with open eyes and open minds, and who are not afraid to jeopardize access or careers by reporting truth, will have clearly reported by early 2006 that we were losing ground here. Who are these “experts” who didn’t see this thing for what it was, early on? And now even in 2008, some people bring home messages that this place is not as bad as it really is. Yes, it’s true that we lost but one U.S. soldier to combat in Afghanistan in November of 2008, but we should not let this number confuse us. The Af-Pak war has great potential to devolve into something far worse than what we saw in Iraq. The “experts” who did not sound the alarm by at least 2006, that Afghanistan by then clearly was slipping through our fingers, are no more useful than a fire alarm with dead batteries. A fire alarm with dead batteries is far worse than merely useless. Let the counterinsurgency “experts” step forward, and show us that they put to writing several years ago what is today obvious. We need to know who to listen to, and who to ignore.


We can succeed in Afghanistan, but we cannot pretend this will ever be the Sea of Tranquility.


Our new President will need to demonstrate wisdom and resolve in dealing with Af-Pak. The peril might not yet be obvious, but the consequences are far too grave to ignore. Enemies of humanity are trying to pull India and Pakistan into war. Ignorance is their primary weapon, and Afghanistan is merely one battlefront. Most of these kids will remain illiterate, and the children of their children likely will not be able to read. Even if they were literate, there are few books available in languages such as Dari or Pashto. This kid in Zabul Province is already lost. Afghanistan will be doing well to get his sons and daughters into a school, but more realistically it will be his grandchildren that might first be reached. We must be realistic. America did not succeed in putting people on the moon by hiring mathematicians who could not expertly use the slide rule or correctly perform the math. America succeeded in part by hiring the best mathematicians, along with the best scientists and engineers of all sorts, who possessed powerful intellects, realistic imaginations, and a volatile intolerance for anything less than pure truth. They didn’t drink anyone’s Kool-Aid.

And so President Kennedy said, “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.” And they kept pushing through a painful series of dramatic failures, until, within that same decade, in 1969, the first words spoken from a man on the moon came beamed home to earth:

“Tranquility base here, the Eagle has landed.”

And soon astronaut Neil Armstrong was stepping off the ladder, and he said, “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”

Hard never meant impossible.


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