Michael's Dispatches

Compounds

28 Comments

From the sky: Typical Afghan compound.01 October 2008
Mazar i Sharif, Afghanistan

Some days ago I visited the bazaar at Jalalabad, and took a bunch of colorful photographs and met many friendly people.  Walking through Jalalabad, one could almost forget there was a war.  But for the most part, this war is today being fought not in the cities, but the villages and small family compounds where most Afghanis live.

Urban counterinsurgency can be incredibly dangerous, yet the population has a common life.  City dwellers are dependent on civil services like water, sewage and electricity; they often have specialized roles in complex economies.  Their feelings and opinions form a political aggregate which both the democrat and terrorist must heed.   These elements of common life give the urban population a center of gravity which can reach a tipping point and shift, either toward the insurgent or the government.  In Iraq, most people live in cities or towns.  When the center of gravity in certain communities began shifting against Al Qaeda and other groups, the shifts had a profound impact on the war.  Also, Iraq, as Afghanistan, has powerful tribes which can behave like “voting blocs.”  Often they vote with bullets.

In Afghanistan, the cities are mostly won (for now), despite terrorist attacks that are often planned and supplied from militants in Pakistan.  For instance, I am today in Mazar i Sharif and have been going all over the city for several days with zero dramas.  I will not hesitate to walk on the street or go to restaurants.  The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming.  In places like Jalalabad and Mazar i Sharif, it’s easy to see why so many foreigners, including Americans, tend to like Afghans.  And even if the city dwellers are just as disgusted with the Afghan government’s corruption and our serial mistakes as an occupying power, it’s not so easy for them to turn away from the government, which they rely upon for so much.  Rural Afghans, by comparison, are much more autonomous, both logistically and in spirit, though so far I am finding most of them to be very hospitable.  These are the people that Taliban are bringing over to their side, either by sympathy, threats, or some combination of factors.  Just some days ago I was without the military very close to where the 10 French soldiers were killed near Sarobi.  I talked with men from the village of Speer Kundy, just near where the soldiers died.  I also obtained video and photos of Taliban wearing the French uniforms and carrying the French weapons.  Out of respect for the French, I have no plans to publish this material.  One of the men told me that the Taliban were trying to capture some of the French, who kept fighting after they were wounded, so the Taliban killed them.  Others were captured then killed.  The villagers said they hate the Taliban (though I am nearly certain that at least one man was Taliban), and they hate the Coalition.  They didn’t seem to have anything against the French, or the Americans.  They just want to be left alone.  But they also said that about half of the Taliban who fought the French were foreigners.  I talked with the men in the middle of bad-guy country, and their phones kept ringing.  They clearly have much outside contact.

If we’re going to win this war, we will have to win over the rural Afghans.  One compound at a time.

An old friend of mine has an airplane in Afghanistan, and I’ve hitched a few rides with him.  On one trip, I took aerial photos of compounds in Helmand Province, between Camp Bastion and Lashkar Gah.

Compounds vary in different regions, but many families and extended families live within compound walls.

Large compounds in the seeming middle of nowhere.

Some compounds are abandoned, and only the walls remain.

Small farmers eke out a precarious existence.

Afghanistan is a living museum.

The compounds are part of the landscape.

According to some estimates, nationwide the literacy rate is just over 25 percent, and much lower in these rural areas.  But again, I’m finding on the ground, the folks tend to be very friendly even when I don’t have a gun, and there are no soldiers around.

Many Taliban grow up in compounds like this.  The word “Taliban” can be a vague term, used to describe local insurgents, foreign jihadists and everything in between.  A man with a gun is generally called Taliban.  But a civilian security expert named Tim Lynch told me that if a man is wearing tennis shoes, he’s mostly likely Taliban of some sort.  Sure enough, in the videos and photos of Taliban wearing French gear and carrying their weapons, most of the Taliban were wearing tennis shoes.

Compounds are small fortresses that offer the Afghans scant protection from the forces of history.

Sometimes several families live together to form a large compound or small village.

Water is wealth in this arid land.

Anybody home?

Several compounds grouped along the same road and irrigation canal.

Isolated from other habitations, a lone compound makes an inviting target for an airstrike when enemy are believed present.  We greatly depend on airstrikes due to lack of ISAF and Afghan soldiers.  Yet civilian casualties are turning the locals against us. The men from the village where the French soldiers were killed, told me that airstrikes had accidentally killed about 200 animals, including 27 cows, and they were never compensated.  I do not know if the numbers are accurate, but I sensed the men were being truthful that animals were killed.  They said four people from a nearby village were killed from an airstrike during the fighting, and they gave specifics which made me think they were likely telling the truth.  The men also said they liked the French and the Americans before the fighting, but they hate us now.

These and the next compounds almost qualify as a city.

The compounds are made of mud mixed with straw, unbaked and left to dry in the sun.

Still in use, or ruins?

Irrigation provides water to this parched patch of earth.  Americans built substantial irrigation here in southern Afghanistan in past decades.

These compounds offer a strong contrast to large American houses with front lawns ringed by picket fences.  The people who live in these compounds might seem very different from us, but they want basically the same things:  to earn a living and raise their families. But yet again, the Afghan people are caught in the crucible of history, and their homes are battlefields.  War is part of the character of many of these people.  They are not all innocent victims.  The ones I am meeting are very friendly, but fighting is life to them.  Afghanistan is a primitive patch of Earth.  By comparison, Iraq is very developed and modern.  Still, it’s easy to see why so many westerners like Afghan people.  They can make you feel welcome, so long as you aren’t shooting at them.

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    john galt · 10 years ago
    "But a civilian security expert named Tim Lynch told me that if a man is wearing tennis shoes, heƒ??s mostly likely Taliban of some sort."

    Pretty hard to run and fight in sandals or flip-flops. Basic preparation for fighting.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Beverly · 10 years ago
    I was in Lakeland on Saturday and stopped by the frame studio to see your photos. Striking. I especially liked the onesw of the children and "Make Way for Ducklings." I hope you have much success with this. While there, I bought a copy of your book.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Carol · 10 years ago
    All of this is fascinating. Is there any chance of saying who you're talking to, so, gender, what level of education/year they reached, what their age is, job? I'd LOVE to know what the under 20s think as I bet that contrasts with the older people - ha! over 35, that is.
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    Solo · 10 years ago
    Those pics could easily be aerial photos from here in N.M. Long talks I've had with a friend from Kabul sound like we grew up just down the road from each other. Wish I could be with you to visit some of those villages.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Steve Burnett · 10 years ago
    Michael,

    once more the lonely voice of truth form out in the willy wags.

    Hopefully, the lessons from General Petraeus have been hammered home to the powers that be.

    But this appears to be a long drawn out process, and very different from Iraq.

    Keep the faith brother, and as always...

    check 6

    semper fi
  • This commment is unpublished.
    The Thunder Run · 10 years ago
    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 10/02/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

    http://thunderrun.blogspot.com/2008/10/from-front-10022008.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Haole Wahine · 10 years ago
    "pretty hard to run and fight in sandals or flip-flops."

    To quote Marcus Luttrell, several times: "I'm a pretty fit guy, but here I am, humping up some mountain, huffing and puffing, and these local guys run past me, and on over the crest. And he's wearing some kind of sandals ! "
  • This commment is unpublished.
    haptiK · 10 years ago
    Can we assume NIKE will be releasing the Air Osama's any time soon?

    :-)
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Adam R. · 10 years ago
    Michael,

    You continue to capture the humanity and way of life in the distant places that we send our soldiers to. I pray that we can, as you say, win over the hearts and minds of those rural Afghans who live in compounds. Keep up the good work!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ronster · 10 years ago
    Interesting altitude. At first I thought the shots were you taking off or landing, but then noticed they are all about that same altitude. Wondering if that is mandated or just so you could get some good pics?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Stephan · 10 years ago
    Michael,
    I've got to say this is one of my favorite posts. The thing I take from your photos and writing is that these conflicts are somewhere real. It's hard to picture the difficulties our soldiers and allies face in a far off land. Looking at these compounds gives everyone an idea why the fighting is as precarious as it is. The difference between friend and foe is the inhabitants. Now if we could just get the Predator to positively ID shoe styles....

    Keep up the great work!!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Dee Peterson · 10 years ago
    My father was in the Air Force and when I was 5 (1960) we lived in Turkey. At that time, People lived much the same way in the rural areas. I actually remember a lot! I'm sure Turkey was much more westernized, due to our presence there. These pictures are fascinating! I'm wondering if some of the compounds are really bunkers with living quarters underground? I so appreciate your work, Mike. My Army Sgt son recently arrived back in Iraq for his 2nd tour and it was your posts that helped me survive the first tour! However; more than that - your work helps me to understand not only what our soldiers are up against and what the conditions are but also the people of those countries; their history; their culture; their hearts and what we need to do to win their hearts and thereby win the battles and ultimately, these wars. It also helps me to understand the enemy somewhat, if that is at all possible! Your accounting is the only one that I trust and you and your work there is as important to the good people and the government of this country as that of our Generals and military personnel there! Godspeed, Michael.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Old Blue · 10 years ago
    I've got some photos that aren't nearly as good from my rare flights into and out of J-bad and Bagram. On the ground, my ANP and I searched many of them during cordon and search operations in the Tag Ab Valley, just north of Surobi. It's 1387 now on their calendar, and many times I would look around and think that the date on their calendar was more accurate than the date on ours.

    Great photos, great musings, great impressions. I agree so much with your thoughts on all of this. Keep up the good work, wish I could be there writing about it as well. I'm still telling tales from last year.

    Stay safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    wally · 10 years ago
    i'm always interesed in how other people build thier homes and such. thanks
  • This commment is unpublished.
    CountryTek · 10 years ago
    Michael,

    Found your page from a contributor link at SurvivalBlog (http://www.survivalblog.com).

    Very interesting photos. I noted similar farm compounds near the West/East border when I was stationed in Germany during the Cold War. Yeah, they're little use against armor, air or artillery, but country folk tend to have long memories, and they probably figure the same thing I do -- when truly hard times come, it's best to close the gate, hunker down, and hope the world and its events will pass you by. Main change I would make over both European and Asian configurations would be to NOT site them right on a road (or canal), but, of course, that luxury is limited by the amount of land available to you. Better a compound on the road than a wide open farmstead on the road.

    Thank you for sharing this! I'll take a look at your book. I'm WAY behind in my reading, but it may be worth popping onto the stacks.

    Richard
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Juan · 10 years ago
    Great post Mike! Is that one of Blackwater's planes?
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Chris Pugrud · 10 years ago
    During our 9 months in Bagram, my wife and I spent a lot of time with the French Military and were more than impressed with their hospitality and companionship. We ended up leaving Bagram at the same time as the French, who pulled out for the friendlier bases around Kabul. I'm getting ready to head back to Bagram and looking forward to resuming my friendships with Afghanis, Poles, Germans, and American soldiers, as well as my fellow contractors.

    Keep safe!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    N3m!s!s · 10 years ago
    May I remind you that Afghanistan like Iraq, is a country that the US with its stooge allies invaded in an act of premeditated, illegal and unprovoked aggression.

    The Afghani people do not want alien foreign occupiers without respect for human life or any culture in their country.

    One hopes that the US economy collapses soon, and that this will cause a massive rolling back of US arrogance and influence in the world.

    i hope one day you face the retribution as a nation led by war criminals that you richly deserve.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Noliving · 10 years ago
    Care to explain to me how the Afghanistan war is illegal?

    Juan, he says that the plane belongs to an old friend of his which means it isn't blackwaters plane.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Greg Hostettler · 10 years ago
    Michael: I found the Afghans very hospitable and friendly. I remember one time when we got out of Jalalabad proper and visited a village that had a large and beautiful mosque. A large number of boys and men gathered around us and were very friendly. We had a good chat with them. The Imam of the mosque gave us a tour. As you said, they just want what most of us want: a roof over there, food for their family and chance for their kids to have something better.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mikey Lee · 10 years ago
    Michael, you are a man of action providing us with the info the men of ideals will not. Thank you sir.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Tom Harrington · 10 years ago
    When in a discussion, it is best to come in and see what you learn, how accurate that knowledge is, how that compares to what you already know and if you are going to assimilate that into your opinion or if you are going to discard some or all if it.

    If it is not like that, then it is not a discussion, it is a debate. If American loving people keep getting debate and hateful comments during discussion, it is likely that the majority of us will write you and your words off. Instead of multiple opinions, to two sides where at least one of the sides hate the other.

    It is my opinion that will make having more than one opinion on issues will then go from healthy to disastrous and then how will we continue to have checks and balances? A divided people is not healthy and makes it hard for any of us to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Thank you Michael for everything that you do.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Alvin Lucier · 8 years ago
    "The Afghani people do not want alien foreign occupiers without respect for human life or any culture in their country. " Actually support for the American [and UK] military presence in Afghanistan, amongst Afghans, runs at about 68%(http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/8448930.stm). So actually the vast majority of them DO want 'Western' troops there, because it means they have a measurably better life than they did under the Taliban.
  • This commment is unpublished.
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