There are very few things I remember from my high school biology class. I remember learning something about a mitochondria being the powerhouse of a cell. Shortly after, I remember trying to perfect falling asleep with my eyes open. I remember thinking, “Dude, I’m an Indian…aren’t I genetically inclined to be a doctor or something? Shouldn’t this stuff be easy?” Biology was hard for me. I often found myself day dreaming in class, browsing through the iconic photographs hanging on the classroom walls. Most distinctly, I remember the picture above Dr. Kowalski’s desk. It was a black and white photo of a chimpanzee lifting up the shirt of an attractive blonde. Of course, any hormonal 16 year old would think that image is absolutely awesome, but there was indeed a deeper significance at work.
The photograph was an advertisement for Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. The woman in that famous photo was Jane Goodall. The chimpanzee was one of the many specimens she studied as a part of her research. She lived in their natural habitat. She observed their interactions. She documented their every movement to discover the cognitive links between man and monkey. Although, as I recall this photograph, I can’t help but wonder…”Who was really studying who?”
Less than a month ago, Attack Company of 2-1 Infantry moved to a joint combat outpost (COP) with the Afghan National Army. Each day, we live, eat, and work with the men who will hopefully secure this nation one day. The meager conditions of the COP are demoralizing. There are no showers, no running water, no heat, no electricity, and no light. While the conditions just plain suck, I find the move a necessary sacrifice…this is our best opportunity to observe the ANA in its natural habitat. It’s our best chance to truly understand them; perhaps more importantly, it’s their best chance to understand us.
I spent the past two weeks on our new ANA COP as the only American officer on the ground. I thus became the default liaison to the ANA Battalion Commander, his staff, and the local tribal leaders. As one who never shies away from an ego stroke, I embraced the opportunity to flex my diplomatic muscle.
“Gud Moornee!” I heard in a distant cry. I turned around to find a thickly bearded Afghan officer approaching me with the biggest smile I’d ever seen in this country. “Me Intelligence…you Amelican…No Problem!” he yelled.
“Asalaamu Alaykum…Tumku Urdu atha hai?” I asked in Urdu to test our cultural link.
“Ah, you speak Urdu!? Are you not American? How do you know this language?” He replied in Urdu.
“I was born in India, but now live in America. What is your–”
“Hindustani!” He cried out before I could finish my sentence. Immediately, a swarm of Afghan Tajik soldiers surrounded me from all directions. They yelled excitedly in combinations of Urdu and Dari. Some grabbed cell phones, loaded their playlist of Bollywood music videos, and forced them in front of my face. I was bombarded with all kinds of questions in Urdu.
“Wait, you are American? But you are not white!”
“Are you an officer? Does that mean you are rich?”
“Are you a General?”
“Are you a Christian? Are you Muslim? Have you seen the movie Guyal?”
“Chai! We must have chai!” The Battalion Intelligence officer finally broke the madness. He swatted away the hoard of young soldiers and walked me to the officer’s parlor in the command post.
The parlor was heated with a wooden stove. Twin sized mattresses lined the walls. They doubled as both couches and beds for the staff to sleep on at night. I sat down comfortably across from the Afghan intelligence officer, whose name I still didn’t know. Across the hallway, I could hear the battalion’s radio operator screaming at the top of his lungs to communicate with the subordinate companies. I could hear him switching between Dari and Pashtu depending on the ethnicity of the soldier on the other line.
“Vat is yur nam!” he yelled to me at the top of his lungs. I don’t know if he was trying to emphasize the few English words he knew, or if he was actually tone deaf.
“My name is Rajiv, apka nam kya hai?” I tried reverting to Urdu to win back our cultural ground.
“I am Nasrollah,” he shouted in English, “I am Captain Intelligence!” I chuckled to hide my frustration. We had lots of work to do and serious issues to discuss as our units combined efforts. Unfortunately, Captain Intelligence over here didn’t want to do anything but use me as his English punching bag. Whatever. I could tell it was a sign of respect. He was the one trying to build a cultural bridge to me; not the other way around. I sipped a little chai, nodded courteously, and did what I could to bear through the broken small talk. Our professional discourse was obviously going on the back burner this afternoon…such is the story of Afghanistan.
When I finally broke free from Captain Nasrollah’s grip and stepped outside, the sky was already dark with a few residual orange streaks from the Kandahar sunset. I was tired. I put my hands in my pockets, shuffled my feet, and tried to fall into a pensive moment to myself—
“Sir!” Called out Private Hoff, “Hey, can we get you and the terp over here? Some of the ANA soldiers are inviting us in their hooch.”
I looked down with a modest grin, “Of course. Let’s do it.” Nothing made me happier than knowing my soldiers were actually excited to interact with their Afghan counterparts. Hoff led me to the edge of a cement compound where SGTs Coolie, Bernie , and Koontz waited for us.
“Kya-le Bhai!? Kya badth hai?!” I heard someone yelling from inside the compound. “What’s up my brother!” Immediately, the same swarm of excited ANA soldiers emerged from the structure, grabbed each of us by the arm, and pulled us into their humble home.
The interior of the compound was lit only by candles. The cement insulated the toxic smoke from the wooden stove sitting in the middle of the room, warming us from the outside cold. The ANA soldiers passed around cups of chai. They made a deliberate effort to serve me first, “Dah be Bridman!” They chanted…”This is for the Lieutenant!” Old Hindi movie songs played in the background as small circles formed between the American and Afghan soldiers in the room…one interpreter serviced all four conversations.
“C-O-O-L-I-E…Coolie!” SGT Coolie tried to explain his name to Ajmal, an Afghan soldier.
“Is that like cold? You are cold? I can get you jacket!” replied Ajmal.
“No it’s my name!” Coolie laughed.
In another corner, I could see Hoff discovering the wonders of an English-Pashtu dictionary as he sporadically pointed to random parts of his body and called out the Pashtu translation. A circle of three ANA soldiers giggled as they corrected the southern draw in his pronunciation.
“Lieutenant Rajiv!” called one of the soldiers with a bright smile in Dari, “How much money do you make!” My interpreter relayed.
“Shh!” cried his friend, “Don’t be so rude, Rashid!”
“What?! He is Indian, he doesn’t care about rude. C’mon, Agha!”
“But he’s a Lieutenant! Show some damn respect!” Agha replied, sincerely worried I’d be offended and leave the gathering.
“No it’s alright,” I began slowly, “As a Lieutenant, I make abo—“
“So do you have a girlfriend in America?” interrupted Rashid, deciding that his previous question was no longer important. “You have just one? How many girlfriends do you have? I heard in America you can have many girlfriends.”
“No that’s stupid, Rashid,” Agha scolded.
“Oh, I know many Americans can have sex…have you had sex with American girl?!”
“Rashid! Bismilallah!” Agha slapped his friend on the face, “By the name of God! You’re embarrassing yourself!”
I sat quietly in the corner of the room as Agha and Rashid debated which rules of courtesy they’d adhere to in our talks. I overlooked my soldiers laughing and joking with their new Afghan friends as many of their predispositions of the Afghan people melted away. They compared their knives and multi-tools. They arranged trades of patches and currency. The Afghans offered their tea and sweets while the Americans shared their cigarettes and chewing gum.
On a sentimental level, I was proud of my men. Even in the most trying year of their life, they still had enough humanity in their spirits to find common ground with these strangers. On an academic level, I felt much like a psychologist observing a social experiment. I felt something like a Jane Goodall observing the behaviors of a strange being in its natural habitat. In this case, the being was not a chimp; it wasn’t a soldier nor a group of the like…rather, the being I studied was an idea; the manifestation of our national ambition in this country.
I’m still not clear on what “winning Afghanistan” really means, but every solution I conjure involves great participation and improvement of the Afghan National Army. The professional decorum and protocol that makes the United States Army so successful is not easily taught. How do we begin to develop the Afghan military as more than just a cause, but a profession? How can we collect individual Afghans from dozens of provinces, ethnicities, and tribes and turn them into a unified fighting force? Well, the answer to both lies in finding common ground at the most fundamental levels of soldiering. Slowly but surely, my soldiers were finding that common ground. I was observing the advent of the relationships needed to help the ANA secure Afghanistan on its own.
The next stretch of our tour is going to be a challenge. Our company is now operating in a dangerous location with Afghan soldiers and little access to the comforts of home. The circumstances may sound somewhat depressing, but for the first time since arriving in Afghanistan, I feel thoroughly fulfilled. I finally feel like my soldiers and I might have an opportunity to make a huge difference in this country. I just hope the ANA are able to learn as much from us as Jane Goodall was able to learn from her immersion experience. I know I may not be a model “chimp” for the ANA to observe…but just give me a few weeks out here…I’m sure to at least smell like one.