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6 Questions for Elliott Woods

PUBLISHED: May 29, 2010

Elliott WoodsElliott Woods’ “The Path to Yaghestan,” featured in our Spring issue, discusses the efforts to unify rural Afghanistan and introduces the ideological concept of yaghestan to evaluate the isolation of these areas. Woods closely shadows various military personnel, delving into the details of both cultural interactions and encounters in combat. In this interview, he elaborates concerning his preparation for this type of immersion and explains the process of distilling his experiences into words.

1. How did you first learn of the concept of yaghestan?

A friend of mine who spent time in Afghanistan with the World Food Program (WFP) recommended an outstanding book called The Accidental Guerrilla, by David Kilcullen. I finished it on the plane from Dubai to Kabul. The Accidental Guerrilla is a series of case studies on so-called “small wars” and counterinsurgency missions, and it has a long chapter on Kunar Province, in the eastern border region of Afghanistan, where a recently completed road project has apparently led to a massive reduction in anti-Afghan military and anti-coalition violence. Kilcullen explains the yaghestan dynamic thoroughly—the concept of Afghan villages and tribes splintering and receding into entrenchment in the valleys as a response to insecurity—and paints a pretty bleak picture of the foreign mission in Afghanistan as a whole. But Kilcullen falls short of calling it hopeless. That would be bad for business, given that Kilcullen is a key advisor of Generals Petraeus and McChrystal.

Sarah Chayes also describes the history of the term yaghestan in her book The Punishment of Virtue, which I read when I got back from Afghanistan, as I was putting together my story. After reading her book, it seemed clear to me that yaghestan is the defining dynamic in the place—consistent across the epochs. And that we’re probably seeing it in action again, as a response to the foreign occupation and what some Afghans consider the Afghan National Army occupation, or even the Taliban occupation. Or all of the above. You can’t really get a sense of how isolated Afghan villages and families are, or how independent they are, until you go to the place and see for yourself. Yaghestan is not only a response to foreign occupation, it’s also a response to the attempts of the Afghan government and the insurgent networks to exercise centralized control.

2. In your piece, you mention hiding behind rocks and learning the sound of a bullet whizzing by your head. Does it feel different to be in these types of high risk situations as a journalist rather than as a soldier?

Well, yes, because I know that if the shit really goes down I can hide behind a rock until it’s time to withdraw! I also know that I don’t have to point a weapon at anyone and pull the trigger. Those two facts gave me a great deal of solace in the field. When I was in Iraq, I was in a very safe place, comparatively speaking. The insurgents were only just starting to deploy IEDs against American forces (or each other) and they weren’t highly skilled yet. We used to say, “If an Iraqi is shooting at you, you better hope he’s aiming at you.” Several of my buddies were responsible for training Iraqi troops on our base, and they didn’t have a high opinion of Iraqi markmanship. But the truth is that, while I heard gunshots many times in Iraq, I was never fired upon directly. It wasn’t until I got to Afghanistan that I learned firsthand what I’d heard from so many fellow vets—that bullets make this bizarre popping sound as they pass. It has to do with [the bullet] breaking the sound barrier.

What’s particularly weird for me as a journalist, however, are the ethical questions of being out there with one side in the battle. I’ve been living in Gaza for over a year now, and I arrived during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead, when the Israeli Air Force was bombing the hell out of Gaza. I had never seen anything like it.

For the first time, I heard a wooshing sound and saw a jet way over my head and felt nothing but sheer fear. One day, in the village of Zeitoun, standing by as Palestinians dug out the bodies of family members from the rubble of a civilian home, an F-15 made a low pass and fired flares above us. The thing about jets is, you don’t hear them until they’re on top of you. Like bullets, they can fly faster than the speed of sound. I saw what must’ve been the look on my face reflected in the looks of the Palestinians scattering all around me. Panic, terror. From that day forward I have seen nothing sexy about any of the machines of war—unlike when I was a kid. I see them as cold instruments of death. And when I was out there with the American troops, as a journalist, I tried to keep that in mind. That as much as I might like to think I am simply reporting a story, I am embedded with a group of people who are the enemy to a large number of the civilians around me. And the people with whom I am embedded, though they may like to think they are conducting counterinsurgency, are really here to project America’s lethal force. There’s just no other way around it.

3. You briefly discuss the “chai missions” when local elders meet with military personnel to provide insight and information. Did these meetings surprise you? Did you observe any other rituals like this?

These meetings did not surprise me at all. We used to do them from time to time when I was in Iraq, though not with the frequency that they should occur in a counterinsurgency campaign. The “chai missions” I saw in Afghanistan were officially called “Key Leader Engagements,” and they are supposed to build links between the military and the local populations in these remote valleys and in the towns along the main routes. “Chai missions” are the starting point for bringing Afghan locals into a relationship with the military, and the relationship should progress with small level development assistance and things like that, but I didn’t see it get to that level where I was. The security situation prevented “chai missions” from going much further than the chai itself, unfortunately. Probably the more important thing I saw on a few walks through Afghan villages was US soldiers buying things from local shops in the bazaars. Building an economic relationship between these villages and the US forces probably does more to win them over—at least in the short term—than sitting down and making promises about development projects and humanitarian assistance that will probably never come. But still, even if that assistance were to come flowing in, it seems naïve to me to imagine that armed young men with no civil society expertise can carry out humanitarian and development work in insecure areas where they are actively at war with a segment of the population. It just seems farcical. Well intentioned, but farcical.

4. Did you read any particular texts that helped you prepare for your time in Afghanistan?

I was very deeply enmeshed in my work in Gaza before I left for Afghanistan, and unfortunately it’s hard to get books over here. I was able to pick up the Kilcullen book in the States when I went home for a couple of weeks of vacation before heading to Afghanistan. When I arrived, the battalion Command Sergeant Major of the 2-87 Infantry, with whom I was embedded, gave me a copy of Lester Grau’s collection of case studies of mujahideen tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, called The Other Side of the Mountain. It’s a companion to The Bear Went Over the Mountain, by the same author, which details Soviet tactics in the same war, from the perspective of troops on the field. I read most of both of those books and got a pretty good idea of how ragtag groups of poorly equipped mountain people with rudimentary weapons and little training can make a total nightmare for sophisticated armies in a place like Afghanistan. I also came to the conclusion, not for the first time, that the Afghan insurgents—whether they are just pissed off villagers, or ideologically committed Taliban—have a few critical things going for them that the foreigners will never have.

God is the obvious one—Afghans are a deeply religious people and many believe that fighting the foreign occupier is a divinely sanctioned responsibility. Another psychological “force multiplier” is that many Afghans believe they are fighting for their homeland. They actually believe they have something to lose. What do Americans have to lose in Afghanistan, other than their lives? If Afghanistan collapses into total chaos, life will go on as usual in the US. And I think most soldiers know that. Certainly the risk averseness and extremely high security profile of the American military implies that whatever we’re fighting for in Afghanistan isn’t worth more than the absolute minimum loss of life. Compare that to our commitment of lives in the European and Pacific theaters during World War II. Sure, the tactics were different, and it was a much more conventional war against giant German and Japanese war machines, but Americans sent their boys overseas knowing very well that they might die fighting for something much bigger and much more important than themselves: freedom, democracy, justice.

Despite the shallow nationalism promoted on bumper stickers these days about “supporting our troops” and “fighting for freedom,” I think most American soldiers who have served on the front lines in places like Iraq and Afghanistan are pretty conflicted about our reasons for being there. A certain level of melodramatic self-assurance is necessary to get through the day, but it would be interesting to have more insight into the average soldiers’ private thoughts. It will be very interesting to see how those private thoughts are reflected in the literature and films produced by and about Iraq and Afghan vets in the next decades. That’s where I think a lot of these private thoughts will be revealed. It continues to astound me how similar Iraq and Afghanistan are to Vietnam, only I suspect that today’s vets are even more poorly understood than Vietnam vets where when they came home—at least back then there was a massive anti-war movement and every eighteen year-old was scared shitless of the draft. The whole country felt part of it after the draft deferments were lifted in the late sixties, that’s when the campus protests really kicked off. Today, it’s an “all volunteer” Army. The whole Army—including reservists and National Guardsmen, who make up roughly half of the total number of troops—is only about a million soldiers. That means one in every three hundred Americans serves. I would bet most people don’t even know a vet. That’s how it’s possible that you can go into any American town or city and sit down at Starbucks and have asbolutely no fucking clue that there are still over 100,000 American troops in Iraq and another 100,000 in Afghanistan.

What does that say about our society? What does it say about our society that we let our government fling nearly three hundred billion dollars a year down the sewer in Iraq and Afghanistan, without demanding accountability? I think it means that the so-called military-industrial complex has truly taken over, with the help of a complicit US Congress, and that we all have a lot to worry about. We will be recovering from the previous decade for a long time.

5. Could you describe the process of writing this piece?

I wanted to show how vast and rural it was in my little part of Afghanistan, Wardak Province, just twenty miles or so south of Kabul. I tried to explain the problems with the current counterinsurgency by showing where the rubber hits the road, i.e. what it’s like for frontline platoon leaders and soldiers to try to put the fundamentals of counterinsurgency—all of which are quite sound—into practice. So I clung to descriptions of the terrain and tried to use specific incidents to illustrate what I think is the real incompatibility of development work and armed occupation, since I think counterinsurgency depends on those two things co-existing and even complementing each other. It wasn’t easy, because I had only a month to spend in Afghanistan when I probably could’ve spent six there. And I had a hard time getting around because of the severe movement restrictions for troops there and the infrequency of seats on helicopters. It could take five or six hours to go ten kilometers in the MRAPs, and convoys to the specific locations where I wanted to go were not available all the time.

The IED threat means that vehicles go out as rarely as possible. So there was a lot of waiting, and I didn’t get some of the interviews with key officials that I wanted. But I got more than enough material in the end, and I began sorting it out when I got back to Gaza. Unfortunately, I had to work full time for the NGO I’ve been working for, and had to try to crank out this piece on the weekends and at night. I spent most of the Christmas vacation in my pajamas, bleary eyed, fighting with this piece. I don’t know why, but this one was especially hard. I think it’s because I felt that the issue was so critical, and that I didn’t want to get anything wrong. Finally, it all came together, thanks in no small part to Ted Genoways, who has always been there as a steady hand in the editing process. I put the finishing section about the sad incident in the Depak Valley, when I witnessed an Apache helicopter kill a civilian farmer, in at the last moment and realized I’d sealed it up. I was on vacation in Jordan at the time, in a freezing little room in Petra with no internet. I find that hermitic conditions are my best working environment.

6. What are you working on now?

I’m still working with the NGO in Gaza for another week or so, then I’m going back to the States for a few weeks before heading to Cairo to do a story for VQR about the Christian trash collectors and the illegal recycling industry there. It should be totally fascinating, and I really can’t wait to get there. I lived in Cairo on and off for about eight months and have a special place in my heart for the city, despite the fact that it’s a total mess. It was the first place where I did any kind of foreign reporting. I wrote freelance arts and culture pieces and shot photos for the local English speaking daily, the Daily News Egypt. I had a blast. It will be good to go back.


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