Graeme Wood

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Selective Memory

Originally appeared in The National.

My Life with the Taliban

Abdul Salam Zaeef

Translated from the Pashto and edited by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn

C Hurst & Company
The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan held its last press conferences in Pakistan in November 2001. Behind the podium was the Afghan ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef – just 33 years old, but with the résumé of a much older man. Already he had served the Taliban as a bank governor, a mining regulator, and the acting defence minister. Like most Taliban officials, he was a wounded veteran from the anti-Soviet jihad, having survived a gut shot from a PK machine gun.

At that point in time, to be able to read the autobiography of even one senior Taliban official would have illuminated a number of questions about a movement that was opaque then and remains only slightly less so. The Taliban were hermetic and their dealings obscure. To analyse them took a sort of Afghan Kremlinology, a series of educated guesses about how their government worked and how the personalities of their senior members, including Zaeef and their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, interacted. These mysteries persist – no one is certain where Taliban power resides, or how it is wielded – so any glimpse inside the walls of this secretive fortress is valuable indeed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, ,

The Lost World

I spent much of this summer with Canadian, Afghan, British, and US forces in southern Afghanistan. Here are some of the resulting dispatches.

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

In the Graveyard of Empires

A review of Seth G. Jones’s In the Graveyard of Empires, in the Barnes & Noble Review.

 

A few years ago, the Turkish defense minister bragged that the Turkish contingent in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had finished an entire tour in Afghanistan’s Wardak province without firing a shot. To some, including his intended audience of Turks, this boast was cause for approval and appreciation. To others — presumably the battle-weary American soldiers who complained bitterly that ISAF had come to stand for I Saw Americans Fight — the boast demonstrated all that was wrong or bogus about the NATO effort in Afghanistan, and epitomized the woes that the Americans would eventually have to redouble their efforts to repair.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, , , ,

The Great Gamble

Originally appeared in The Barnes & Noble Review.

To stumble into Afghanistan is to stumble into history — or at least to stumble into a trap laid by historians, whereby any foreign occupier of the country is compared, all too tediously, to his failed predecessors. Notice the hierarchy of these comparisons. If the historian draws parallels to the armies of Alexander the Great, he does you an honor: Alexander’s empire had at least conquered the known world before Afghanistan undid it. Analogies to the Anglo-Afghan Wars and Elphinstone’s army in 1842 are less flattering, and more menacing. And if the historian remarks that your unit is “just like the 154th Spetsnaz Detachment,” he is saying not only that you’re doomed to ignominious defeat but also that you’re too historically ignorant to realize when you’re being insulted.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Barnes & Noble Review, , , ,

Body Shots

Originally appeared at The New Republic.

 

Let Us See the Angel Flights

U.S. Marines, not noted for their sentimentality, call the flights that carry their dead comrades home “angel flights.” I witnessed my first of these at a remote airfield in Anbar province, Iraq, in 2005. For about an hour, all activity on the tarmac ceased, including my own unloading of a 727 in my job as a commercial shipper. A furious Marine officer ran to confront me and demand that my pilot cut the 727′s engines. The pilot protested–his plane was nearly unloaded, and he wanted to fly to a safer airport as soon as possible–but the Marine permitted no debate. The engines powered down, and in the desert silence, from a distance of a few hundred feet, I could hear the clopping of individual boots as hundreds of Marines filed in to stand at attention and watch the chilled metal box proceed slowly into the belly of the plane. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: New Republic, , ,

Law and Disorder

Originally published in Abu Dhabi’s The National.

At the entrance to the Afghan police and military base in Zhari district, half a dozen wrecked police trucks sit in a small dirt lot. As a first sight greeting visitors to the base, they are a poor recruitment tool for new policemen. The most intact truck is missing its windscreen and a door, and has caked blood on one seat; it will never drive again. The worst off is a twisted clump of metal, scorched so badly that any blood would probably have cooked away in the fire that followed the initial blast of the roadside bomb that did it in. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: National, , ,

Security Blanket

Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.

Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, , ,

Policing Afghanistan

Originally appeared in The New Yorker.

Letter from Pashmul

An ethnic-minority force enters a Taliban stronghold.

In late 2007, in Pashmul, a tiny cluster of villages in southern Afghanistan, Muhammad Khan began his tenure as the police commander by torching all the hemp in a farmer’s field. Farmers in the area had grown plants up to seven feet tall, and, being teetotallers, like many Afghans, they smoked hashish constantly. Afghan soldiers and policemen in the area also smoked, to the exasperation of the NATO troops who were training them. But Khan wasn’t from Pashmul and he didn’t smoke. He ordered his men to set the harvest ablaze, moved upwind, then turned his back and left, with an expression of indifference. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: New Yorker, , ,

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