Shohna ba Shohna was the Dari saying back when I was in Afghanistan, translated as “shoulder to shoulder.” It was the public relations campaign about our effort to stand up an Afghanistan state against the Taliban. Like many things in Afghanistan, it was more advertising than reality.
Recently, a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel announced his resignation over the deaths of fellow Marines, a Navy corpsman, and presumably the Afghan civilians, which occurred as the United States conducted evacuation operations out of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. If his resignation is accepted he will not receive a retirement—he purportedly only has 17 years of creditable service. He is giving up a lot to make a point. I am still in the military and am not retirement eligible, as such I will choose anonymity.
Senior military love to flex their erudition by routinely promoting their reading lists. The Oprah book clubs of faddish thought are always a good peek behind the curtain of what is important at the Pentagon. The reading list I received lists the following as the top three: the Bible, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. Heller and Sartre are what the disillusioned warriors need to survive, whereas the Bible gives hope that a purpose is more than what occurs on the earthly plane of existence.
Conspicuously absent from any senior military reading list is The Ugly American, by Willam Burdick and Eugen Lederer; Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly from Troy to Vietnam; and, apparently, Army Field Manual 30-90-1, particularly chapter nine, “The Retrograde.” Retrograde in this context is another word for withdrawal (laymen might say “retreat” or “evacuation”). Nothing about the recent evacuation, whether it was Afghans falling to their deaths from a C-17, to the tragic deaths of the Marines and the corpsman, seemed to comply with “doctrine” articulated in the Army field manuals.
In fact, “doctrine” may have been one of the first casualties of the Afghanistan conflict.
Loosely defined, doctrine is the overarching “why” behind what the military is doing. Back in 2011, servicemembers were wondering, “Why are we in Afghanistan?” Unfortunately for the thousands who died, “truth” was also one of the first casualties of the conflict.
I was working shohna ba shohna with “justice partners”—Afghan National Police, Afghan National Army, and government officials—allegedly in order to establish the rule of law. What can “rule of law” look like in a country where torture, graft, and theft are commonplace within the institutions? I was tasked with eliminating those foibles and bringing Afghan standards up to something more like those found in Switzerland.
Early into my deployment I started writing reports detailing some torture incidents used to extract all important confessions. A general officer called and emailed me to emphasize I was not to document the truth. He wanted only positive stories. Soon it became evident, the U.S. forces I was deployed with were there just to manage the situation.
Phrases such as “acceptable levels of corruption” were thrown about. But the lack of ethics wears on a person. I wondered how the complete abnegation of any ethics would play out. If you live in a world where truth has no real meaning but “if it is on PowerPoint it must be true” becomes the norm, how can that be set aside when operating outside of that world? How can it not become learned behavior?
How can individuals be trained to be unethical in Afghanistan and then get on a plane and all of a sudden have their ethics return? For instance Google “progress in Afghanistan” and then Google “progress on F-35” and the memory hole spews out decades of platitudinal feel-good articles about success in each being so close. Defying reality, we must believe that what was achieved with the Army Future Combat Systems was a great value.
The rebirth of the phoenix that is the Islamic Caliphate of Afghanistan is the realization of a truth well known to anyone who has worked with the Afghans: There really never were any Afghan Security Forces. I cannot remember the details but the Afghan Army we worked with shohna ba shohna had roughly a 40 percent absentee rate. The Dari speaking northern soldiers did not feel a strong need to live and stay and perhaps die in the Pashtu south.
This was widely known because modern war has the side effect of drawing out military tourists. I speak not only of the hubristic generals who traveled and were known by their last initial and how many stars they had—so P4 was there and knew as did M1 who was my boss. But there were many others who experienced the photo op, Senator (Colonel) Lindsey Graham and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan are just two who jump to mind. They were there. They saw the shadow being portrayed as a reality in Afghanistan.
But this leads to two of my most heart-wrenching experiences. The first is that since I worked in the district center, I got to meet many Afghan boys who came to the district as day laborers. Civil affairs would pay locals, including some children, to do manual labor—the theory being throwing some money around would win those hearts and minds we were always trying to attract. As I was getting ready to return to the United States, one of the boys I knew well asked me to bring him home with me. I have forgotten his name, much to my shame.
This was always sad, because another issue we had to deal with was the sexual exploitation of the boys. Another open secret. Despite the countless Defense Department briefings on human trafficking we were told to ignore decency, ethics, and the obligation to do good.
I first told the boy, through my translator, his parents would not want me to take him to America. To my amazement, his parents were all for it. But there is no way for a military member to bring a nine or 10-year-old boy home via military transport. I could only imagine the court martial I would experience. I hope the best for him.
The other sadness involved the wall of the fallen. Inside the plywood building that served as headquarters for the Brigade Combat Team at the forward operating base was a wall of all the soldiers who had lost their lives in combat operations. This wall was right outside the commander’s office. Few people ever saw this wall as it was not a place of general access.
The wall did not include the suicides. I thought (and still think) it should.
This wall showed the faces of hope and the blessings of a nation. The future wonder and the potential greatness whisked away in the chasing of the wind. I always thought these pictures belonged at the helicopter landing zone so that when military tourists came they could see the cost of what we were doing. Not sure if it would have affected Peggy Noonan or Senator Graham.
On August 26, 2021, 13 more faces were added to a wall of fallen, if those are still being kept. But as the headlines move away from the waste of life that has occurred, I would love to know how so much life and so many trillions could have been invested, only to gain what we now have.