It has been nearly five months since I watched Cape Cod drift slowly under the intake of my F-15E Strike Eagle as I caught the final glimpse of what my time overseas has assured me is the greatest country in world. Leaving the comfort and safety of my home in North Carolina for a country that has been ravished by the maelstrom of war for nearly three decades was admittedly unnerving, ostensibly for concern over my own safety. However, my wellbeing was not on the forefront of my mind. The F-15E is the world’s greatest and most dynamic fighter aircraft and from my vantage point I am typically well out of reach of even the best insurgent weapons. My concern was twofold: Would my squadron’s actions in Afghanistan contribute in a meaningful way, and how would the war affect me personally? Five years of training has made me tactically proficient, and I was confident in my ability to execute our assigned close air support (CAS) mission. But to what extent our execution would contribute to the stabilization of Afghanistan and securing America from future attacks was yet to be foreseen. As I approach the final month of my deployment, I now have answers to those questions, and the findings of my personal inquest are far from what I expected as I crossed the Atlantic on that sunny September day.
“I need you to scan for suspicious activity at the following coordinates”, said the Joint Tactical Air Controller (JTAC) as I stared through my F-15E’s targeting pod at a small village in eastern Afghanistan. A troops in contact (TIC) situation had developed when a convoy of American MRAPS and Afghan Nation Army (ANA) Ford Rangers had taken several rounds of AK-47 fire, and we responded within minutes. While asking to search for “suspicious behavior” seems like a simple request, nothing could be farther from the truth. As I looked at the infrared imagery, I expected to see groups of insurgents openly armed, taking fighting positions, and clearly demonstrating hostile intent. What I saw was a village of mud huts, farm animals, school children, and a plethora of phlegmatic villagers seemingly unaware of the battle that was unfolding around them. The attacks on coalition forces were being conducted by a small group of craven insurgents who would fire at coalition troops then immediately abscond to the nearest mosque or school, much to the terror of the building’s innocent occupants. The insurgents would then force the civilians out of the buildings in an apparent effort to blend in with the crowd. It was the most sordid act of cowardice I had ever witnessed, and it enraged me.
It was after several of these flights that my cohort of young Air Force officers saw a fundamental flaw in our approach to defeating the insurgents in Afghanistan. Contrary to popular belief, we are not at “war” with Afghanistan; we are engaged in a counterinsurgency (COIN). The differences may seem subtle, but they are of crucial importance. Wars are fought and won with large combat forces engaging a well-defined enemy on a traditional battlefield. Collateral damage is condoned assuming there are tactical advantages to the destruction and civilian casualties are seen as inevitable. The invading force has no concern for the enemy’s infrastructure as long as its destruction does not adversely affect their offensive or end goals. Afghanistan circa 2012 is fundamentally disparate from this type of conflict. We are fighting a battle in which every loss of civilian life and every piece of destroyed infrastructure militates our efforts and empowers the insurgents we are fighting. Like Ayn Rand’s Attila who exhorts obedience through fear and is inhibited by intellectual penury, the insurgents cannot win the will of the Afghan people with their illogical and radical ethos. Therefore, they are forced to resort to the only form of persuasion they know, violence and fear. The insurgents want Afghanistan to lie paralyzed in a pit of never-ending conflict because they know fear and destruction will engender mistrust, uncertainty, and ultimately chaos. These are the conditions in which injustice and governmental depravity burgeon, as people will relegate their freedom and personal liberties for perceived security. History has inculcated this lesson on numerous occasions (Germany pre-WWII and Afghanistan 1992), and the insurgents have taken note. Fortunately, so did we. Our group realized that civilian casualties, destroyed infrastructure, and economic stagnation are more destructive to our cause than an insurgent with an AK-47. We realized that the violence we inflicted on the enemy, albeit necessary at times, was part of their plan. Three insurgents with a $100 rifle could invoke a disproportionate reaction from the world’s greatest superpower, and although they typically find themselves at the wrong end of a 2,000-pound JDAM, their victory is in our response. If we destroy infrastructure, horticulture, livestock, or, God forbid, caused a CIVCAS incident, then the insurgents win. No amount of deceased Taliban could make up for the lost confidence and trust of the Afghan people, and the insurgents would undoubtedly use the incident as a recruiting tool. So while we may have killed three insurgents, 10,20, 30 or more may have joined the insurrection. It was therefore palpable that it is impossible for us to “bomb our way out” of Afghanistan. Something more had to be done to promote stability and solidarity, and it had to be done quickly as the 2013 deadline loomed.
The idea for Flying Scarfs was born well before our deployment to Afghanistan. We each wanted to make a difference in the world, and while we had different ideas on how that was to be done, we all agreed that social enterprise was an effective catalyst for the change we envisioned. After we witnessed the travesties and injustices experienced by innocent Afghan citizens at the hands of the insurgents, we were determined to do something. Armed with nothing but our own vision we set out to find a way to bring stability and economic freedom to the beleaguered citizens of Afghanistan. It was through a fortuitous encounter at a local bazaar that we met Wasil and Jawed , two 22 year old store owners with ties to a local non-profit that employs women widowed by Afghanistan’s three decades of armed conflict. The sagaciousness they demonstrated gave us hope and provided us the motivation to join forces in an effort to distribute their locally made handicrafts to a global market.
When we first met Wasil, his sanguinity coupled with a bright smile and kind eyes were moving. He speaks three languages and is an undergraduate at the University of Kabul where he is majoring in economics. Within minutes of meeting him, we each were amazed at the intelligence and breadth of worldly knowledge he exhibited. His brother was killed by an IED on his way to the bazaar several years ago, and he has since been devoted to his studies in hopes that one day he could lead his country out of despondency and corruption and into a new age of peace, stability, and economic independency. He fervently believes that if Afghanistan had a stable economy and widespread education, it would be impossible for the insurgency to survive. “If people have jobs, they won’t want to fight. Right now, they (Afghans) are hopeless. (The) Taliban will offer them money to do something so they do it because there is no other money or because of fear”. He also insists that a strong education would provide the basis for Afghans to fight the insurgency and stymie their recruiting which relies on the madrassas whose education is founded on radical Islam. When we asked if he would be open to selling his scarves online, his eyes lit up. His impetus is not personal monetary gain. Instead, his motivation is to create jobs and bolster the economy in Parwan Province in hopes that one day his efforts will have helped his country gain the peace and prosperity which he so desperately desires.
Jawed is an amateur bodybuilder and a capitalist through and through. He speaks five languages and I often see him flow effortlessly from Dari to French to Russian and back to English. He is the quintessential businessman, and I am convinced if he were born in better circumstances he would be a millionaire by the age of 30. When we approached him about our idea to sell his scarves online, he immediately grasped the implications of what we were proposing. He offered his inputs on which scarves sold the best and to what demographic each one was tailored. He thoroughly understands his customers and caters his sales techniques to meet each one. His shop is easily the cleanest and most thought out. While other shops in the bazaar are inchoate, his is reminiscent of an Abercrombie and Fitch store. He has the top hits from the United States playing on his radio, a disco ball dangling from the ceiling, and tie-dyed scarves hanging from the walls. His shop is always filled with twenty-somethings who simply wanting to hangout, and he always has chai and Afghan candy available. While other vendors dress in mostly traditional Afghan garb, Jawed is dressed in American Eagle, Abercrombie, and other notable brand names from the United States. He doesn’t know who Richard Branson is, but his business model is a carbon copy of what made Virgin Megastores so popular in the 1970s. He represents the young Afghan entrepreneur and, although he has never been educated on capitalism, he vehemently believes in its principles.
Together, Wasil and Jawed represent the future of a country in dire need of shedding the bonds of its past. They both understand the precarious situation their country finds itself and that its fragile future lies squarely on the shoulders of its citizens, not NATO. Both are highly intelligent and exude a quiet confidence indicative of true leaders. There is a movement waiting to be started by the Jaweds and Wasils of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, they find themselves mired in a web of violence and corruption, unable to break free from the shackles of injustice that have plagued Afghanistan for centuries. They have the passion, intelligence, and intrepidness but lack the tools. While building a strong army is certainly of prime importance, there are currently over 300,000 ANA fighting an insurgent force that is estimated to be under 30,000. Despite the overwhelming numbers advantage, the country still cannot defend itself from these ill-equipped brutes. There is a missing piece to the puzzle, and that piece is the people. The news often regurgitates the maxim “we must win the hearts and minds”, but what does that really mean? Does it mean we flood a corrupt government with billions of dollars in aide without the inconvenience of accountability and expect it to be altruistic with its new wealth? Or do we hire contractors from Pakistan and India who don’t employ a single Afghan to rebuild the county’s infrastructure but are willing to payoff the Taliban with our own money? Is this what we mean when we say “win the hearts and minds”? For Wasil and Jawed’s case, I hope not.
The bottom line is, for better or worse, we are leaving Afghanistan. It has yet to be determined if the last decade was a waste of time, money, and precious human life, or if I and the hundreds of thousand of others who have served here will have truly made the United States a safer place. The Afghan people will ultimately determine the outcome of our battle. If the government in Afghanistan fails and the Taliban supplants the current leadership, it will be viewed as a monumental victory for extremists all over the world. The terrorist camps currently ensconced in Pakistan’s FATA will arrogate the very military bases that we have built, and use our own facilities to train terrorists and spread extremism. If this happens, our children will return to the mountains of northeastern Afghanistan and fight the same battle that their parents failed to finish against the people that they never attempted to understand.
As for me and my personal inquest, I can leave Afghanistan knowing that I made a truly significant and lasting impact on the lives of at least a few of its citizens. The founders of Flying Scarfs are some of the greatest military officers and fighter pilots the United States has to offer. Collectively we decided that the success of our deployment would not be determined by the number of bombs dropped, but rather, whether or not we bolstered trust and confidence the locals have in the United States, and if we provided a catalyst for economic reform. I can say with 100% certainty that we were successful on both counts. If we sell one scarf made by the women of Parwan Village it will have a far greater positive impact than if I go out the door tomorrow and kill 100 insurgents. If our brothers on the ground need the might of the F15E, I’ll be there within minutes, fangs through the floor, and with 5,000-pounds of weaponry ready to deliver with deadly accuracy. However, I know that I will not drop the bomb that is going to end the insurgency in Afghanistan. The only weapon with that effect is the solidarity of the Afghan people, and only they can choose when to employ it.