“The Last Journey” #23 Dusty
24 August 2010
Helmund Province, Afghanistan
The dust storms continue. I’ve seen this before in Iraq and it could last for days. At the moment, I am grounded here at Camp Dwyer until this subsides. On the brighter side, we’ve had a bit of a break from the oppressive heat. In my tent, things are just fine; the air conditioning works great and my cot is a luxury. I was able to get a shower this morning. So, I will figure out today as I always do.
At chow this morning I was sitting next to a young Marine who overheard me mention, “New Mexico” and as it turns out he is from Roswell, so I’ve found a compadre from my home state. I look forward to getting some audio from him once I clear Public Affairs.
I pray every morning at breakfast and as fate happens, my prayer “be this day Lord, arrange all my steps” was answered as soon as the words crossed my lips. This ‘young’ Marine came up and sat down beside me. Referring I suppose to the dust storms and my situation of being stuck, the Marine asked me how I handled my days. I responded, “This is a typical day. They all start out like this”. And that’s a good reason to pray.
Being one step away from where I want to be leaves me chomping at the bit. I have learned to take everything in stride and will get there when I get there. That’s just the way it is. In the meantime I’ve been educating myself by speaking with many interpreters who normally reside in the USA but are from Afghanistan. Here they help military and from them I get the depth and breadth of my knowledge of this country. As a young child, a classroom experience of history would bore me to tears, but here there is a tangible excitement and I’m driven to learn as much as I can.
In the north-east part of the country, especially near the previous FOB’s I’ve written about, most of the local population are Pashtun. Down here, I have met almost all Tajiks, who are more closely related to the Persians. According to UN publications, at least 50% of the population in Afghanistan is Pashtun and some 25% are Tajiks. There has always been a struggle between Pashtun and Tajiks for power in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzi, the current President of Afghanistan, is Pashtun. His main rival for the presidency this last election was a man named Abdullah Abdullah (yes, twice). Abdullah is half Tajik and half Pashtun by birth. That would seem to be a winning combo, however, the Pashtun majority won in the hotly contested election. Here’s some background for those that might need a brush up on history:
The Lion of Panshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by an al-Qaeda suicide bomber, on September 10, 2001, one day before the events of 9/11 that changed everybody’s world. In 1992 Massoud became the Defense Minister under the government of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. During the rise of the Taliban in 1996, Massoud returned to the role of an armed opposition leader, serving as the military commander of the, “Northern Alliance”. The Tajiks here still hold him in highest regard and Afghanistan observes the date of his death as a national holiday known as “Massoud Day.”
From what I can gather, it seems that a “common Afghan” must somehow mend any rift between Tajiks and Pashtuns. One might have better luck building a bridge between Senator Al Franken and radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. Differences run deep. Other obstacles include distinct ethnic groups and some former or remaining leaders who fought against the Russians but have now taken sides with the Taliban who are heavily influenced by al-Qaeda. If ever there was a place where, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” holds true, it would be here in Afghanistan.
I find myself with the Marines right smack dab in the middle of the Helmund province. Why the Helmund province? All I’ve seen so far is oppressive heat and horrific dust in the air. But there’s more. It has been said that 80% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan and I believe most all of it comes from right here in the Helmund province. Money and power. I can easily draw parallels to Juarez, Mexico and the power of drug cartels and the chaos that follows.
Today I find myself one stop away from where one of the most lucrative drug crops in the world is cultivated. It is also where the fight is. It is where Marines are confronting the enemy. I can only conclude that part of this war on terrorism in Afghanistan is connected to opium. I believe there are links between the global war on terrorism, the out of control situation in Juarez, Mexico, and the illicit drug trade here. I see and read about the destruction and crippling effect this trade has on society at all levels.
Today when I interviewed Sergeant Dillon Hopper, the Marine from Roswell, New Mexico, I took his photo in front of a memorial. On that memorial hung the dog tags of fallen Marines. Each dog tag represented a Marine that has died in this cause since October 2009 during a time span of less than one year. When I took the photo, I held the camera close to my eye for an extra amount of time to hide my tears. I did not want to show my weakness. I hesitated to show this photo, but I feel now I must, memorials are hard for family members, I know and think about my own Marine son 2ndLt Jesse James Spiri who’s part of the reason I’m here now.
There is a war here in Afghanistan and it is raging one stop away from where I’m going. Visibility outside may be almost nil due to the dirt in the air. However, I think I can see a little clearer through the dust than I did yesterday.
Jim Spiri In The Stan
Candi, I love you and soon I’ll be home.
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