In the spring of 1987, Artyom Borovik, a Russian journalist covering the Soviet war in Afghanistan, bumped along the Kunduz-to-Baghlan road in the back of an armored personnel carrier. As Borovik wound over the pockmarked terrain, damaged by mines and mortar shells, the Soviets had already been at war there for nearly eight years.
“If roads could howl in pain, I would prefer to be deaf between Kunduz and Baghlan,” Borovik wrote in his 1990 book, “The Hidden War.” On Borovik’s lap was a weathered map from the 1950s, the same map a British journalist and his family had used three decades earlier while they traveled across Afghanistan in a white Jaguar.
Last week, I climbed into the back of an American CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Kunduz, 10 days after the United States’ war in Afghanistan turned 18 years old. The helicopter’s destination: an Afghan base in Baghlan Province.
American troops stopped moving long distances on Afghanistan’s roads years ago, switching almost entirely to air travel to avoid the Taliban’s roadside bombs. The Kunduz-to-Baghlan road, now referred to as a highway, flashed below. Tan hills and valleys stretched alongside.
Nearly two decades into the United States’ war here, it’s hard not to look for similarities, and maybe even answers, in the histories of conflicts past. But wars, especially those with a questionable purpose, rarely have ready-made solutions born from earlier follies. Instead, accounts, like Borovik’s, are often just sad foretellings of the present.
At least that was the case a week ago. The time between Borovik’s trip and mine equates to roughly my life span. I was born in November 1987. But 32 years ago, Borovik, looking out from a Soviet outpost in Baghlan, listened to a Soviet commander lament the Mujahideen’s recent shelling in the province’s capital, Pul-i-Kumri. His troops, alongside the then-Soviet-backed Afghan army, were trying to push the insurgents south. The fighting was fierce.
Aboard the twin-rotor aircraft, and sitting diagonal from me, was the commander of all American troops in the country, Gen. Austin S. Miller, along with the acting Afghan Minister of Defense, Asadullah Khalid, and the senior Deputy Minister of Interior, Brig. Gen. Khoshal Sadat. Their trip to Baghlan, known colloquially as a battlefield rotation, was to include a meeting with local Afghan security forces and provincial leadership.
What did Baghlan’s citizens need? What could the government do there? The meetings were quick. A thunderstorm was moving through the mountains, threatening to ground the aircraft that would fly the high-ranking officials and myself back to Kunduz and Kabul, the country’s capital.
For at least a year, residents of Baghlan had asked for American and Afghan forces to clear out the Taliban who were in Dand-e-Ghuri and Pul-i-Kumri, the same areas the Soviets were trying to clear when Borovik leapt from the back of his Russian armored personnel carrier in 1987. The Taliban had been there for at least four years. The people were tired. Their war, in many ways, was almost 40 years old.
General Sadat, the young commander whom the American military has come to adore and is often seen as the next generation of Afghan leadership, said his forces would take back the areas under Taliban control. They would launch an operation soon, he said. Tea was served. The Americans listened through ear pieces as their interpreter talked quietly into a microphone at the front of the room.
“Until the whole area is clear, we won’t leave,” General Sadat said. “This is our commitment this time.”
Undoubtedly, Afghans have been given this same assurance countless times. And the commanders who say it all leave or move elsewhere. The war goes on.
As one of the troops who fought in an early phase of the current war, in a period of expansive and seemingly stirring American promises along exactly these same lines, it’s hard to see, even as the Afghan military bears the brunt of the fighting, how in this late-date period of the war, anyone can reasonably expect such promises, from anyone, to stand.