Manas is the main hub for Americans coming and going “down south.” As per order of the base commander, every serviceman and woman returning from Afghanistan is authorized two beers a day during layover. Those on their way to Afghanistan are authorized none. “Man, and I thought I had a wild time in Odessa,” one Marine confided, Baltika #9 in hand. He and some buddies were sitting on plastic deck chairs at Pete’s Place, the makeshift tent-turned-internet café-turned-bar at the transit center. Whoever carried out the commander’s intent, no doubt empathizing with fellow servicemen, chose to stock the bar with #9, the Eastern European Baltika beer with the highest alcohol content. Although sometimes two is a little bit more like three, that’s not always enough for those fresh off of long dry deployments. The beer limit is tracked by ID card, and I’ve heard that those who have maxed out to try to borrow IDs from those haven’t. I can’t think of a place where the market could ration beer at so high a price.
“Hey Jacobson, are you drinking?” an officer asked as I sat peacefully checking my email. He had read the name on my cammies. I suppose I had the look of someone who was going rather than coming back. By the end of the evening several other servicemen had half-jokingly offered to triple, quadruple, quintuple his offer, which, in fact, had been nothing. One of my fellow lieutenants remembers hearing a complicated scheme from some intoxicated Air Force women: report your ID card as stolen, use the temporary paper copy for two beers, then your real ID for two more. It was probably more tactical planning than they had done on their entire deployment.
The bar, like the rest of the base, would have been indistinguishable from an air base in Nevada but for a few campy allusions to Kyrgyz culture: signs labeling some buildings as “yurts,” and a Kyrgyz gift shop selling rugs depicting the themes of their epic poetry (20 percent off). Americans spend their days smoking, jogging on the base’s sandy manicured trails through fields of scrub brush, and surfing the internet on Pete’s Place’s wi-fi network. As the sun goes down, Pete’s Place starts bumpin’ the latest R&B, songs that few of the Marines have heard yet.
But there was one group at Manas that stood out that day. Amid the usual legions of airmen and soldiers in clean PT (physical training) gear was a battalion of filthy Marines, in irreparably grime-caked cammies. It was 1st Battalion 6th Marine Regiment (1/6), and they were fresh out of the fight. After conducting their initial assault into Marjeh that we had all read about in the news, they spent months holding the villages in the region, living in freezing, muddy fighting holes in constant contact with the enemy, engaged in arguably the toughest and most elemental fighting the Marine Corps has experienced since Vietnam. They, more than anyone at Manas, needed some beers. But most weren’t drinking. I ran into an old acquaintance of mine from training, who was going home with 1/6. I thought I knew what he had been through. And he knew I thought I knew what he had been through. I told him I was heading out on an embedded training team. He shook his head; told me to be careful and to trust nobody. I agreed.
After seven flights in three days, I arrived at Camp Dwyer in Afghanistan, took a nap on an empty cot in my new tent, and drove with my fellow Marine embedded training team members the fifteen minutes out to Camp Garmsir, home of the 1st Brigade, 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. We were going to play volleyball. When we got to the camp the Afghan soldiers were already practicing, and it showed. They trounced us, several times over, spiking at will. It was my first time meeting an Afghan, and what impressed me more than their ball-handling skills was their diversity; all manner of Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Central Asian, South Asian faces. Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Baluchs, Nuristanis, and Pashtuns stood on their side of the net, wearing newly issued green digital camouflage trousers and a smorgasbord of acquired soccer jerseys, which featured AIG and Siemens Mobile most prominently. Compared to the whites, blacks, and Hispanics of our team, and our matching muted uniforms, they were more akin to the colorful ragtag band of soldiers that fought our nation’s first battles.
After a few frustrating rounds of volleyball, I joined some Afghan soldiers on the sidelines. They listened to music on their cellphones, sharing one earbud each. I asked a pair if I could listen with them. It was the Venga Boys singing “boom boom boom boom / I want you in my room.” And that’s when it first occurred to me. These guys aren’t locked in eternal tribal warfare like I’ve been told. They can make it as Afghanistan after all. Just look at them getting along, united under a common cause.
Some of my fellow team members, already going on ten months in Afghanistan, called my optimistic revelations “Deployment Phase 1.” “Soon you’ll be jaded and cynical,” they joked.
“We need to ship all you short-timers home and let the fresh idealists win the war for us,” I said.
After volleyball we sat down to a feast of expertly cooked qabili palau, lamb, nan, and melons and vegetables grown a few kilometers down the road in Lash Kar Gah. We grabbed fistfuls of food from the big communal platters and washed it down with faux-Red Bull. When the junior soldiers removed the food, the Afghan brigade doctor came around and offered each of us a squirt of Purell hand sanitizer, gesturing with his palms to show some of the less experienced Afghans how to rub it into their hands effectively.
Deployment Phase 2 started for me just a few days later. After the daily morning staff meeting, Captain Amir, a brigade officer who had just returned from a temporary billet in Marjeh, pulled me aside and spoke quietly with the help of my interpreter, Sammy. “Sir,” he said, though he outranks me, “I need you to fix this problem. My life is in danger. I borrowed a 249 (the American squad automatic weapon, which we’ve supplied to the ANA) to use out on patrol. I went to return it yesterday, before coming back to brigade, and a Pashtun lieutenant told me I had taken it without permission. He called his Pashtun guards over, and they racked their weapons and told me they would kill me.” We walked to his tent and talked for several hours over chai, the straight green tea his chai boy boils in a small electric pot. His story revealed a web of irreconcilable ethnic hatred beneath the smooth surface of the ostensibly united national army unit.
In the middle of the conflict was Capt. Amir, a young, rail-thin Tajik who smokes three packs a day, and the Pashtun posse that threatened him. As Capt. Amir told it, the rest of the brigade lined up in support on strict ethnic lines—Pashtun vs. everyone else. The kandak (battalion) commander, a Hazara, came out of his tent to talk the Pashtun lieutenant down and found himself looking at the business end of an M16. The ANA commander and several other officers from up North drafted formal complaints against the lieutenant and sent him, his posse, and Capt. Amir up to Camp Garmsir for an investigation. The brigade executive officer (XO), a Pashtun, wanted to sweep the whole thing under the table and transfer the lieutenant and Capt. Amir to other units. According to Capt. Amir, the brigade XO’s bodyguards, all Pashtun, stood guard while the XO searched Capt. Amir’s tent for incriminating evidence of any sort—drugs, weapons, and money being the usual suspects. Moreover, the senior brigade staff, mostly Hazara and Tajik, were sick of mistreatment at the hands of the primarily Pashtun garrison support unit, responsible for internal camp security.
As I listened, Capt. Amir talked himself into a frenzy. He fumbled with his next cigarette, his hands and lungs and lips unable to keep up with his body’s demand for nicotine. Flicking the lighter several times, he inhaled his first puff with a look of intense relief. He picked up his cellphone and dialed. The phone was duct-taped to a wire that ran around the air conditioner and up through the roof of the tent to his personal antenna, purchased from the bazaar to improve his service so many kilometers from the Garmsir District cell tower.
Sammy translated what he was hearing on Capt. Amir’s end: “He’s saying they’re trying to kill him.” Capt. Amir raised his voice; the person on the other end of the line had clearly disagreed with him. “He’s telling her she’s wrong, and that he wants to come home, and that she’ll finally believe him when he comes home in a box.” It was his mother. He had called his mother. He hung up and dialed another number. It was the brigade commander, a Hazara, on leave in Kabul. “He’s telling the brigade commander to come back from leave immediately. That there is fighting between the tribes and he doesn’t know what to do. That if the brigade commander doesn’t come back immediately he’ll have to leave the army and never come back.” Capt. Amir hung up, lit another cigarette, and turned towards me. Sammy translated. “He says if you don’t solve this problem he’ll leave his job.” I told him I would work on it.
I walked past the billeting tents toward the command post and stopped in front of the brigade XO’s office. His bodyguards were sitting outside on chairs, in the hot sun, M16s hanging from parade slings. I realized Capt. Amir was lying: none of the XO’s bodyguards were Pashtun; Sammy could tell when he heard them speak. We talked to them for a while and asked them about their families. There was a Tajik, an Uzbek, and two Hazaras. Over the course of the afternoon I talked with most of the other soldiers involved. It was less and less clear what actually occurred between Capt. Amir and the lieutenant, but I was beginning to realize that my initial impression, on the volleyball court, was closer to the truth. That on the whole, at least in the army, the Afghans see themselves as just that: Afghans. They live, play, listen to music, and, too frequently, die together. When I visited Captain Amir’s tent later in the day, he was waking up from a siesta. I sat for a while, and we talked mostly of other things.