Afghanistan’s high mountains and harsh weather once meant that winter was a respite from much of the war’s violence, but as the deaths of six Western soldiers in three separate attacks on Monday show, this winter is proving to be different.
American military leaders and Taliban commanders are vowing to carry the fight to each other and skip the traditional winter vacation, and there is every sign that they are doing just that.
Though the trend has been building, in past years, the Taliban generally slipped off to sanctuaries in Pakistan, or just stayed home, while NATO forces enjoyed a drop in attacks and a steep decline in the body count from December through March.
A combination of factors has changed that. American troop levels nearly doubled in 2009, meaning more missions against the Taliban — and more potential targets for them. Military crackdowns by Pakistan along the border have in some places made it harder for insurgents to flee there. [continued…]
It’s an odd object to come across in this part of Pakistan, on the edge of Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province bordering the Tribal Areas. In the madness of Karkhano, one of Pakistan’s best-known smuggler bazaars, among a jumble of domestic products for sale outside a nondescript storefront, is a black plastic trunk emblazoned with the name Lt. Stoddard, 2611, 62nd ECB(H). Inside are personal items belonging to the U.S. soldier: T-shirts and sweatshirts, socks and gloves, even a few pairs of underwear. An identical trunk next to it, its lid similarly flung open, is teeming with books and DVDs, all in English, all well-worn, all incongruous here.
That’s only the beginning; digging deeper, things start to take a turn for the surreal. Hidden behind a torn and faded copy of All Quiet on the Western Front is a stack of letters from a woman in the U.S. to her lesbian lover deployed with the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Afghanistan. “We’ll make greatness out of what shall be once we overcome the obstacles standing in our way,” one letter says. Beneath pirated copies of Rambo: First Blood and Full Metal Jacket is a notebook belonging to a budding U.S. military rap artist: “To carry out the mission, complete the objective,” he writes in acrid verse. “u move I shoot, f–k being selective.” And then another letter, this time from a woman to her soldier son, dated July 3, 2008, revealing in intimate detail the regrets of a mother about the soldier’s sister: “I feel like I have missed out raising B—- in some way I can’t explain,” she confesses. “Maybe because E—- was drinkin’ and I was the shield to save my kids from abuse by his actions and I’m sure that hurt her growing up.”
How did such things, windows into American lives, get here?
The answer lies on the Grand Trunk Road, which runs by Karkhano. It once carried hippies from Afghanistan through Pakistan to the land of enlightenment in India during the 1960s. It now ferries Afghan refugees brave enough to go back to Kabul across the historic Khyber Pass. Vans and gaudily painted buses stuffed to overflowing ooze black exhaust fumes as they inch over the remaining hundred metres to the last police checkpoint in the “settled areas” of Peshawar. Beyond that, past the sign reading “Entry of Foreigners Prohibited,” is tribal country, with its gun shops, its hashish dispensaries, and its anarchy. Past that is Afghanistan. [continued…]