MARJA, Afghanistan, Feb. 25, 2010 -- It's a remarkable combination of psychological warfare, political roundtable and trash-talking. Afghan soldiers and Taliban fighters taunt each other, debate each other and try to persuade each other almost daily over their radios, at times while even shooting at each other.
I came across the astonishing facet of the Afghan War while spending time with the 302nd kandak, or battalion, of the Afghan National Army. The foes chatter with each other over their Vietnam-era, two-way radio system. It's such an antiquated system that the Taliban and the Afghan forces share radio frequencies, and verbal barbs, as they try to kill or capture one another.
I asked Maj. Said Rahim Hakmal what they talk about. Politics, he said. "The Taliban will say things like why do you side with the Americans? Why do you sell out your country? You love Obama more than Afghanistan."
Hakmal said the standard response goes something like, "The Americans are here to help our country function again. They don't want to stay. They want to help, then leave. You should help, too."
Then the shooting starts.
To the Taliban, religion is politics and they are willing to die for their way of life. At least half the Afghan Army's and its government's job here is to sell the Talibs on the notion that they can have their religion, they just have to keep the politics separate. Easier said than done when it comes to fundamental beliefs about the nature of being and whom the almighty favors.
The Taliban and their politics aside, there are other questions Afghans have for America. While they do appear to trust that America has no interest in colonizing Afghanistan, they wonder about our true motives. Their No. 1 concern, maybe fear: Pakistan. They are desperate to know what America is really up to with their needed yet distrusted neighbor. Who does America support in Pakistan and why? Why doesn't America, with all its power, just kill all the "terrorists" in Pakistan? For many Afghans, all their problems, and conspiracies, are rooted and imported from Pakistan.
Everybody Has an Opinion
Pro-government Afghans have a harder time wrestling with their beliefs than the Taliban. They have to simultaneously believe that the United States is good and questionable, maybe bad, for Afghanistan. Afghans are all for America when it comes to the surge, defeating the insurgency and building its government. They are less trustful when they look at U.S. actions outside Afghanistan.
It's like Americans who love their congressmen but have few kind words for Congress.
Afghans want to know just about everything about America but they'll settle for the American in front of them. The questions are non-stop. Where are you from? Who is your father? How big is your family? Do you have a wife? Children? What do you do for fun? What food do you like? Show me your pictures? Is that your phone? Signal? Can I call home?
When we'd go about our work shooting interviews or sending back material via a small satellite transceiver, the Afghans would gather around as though it were the day's entertainment. They all want to be interviewed. They don't really care about the questions. They have an opinion on just about everything and are always ready to share. That, too, reminds me of home.