One thing that I’m being reminded of is how differently Afghans view their national issues from the way that Westerners view them. Americans are often the furthest from the Afghan view. If you toss individuals from Afghanistan and, say, seven other nations in a room and have them all come up a viewpoint from an Afghan perspective, the Americans will often miss by the widest margin. It’s in the mindset. That’s not to say that Americans are bad, or that our intentions are less than pure. It just means that we have to ask the right questions in order to reach solutions that are appropriate for the environment and people here.
There have been numerous examples of the phenomenon this week. The coursework here involves a number of Practical Exercises. In one group, a mixed bag of Americans, a Canadian, a Norwegian, and two Afghans were working together. All of the Coalition troops were officers. The two young Afghans, Sergeants in a special Anti-terrorism unit that did yeoman’s work during the orchestrated attacks in Kabul recently, were a little intimidated and had to be coaxed out of their shells. Sometimes their input really surprised the group.
Like 180 degrees out.
Each class gets to take a trip to Darulaman, the Queen’s Palace. I almost didn’t accompany them, since I’ve seen it. It’s still impressive. I took a few pictures, of course. Roaming around the palace evokes a hint of glory past, ethereal as the ghosts of past regimes seen through the lens of destruction and sorrow of war. The senselessness of failing to arrive at a political solution to human differences becomes profoundly obvious in such a place. Much blood was spilled in and around the grounds of the once-grand edifice.
I view it through American eyes. These eyes, a shade of blue almost never seen in native Afghans, are every bit as different in their perception as in their hue. Although I feel that my eyes were forever changed by my first tour, which is what adds value to my second, still do not see Afghanistan as Afghans do. I was about to be reminded of this.
As I roamed the shell of the palace, wandering through what was once a grand hall on the third floor, my eyes were drawn to an Afghan civilian who stood deeply considering the graffiti on the wall. I assumed that he was feeling the great sorrow of such a place, representative of the hope that Afghanistan had once held and the destruction of that same. I greeted him in Dari, asking how he was. We exchanged the traditional pleasantries. He told me his name was Mirwaz. (No he didn’t… but that’s what I’ll call him here, just to protect him.) Then I asked him why he appeared to be so deep in thought.
“I am reading what has been written on the walls,” he said.
“What does it say?” I asked.
“Taliban. From Pakistan. There is a lot of that in this place,” he offered.
“Yes. See here; this one says, ‘Fazel Achmad,’ and here is where is from… ‘Pakistan,’ above the name,” he pointed out.
I took a picture, for this space, and asked him how Darulaman made him feel.
He thought for a moment, fingers on his chin. “Proud.”
“Proud?” I asked, incredulous.
“Now, I am proud; and I’m thinking, ‘Do something in your life unique like this,'” he told me, “I pray to God to give me energy like this, to kick all of these insurgents out of here and I will tell them, ‘Hey, 80 or 100 years ago, they made this place. Why you made this place like this?'”
“It doesn’t make you sad?” I quizzed him further, intrigued at his outlook.
“No. I feel this sorrow, but I cannot change these things that happened. But, this man, Amanullah, did a unique thing. I can do a unique thing too, inshallah.”
I was struck by his ability to let go of the past and live in today. The powerful simplicity of the release freed him to look to the future.
“When I am President, this will be the Ministry of Culture,” he said, his smile becoming a chuckle, “and that,” he indicated the King’s Palace in the distance, “that will be where the Loya Jirga sits.”
A Canadian officer passed by and took note of Mirwaz’s pronouncement. “Now that would take some doing. It’s pretty damaged. I heard it was unstable.”
“I will be President,” Mirwaz grinned, “it will be a small thing.” With a wave of his hand, he had solved that problem. He knew it wasn’t that simple, or a small thing, but he saw that destruction and loss doesn’t have to be forever.
“Amanullah did this unique thing, and it calls us to think of him,” he explained to me. “Many men have done the unique thing.” Mirwaz rattled off a list of names, some of whom Americans would question as being admirable, but they were Afghans who had made dramatic changes in their country in their attempts to fulfill their visions for Afghanistan. I could see him talking about such men in the same way that we might speak of Lincoln, Roosevelt or Wilson.
Mirwaz and I talked as we walked through the building, then the road down the hill that Darulaman dwarfs with her mass. He works for what is probably the single most influential ministry for the coming years, the MRRD, or Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development. This ministry, more than any other, brings Afghan problems together with locally accountable Afghan solutions to problems that face communities. Largely directing foreign funding, MRRD utilizes elected boards in each locality to select and manage projects which MRRD oversees.
He explained to me how he had been a refugee in Pakistan during the Russian and Taliban years, and how he had earned a Bachelors degree in economics in Pakistan. He returned overjoyed after Taliban were forced to flee. “I was happy,” he said, “but also disappointed by what had happened to my country.”
“Every family is like this place,” he said, sweeping his hand around the palace gutted by war, robbed of it’s finery and scored by weapons. “Every Afghan family is the same as this.”
Ever since we arrived at Camp Dubs, we have all been fascinated by the Queen’s Palace, Darulaman. Perched on a steep hill overlooking the camp, she stands a shattered symbol of the dream of Afghanistan. Several times since we’ve been here, someone was going to make coordination with the ANA for us to go up and tour the old Queen of Kabul, but somehow it just never seemed to get coordinated.
Yesterday morning, after working in the TOC (Tactical Operations Center,) my time-filler job until the new mission starts sometime this week, my fellow driftees and I had made plans to ascend the big hill for PT. In the meantime, one of our number made the outrageous claim that coordination was being made that very morning for us to tour the palace. Not having faith in any such nonsense, the Green Mountain Maniac and I decided not to forego our planned ascent and proceeded anyway.
We walked up the hill, which we do at a rapid pace, then back down… it’s about 3 miles or so all told, and a 500 foot plus elevation change upwards. Then we got coordination to go up to the Queen’s Palace, which was a welcomed shock. The hill the old Queen sits on doesn’t look so high, but it is probably about 150 feet or so, and really steep. We had to put on all of our “battle rattle,” which is our body armor, helmet, holster, and all of our weapons and ammunition. Like I’ve said, about 70-75 lbs worth of stuff, and then we climbed that hill.
After climbing the big hill, my legs were already tired. The much shorter, steeper hill was just what I needed! I’m not sore, but my thighs were just about to reach muscle failure going up that thing!
Upon our arrival at the top, we had to let the ANA who guard the place know that we were there so that we wouldn’t be inadvertently shot while touring the old landmark. We found five jovial ANA waiting for us with the traditional greeting… chai. Chai is the ubiquitous green tea of Afghanistan. We were presented with glass cups (whose last time being thoroughly washed with detergent and clean water was probably when the palace was still occupied by a monarch) full of steaming pale green chai. It is an insult to decline the chai. We were made guests and we could not refuse the hospitality of our hosts. As we sipped the sweet chai, we did the best we could to communicate with our ANA hosts. I’ll spare the struggles, but the gist of it is this: chai good, Afghanistan good, Pakistan bad, Osama in Pakistan, Osama in Islamabad, a hand-gestured demonstration that we should bomb Islamabad, and American snuff makes their heads spin. We were pleased with our ability to communicate without an interpreter.
We presented our hosts with gifts of Coke, Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, and Sprite, and took our leave over the chai-swilling protests of our hosts to tour the ruined palace. Just then a Navy Commander rolled up with a terp in his Ford Ranger.
“Hey, I was going to give you a ride up the hill, but you guys had already taken off!” he announced. My thighs mumbled dirty words to me as we laughed.
The palace was really interesting. It was completed in 1931 and a German engineer was in charge of it. It is absolutely massive, and I can’t tell you how many rooms it had. Very little of the interior hadn’t been stripped. It was apparent that everything had been looted over the years. The walls were bare… and by that I mean that the marble, tile, or whatever had been removed… and even the electrical wires had been pulled out. Most of the stair railings had been removed, too. People will take any kind of scrap metal to sell. The marble floors had been torn up, with only remnants remaining, and in one bathroom all of the tile had been removed along with the bathtub, which had to be incredibly heavy, judging by the ones that remained.
In the center of the building there was a small courtyard, the palace surrounding it with glassless windows. It was ghostly, because of all the life that had once been there.
Some of the rooms were enormous, columned rooms that were large enough for the ANA guards to kick around a soccer ball, having a good time. The walls were bare concrete, the low-aggregate concrete having been used in construction like plaster. The only decorative features were the nicely poured concrete columns, much too massive to remove. Here and there some of the marble coverings survived.
She is a lifeless hulk now, stripped of even its wiring. Concertina wire fills some of the stairways, and sandbagged bunkers occupy what had been beautiful open balconies. There is dramatic evidence of huge blows to the building.
The sturdy construction of the building was violently exposed in one room by the impact of some type of high explosive projectile. Five layers of brickwork were penetrated, a hole about four and a half feet wide open to the air. Inside the room was a pile of shattered brick. The force of the explosion had been so great that brick material was blown onto the opposite wall like mud spatters, firmly adhering to the concrete wall.
With a little imagination it is not too hard to imagine the former majesty of this great edifice. It still bears a ghostly dignity, even as a matriarch of battle; a testament to the fact that no matter how hard this country is battered, it still stands, bullet holes and all. She may seem lifeless and bleak, but as long as she stands on the hill overlooking Kabul, there is hope she will be restored. Kabul teems with life, struggling to rebuild, but this dowager queen stands patiently on her hill, and life will not fill her halls once again until Kabul is restored first.
She is a fitting symbol of Kabul, and of Afghanistan.