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Signposts to Afghanistan

Signposts to Afghanistan

A former Afghanistan intelligence analyst looks back at his service years, and at dreams gone by.


Today is December 31, 2006, and on this morning in Los Angeles, the last day of the year, I am enjoying a good cup of coffee while reading the Los Angeles Times. I read the articles on Iraq and Afghanistan with a deepening concern for the military men and women serving there, and for what they all must experience and endure. One article in particular catches my attention. It describes in some detail the Ring Road, a road shaped like a circle within the borders of Afghanistan that connects the major towns and cities to each other. I take interest in the article about the road in Afghanistan; there was a time when the country of Afghanistan played a major role in my daily life. I was a young man in uniform then, many years ago, serving my country in turbulent times as an unpopular war polarized the country. However, today is, after all, the day for the remembrance of things past, so I sit back and relax and let my thoughts drift back in time.

I enlisted in the Army in January of 1969, partly out of fear of the draft. I signed up for three years because the Army stipulated I would receive Military Intelligence training and in May of that year, I completed the Army’s intelligence analyst course at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, Maryland. In June of 1969, I left for Vietnam. After a long and tumultuous year spent in the service of Military Intelligence, I rotated back to the States.

In July of 1970, after a thirty-day leave at home, I reported to my new duty assignment, the 14th Military Intelligence (MI) Battalion at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. For the next year and a half, I served as an Afghanistan Intelligence Analyst in the Department of Intelligence Production (commonly called the DIP). The DIP was in a large building, which looked more like a truck distribution center or warehouse than the main intelligence center for the sprawling post. This nondescript facility was no spy center; we kept track of no cold war enemy states nor practiced counterintelligence. Rather we studied the armed services of countries around the globe, the personalities of their leaders, and the infrastructure of each country.

Every workday after morning formation, I reported to the library within the DIP to read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other topical periodicals. When I came across an article referencing someone or something in my area of responsibility I made a copy of the text, noted the date and source on the copy, and put the copy in the day’s action folder. This copy could include reports covering the promotions or deaths of members of the country’s armed services, political events, new road construction, articles on storm damage or communication networks, harvests or food shortages; in short, it could be about anything at all.

At the end of the day, the action folder passed over to data processing personnel who parsed the data and entered it on long preprinted key type forms; an operator then typed these forms into keypunch cards. A computer operator then loaded these cards into a hopper, which fed the cards into a computer where a software program transferred the information into binary format for storage on databases used by other analysts in the intelligence community.

At times, a diplomat or attaché would transfer out of Afghanistan and when this occurred, I would meet with other analysts and create a list of questions relevant to the current events we gathered about Afghanistan every day. We would record these questions on to a tape made with a small cassette recorder and this tape travelled by courier's pouch through military channels to an unknown destination. Five or six weeks later a return pouch would turn up at the DIP carrying another cassette tape, and this one carried the replies to the questions sent earlier. This was all low tech and uninspiring, not the stuff of Ludlum or le Carre. We transcribed the questions and answers from the tape and deposited them in the action folder for the data entry personnel to type them into forms and cards, later they would feed the information into the computer.

And so it went, day after day and week after week, for the remainder of my tour.

The Afghanistan I researched and read about daily was a wild and mystical place steeped in history. Tigers roamed in the wild north, the strange mountain region, the Hindu Kush, slipped like a high narrow band of the unknown up between Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan. Over the ages, the ancient caravans of the Silk Road made their way through the country. The great armies of the Mongol horde laid waste to Afghanistan and ruled the country for several centuries.

In the east, the Khyber Pass connected Afghanistan with Pakistan. The Khyber is a place of mystical hatred and bloodshed, and over the centuries, smugglers and the armies of destruction came through the Khyber Pass and into Afghanistan. Alexander the Great led a foray into the country and marched his soldiers through the pass, just as Mongol, Persian, Grecian, and Tartar generals had done with their armies. Islam made its way to India through the Khyber. The British fought three Afghan wars traveling through this pass and experienced the savagery of the land, and its people, first hand.

Kipling’s quote about the horror of the place came to mind.

“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, and the women come out to cut up what remains, jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains, and go to your gawd like a soldier.”

During this period of my life, when I worked at the DIP, I yearned for the experience of travel and awaited the day when I could leave the Army. I read stories of those who traveled to London and made their way to the Continent. A feeling was in the air that, for the young, the world held no boundaries or prohibitions. The winds of freedom and change that came out of the 1960s were still swirling. In Amsterdam, shops sold cannabis openly and the oldest profession showed its wares in storefront windows right on the street. Friends of mine who had travelled to Amsterdam told me the city was hipper than hip. Young people from diverse backgrounds and countries came together and traveled the hostel circuit as they backpacked through Europe. The scent of free love was in the air and every summer seemed the summer of love. Some wandered through darkened bazaars in North Africa or the Middle East and wrote about the exotic smells and languages of things distant and unknown.

With great interest, I read the accounts of young travelers who walked and hitchhiked around the world, an adventure that seemed to take about two years. A land route existed that some called the “Hippy Trail”. This route traveled up through Iran and then east through Afghanistan; after traversing the Khyber Pass the route went on to India and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I saw a photograph of a group of smiling young travelers at dawn enjoying magic mushroom omelets on the beach in Bali. This seemed the epitome of all things exotic and mystical; the freedom to traverse the world and enjoy its delights as one found them along the way.

One magazine article I encountered described how to enter the country of Afghanistan by driving through Iran. The story included a picture of a road-sign, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that stood alongside a remote dirt road that led off to the right and disappeared into the distance. This was the signpost to Afghanistan. The article said it was very important not to miss this turnoff if your destination was Afghanistan.

For me, that picture was a signpost to adventure, and to the entire unknown world that I had dreamt about for so long. I wanted to make such a trip myself, to cross Iran in a VW bus and turn east at the signpost for Afghanistan. Once in the country, I would slowly make my way eastwards to Kabul. After leaving Kabul, I would depart Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and work my way to India, perhaps taking in the Himalaya. After experiencing firsthand the wisdom of the Hindu sages that the Beatles had earlier encountered and documented, I would head east across the Pacific Ocean. There I would delight and partake in some of the local and exotic island delicacies, things I read about in other traveler’s stories, from making love to beautiful women in secluded palm-fronted lagoons to meeting on the coast in Bali at dawn with the other traveling cognoscenti. Then I would arrive back in the States as a well-traveled and mind-expanded philosophical seizer of life like Heinrich Harrer, Paul Bowles, or William Burroughs. I would then write a book about my experiences and get on with the rest of my life.

Well, that dream did not come to fruition, but other magical things came into my life in their own time. I discharged out of the Army at Fort Bragg in October of 1971 and I longed for new experiences as a way to shed the years of being a soldier. The world lay open before me. I was a child of the 1960’s, and though far from being a hippie or a political radical my hair was soon long. I embraced the counter-culture experience. In hindsight I can see how naïve I was, how fast the world was changing around me.

Hunter Thompson once said that if a person had the right kind of eyes they could actually see where the wave of the 1960's broke against the cliffs near Las Vegas and ran back. Unaware of such a wave and in search of my own life and identity, I rode my motorcycle across country to Los Angeles. Four months later, in February of 1972, I rode my bike alone back to North Carolina over six cold and lonely days to live for a while with a friend near Fort Bragg, and decide what the next chapter in my life should be.

In May of 1972, I took a leisurely trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire with a friend. We traveled up north in his cherry 1955 Chevy Bel Air and set up our tent in one of the campgrounds along the eastern side of Kancamagus Highway. The next day we climbed the highest peak in the northeast, Mt Washington. Two days later, we climbed one of the most scenic peaks in the southern area of the region, Chocorua. The beauty of northern New Hampshire overwhelmed me: the rugged ravines, the large areas above tree line, the smell of the trail in the rain, the fine people we met. On that trip I fell in love with the White Mountains and I began an eighteen year love affair with them; an affair I remained faithful to until I moved West in 1990.

Later, during the summer of ’72, I hitchhiked around the West and backpacked in Colorado, Utah, and Montana. In the autumn, I ended up in college back in the east. A marriage followed in 1974, and eventually a career began to unfold. Afghanistan receded to a remote place in my mind where distant memories and dreams remain dormant until stirred from the sediment by some prod from the past. And so, along with everything else related to the Army years, the dream of visiting Afghanistan and circling the world began to fade from my mind altogether.

As the years went by, my feelings toward Afghanistan became negative and sinister. The damage and horror inflicted by opium from this narco-state upon the world is inexpressible. In the war between Afghanistan and Russia, we armed the Mujahadeen and learned of the power of Stinger missiles, a technology that was purported to have great value for the West. Those missiles brought down Russian helicopters, but they did not win us allies in the cause of democracy.

I can remember a TV news broadcast from Afghanistan where a reporter interviewed a group of Mujahadeen fighters. One bearded warrior in the background seemed to sum up the horror that was occurring in this war. He carried an old battle-axe that he used to execute Russians captured during the fighting. Sometimes they kept the Russians as prisoners for many days before dispatching them. He had beheaded over 100 of the infidels. I thought of the terrible last minutes and hours of the Russian youths, soldiers that met their tragic end in such a foreign and inhospitable place. I wondered how their dreams of the life they would lead after leaving the Russian Army compared with those dreams of mine from 1971.

Later, almost in slow motion, came the growth of radical Islam and terror around the world; not only did our friend become the foe, but their axes and weapons soon turned to threaten us. Next, came the Taliban and with their rise came a capacity for mindless hate, terror, and atrocity all in the name of god. Zealots found it easy to kill themselves and innocent westerners because their religion promised eternal bliss and an unending supply of virgins as a reward for their martyrdom. Just make sure your daughters do not attend school.

From the rise of the Taliban followed the events of September 11, 2001. I, along with much of the world, wept. And Afghanistan, what was once for me the image of all things wild and free, now became the image of all things ignorant and hateful. When the President Bush stood with the firefighters in the rubble of the World Trade Center and told America that the people who did this would be hearing from us soon, I felt my righteous indignation rise and totally supported him.

But a funny thing happened on the way to retribution; we took a left turn and ended up in Iraq. And because of the war in Iraq, we have abandoned Afghanistan to languish in a hellish quasi-existence without striking at the true heart of September 11. The terror of indiscriminate killing and bloodshed directed at the West in the name of Allah found its way to the shores of Bali as well. Now, the Taliban is once again on the rise. I fear that because of Iraq, our will and determination to finish the job has dissipated, and perhaps the signpost itself, the one showing us the way to what is right, has been misplaced as well.

Slowly, as I sit at home in Los Angeles alone and pensive, this long reverie ends and my thoughts return to the present moment. I continue to read the article describing the Ring Road in Afghanistan today, and the story goes on to detail the problems and challenges facing both the road and the land that the route traverses. It is a difficult undertaking to travel the road's entire length as bandits, damage, warlords, corrupt officials, and religious zealots all play their part in the story. What year is it in Afghanistan anyway: 705, 1410, 2006? From Alexander the Great, to Mongol hordes, to the present day, the more things change the more they remain the same.

The innocence of a world expanding its consciousness in the 1960s has given way to the scourge of crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Even as we fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe’s Islamic population surges and one can’t help but wonder whether Europe will maintain its democratic ideals and connection with its past. I look to the heartland and feel the same unease here in the States as an ever more-militant evangelical movement attempts to influence the course of American life and politics. All over the world people seem to be shifting into camps and categories, black and white, pro and con; lost is the love and appreciation for nuance and diversity, for shades of gray, for commonality and consensus.

I worry about the men and women serving today in Afghanistan, and of their brothers and sisters in Iraq. I think we as a country should be more reticent of what we send our sons and daughters off to see and do. The government points with pride to its all-volunteer force, but in these days of outsourcing and sending high-paying jobs offshore, I fear that the armed services are an opportunity of last resort for many of America’s youth.

As for the recent and coming veterans, I wonder about their dreams and desires, and what they yearn for out in the life that awaits them beyond their military years. I look at those eighteen years when I made New Hampshire and the White Mountains the focal point around which the rest of my life revolved. Those were wonderful and meaningful years for me, years of many joys and some sorrows, years I would not change or trade for anything. Those years did not fill the bank accounts or retirement coffers, but they filled the chambers of my heart and breadth of my soul with lasting friendships and experiences, the things that make the human experience so profound. What truly surprises me about that period of my life is that New Hampshire was completely unknown to me when I left the Army and what I would do and experience there was of yet undreamt. I hope such joy and discovery await these young men and women when the time comes for them to step out into this world on their own terms once again.

Here in Los Angeles today, on the last day of the year 2006, I have enjoyed this look back at some of my own days in the Army, and remember how I felt when I was finally discharged and was done with it. Spurred on by this story of a road in Afghanistan, I revisited a time when I was young and felt the possibility of all things, and I see those days reflected in the mirror of how the world is now and how much things have changed. As for myself, I look back kindly and warmly, with no rancor or regret, on both the simple dreams of a young man and the small things I decided to make important in my life.

I never made the trip of my dreams through Afghanistan and around the world, and in hindsight that is fine with me. But I do bemoan the loss of the freedom and innocence that fostered those dreams, and I lament the loss of the wild and mystical places of the earth, places we can no longer enjoy for what they were.

Over the years, I often thought of distant lands and faraway signposts adorning remote and deserted roads; in my own way I found and followed some of them. Signposts followed, signposts ignored, signposts forgotten. I turn the page.

The year is over.