An Afghan boy shows off his slingshot while he and his friend visit with Bravo Company soldiers outside the village of Meydani in June 2010. Photo by Bill Nemitz

It’s the memory, from my first of two trips to Afghanistan, that stands out clearest.

It was June of 2010. I was on a mission with the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry, a few miles from the town of Chamkani in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktia Province.

The objective: Surround the small farming village of Meydani in the predawn darkness, then search the place for weapons and ammunition believed to be cached there by the ever-present, but almost always invisible, Taliban forces roaming the region.

The soldiers found nothing as then-Capt. Paul Bosse, Bravo Company’s commanding officer, drank chai and made nice with the village elders. But one man was detained on suspicions that he’d been involved in an IED attack on an American convoy a week or so earlier.

Later, as the platoon I accompanied waited in a grove of trees to reconnect with two other units, we came upon a small gaggle of Afghan boys, all around 8 to 10 years old, most armed with homemade slingshots.

For an hour, the kids dazzled us with their accuracy, shooting plastic water bottles off rocks from 30, 40, even 50 feet away. Bosse took pictures, gave his spare pens to a couple of the kids – they accepted them as if they were made of gold – and reflected on this impromptu encounter with Afghanistan’s future.

“We win them, we win,” he told me. “We don’t, we lose.”

We lost. As a final mini-surge of U.S. troops holds down the Hamid Karzai International Airport long enough for the last Americans and too few of their Afghan allies to get out, that day 11 years ago still reflects all the hope – along with the utter futility – of what we so presumptuously called Operation Enduring Freedom.

And while Afghans in Kabul and beyond brace themselves once again for life under the Taliban’s merciless rule, Americans who walked that arid landscape are left to wonder what in the name of God we were doing there in the first place.

I know I do. As a journalist who embedded five times with Maine troops during our two decades of war – three times in Iraq and twice in Afghanistan – I can see more clearly than ever before how seductive the notion of nation building can be. And at the same time, how dangerously myopic.

During my two-week stay at Combat Outpost Dand wa Patan, just a couple of football fields from Afghanistan’s restive border with Pakistan, the sense of mission ran deep. The goal was twofold: Impede the inflow of Taliban fighters from Pakistan’s largely autonomous tribal territory, and simultaneously convince Afghans in the area that our way was better, that we would usher them into a more secure and prosperous existence.

I admit it was hard not to root for these young, strapping men from all over Maine. Their training, intelligence and above all their bravery in this perilous place was truly something to behold. Yet at the same time, there were signs even then that all of this was more an illusion than a cultural leap from millennia of tribal rule to a modern-day democracy.

Soldiers from Bravo Company’s First Platoon and a member of the Afghan Border Police cross a rickety bridge near the Afghan village of Meydani in June 2010. Photo by Bill Nemitz

One day, while discussing the “battle space” assigned to Bravo Company, I asked a senior officer how much of the area the Mainers had even seen, let alone secured. He outlined with his finger on the map a tiny sliver of his vast, mountainous area of operations. “So far, this is about it,” he replied with more than a tinge of resignation.

Another day I tagged along to a “shura,” the Afghan term for a gathering of tribal leaders. Bosse listened for almost an hour to their many complaints about who was getting more U.S. aid than the next for such austere improvements as a new retaining wall to protect crops, a small bridge over a “wadi” channeling seasonal runoff from the mountains, maybe a paved road.

The turnout, 16 local elders in all, was disappointingly small that day. “They can’t come,” the sub-governor of Dand wa Patan District explained to me through an interpreter, speaking of the many no-shows. “They’re scared from the Taliban.”

They had good reason to be. Among those who did attend, two or three were known to be hedging between cooperating with the Americans and reporting back to the Taliban on what had just transpired.

Bosse, after listening to their many complaints about who was, or wasn’t, getting what from the American reconstruction purse, finally spoke. His tone, conciliatory earlier, now had a stronger edge.

“It doesn’t make any difference how many retaining walls the United States builds,” he told them. “This is about security. And if you want to live free from Taliban rule, then there’s no amount of retaining walls that we can build that makes a difference.”

Forget about infrastructure, the American commander with the boyish face challenged them. How about actively assisting the Americans as they pushed out to secure border crossings, set up checkpoints, bring a halt to the constant poaching (and worse) by Taliban fighters who came down from the mountains at night?

The room, boisterous earlier, was now silent.

“Why should your loyalty be more if I build you a retaining wall than if I don’t build you a retaining wall?” Bosse asked. “We still need you to be loyal to the government and we still need you to be loyal to the people who are trying to protect you. Don’t use (not getting a project) as an excuse for not supporting your government.”

Staff Sgt. Anthony Marson of Richmond waves to onlookers as the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Mountain Infantry marches through the Afghan village of Chimkani. Photo by Bill Nemitz

More than a decade later, what was the truth all along stands in stark relief as the Taliban settle into the presidential palace in Kabul and, for now, allow Americans safe passage to the airport and a don’t-look-back flight home.

Since I last left Afghanistan in 2013 – that trip was to watch the Maine Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion dismantle combat outposts like Dand wa Patan in misplaced anticipation of a final U.S. withdrawal – I’ve received regular email updates from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, also known as SIGAR.

Congress created the agency in 2012 to keep an unblinking eye on U.S. efforts to bring modern civilization to much of Afghanistan. Its reports have long given me a sense of accelerating down an ever-steepening ski slope, surer by the second that it will all end in a spectacular crash.

The latest – and perhaps the last – assessment arrived Tuesday under the valedictory headline “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.”

Its 15 “key points” were a litany of mistakes and missteps, from failure to grasp “the Afghan context,” to making deals with any number of devils, to superimposing what American leaders thought was best for Afghanistan over what was both achievable and sustainable.

But of all the findings, the last one stood out: “There will likely be times in the future when insurgent control or influence over a particular area or population is deemed an imminent threat to U.S. interests. If the U.S. government does not prepare for that likelihood, it may once again try to build the necessary knowledge and capacity on the fly. As seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, doing so has proven difficult, costly, and prone to avoidable mistakes.”

Also on Tuesday, I reconnected with Paul Bosse, now a lieutenant colonel nearing retirement from the Maine Guard.

We rekindled old memories and reflected on how “more of an appetite within the civilian populace to make real changes,” as he put it, could have made his battle space much larger than it ever became.

We agreed that, if nothing else, he at least managed to take Bravo Company to the so-called “tip of the spear” and back without losing a single man. Still, Bosse was quick to remind me, there are some still struggling with combat injuries – some to their bodies, others to their minds.

We talked about how his father served in Vietnam and how difficult it was for him to watch the fall of Saigon in 1975, with the U.S. helicopters being jettisoned from overcrowded aircraft carriers into the South China Sea. Watching the chaotic scenes in Kabul these past few days, Bosse said, “I’m experiencing similar feelings right now.”

Finally, I asked Bosse, now nearing 50, what he would say to a young captain in his 30s eager to lead 150 Maine soldiers onto the next battlefield in some far-off place where the mission is murky and, sooner or later, the support back home turns tepid.

First and foremost, he said, he would convey the pride he feels to this day in his men and how professionally they conducted themselves in a hostile environment. He would say how they were, and still are, the best Maine has to offer.

Then, turning a pensive eye to the future, Bosse added, “We put American men and women at risk. And whatever the country – the civilian leadership – asks us to do, we are willing to do that. But for the psyche of those veterans coming back, we really want the chance to win and see it through. We don’t want that sacrifice to be in vain.”

Sitting here looking at the photo I snapped all those years ago of a smiling Afghan boy with his slingshot, I wonder where he is now. And if, after the Mainers went home, he traded his slingshot for a gun.


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