Truman National Security Project

Lessons From Post-Soviet Afghanistan Haunt Debate on Syria

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In 2010, I was deployed to Afghanistan to provide logistical support for a team of combat troops, but found that part of my job was as a sort of front-line diplomat — an Army officer assigned as my unit’s primary liaison to an Afghan National Army battalion. After many cups of tea, shared meals, small talk and planning of joint missions (facilitated by some fantastic interpreters), I soon gained a great deal of respect for the Afghan officers and noncommissioned officers I worked with. And, although their country is thousands of miles away, much of what I learned from my Afghan colleagues is on my mind as I take in the news and debate about intervening in Syria, as diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis get underway this week in the United Nations.

Captain Mirwais and I had many cups of tea together, and we even cooked together over the propane burner he kept in a supply closet at his barracks. We talked often, and one day I decided to ask him what it was like in the Afghan army in those tumultuous years after the Soviets left. He was at that time a medical logistics officer, a job he said he was glad not to have anymore. He organized ambulances and medical supplies to support Afghan troops on the front lines of fighting against the mujahideen —many of whom had been the American-backed “freedom fighters” against the Soviet army. (The United States withdrew support after the Soviets departed in 1989.) Captain Mirwais said it was a terrible time, but he had no choice. Every man in Afghanistan, it seemed, was fighting as the country descended into civil war.

A woman he knew, the mother of a teenage boy, begged him to take the boy with him as a medical soldier. “They will kill him if he stays at home,” she said of the approaching mujahideen, and Captain Mirwais reluctantly agreed to take the boy. In the morning, he put the boy in a uniform, and sent him to work driving one of the ambulances. That day saw hours of brutal fighting, overwhelming the ambulances and leaving literally thousands dead on the ground. “We didn’t have enough trucks to take away the dead,” he said. He showed me with his hands how he and his men piled the dead and destroyed bodies onto the backs of what flatbed trucks they had. There were no spare trucks to carry the wounded — and so they had to pile the wounded on top of the dead to carry them away, he said. He looked down at the floor and shrugged his shoulders.

“What happened to the boy in the ambulance?” I asked. Captain Mirwais pulled from his pocket a tin of green snuff, pinched a large dip, and placed it inside his cheek. He paused. “His mother gave him to me in the morning, and by night he was dead. He did not even survive the day,” he said, giving a short, sardonic laugh and shaking his head.

“When the forest is on fire, everything burns.” He laid back onto his pillows against the wall and half closed his eyes as he adjusted the snuff in his cheek.

The fire of civil war raged in Afghanistan for more than a decade between the Soviet pullout and the United States-led invasion in 2001. Some 400,000 Afghans lost their lives as a result of fighting between militia factions and the mujahedin, and later the Taliban, who emerged from the mujahedin and rose to power in the late 1990s. I asked some of the other Afghan officers and noncommissioned officers I worked with what they did during those years. Some had similar stories of fighting in the army, some fled to stifling refugee camps in Iran or Pakistan, others fought in the militias. All had tragic stories of death and loss.

I struggled to respond. I remembered reading about Afghanistan in the 1990s as I attended college, focused on my immediate needs and my hope for the future, while Afghans were embroiled in a living hell. Little could I have imagined that years later, I would be there, face to face with people who barely survived. “I had no idea how bad it was,” I told Captain Mirwais. “I wish it hadn’t happened like that. I wish someone … I wish we could have done something,” I said, hoping my interpreter could make my statements a little less awkward. But even my interpreter had lived through this horror, too.

The all-consuming flames of civil war are unforgiving, and the damage can never be undone. Lives and livelihoods are destroyed. Cities lie in ruins. Thousands or millions are displaced. Children grow up in refugee camps, incubated in ideologies of hopelessness, rage and retribution. Aid groups and other countries may contribute millions or even billions toward reconstruction — but recent history shows us that the most likely outcome of civil war is more violence.

As we’ve stood by and watched the death toll rise and the atrocities worsen in Syria, I am haunted by the lessons I learned during my three tours in Afghanistan. When everything in a forest burns, no matter the sincerity of the rebuilding efforts, it may take decades or even generations to reverse the cycle of destruction and restore what was lost.

I am thankful that we’re finally debating some form of intervention in Syria. But I worry that America’s discussion is losing sight of the urgent need to quench the raging inferno before it worsens further and spreads to the dry tinder beyond Syria’s borders. My hope is that military strikes are reserved as a dire, last option after all others are exhausted. Humanitarian aid may seem neither aggressive nor decisive, but it spares lives, eases suffering and allows the rebuilding process to begin before all becomes scorched to the ground. And it may prevent violence, terrorism and war in the years to come.

Lately I think often of Captain Mirwais and my other Afghan colleagues, and I feel myself wanting to show them that I’ve taken what they taught me and made a positive impact as a result. I hope Americans can collectively take the lessons we’ve learned from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and apply them wisely in our future actions abroad. We have to remember, first and foremost, that wars take a profound and lasting human toll. Sparing lives and alleviating suffering can be an effective strategy. Because in the end, the lives we save may be our own.

Kristen Rouse is a Truman National Security project Defense Council Member. This article originally appeared on The New York Times.