“What the hell are they doing here?” muttered Col. Randy George. He and Lt. Col. Brad Brown had just stepped off a helicopter, there to take command of Combat Outpost Keating set in an indefensible notch surrounded by mountains in Nuristan, a remote slice of Afghanistan that lacked roads, water, power, hospitals, schools, spoke its own language (Nuristani), and had never known a real government presence.
Jake Tapper’s book, The Outpost, concentrates on American troops sent to establish a presence and support a counter-insurgency by protecting locals, by paying Afghani contractors to build roads, pipe in water, erect micro-electric plants, and other projects, and by attending shuras, meetings with village elders that Americans could liken to town meetings. But Afghanistan, with a history of blood feuds, land disputes, and tribal enmities, is united only by its xenophobic hatred of foreigners. After 2½ years the American presence had become more “irritant than balm,” more “incitement than deterrent.” The only American interest there is that it never again shelter terrorists, a goal now achievable by signals intelligence, CIA ground assets, and drones.
One is struck by the grit, valor, and high professionalism of our troops. Asked by a reporter why they were there, one replied, “You don’t ask that question.” But it doesn’t stop some from trying to understand. First lieutenant, Joseph Mazzocchi, executive officer under Captain Robert Yllescas, understood that the corruption, lying, and selfishness of Afghanis is characteristic of all people, not only those struggling to survive. He read Thomas Hobbes, who deemed people in their “natural” state to be intrinsically anarchical, every man pitted against every other. It is lessened (though never eliminated) by becoming socialized beyond immediate family and village.
Mazzochi was devastated when his captain, Bob Yllescas, was fatally injured by a targeted explosion set off when he stepped onto a bridge. The man who did it was captured, and when asked why, said, “For 400 dollars.” Yllescas’s killing and that of his predecessor, Capt. Tom Bostick, bolstered the status of the pay masters, whose goal was kick out Americans and grab power for themselves.
A longing for return to a sentimentally imagined primitive state, “the noble savage,” persuades some to swallow the wacky theory of Ayn Rand that selfishness is good for society. It goads Ron Paul to hark back to a vanished Eden. It animates the Tea Party’s true believers, also opportunists and jingos, as it once did John Birchers, America Firsters, and Isolationists. Lurking behind all are their pay masters, today Citizens United, the Koch Brothers, and a whole co-opting corrupting cohort whose goal is power.
Afghanistan is no different, but being in an earlier phase and at a distance, the pattern is easier for us to recognize.