Istalif is a mountain village known for hand-glazed pottery and fruit trees. It sits north of Kabul on the Shomali desert plain in Afghanistan. A river runs through the village with orchards on both sides, and elaborate stonework irrigation channels bring water to gardens on the ridges.
Ten years ago Noah Coburn came here for the first time. Today he is a professor of anthropology at Bennington college in Bennington, Vt., and about to release his newest book, “Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention,” from Stanford University Press — as he explained in an interview while doing field research in Tblisi.
But back then he was looking for a direction to travel. He graduated from Williams College in 2002 and took time to live and work in Turkey; it was a time of excitement among his colleagues, he said, when they felt Central Asia was opening to Western scholars.
Over the next few years Coburn headed south, looking for a focus for his research, and his advisor suggested Afghanistan, telling him no Western anthropologist had been there in 20 years and it was safe and would get safer. And for a brief time he was right. When Coburn came there in 2005, Istalif was in a fairly safe area. It was a Tajik area, he said; the Tajik people speak Persian and have centuries-old ties to Iran.
“I don’t claim to be anything other than lucky,” he said. “I got to Afghanistan while things were still good,” and not many Western scholars were coming there.
He centered his Ph.D. on Istalif. Hanging out in the bazaar, talking with potters and families running market stalls, he connected naturally with men in their 20s and 30s who were trying to figure out what to do with their lives, just as he was.
“To be a potter you have to be born into a potting family,” he said, and he met young men deciding whether to go into the craft — in one family with three sons, the eldest son became a potter, the middle son ran a stall in the bazaar and the youngest went to Kabul to find work. And the brother who left home was the most skilled potter of the three.
Coburn made friends and connections, and he learned to ask questions: how to set up a shop, how to arrange a marriage, how local road-building projects got funded or derailed. The village felt in many ways like Williamstown or small towns in Vermont, he said; families go way back, and local debates have gone on for many years.
With his connections, he could stay while conflict ramped up 2006 and 2007, and he could come back — he has put in more than five years of field research in Afghanistan, and time in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Istalif has changed since 2005.
“In the last ten years concrete buildings have shot up, and modern houses have scarred the landscape,” Coburn said.
And Afghanistan has changed violently. At the center of the Shomali the Bagram Airfield has become the largest U.S. military base in the country. Since 2001 the U.S. occupation has poured more than $1 Trillion into the occupation — and by many counts the occupation has made little progress.
Coburn has written about the war in the lives of Afghan families and about flawed attempts to hold elections. His new book takes on the occupation as a whole.
Many books have critiqued the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, he said, but “almost always the human element is missing — why did that guy make that choice on that day?
Most decisions were rational; they were made by smart people and made sense at the time, but they couldn’t come together and succeed.”
In “Losing Afghanistan” he enters development, diplomatic and military worlds, focusing on four people: three men he refers to by pseudonyms for their protection — a Navy SEAL, a young Afghan businessman and a wind energy engineer — and Ambassador Ronald Neumann.
Coburn chose these four because they each embodied an issue or a challenge for him — and he liked them. He liked talking with them and debating and not always agreeing, he said. They saw the structure they worked in breaking down or coming under attack, and they had no way to change it.
Coburn saw the occupation throwing together many different people and groups with different incentives. For a time the U.S. government armed local militias as police forces, he said, and U.S. military officers were evaluated on how many militia members they signed up — not on who they signed. In the same vein, a US AID contract mechanism evaluated developers on how many contracts they dealt with and how much money they spent, but not on the effectiveness of those programs.
Smaller organizations and projects have proved effective, he said. Agriculture has improved, and so has public health: By a conservative estimate, average life expectancy has gone up by 10 years since the U.S. came to Afghanistan. And in a country of 30 million people, the number of girls in schools has gone from zero to millions. He believes the effective programs were small ones — building a school, a clinic, an irrigation system.
But because developers had an incentive to spend on large programs, smaller programs could have trouble finding funding. Coburn talked with a wind engineer who liked to build, tinker and test projects but had a harder time earning grants.
He wanted to build local water pumps powered with wind energy, Coburn said. Wind energy is not useful for lights because the winds tend not to blow strongly at the right times, but wind energy is useful for irrigation because the wind rises at good times for watering the fields. These pumps would make new land arable. But the engineer needed about $100,000 to fund the project — and the U.S. embassy wanted to fund $12 million. The bureaucracy wouldn’t or couldn’t adapt to work with a project on a smaller scale.
To hear the perspective of someone administering contracts, Coburn turned to Ambassador Neumann, who was responsible for U.S.-sponsored police training. At one point the police had no weapons training, Neumann told him, because the contractor who was supposed to supply the bullets had not sent them. But the contract went through department of defense. The problem fell within Neumann’s responsibilities, and he had no way to remedy it.
As he moves beyond his new book, examining these conflicts has led Coburn to focus on the contractors themselves. In his research in this last year he has talked with many contractors, and especially with men from Nepal.
Contractors are private organizations who bring in labor from Eastern Europe and Asia, and they are also the men and women who work contract jobs.
At the height of the conflict, Afghanistan has seen as many as 150,000 troops and 225,000 contractors, he said. At the Bagram air base, private contractor guard the walls, cook the food and maintain the vehicles. The base has a massive international presence.
Across Afghanistan, Turks, Afghans, Indians, Georgians (Republic, not state), Americans and Pakistanis hold contract jobs — and many are women. Contractors can range from cooks and cleaners to public relations and logistics, Coburn said. They may work across the country, in development projects and military operations.
Private security contractors are replacing U.S. soldiers, he said. The U.S. does not want to see U.S. casualties, and having security contractors killed rarely brings the same outrage here.
Many of these security contractors come from Nepal. He has talked with some 160 contractors in his research so far, men and women, and more than 100 have been Nepali security.
“There’s a racial hierarchy in how much people get paid and where they end up working,” he said. “Nepalis are at the bottom.”
They come for long stretches. U.S. soldiers may spend one or two tours, one or two years, in Afghanistan, he said; a hard-core soldier may spend three or four with breaks in between. The contractors come for an average of eight years — eight continuous years without a break. And contracts can vary. A large base in the North can see no fighting, but a Southern outpost can take fire every day.
“Guys would sign up with no idea where they were going,” he said, “ a small installation or a major base with 20,000 people.”
They had no idea what they were getting into — and no control over what they got. Soldiers are protected under military law, Coburn said, but the legality and governing of contracts is murky. Many Nepalis who come to Afghanistan never receive a visa — if they leave the base they risk getting arrested and held in an Afghan jail. They can have their wages cut in half and have no choice but to accept the cut or to go home at a high cost.
“There’s a shame factor,” Coburn said. “If you’ve gone, you don’t want to come home as a failure. You’re supposed to make money, come back to your village and get a big house and marry.”
When they stay, they often have no benefits and no say. He has known people who were injured on the job, handed an envelope of cash and sent home. One man injured his legs severely enough to need metal rods put in; the procedure went wrong, and he has no recourse.
These many private contractors have also had varying and sometimes difficult relationships with the U.S., Coburn said, because they have different resources and perspectives.
In Afghanistan the U.S. has often left supply lines undefended, he said — U.S. troops would hold an area but not the roads to it. Contractors hired to bring supplies would be vulnerable to attack on the way. U.S. military in this position would fight to defend themselves, but the contractors’ best strategy often was to pay off the Taliban not to attack them.
Then they would take it one step further and pay the Taliban to attack at set times when the contractors knew the attack was coming — so they could raise their contract with the U.S. for facing real danger. They could also take the gas they were going to deliver and sell it on the black market.
With or without a payoff, the risk is real. Coburn knows a lot of navy SEALs leaving to do this kind of contract work.
“In the navy, when you get attached you call for backup,” he said. “When contractors get attacked and get on the radio, no one may come.”
And yet contract work can be a good option for a young Nepali. When Coburn has talked to U.S. soldiers, they have wanted to go home. Nepali contractors can make a good salary compared to their choices at home, and so they see an advantage in the conflict continuing.
As he has in “Losing Afghanistan,” in his new research Coburn wants to make the conflicts human. And he wants to show people in the U.S. how decisions made here have changed people’s lives 6,500 miles away. He recalled the same feeling in an exhibit he created at Bennington College in 2014 with artist Gregory Thielker (a fellow Williams alum) — “(Un)governed Spaces,” with images from the Shomali region and a soundtrack with background noise from Bagram.
He wanted to get Americans into an Afghan space, he said.
“We were going to have interviews, but we found that distracting, and when people heard ‘foreign’ voices they made assumptions about what they heard.”
So instead they filled the room with ambient noise: people walking, wind, cars.
“We were thinking about how to get Americans to think about these things,” he said. “Even when you have people who are passionately involved, it’s hard to transport people to these places so they understand what it means to be there.”
In his classes at Bennington he has Skyped with people in Afghanistan, asked their opinions around the elections and let his students ask questions.
Technology makes a difference in his work, he said. He can reach Afghanistan with a phone call. His advisor had to trek up mountains for three weeks to get to his field site.
Coburn knows he can reach Afghanistan, and Afghanistan can reach him — and he wants his students to know it too. He enjoys getting college kids to think about these conflicts, and he feels the need for it.
“America has been fighting two wars while we live here in these small towns,” he said.
“… In Afghanistan, tons of Afghan young people have Smartphones. They can look at the U.S. And what do they see?”
They see gun-filled country terrible with women.
From the orchards in Istalif, the U.S. may have a different image. It may look close to home.
The featured image at the top is ‘Charikar’ from ‘(Un)Governed Spaces,’ an exhibit of text and images inspired by the Shomali region of Afghanistan. Image courtesy of Gregory Thielker.