Last spring, the remains of 10 missing Afghan villagers were dug up outside a U.S. Special Forces base – was it a war crime or just another episode in a very dirty war?
Above: Drug addicts gather by the hundreds under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in west Kabul to shoot up, smoke, buy, and sell.
Below: This former Afghan soldier who calls himself Shir Shaw lives under the Pul-i-sokhta Bridge in Kabul, shooting up during the day and hustling for money at night.
Stepping Lightly in Afghanistan’s Soviet Tank Graveyard
“The Afghans have a saying,” said Captain Vosnos, swinging the muzzle of his rifle in a wide arc, “that after God created the Earth, he had bunch of rocks and sand left over, so he made Afghanistan.” That described the Kabul Military Training Center grounds perfectly. I had first arrived at the facility earlier in the week to see Afghanistan’s finest military cadets execute elegant ambushes, neutralize IEDs, and blast paper targets with machine guns under the rude sun. The background to these exercises, quite appropriately, was the expansive plain we were now standing on—a brown landscape strewn with decaying tanks and equipment abandoned by the Soviets back in 1989 at the end of their decade-long failed invasion.
I had come here to photograph the rusted mountain of Soviet military hardware lurking on the center’s grounds, but before I even got out my camera, we had to get rid of the dogs who hang around the wreckage in ragged packs, which is what Vosnos was here for.
“I’ve got 30 rounds in my M-4 and 15 in my Baretta,” he said. “So we can handle 45 dogs, but the 46th is gonna be a bitch.” The dog pack in front of us, hearing this, began to growl even louder. Most of them, I had been told, are rabid—and the canine carcasses littering the area attested to that.
Introducing the Holding Court Issue, October 2013
Sometimes our friends will ask us why they should subscribe to the magazine—pretty much everything that appears in print also appears online, they say, and print is a dying medium anyway. Then they ask to borrow our car, because our friends are fucking assholes.
If you want to know why the physical copy of the magazine is worth it, locate a copy of this month’s Holding Court issue (a map of selected distribution points can be found here) and take a look at the cover by Marcel Dzama, which you can check out above in its ones-and-zeros version. Online it looks pretty good, but in real life the halo around the dude-with-a-baby-for-a-head’s head/baby shimmers in the light and you can make out the subtle muddy bloodstains on the arrow-filled body hanging from the ceiling. It’s the kind of strange painting you’d want to cut out and put on your wall, only you can’t if you’re just looking at it on your computer like a putz.
Other stuff that’s worth seeing in print:
The pictures of Irving Zisman, a.k.a. Johnny Knoxville, as the horny septuagenarian parties with some young lasses 50 years his junior.
War correspondent Robert King’s photo essay on Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, which is home to 120,000 displaced Syrians.
Kevin Site’s travelogue of Afghanistan as the US military finally prepares to leave for good (spoiler: the country ain’t doing so well).
VICE editor Wilbert L. Cooper’s examination of the thriving culture of scrap metal thieves in Cleveland.
If all that stuff doesn’t convince you that a paper version of the magazine is worth getting, look out for our iPad edition which is chock full of amazing extras including exclusive videos and pictures…
Swimming with Warlords – After Twelve Years of War, a Road Trip Through Afghanistan
nder the cover of a moonless night in mid-October 2001, I found myself loading thousands of pounds of camera equipment and supplies onto a giant pontoon boat on the northern bank of the Amu Darya River. The pontoons were normally used to carry weapons to the northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban on the other side of the water. With all the gear and colleagues, there didn’t seem to be any room left on that raft for allegory, but I remembered feeling like one of the damned souls of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, about to be ferried across the River Acheron to hell. The American air strikes had begun, and I was headed into Afghanistan.
I was dispatched by NBC News only one week after Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terror network attacked the US, crashing planes into the Pentagon and the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. I arrived in Afghanistan in October to bear witness to America’s righteous anger and retribution. It was swift and unrelenting.
In my first month on the ground, I watched as the US obliterated al Qaeda’s bases and, with the help of its Northern Alliance allies—a mix of mostly ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara Afghans—toppled the Taliban government that had hosted them. But the war, as we well know, did not end there.
I returned to Afghanistan in June for my fifth visit, on the eve of the planned 2014 withdrawal of foreign troops (a joint security agreement will likely keep some US military personnel there past the deadline) in attempt to understand what had happened to the country in the 12 years since I first set foot there and what might happen this time, after I left.
CSI Afghanistan: Solving Murders in a War Zone
The man’s headless body was found sprawled in the middle of a road in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province. Pinned to his chest was a bloodstained note that read: “Anyone who attends this man’s funeral can expect the same fate.” The Afghan National Police had suspects, but nobody was talking. That’s when they called the nation’s first and only forensics laboratory, the Criminal Techniques Department in Kabul.
The CTD gave the case to Noorullah Sangarkhil, their document-exploitation expert. Using a highly specialized $98,000 machine consisting of specialized lights and digital sensors his NATO instructors had trained him on, Noorullah was able to match the handwriting on the note to the handwriting of one of the suspects the police had apprehended. Thanks to the murderer’s capture, the headless victim’s funeral was well attended.
I traveled to the CTD with a six-man military escort. Here in Afghanistan—an environment of frequent insider attacks—the amount of armor NATO soldiers choose to wear is a good indicator of how they feel about the Afghans they’re dealing with. Once we arrived at the lab, the soldiers shed everything but their rifles, leaving their heavy, ceramic-plated vests and ballistic helmets inside our up-armored SUVs. “We’re here a lot,” explained US Senior Advisor David Jacobson, “These are good guys who care about what they do. I mean, they actually show up for work every day, which in this country isn’t always the case.”
You who judge me
I hope you burn alive and become dust
I hope you are destroyed and disappear from this universe
Your days and nights filled with sorrow and pain
Tear open my chest and see what is inside
Only then can you understand
Reading Taliban Love Poems in an Afghan Prison
We twisted up into the sky beneath a blur of rotors—mum in the numb motor din. The shadow of our helicopter flit below, yawing in the undulations of the sorrel earth, hurtling peaks, and hurling into dark valleys.
My military escort Lieutenant Cartagena and I took off from Mazar-i-Sharif, a city built 900 years ago in desolation—the site revealed in a prophetic dream. From the scattered earthen villages that passed beneath our craft to the army outpost we sought, every settlement seemed tinged with that same fantastic quality—accidents of life in a dead land.
We reunited with our shadow on the airstrip of a base in Baghlan province that I am not permitted to name. I jumped onto the tarmac, squinting through the heat blast. We had come to witness the successful passage of a NATO prison and military base into Afghan hands.
The American soldiers of Blackfoot Troop bounded out to meet us. They were tall and strong, engendering visions of Thanksgiving dinners in places like Battle Creek, Michigan, and Louisville, Kentucky. There was Lieutenant King, Sergeant Morgan, and their corpsman Specialist Singer. They welcomed us by asking our blood types—something practical and still somehow strangely intimate. They hustled us away, out of sight of the mountains, through the gauntlet of concrete T-walls and gravel-filled HESCO barriers that formed the outpost.