This Is What Winning Looks Like: Ben Anderson’s Afghanistan War Diary
above: US Specialist Christopher Saenz looks out over the landscape during a patrol outside the village of Musa Qala, Helmand province. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)
Ididn’t plan on spending six years covering the war in Afghanistan. I went there in 2007 to make a film about the vicious fighting between undermanned, underequipped British forces and the Taliban in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province. But I became obsessed with what I witnessed there—how different it was from the conflict’s portrayal in the media and in official government statements.
All I had to do was trek out to one of the many tiny, isolated patrol bases that dot the barren, sunbaked landscape and hang out with British infantry troops to see the chaotic reality of the war firsthand: firefights that lasted entire days, suicide bombers who leaped onto unarmored jeeps from behind market stalls, IEDs buried everywhere, and bombs dropped onto Afghans’ homes, sometimes with whole families of innocent civilians inside.
In 2006, when troops were sent into Helmand, British command didn’t think there’d be much fighting at all. The mission was simple: “Facilitate reconstruction and development.” The UK Defense Secretary John Reid even said he hoped the army could complete their mission “without a single shot being fired.”
But with each year that followed, casualties and deaths rose as steadily as the local opium crop. Thousands more British troops were deployed, then tens of thousands of US soldiers, at the request of General Stanley McChrystal, following a six-month review of the war after President Obama took office. Still, the carnage and confusion continued unabated. Suicide bombings increased sevenfold. Every step you took might reveal yet another IED.
In February 2013, on his last day at the helm of NATO forces in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen described what he thought the war’s legacy will be: ‘‘Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory, this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.’’
The US and British forces are preparing to leave Afghanistan for good (officially, by the end of 2014), and my time in the country over the last six years has convinced me that our legacy will be the exact opposite of what Allen posits—not a stable Afghanistan, but one at war with itself yet again. Here are a few encapsulated snapshots of what I’ve seen and what we’re leaving behind.
It’s All Going to Be All Right
About two months after writing this article, on the 26th of December, Nicola lost the uneven battle against cancer, which he describes below in the most humane and open account we have seen. His aim was to take your mind away from the sanitized brochures of hospitals and fake True Hollywood Story specials dedicated to celebrity cancer survivors. The people who edited and published this text had the honor of meeting him and, some, of being his friends. Rest in Peace, Coco! You’ll always be an inspiration to us.
I’m sitting in the hospital crapper, laptop on my knees, writing this, while a full-on orgy is taking place to my right. Six pigeons are fucking on the windowsill about a foot away from me, while ten more bombard the tin roof with bird shit. I guess I’m just going to have to look for inspiration in the 12-foot high heap of rotting trash that’s been piling up in the hospital yard. I look toward the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, where Vitosha mountain lies and realize it’s all ablaze with forest fires—that just makes my heart sink. At that very moment my chemo constipation turns into chemo diarrhea, accompanied by a profuse nosebleed, lively convulsions, and muscle spasms, and the inspiration is gone before it has even arrived.
I’ve told myself the title of this article has to be Everything’s Going to Be All Right. It’s a promise that makes me feel better—much better, actually. Then again, I can’t stop wondering how many miles I still have to swim against the current with my mouth open, in a river full of shit. Having faith in the bright days of your future does nothing to make up for when fate’s boner finally rubs against your back, cutting your skin in the most inappropriate places. Then nothing is really all right any more.
I’m basically old in every way but my age. In the space of just a few months, I have suffered from every illness and ailment known to man. At one point, breathing while lying down became impossible so I had to sleep in an armchair, sitting down with my arms crossed against my chest. Finally, I was attacked by a vicious cough, which I decided to cure with vodka, wine, and bad folk music at a two-day-long party somewhere in the Bulgarian countryside. Pneumonia, I thought. You wish I were pneumonia, thought the tumor. The pulmonologist was baffled: “I’m not gonna lie, dude, it’s huge. This tumor weighs about 4.5 pounds. It’s almost as big as your head. Go get a CAT scan and keep your fingers crossed—there’s a chance it might be benign.”
You know how sometimes you read insider accounts from people with glamorous jobs, and even though they telling you that it’s hard work and not all that it’s cracked up to be, you still come away feeling like, jeeeez, I wish I could be a model?