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Moats: Thoughts on Afghanistan

12/15/09 5:55PM By David Moats
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(HOST) The deployment of Vermont Guard members to Afghanistan has reminded commentator David Moats of the time he spend there as a young man.

(MOATS) I was reading about the Vermont Guard troops who are heading off for Afghanistan when it dawned on me.

It was 40 years ago this month when I went to Afghanistan - 22 years old, fresh out of college, with the best intentions and without a clue.

When we arrived at Christmastime, 1969, it seemed we had been dropped directly into the New Testament.

The snow was falling.

A shepherd was guiding his flock down the street outside the house where we went for Christmas Eve.

In 1969 Afghanistan was a dusty, forgotten place, and if someone had told us it would soon become an international battleground, we would have had trouble believing it.

I was teaching English in a town up north, and my whole approach was to understand the place as a novelist would - by understanding the people's lives - what morning was like for them, and evening; what foods were good; how did religion play out in their lives; in what ways were they happy or sad?

Meanwhile, at Kabul University, activist students, both communist and Islamic, were beginning to make trouble.

A few years later those same students would be leaders on both sides of a war that would go on for decades and destroy the country.

I saw this conflict brewing from the vantage point of a provincial town.

I knew a discontented young man who worked for a bank, smoked too much hashish and called himself a communist.

I knew a young man whose family sold motor oil in the bazaar - he was one of my best students, and he was firm and clear in his religious beliefs.

I saw life and death within the family of my cook, whose face showed the boundless joy at the birth of his son and became a mask of grief as he carried the tiny body of his boy to the cemetery a few months later.

Our Guard troops are going over there with the aim of helping ordinary life to flourish once again.

It's encouraging that the military leadership appears to understand they will succeed only if they get in at the village level, sit down with people and listen.

If they listen, they will learn what I learned - that the Afghan people have depths of decency, courage and graciousness that can be a lesson to us all.

It's not so easy. Out in the countryside people are illiterate and social institutions are undeveloped.

One time when I was involved in a project in a remote region, I was trying to get a group of workers to line up.

They had never heard of the idea of lining up, and they didn't know how to do it.

But in the morning when the sun is rising, when the tea is hot and the bread is warm, the Afghan people appreciate the simple gifts as deeply as anyone -
and given what they have been through over all these years, probably far more.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by David Moats on-line at VPR-dot-net.
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