Mark Wagner recently returned home to Oregon from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Here he shares some of his experiences as part of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. Thank you for your service, Mark, and for sharing your perspective with us!
After September 11, 2001 I was moved to join the U.S. Army Reserves with the hope that I could somehow defend this country against the terrorists who flew planes into the face of our freedom. I volunteered to be deployed with the 341st Military Intelligence Battalion out of Ft. Lewis, Washington to Afghanistan from January 2005 to January 2006.
Once over there, I started to realize how very different the war on terrorism is from wars past. Rather than flying in combat and fighting battles, this war is more about battling an extreme ideology and bringing freedom and prosperity to a poor uneducated country. It is hard to know who is your enemy and who is your friend in this war. The people only help the terrorists out of fear, desperation, or lack of knowledge about the U.S. After spending nine months imbedded with the Afghan National Army in the capital, Kabul, I began to understand that spreading freedom to the people of Afghanistan is the best way to protect our freedom at home.
My mission, among other things, was to act as an emissary, which forced me to learn a great deal about the Afghan culture. One thing that cannot be understated is that gaining the trust of the people plays a vital role in sharing our freedom and economic prosperity. They are starting to realize we are not there to take them over but to let them take back their own country. The idea that the U.S. would pull out prematurely would not only be devastating for the Afghans, but also would have extremely negative consequences for the relationships we built over the last six years.
I remember the first meeting we had with the head officer of the Afghan National Army. We asked him questions regarding the situation, and his primary concern was the uncertainty of U.S. involvement. In his opinion, the contentious and repetitive negative news being reported from the United States would only discourage locals from cooperating, and in many cases it would lead to locals turning and supporting Taliban/terrorist elements out of fear that their return to power was inevitable. His concern falls in line with a Canadian poll, which found that only 14% of Afghans wish for the immediate withdrawal of international troops, and an overwhelming percentage felt that international support should stay until order is fully restored.
As part of our bringing economic prosperity to the country, much of our down time was spent at the local bazaars. This is where the locals are allowed to come on base, set up makeshift stands and sell their goods. There are a couple lessons I learned from these bazaars. My first lesson was that you should never pay asking price; you have to haggle or else you become known as a pushover. My second was that rarely are the 100-year-old coins and weapons actually authentic (Afghans actually are well known for producing “authentic reproductions”). However, on a global scale, many investors are looking to Afghanistan as an excellent source of oil, natural gas, and copper, as well as precious stones. As stability is brought to the country, prosperity soon will follow.
Part of winning over the support of the Afghans has surprisingly been through the treatment of prisoners. It seems that the general belief in the United States is that we are harming our reputation by how we treat prisoners, but I believe it is just the opposite.
There is no question that the U.S. treats the prisoners, at least the ones I had access to, extremely well and in some cases better than what they deserve. Many of those who are detained are just uneducated, poor farmers who, when faced with starvation, chose to side with terrorists because they were offered money in exchange for their cooperation.
When in prison, they have access to three meals a day, medical care, a warm place to sleep, access to the Koran, and in some cases they are even taught how to read. When given the opportunity to write home, which is mandated by the International Red Cross, many speak of the fact that “Americans aren’t bad like we were told.” I believe that the way we treat the prisoners ultimately will pay dividends. Eventually, many will be released, due to lack of evidence or lack of room; and how they were treated will reach others, hopefully discouraging them from siding with the terrorists. Our actions build trust when they see we are there to help and not to take over their country.
While there were a couple times I was concerned for my safety (like driving around in a Ford Escape, making us easily identifiable, since the only cars available to the locals were Toyotas), I generally felt protected. One statistic that continues to amaze me, and yet it doesn’t get nearly enough attention, is the extremely low number of casualties the U.S. has endured since the liberation of Afghanistan. In our six years there, there have been approximately 300 U.S. combat casualty related deaths, with 470 overall deaths. While there is no question that any loss of life is regrettable, the extremely low death toll speaks volumes of the professionalism and expertise that is the U.S. military.
My experience was one that I will always remember, and I am deeply honored to have been there to assist in the rebuilding effort. We as a country owe so much to the people of Afghanistan and their willingness to combat the Soviet Union, which played a key role in ending the Cold War. My hope is that as Americans, we continue to support our troops’ mission abroad and continue to help the great people of Afghanistan.
Read Greatest Generation(s): Ordinary Young People, Remarkable Bravery by WWII veteran Gene Hickok here.