Learning from ‘Camp Victory, Afghanistan’

Preparing to embed with the Minnesota National Guard’s Agribusiness Development Team in Zabul Province, Afghanistan (ZADT) has given me reason to seek out and watch documentaries about the Afghan war, the Afghan culture and the Afghan people.  Recently I watched Camp Victory, Afghanistan.  Camp Victory is a film that makes filmmakers, people in media, tv producers pause.  The scope is of the film is awesome.  Shot over the course of five years it is primarily made up of vérité interviews between two people and a translator.  The take away message for me involved seeing news clips of past Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama all mention Afghanistan as being everything from a concern to a priority of the American government.  Realizing that President Carter took office when I was one year and four months old helps me realize how long it has been since Afghanistan knew peace.

The film looks at the relationship General Fazil Ahmad Sayar (the link is a posthumous Facebook tribute page), the leader of the Afghan National Army at Camp Victory, has with his US and NATO provided advisers.  At the time of filming Sayar was 58 years old and had been in the Afghan Army since he was 13.  He is visibly tired.  Deep creases and wrinkles cover his face.  His eyes show the strain of life.  Over the course of the five-year production he is advised by a number of Colonels from various National Guard units.  Each time a Unit changes over (about every 10 months) we see how difficult it is for the new Colonel to connect with Sayar.  It often takes Sayar weeks before he cracks a smile in the presence of the new Colonel.  It’s a new assignment for the Colonel, but it is Sayar’s life.  He’s seen it all before.  Sayar knows his troops are not well-trained, they are not educated, they are not Troops in the sense that Americans think of Troops.  The National Guard soldiers work with the Afghan National Army (ANA), it’s not an easy process.  For those of you who know me I can say I saw a bit of myself in the ANA.  I posses no ability to shoot a gun, I do push-ups poorly and I don’t run well.  Fortunately the similarities end there.  I, unlike the members of the ANA, am not drawn to the ANA because of the promise of an extra $30 a week.  I’m not asked to decide between living with my family and hoping for the best or leaving my family to be trained by people I do not know anything about in hopes of maybe, one day, creating a better future for generations of Afghans I will never meet.

COL Michael Shute

COL Michael Shute (Camp Victory, Afghanistan)

The film primarily focuses on the relationship between Sayar and a, now retired, Colonel from the New Jersey National Guard, Michael Shute.  Together they team up to provide viewers with a number of poignant teaching moments.  Moments I did not know anything about.  This war is like no other.  No amount of money is going to win this war.  When Sayar is told that during a certain period of time 33 million dollars has been spent in his province of Herat, he asks, simply, “where did it go?”.

Afghans old enough to remember the Soviet War see American and NATO armored vehicles roll through and they likely think back to when the Soviets rolled through with similar vehicles.  The film did a good job juxtaposing these images.  The similarities, especially from the perspective of a nomadic clan of Afghans, are eerily similar, they may not comprehend the difference in motivation between the Soviets of the 1970s and 80s and the US/NATO forces of today.  This war will not be won with tanks, helicopters and drones, but with education, relationships and support.

Just as the National Guard units in this film provided guidance and friendship and not simply weapons and bullets I feel that even before I see what the ZADT is doing  their work is being done in a similar vein.  In my mind I relate it to the parable of giving a man a fish versus teaching a man how to fish.

A point Sayar brings up in the film will stick with me as I see the Minnesota National Guard work alongside Afghans to help them better understand some agricultural techniques and ideas, that point is, if Afghans are unhappy with their government, and see little progress being made they are likely to turn to the Taliban, on the other hand if progress is being made and Afghans feel they are better off today than they were yesterday it is less likely the Taliban will gain, or regain, a foothold.

I will be embedding with the ZADT in April, 2012.  If you would like to receive periodic updates as I prepare for and make this trip please follow, or subscribe to Ten Days in the Sand, (it will actually be 14 days) and posts will be e-mailed to you.