Maija Liuhto | Longreads | September 2017 | 10 minutes (2875 words)
In the Old City of Kabul, there is an area known as Ka Forushi, the bird market. Visiting this old, roofed bazaar with its tiny lanes, spice sellers, and dancing boys is like walking into a scene out of “One Thousand and One Nights.”
It is here, among the clucking chickens, crowing roosters, and cooing doves, that Kabul’s oldest restaurant, Bacha Broot, has been serving delicious chainaki — traditional lamb stew — for over 70 years. Bacha Broot, named after the original owner who had peculiar facial hair, is from the Dari, meaning “boy with a mustache.”
While wars have raged on the restaurant’s doorstep, very little has changed inside. The claustrophobic stairs, the sparse interior, the tiny door easily missed in the maze-like bazaar; all in their original state. While modern fast food joints lure Afghanistan’s younger generations with pizza and burgers, Bacha Broot stays loyal to its recipe for success. The famous chainaki — lamb on the bone, split peas, and onions cooked for four hours in tiny teapots — has drawn customers for decades, during war and peace, good times and bad.
In Esquire, Brian Castner walks us through the case of Captain Noorullah Aminyar, an Afghan army officer seeking asylum in the U.S. following threats and retaliation by the Taliban that have already left his younger brother dead. He’s been in a Homeland Security detention center for three years now, his application subject to a system of immigration law that is both incredibly complex and incredibly capricious.
There is no legal definition of “de-facto government,” no clear standard that Borowski was asked to meet. U.S. asylum policy is administered case by case by several hundred immigration judges across the country. That makes decisions nonstandard, increasingly partisan, and—most frustratingly for the participants—unpredictable. Immigration judges have wide discretion, by design. “If I rob a bank and get arrested, I have a pretty good idea what my sentence will be,” said Alex Nowrasteh, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute, “but if I request asylum, anything might happen. The immigration legal code is second in complexity only to our federal income tax system.”
The Transactional Records Access Clearing House at Syracuse University publishes the asylum denial rates of every immigration judge. Those rates vary widely from judge to judge and city to city; for example, from 2011-2016, the El Paso, Texas court denied 96.6 percent of its 1,042 requests, while Arlington, Virginia approved 70.3 percent of its 3,717 cases.
Art Arthur, a fellow at the conservative Center for Immigration Studies and a former immigration judge (2011-2016 denial rate: 90.4 percent), said that his challenge as a judge was that “the law is very narrowly tailored. You want to be empathetic, to alleviate pain and protect someone. But asylum law doesn’t say that if something bad will happen to someone in their home country, they should be granted protection. There are specific guidelines, and it’s important to maintain fidelity to the law.” He is adamant that clear standards exist—”there’s fifty years of case law to follow,” he said—but he also admitted “at the end of the day, you can’t take human nature out of the system.”
Afterward, I wondered whether my father understood there was danger at the Afghan border. He thrived on adventure, had joined the Merchant Marine at age 16 and later driven his blue Alfa Romeo across Europe and a battered VW bus through the Serengeti. He was famous for making ill-considered decisions and delighted in emerging untouched from disaster. When I was a baby in England, he’d taken my mother out in a tiny sailboat and nearly capsized in a storm off the Cornish coast.
My father brought me with him to Pakistan in 1987, when I was 13, deeming me old enough to experience the developing world. He dashed off to his World Bank meetings while I sunbathed poolside in a raspberry colored tank-suit, sipping fizzy lemonade at our gated hotel. If I raised a hand, a silent waiter brought me sweet-and-sour chicken. Deep in my teenage cocoon, I listened to Madonna on my Walkman, applied Coppertone oil SPF 2, and spoke to no one. By the third day I had a sunburn and cried myself to sleep slathered in aloe.
It feels important that I’m the only one left who knows the bomb story. My dad is dead and my mom has dementia and can’t remember or articulate the past. Now the keepers of my childhood are gone, all I have is my own chinked memory, with imaginative caulking to fill in the gaps.
In The Atlantic in 2014, James Fallows examined how Americans and political leaders became so disconnected from those who serve in the military—and the consequences of that disconnect:
If I were writing such a history now, I would call it Chickenhawk Nation, based on the derisive term for those eager to go to war, as long as someone else is going. It would be the story of a country willing to do anything for its military except take it seriously. As a result, what happens to all institutions that escape serious external scrutiny and engagement has happened to our military. Outsiders treat it both too reverently and too cavalierly, as if regarding its members as heroes makes up for committing them to unending, unwinnable missions and denying them anything like the political mindshare we give to other major public undertakings, from medical care to public education to environmental rules. The tone and level of public debate on those issues is hardly encouraging. But for democracies, messy debates are less damaging in the long run than letting important functions run on autopilot, as our military essentially does now. A chickenhawk nation is more likely to keep going to war, and to keep losing, than one that wrestles with long-term questions of effectiveness.
Americans admire the military as they do no other institution. Through the past two decades, respect for the courts, the schools, the press, Congress, organized religion, Big Business, and virtually every other institution in modern life has plummeted. The one exception is the military. Confidence in the military shot up after 9/11 and has stayed very high. In a Gallup poll last summer, three-quarters of the public expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the military. About one-third had comparable confidence in the medical system, and only 7 percent in Congress.
Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”
Ms. Triplett’s pension, small as it is, stands as a reminder that war’s bills don’t stop coming when the guns fall silent. The VA is still paying benefits to 16 widows and children of veterans from the 1898 Spanish-American War.
The last U.S. World War I veteran died in 2011. But 4,038 widows, sons and daughters get monthly VA pension or other payments. The government’s annual tab for surviving family from those long-ago wars comes to $16.5 million.
Spouses, parents and children of deceased veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan received $6.7 billion in the 2013 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Payments are based on financial need, any disabilities, and whether the veteran’s death was tied to military service.
Those payments don’t include the costs of fighting or caring for the veterans themselves. A Harvard University study last year projected the final bill for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would hit $4 trillion to $6 trillion in the coming decades…
A declaration of war sets in motion expenditures that can span centuries, whether the veterans themselves were heroes, cowards or something in between.
—Michael M. Phillips, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Phillips profiled Irene Triplett, the last living recipient of VA benefits connected to the Civil War. According to Phillips, Triplett, who is 84, “collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service—in the Civil War,” which ended in 1865.
What does the future hold for Afghanistan after the Americans leave? Some fear that the country’s army won’t be able to stop another civil war from erupting:
Many Afghans fear that NATO has lost the will to control the militias, and that the warlords are reëmerging as formidable local forces. Nashir, the Khanabad governor, who is the scion of a prominent family, said that the rise of the warlords was just the latest in a series of ominous developments in a country where government officials exercise virtually no independent authority. ‘These people do not change, they are the same bandits,’ he said. ‘Everything here, when the Americans leave, will be looted.’
Nashir grew increasingly vehement. ‘Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin,’ he said. ‘This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government.’ Nashir rattled off the names of some of the country’s best-known leaders—some of them warlords—and the areas they come from: ‘Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don’t happen, you can burn my bones when I die.’
Inside the Emergency Surgical Center for War Victims, a hospital in Afghanistan that’s funded by an Italian NGO and is committed to helping all victims:
Last year, Emergency’s three hospitals and 34 clinics across Afghanistan treated nearly 360,000 patients. During the course of reporting this article, after visiting these facilities and meeting a number of these patients, I began to wonder how such a responsibility had fallen to a small, modestly financed Italian NGO. This, of course, was connected to a larger question: What is our responsibility to the Afghans who are maimed, burned, disabled and disfigured by a war we started and can’t seem to end?
According to NATO, even civilians who are injured during operations by U.S. or other coalition forces are only ‘entitled to receive emergency care if there is threat to their life, limb or eyesight.’ In such cases, ‘discharge or transfer to an appropriate Afghan civilian facility is recommended as soon as the patient is stabilized.’ On paper, this might appear to make sense; after all, the United States and other foreign donors have invested vast sums of money in Afghanistan’s public health system. But given the poor quality of care, scarcity of equipment and pervasive graft that still defines most government hospitals, ‘discharge or transfer’ can look a lot like abandonment.
Sam Brown, a soldier badly burned in an IED explosion in Afghanistan, undergoes an experimental treatment to ease his pain through a virtual reality game called “SnowWorld”:
When they first lowered the goggles over his eyes, Brown was not all that impressed. He found himself floating through a kind of glacial canyon, but the overall vibe was pretty kiddie. Snowflakes wheeled gently from a digital sky. Snowmen and penguins lined up on ledges along the fjord. The soundtrack was kind of lame, too. Kind of an upbeat chirpy world music, a catchy-against-your-will kind of thing that he’d never heard before. If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your loo-ong lost pal, the lyrics went.
But there was no question Sam felt very much inside this Disneyesque world on ice, and it was a hell of a lot better than being present while they yanked and pulled at his petrified shoulders. So he tried to get into the game. A few milligrams of Dilaudid didn’t hurt.
The battlefield honor, which he knew his son would have cherished, did nothing to ease Dave Brostrom’s anguish. Beyond the grief, he felt a heart-crushing mix of anger, guilt, and betrayal. The anger was unfocused but rooted in his earlier suspicions that his son’s platoon had been inadequately supported and directed. The guilt was more insidious and ran deep. He felt terrible for how the lifetime of competition between himself and Jonathan had fed his son’s ambition. He felt guilty about having pulled strings to get Jonathan into the 173rd. That was where the sense of betrayal was rooted. He had done his homework before approaching Preysler. In 2007 all of the official reports from Afghanistan had been rosy. The fighting was all but over, the assessments read; the work was all humanitarian projects and nation building. Brostrom now saw that as propaganda, and he had fallen for it.
The elders estimated that more than 100 families had fled Shahabuddin because of the local police. The people were defenseless, they said, and indeed they all seemed cowed and frightened. But before we parted ways, one of them, with a note of defiance, assured me: “Nur-ul Haq has no place in this province. As long as the foreign troops are here, he is king. The minute they go, he should leave the country.” Another agreed: “I bet he can’t stay for one night in Baghlan if there are no foreign troops.” Grinning at the prospect, the old man added, “The people will rise against him.”