21 February 2009

Soldiering is a job; the bosses come and go

Men with guns are everywhere in Afghanistan. Armed soldiers represent the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, the N ATO-led security and development mission; the U.S. Army, and the Afghan National Army. The national police and private security forces are armed; so too but less visible are members of the Taliban and the criminal networks. Security for my residence includes at least one guard brandishing an AK-47 at all times.

For many, soldiering and security work is just another means of employment, albeit a dangerous one. I recently met an Afghan solider, who I will call Habibullah. I guessed him to be in his early 30s. He said he had been a soldier for many years and served under the Taliban, until it was driven out of power in 2001 after ruling most of Afghanistan for about five years. He continued soldiering under the new government led by President Hamid Karzai. As a member of the Afghan National Army (ANA), he served in Tora Bora, the area in eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan from which Osama bin Laden evaded U.S. and NATO forces. He was shot and wounded by Al-Qaeda forces, he explained, pulling up a pant leg to reveal his prosthetic limb.

Habibullah said he is paid about $100 a month, from which he supports his family, which includes a wife and child, his parents, and two younger siblings, who live far enough away from where he was most recently stationed that he seldom saw them. One of the last times he returned to his hometown, he was stopped and questioned by soldiers of the Taliban, which has regained control of large areas of the country, particularly in the southern provinces. They wanted to know his reason for being in the city, what kind of work he had, and asked for his identification. Habibullah said was unemployed and disabled, showed them his artificial leg, and explained he was only visiting family members. He did not have his ID card, which would have indicated he was an ANA soldier. That omission probably saved his life, he said.

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