Khan used to tell us that his mother only breast fed him for six months, and yet he was well over six feet tall and two hundred pounds, an absolute giant among Afghans. He joked that if she had breast fed him longer, he might have been the strongest man on earth. As he stood, he was the strongest human being I had ever met.
He lived in a village resting alongside a braided riverbed almost adjacent to a large American airfield. It was well understood by his villagers that the Americans were always watching with their cameras—we weren’t, but rumor and suspicion reigned among them—and it brought an unintentional benefit. Insurgents stayed far away, choosing instead to shoot mortars and rockets from a safer distance on the desert plain. Also, the Americans paved the road to the nearby district center. They built a bridge to traverse the river, which was often dry but could swell mightily in the spring.
It was a desolate, treeless stretch of country, and most of the villagers in the area were farmers, herders or shopkeepers. When we’d pass through the adobe compounds of the village, the children would wave and chase our vehicles, hoping for us to throw them candy. Turbaned old men with orange, henna-dyed beards watched suspiciously. If you ever saw a woman, she was wearing a burqa and moving swiftly away. The people were cordial enough, but the overwhelming sentiment that you felt from them was that they wanted only to be left alone. They didn’t want to have to take sides.
Khan’s village was the exception. Their proximity to the site of a growing US airfield afforded them the presence of USAID money, provincial reconstruction team projects and responsive security. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but they were better off than many in the province. They could find jobs on the US base if they wanted. They could easily drive to Ghazni or Kabul on the paved road. They might even work for the Afghan government, as Khan did. In this tiny pocket of hope in a landscape of despair, things were working out for them.
Khan looked like the lead singer from Les Savy Fav, but he wore a white cap, leather sandals and an oil-stained set of cotton pajamas. He drove a 125cc Honda motorcycle with decorative hologram decals showing pierced hearts, colorful birds and the ever present Arabic script reading mashallah (God has willed it). He was gentle and spoke with a soft voice—he claimed to have become calm after having been electrocuted so many times. He was a self-taught electrician and generator mechanic in a land centuries removed from the concept of occupational hazards and safety. And, for my soldiers and me, he was our savior, because without him we would have been helpless.
To any American soldier in Afghanistan he looked like just another Afghan. Another Muslim, another potential terrorist, another Talib, another asshole with his hand out. Some guys called them hajj or haji. I wouldn’t let my guys do it because I knew it was said with contempt, like gook or chink or nip had been in past wars. In truth, a lot of Afghan men have the honorific title of haji because they have made (or claim to have made) the pilgrimage to Mecca, but it doesn’t take a genius to understand that it’s become a racist term. It used to bother me to think of the National Guard base next to my compound and the level of casual hatred they were able to produce towards all Afghans. At times, I worried that Khan might get hurt.
A few months into my new job, the National Guard guys accidentally shot a 13-year-old boy of a bicycle. They claimed to have been conducting a test fire and that the round was a ricochet, but I had seen the test-fire pit before and knew was an idiotic excuse. Whether malicious or not, it didn’t really matter—the soldier who shot the kid was sent home, and they considered it a done deal after paying the boy’s family $1300. That’s what Khan’s life would have been worth. And we say: what can we do? It’s a war.
The governor of our province paid Khan $128 a month for his services. He kept the generators running and the wiring in order for the governor’s compound. This was no small feat: every Afghan government apparatchik wanted his own power connection to his quarters, and they would convince the provincial Afghan National Police commander or Afghan National Army commander to pressure Khan into splicing a power connection to their rooms in the sprawling government compound. They wanted to charge their cell phones or watch TV on black-market satellite connections. They wanted to use electric space heaters, the red-painted Chinese tinderboxes that could never pass a safety inspection in the US. The power demands kept increasing, and Khan just kept splitting and splicing wires to suit their needs. He had no budget for supplies, so he just tied off the split ends of wires and made a note to never touch the connections. His breaker room looked like a deathtrap, like a tangled web of smoking wire and conduit. Somehow, it all worked.
Khan paid out of pocket, but he also had a wife and five children at home in his village. He heated his barracks room with a woodstove burning kindling that he bought himself. He only went home to see his family on Fridays, the Islamic holy day. He was afraid that someone would see him driving back and forth from the government compound. Besides, if the generators went out in the night, who would fix them? He had to be on call, he said. It was his job.
For all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent monthly by the US in Afghanistan, it was almost impossible for us to fund the purchase of new generators. No one could figure out what kinds of monies were required for a joint Afghan-American compound. We had two 35kW sets on our lot that we could rotate every twelve hours, but as the summer turned to fall and the temperatures dropped, the power demand in the governor’s compound grew overwhelming. The generators were stalling out, and we were losing electricity. Without it, our radios wouldn’t work, and the purpose of us living with the Afghan military and trying to build a provincial emergency response center was lost. Strolling around the crumbling concrete walls and sagging razor wire of the governor’s compound and the police headquarters, my soldiers and I stumbled upon two abandoned 120kW generators that had been purchased by a failed Afghan cell phone start-up. We hired a forklift to move them, and within a week Khan had them both working again. We drew fuel from a nearby US airbase. Our power problems went away because Khan wanted to help us, and had he not been willing, there was nothing in the logistical leviathan of the war that could have taken his place.
He risked his life, too. One time, as he was running an errand on his motorcycle, he spotted a car on the side of the road rigged with explosives. He pulled over and feigned helping the guy fix the broken-down car—he was actually making it worse so that the guy couldn’t get away. He came back to the office out of breath; he walked into our office and tugged at me, in his gentle way, “Na-tan. Na-tan. Tarjiman paida wukawu.” Let’s find an interpreter. When we reported the incident, my battalion operations center wanted a map coordinate. Khan couldn’t read, but we showed him how to record a grid on a GPS unit. I expected him to say no, but he drove back out with a bottle of water as if to fill the guy’s radiator and plugged the grid. The Afghan police rolled up on the would-be bomber and arrested him. Khan laughed when he told us the story.
There were snowy nights when the generators died, and I would see Khan outside with a headlamp wrenching away at the engines. His bare feet were clad only in open-toed sandals; he had no gloves. He told us to get inside and stay warm. People asked, what if Khan is working for the Taliban? Maybe he was. Maybe they threatened him and his family and he had no choice. Maybe he was a sleeper. If he did work for them, he was a better actor than I’ve ever met in my life.
Our building was built by USAID in 2004, but by 2009 it was utterly ravaged. We had to repair it ourselves, which made for a lot of projects when the weather held. If we were digging a ditch, Khan would join us and out-dig the nineteen- and twenty-year-old soldiers in my charge. He’d make fun of us because we were all smokers and were weaker than him, a thirty-eight-year-old man. If we were hauling wood, sawing, painting, doing construction—whatever the task at hand—Khan was there. We used to ask him why he wanted to help the Americans. He said that he wanted Afghanistan to be strong, and at least the Americans weren’t trying to keep it weak like Pakistan, Russia or China. We asked him why he didn’t ask the governor for a raise—clearly he was a valuable asset—and he simply said, “If I had more money, I would buy stupid things with it. I have enough for my family right now, and I’m doing fine.”
We knew he was lying, though. He was an electrician but he didn’t own a generator in his own house. It could have been worse—his parents had both died in the war with the Russians, and he was happy to have what he did—but in truth he lived in utter poverty. So, when our families asked us what we wanted for Christmas, we told them to send us pots and pans, dishes, plates, towels and, most importantly, money. My senior sergeant’s parents sent him a few kids’ games like Hungry Hungry Hippos and Connect-Four. We raised money among each other, and when we had about $150, we had our interpreter go to a restaurant in town and place an order. We told Khan that he should bring his kids to the compound on the day after Christmas. He brought the oldest four, but of course he left his wife at home—that was what Pashtun decorum required.
The restaurant made us Kabuli Palau, the national dish of Afghanistan. It’s a brown basmati rice pilaf with stewed orange rinds and raisins. They made us spiced meatballs, kebabs, lentil curry and unleavened bread discs. We bought Afghan soft drinks in oversize bottles: one was called Pamir Cola and the other was an orange drink called Pebsi. The children’s eyes grew large when they saw the food; it was obvious to us that they didn’t eat like that often. They made quick work of it. They were beautiful children, and of a strange ethnicity. Khan’s complexion and features were like that of a southern European or a Roma, but his children had bright blue-green eyes and light skin. His daughters were eight and six, but already wore hijabs. His son was four and had a traditional sheepskin coat. And yet there they were, bellies full, laughing and playing Hungry Hungry Hippos like kids anywhere else in the world. We got the police to drop them off at the end of the day, replete with all the games, house wares and leftovers. If you ask me for my proudest moment from the war, it was that we did this. It was a way of telling Khan how much we appreciated him, a way of demonstrating that he our brother. Because he was our brother—no one person did more to help keep us alive than he.
And in a distant future I can see myself, bearded perhaps, dressed in a shalwar kameez and baggy pants, driving a rented Toyota Corolla station wagon with flaking white paint and dented doors down the one paved road in the province to see my friend again. All around are mountains, brown and treeless, rising from desert plains and undulating hills from a riverside village near a concrete bridge, in a place I hope I can be so lucky to see again someday. I would know it by heart.