The forgotten front

Staff Sgt. Todd Doyle "clearing a building" in Kabul. (photos/Doyle, except above, courtesy Doyle)
Staff Sgt. Todd Doyle “clearing a building” in Kabul. (photos/Todd Doyle, except above, courtesy Doyle)

More from our talk with Todd Doyle

By Chris Busby

In mid-May, The Bollard interviewed Todd Doyle, a veteran of the ongoing war in Afghanistan who’s been attempting to open and operate a restaurant and live music venue in downtown Portland. [Note: Doyle’s involvement with that venue, The Skinny, is now in doubt; see “Skinny decision delayed,” June 17, in Gossip]. An edited version of that interview was published in our Summer 2007 print edition. Below are some additional excerpts, with additional photographs Doyle took during his time in the war-torn nation.

The Bollard: Is Afghanistan the forgotten front?
Doyle: First off, I think the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that, from my experience being in Afghanistan, the Afghans themselves want to succeed, and their tribal culture fends off the Al Qaeda influence. They, themselves, lived first-hand for a little over two decades [under this influence], and they know first-hand that it doesn’t work – that kind of religious absolutism just doesn’t work. 

Having that understanding, people are doing their jobs, and they’re invested and involved. The things that happen in Iraq [are because] there’s not enough to get around – there’s a lot of poverty. Same thing in Afghanistan, but the Afghans know, because of their dealings with Al Qaeda, that that bribe at the border that’ll get a car across with some explosive, or that will let some insurgents in, isn’t gonna fly. So the Afghans just say, ‘No. Now leave.’

They are a very prideful, compassionate, genuine culture and class of people. They are just incredible, incredible people – very deserving of us being there. 

What’s your take on the situation there? Can we start pulling more of our troops out? Will they be there for many more years?
What would be hard is that it’s more than just troops – it’s about an economy. We’re at a point of nation-building right now; we’re helping them restructure their nation. 

They’re a tribal society, a tribal culture… If I worked for a living as a man [in Afghanistan], all of my earnings go to the patriarch, the father. So if that father has twelve sons, everything goes to him, and he pays homage to the tribe. That’s where the tribes get their power and their authority, and how they survive monetarily. They’ve been doing it that way for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Right now, we’re trying to stabilize their country so we can implant Western investment, because the city culture and the urban environments there are in desperate need of an economy and an industry… As of right now, the United States and their allies are Afghans’ economy, along with the poppy. 

Until we come up with a solution for the poppy, or find another crop for them to utilize, it would be very difficult for us to pull out, because what happens is, you fall into tribal rule and warlord dominion all over again. 

Which wouldn’t be bad. They’ve been operating that way for thousands and thousands of years, so it’s difficult for us, with our Western society, to understand and grasp that they’d be OK like that.


A U.S. military fort in Afghanistan.
A U.S. military fort in Afghanistan.


As I understand it, our mission there was to oust Al Qaeda and the Taliban from the country. To what extent have we accomplished that?
Well, I didn’t know about it until I actually got in the country, and I was actually schooled by my interpreters – who were all professors from the universities or doctors, very well educated individuals. What the Western media doesn’t really lay out is there’s, like, a 2,500-mile dead zone between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that’s where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have their hiding spots. No westernized military could go in there, sustain a battle, or hold that land, because it is so incredibly mountainous. The westernized war machine couldn’t get in there and gain a foothold. 

It’s pretty amazing. Literally, you would have to put hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground to go in there, and with a pretty high loss rate. It’s like from the old Westerns: the cowboys shore up in the ravines and mountain areas out west. That’s basically what Al Qaeda is doing. I was amazed to find out that [area] even existed. It’s like this dead man’s land where neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan has any power – the police or government.

They’re waiting. They’re students of Westernized democracy and political parties and the media’s influence on the war campaign… They use those things to their advantage. It’s guerrilla warfare heightened with a Western political savvy.…

During my time there, we had rocket attacks, and people were killed, and suicide bombers. A lot of those things are just pick-ups on CNN or Fox Television. What I find interesting is that, now that I’m home, I see things on the news and go, I know where that is, or, I’ve been there – I know exactly where that spot is

There was a car explosion in Kabul a few weeks ago, and I was looking at the photos online, and I knew exactly where it went off – the grove of trees. It’s the only grove of trees in the entire city.


Afghan soldiers.
Afghan soldiers.


What are the main challenges to establishing peace there?
There was an outline to have eighteen battalions up and functionable in the year that I was there – eighteen. While we were there, they realized their plan wasn’t going to work, [because] they didn’t have a strong [Afghan] enlisted corp. 
The generals who set up the game plan, they went in and said, ‘OK, we’re gonna hire all the old military from the Soviet [invasion era], all the old army people – the mujahideen and also the people who worked with the Soviets, both sides. 

So what ends up happening is, all of a sudden you have all these [Afghan] colonels and generals who are promoting themselves, for one. But also, all they understand is that conscript mentality of the old Soviet template: one guy is in charge of everything and nobody else has any authority. [That] is completely contradictory to the American style of the military, where we delegate responsibility and authority, and whatever position you are in the United States Army, you know the position above you and you know the position below you… 

That is our biggest problem with training the Afghan military – though they want to be successful, and though their hearts are in the right places, there’s a lot of corruption and there’s a lot of greed. 

I know that sounds contradictory, but what it is is, you know, you show a starving man a refrigerator – and those people have been starving and beaten down for 20 years – you show him a refrigerator, he’s gonna want everything in the refrigerator. He’s not gonna just want that one sandwich that you offer him. That’s difficult.


Afghan soldiers in a classroom.
Afghan soldiers in a classroom.


What does it mean to you to ‘support our troops’?
I think, as a soldier, we are not allowed to have any kind of political disposition. If our nation had no foreign policy, if we didn’t have any capitalistic endeavor on foreign soil, [if] we were nothing but farmers, we would still have a military, and those men and women would still go out and risk their lives for our nation. With that being said…

You know, I came home to some anti-war rallies, and I saw some young people later on who were in the rally, and I told them, ‘Hey, I saw you, you know, at the anti-war rally,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, who’s your congressman? Who’s your senator?’ And they didn’t know. I’m like, ‘So, you’re 20 years old. There was an election less than a year ago. You didn’t vote for anybody?’ And there’s this big pause.

I think what it is is: know who you’re voting into office. Know who your elected officials are going to be, what the policies are. Hold ’em accountable. 

Mismanagement in a corporation loses money. Mismanagement of your government and its policies loses men’s and women’s lives. 

People are gonna draw their own conclusions about how the war is operating and how things are going, but a hundred men and women died last month in Iraq. We’ve had Americans die in Afghanistan last month; we’ve had Western Allies die in Afghanistan; we’ve had Afghans die in Afghanistan. Not to mention how many people are injured, how many people are maimed or wounded or dismembered. Those things aren’t tabulated in the media everyday, and those long-term effects….


Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center).
Afghan President Hamid Karzai (center).


Be conscious, be involved with our foreign policy, and hold our elected officials accountable. That’s the best way to support our troops, because our troops would be there regardless of what our foreign policy is, regardless of where we’re directed to go. 

And love ’em. Hug ’em. You know, give ’em your support. Send ’em a care package, send ’em a letter.

I had a friend of mine die, Larry Roukey. He died in Iraq the year before I was deployed. He’s buried over in South Portland. 

He had a son that’s around the same age as my daughter. He’s a life that, um… he was afforded the opportunity to live until – he was in his early 30s when he died. But his son’s not gonna know him. 

It’s hard, because right now we’re living in a war that people don’t feel at home, really. There’s no sacrifices. In World War II, we had rationing and fuel shortages and all these things. People felt the war… and we don’t have that now, so people are still living on the same opulence everyday.

I think people should just, maybe, talk with somebody that’s been there, and take a moment out of their lives. I think that’s the best way. That, and don’t let it happen again.


More photographs by Todd Doyle can be found in the 15 Pictures photo archive for June 2007.

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