Private Citizen / Candy to Kandahar
Published 4:38 pm, Thursday, November 11, 2010
Our older son is an Army reserve officer serving in a civil affairs battalion in southern Afghanistan. He told us of an Afghan child who had followed him for about a mile, hoping for a piece of candy. Our son had, it seems, discovered anew and for himself that time-honored tradition of G.I.s in war zones, of giving candy to the children they encounter there. He asked if we could gather up some surplus Halloween candy and ship it to him. Sure, we said. And we'll ask some of our friends.
I asked the members of the Fairfield Rotary Club to bring theirs in on the Monday after Halloween. I thought that perhaps five or 10 pounds might make a respectable contribution, and 20 or 25 pounds was the limit of my imagination. When the day came, last week, I took the candy to the post office, boxed it up, filled out the customs forms, and mailed it. The post office weighed it; it came to 70 pounds, 10 ounces. Meanwhile, my wife had made the same request to her water aerobics class at the Westport Y, and we have just finished shipping another 15 boxes (of 10 or so pounds apiece). My best estimate is that all told, we will have sent him well over 200 pounds of Hershey bars, Mars bars, Reese's cups, and Snickers. I suspect we succeeded beyond his wildest expectations, not to mention our own. Okay, he said. You can stop now.
According to a recent article in the L.A. Times, his civil affairs battalion has been "in country" for five months and is already responsible for 78 reconstruction projects in southern Afghanistan, amounting to $18 million. To put that sum in context, it is about three quarters of the cost of our latest elementary school, or perhaps the cost of running the Fairfield public schools for a little more than a month. If you divide the $30 billion cost of the current "surge" by the 30,000 additional troops it entails, that yields a cost of a million dollars per soldier. (Much of that cost is their armored vehicles, and a lot of the rest is the cost of a supply train extending halfway around the world.) Eighteen million dollars is the cost of 18 soldiers -- half a platoon.
The soldier-candy-child transaction is emblematic, in a way, of our mission to that country. It is wordless, because neither participant has more than a few phrases of the other's language. It shows us at our best -- silent, armed, but reaching for the candy rather than the weapon; innocent, generous, and patient with children. On a good day, it engenders trust in return.
And it can only happen after the infantry has secured the place, a lot of infantry -- what General Colin Powell meant by "overwhelming force." The idea is that once the chaos of decades of insurgency and civil war has been beaten back to a safer distance, we can use a mixture of candy and reconstruction projects to shore up the surviving structures of the society and enable it to regenerate, so that the country has a chance of making its way in the world. The world, not to mention Afghanistan, will be a better place for it. As I see it, that is our best way out.
The history is that after the Soviets invaded the country in 1979, we clandestinely sponsored the decade-long, Stinger-armed jihadist movement that eventually forced them out. We call that era "Charlie Wilson's War", and at the time it was a famous victory, but parts of that movement came back to bite us. Some of the local remnants of that movement became the Taliban, and the foreign jihadists who had swarmed there became Al Queda. Chaos, and civil war, ensued. Eventually, the Taliban took the country, and after Sept. 11 we sponsored another uprising to oust them, but after that succeeded, we lost interest and turned our attention to Iraq. The point of the present exercise, simply, is to prevent a third round of chaos from occurring within the space of a single generation.
I think we owe it to ourselves to do this. It is not our way to wreck a country and then abandon it, both because that would reflect ill on us and because the result would be a breeding ground for terrorists.
That child who followed my son that day had lived in a war zone all of his life, and probably his parents had, too. But his willingness to be hopeful in spite of that should inspire us, and give us hope as well.
James Lee shares his "Private Citizen" column regularly with the Fairfield Citizen.