A majority of Americans never leave the United States. Only approximately 30% of Americans even own a passport. Given what American poverty looks like, the average American is never confronted with true, third world poverty. Places exist where the dark ages never truly left. Afghanistan is one of those places.
A few ways of illustrating. Less than 1 in 6 births even has so much as a midwife overseeing it. 20% of the children will die before 5 (the highest rate in the world). 42% of its population lives on less than a dollar a day. Rural villages often lack electricity, phones, and running water. They are utterly unconnected with the outside world. Paved roads are more or less a fantasy in much of the country.
So what does this have to do with anything? A lot, actually. Our mission has slowly become something far wider than intended. Our original plan to decimate Al-Qaeda and those sheltering them has gone by the wayside (though Al-Qaeda has certainly been hit hard in the past 10 years). Instead, we find ourselves rebuilding a country that had very little even before war came here.
Very few of our troops are tasked with the explicit mission to go hunt down and kill the enemy. Instead, most of the individuals I see on my base are tasked with the reconstruction efforts. Providing security, rebuilding villages and infrastructure. These are the goals we can get our coalition partners behind. But you are trying to introduce the modern world to a place that exists in the past. Concepts such as writing down semi-judicial decisions and storing them are utterly alien to many of the people. I forget the exact quote, but one general remarked that our mission in Afghanistan was to move the country forward from the first century to the third.
In the remotest areas of the country, some are unaware of why US troops even came to Afghanistan in the first place. On the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, news reporters found many individuals in Afghanistan had never even heard of the World Trade Center attacks. With that level of remoteness, it’s difficult to imagine winning their hearts and minds if they never even receive word of our actions.
The more you see this sort of stark poverty, the weirder you feel about life back home. Things like food, water, warm showers, toilets, electricity and television are virtually taken for granted in all but the poorest circumstances. After seeing a place like this though, or any of the dozens of countries equally dire, you appreciate the United States. Whatever its faults, there is no denying that overall, we have a great country unparalleled in many respects, and we take that for granted until we aren’t there anymore. In this heart of darkness, it’s a beacon of light. At the end of the day, the average Soldier is inspired not by helping the Afghan people, but by thinking of home.