The reality behind the window dressing: An Afghan perspective on the US 'war on terror' in Afghanistan and Iraq

One of the key learnings for me as a linguist and interpreter at the frontline of the Afghan war and occupation for years, that I cannot forget and forgive, was that the US politicians and policymakers did not support and establish secular institutions in Afghanistan. They deceived both the American and the Afghan people. 

Elmer Ahmady May 30, 2023
An Interpreter’s Nightmare: The Afghan Debacle

My disillusionment with the way the United States has conducted its wars both in Iraq and Afghanistan is not a result of reading prejudiced or biased writings of others but a direct consequence of my years of engagement with them. I may have been a minor player in the overall scheme of things but as someone at the cutting edge of these wars’ daily dealings and the way soldiers and officers operated on the battlefield, I acquired a great deal of unfiltered intelligence about what was going on.

I was privy to so many incidents which could have been dismissed as eccentricities or absurdities of war individually but taken together they are suggestive of a pattern that the people of America ought to be made familiar with. The instances that I cite here occurred over a period of time and different circumstances but if there is a thread that ties them all together it is one of how the presence of a militarily mighty superpower in much weaker countries is often prone to abuse and cruelty.

Transgressions in Iraq

Take for instance a particular sergeant in Iraq. I was quite shaken up by his conduct. During an interrogation of a detainee, the sergeant threatened his family if he did not cooperate. The sergeant told the detainee that he would end up in prison if he did not cooperate along the lines he wanted. How do I know this firsthand? I was the interpreter for the detainee during this particular interrogation in Iraq.

Quite clearly, the sergeant did not follow army guidelines. Instead, he tore the detainee apart verbally and sometimes even physically. This was my first ever experience of such brutal interrogation. To witness a fellow human being subjected to such inhumanity was an eye-opener for me. The sheer psychological torture of the detainee by the sergeant made me wonder whether the latter was aware of the Geneva Convention. Maybe he was and he did not care. It took me so much effort and pain and anguish to concentrate on my immediate task of translating for the detainee and back.

As the days, weeks, and months went by, I witnessed another bizarre episode play out right in front of me. One day the Special Forces compound was agog with excitement and joy. I asked a fellow Iraqi interpreter what the excitement was about. He informed me that the next day an important Iraqi sheikh and his entourage were going to visit the compound. I still did not get the reason for such excitement. That is when the Iraqi interpreter told me that during such visits much celebrating and feasting took place. Since the sheikh in question was a well-known tribal chief, the gathering was expected to be particularly big.  The sheikh was expected to bring a whole cooked lamb with him along with whiskey. When I pointed out to the fellow Iraqi translator that the Quran forbade intoxicants such as whiskey, he laughed and said all sheikhs bring their own alcohol and drink by the barrel.

The next day the sheikh came to the compound with his entourage and with a cooked lamb and served whiskey as expected. This was a revelation for me to see the so-called faithful Muslims engaging in alcohol consumption. But what happened next was even more extraordinary for me as an American citizen. The US officer-in-charge of the event half opened a box in front of the sheikh and started passing around bundles of hundred-dollar bills. By a rough calculation, the officer would have given away between 20,000 and 50,000 dollars. I found that disturbing. The barely hidden purpose was to bribe the sheikh and his entourage to later extract some favors, I surmised.

The sheikh unhesitatingly accepted the money, laughing away, and even signed a recipe for the cooked lamb to give it to the Special Forces officer. It made me wonder whether the US Congress was aware of such glaring transgressions and misuse of tax dollars.

It seemed to be that, unlike the regular US Army, the Special Forces units had much greater leeway and freedom on the battlefield and within their compounds. Rules of conduct and engagement seemed to be rather bendable in the case of Special Forces. This is my reading of the situation in the early days of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Since there were not enough US boots on the ground, Washington chose the route of Special Forces within which there were reckless sergeants like the one I described who could not particularly care less about their conduct as long as it fulfilled the official mandate. In my mind, I referred to them as “psycho sergeants” because of the way they treated detainees.

One of the key learnings for me as a linguist and interpreter at the frontline of the Afghan war and occupation for years, that I cannot forget and forgive, was that the US politicians and policymakers did not support and establish secular institutions in Afghanistan. They deceived both the American and the Afghan people. On the surface, the US advocated democracy but that was propaganda behind which they greased up the Pentagon and the mighty military machinery.

Superficially, it appeared that the Afghan government and public were happy thinking that finally, their dream of a democratic country was coming true for the first time. Free speech seemed to be gaining currency with the occupiers supporting some Afghan TV news channels and radio. I say superficially because many of these were used as propaganda platforms to deceive the Afghan public.

Beyond this window-dressing, what caught my attention was how some Afghan politicians and high government officials acknowledged that the US dollars were distributed by the barrels. Bribes to anyone and everyone became the norm and ordinary Afghans, never having seen so much money, could not resist. It was as if the U.S. was not just giving away free candy but the entire candy store.

The reality was at complete variance with this window dressing. Brain drain began soon enough as the occupiers made it easy for educated and secular Afghans to leave the country. Secular institutions were being gutted of their intellectual resource. What began during the Soviet occupation continued under the US occupation as well.

In Camp Eggers, I was restless, curious, disturbed, and unsettled. During one of my friendly gatherings in Camp Egger’s Garden, I had a friendly discussion about the three Anglo-Afghan Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries with American and British officers. As I continued to offer my perspective a British colonel unexpectedly turned to me and said in his imposing voice that the British came to Afghanistan to “enlighten this uncivilized country”. I challenged him saying if the British purpose was to enlighten an uncivilized country why did they use the British army to invade it? They could have deployed other peaceful means. Others at the gathering looked at each other and said nothing.

That British officer inflamed me. I was there as an Afghan-American citizen linguist and worked faithfully in that duty. However, after that day, I was not the same man as before. He did not have the right to put down the proud Afghan people.

(Excerpted with the author’s permission from ‘An Interpreter’s Nightmare: The Afghan Debacle” by Elmer Ahmady published on May 23, 2023. Purchase the book here:

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