By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The road leading to Bagram Air Base is a mess. Car-sized craters dot the lane, interspersed with ruts deep enough to get lost in. For stretches, it's hard even to know where the road is as it peters out into expanses of dusty scrubland stretching for miles.
Every few hundred yards, a half-built structure rises from uneven ground. It's impossible to tell whether these buildings are in the middle of construction or demolition.
Filthy children play in their shadows, throwing rocks at crippled dogs and kicking makeshift soccer balls of wadded trash wrapped in string.
It's about half past 9 a.m. as I drive down this road with a man named Farooz, a driver and translator I got in Kabul, the Afghan capital, about 45 minutes behind us.
Through the swirling grit that fills the air, I see large, low shapes before us. A roadblock.
"It's not always like this," Farooz says. "There must be something going on today."
There is. A car-bomb threat has been called in.
A traffic jam of ancient minivans, half-broken pickups, and jingle trucks—transport vehicles adorned with flags, bells, and banners—stands in the dusty sun while U.S. soldiers walk about shouting testily.
"Stay the fuck there!" a soldier growls, pointing an assault rifle at a man on a bicycle. He stops and fixes the soldier with a bored stare.
Farooz pulls around the mass, attempting to jump the line. Two Americans materialize, weapons fixed.
"Are you kidding?!" one of them shouts. "Fucking stop!"
Farooz steers back to the road.
The soldiers retreat to the roadblock behind two massive armored vehicles. Gunners sit atop, helmeted heads rising above .50 caliber machine guns like turtle shells.
Around us, people wait, packed into cars like frogs in a pickle jar. The jingle truck drivers smoke. I step from the car and trudge toward the soldiers.
A young grunt stands calmly in the sun, cradling a machine gun with a grenade launcher attachment. I wave a crumpled piece of paper—my orders—telling him I've been assigned to cover a unit. Any chance I can get through the roadblock?
He ignores the rumpled document and listens implacably behind wraparound shades. I'll have to wait like everyone else, he says, and offers to walk me back to my car.
Just then, a sedan roars around the traffic, bearing down on us in third gear. The soldier shoulders his weapon, pointing at the driver's chest while marching quick-time at the oncoming car.
The soldiers behind us raise their weapons, a dozen barrels following the man on point.
"What the fuck are you doing?" the soldier yells at the car while I step behind him. "Stop now!"
The sedan halts just 10 yards from us. The soldier lowers his machine gun and smiles. "Everybody speaks weapon," he says, chuckling.
So begins my vacation in Afghanistan.
Standing on that sunny road, watching the occupants of that car throw up their hands in stark terror, I begin to doubt the wisdom of my decision. Why didn't I go to Miami?
Like many Americans, I never questioned the justness of our Afghan adventure. Basic logic: We invaded central Asia because of the horrors of 9/11. The Taliban sheltered bin Laden. They let Al Qaeda plot in safety. We had to kick their ass.
But eight years later, we're still there, and I had no idea why. Conversations with smart people in the U.S. got me nowhere. They talked of "geopolitical ramifications" and "bookending Pakistan." What the hell does that mean?
So I decided to go to Afghanistan and see for myself.
Saifwah stands on the porch of the Media Operations Center (MOC) at Forward Operating Base Salerno, a frown wrinkling his normally smooth brow. "Walking to my car is very dangerous," he says, staring off toward the parking lot for Afghan employees. "We have a separate entrance, and it's unguarded. We could all be killed by the time soldiers came to help."
Saifwah works in the MOC as a liaison to the Afghan media. He translates Army press releases and monitors newspapers and radio broadcasts. He lives in a nearby village instead of on base, which is only a few miles from the Pakistan border near the town of Khost.
A fastidious, conservative man, Saifwah seems uncomfortable with the soldiers' rough language, and he often gets in heated arguments over the length of women's skirts with Sergeant Barbara Ospina, the public affairs officer who is his boss.
But he has bigger woes than coarse Americans: The mere fact that he works here could mean a death sentence from the Taliban.
At this moment, he's just worried about making it to his car alive. He likes his job and his boss, but thinks the military isn't too concerned about his safety. "They don't care about us," he says. "They don't protect us enough."
It's America's essential problem in Afghanistan: After eight years in the country, even our own employees don't feel we have their best interests at heart.
Other interpreters—"terps"—feel the same way. Some live on Salerno in a cluster of military huts called Terp Village. It's in a far corner of the base, near an open-air market where locals sell rugs, scarves, bootleg DVDs, and hookahs.