Foothold in history
By Noah Coburn
2 March 2016
At Bagram Airbase, the withdrawal of American troops is in full swing and everything must go
The piles of plywood can be seen more than a mile away from the base. Makeshift shops, made out of the remnants of containers, guard the stacks of wood, while a group of young men sit on the ground, gossiping and yanking nails out of the boards.
Further down the road, closer to the base, the buildings get bigger, rents increase and so does the value of the materials for sale. The wood gives way to scrap metal; one store sells used heavy-duty garbage bins while another hawks used razor wire across from a shop selling dingy office chairs. Just outside the gate, where Afghan laborers and translators wait to get searched, two stores sell military boots and fatigues.
At Bagram Airbase, the withdrawal of American troops is in full swing and everything must go. Bagram, sitting on a plain, about 30 miles north of Kabul has been the logistics hub of the war in Afghanistan.
At one point, it was the busiest military airstrip in the world. Planes would come in and out daily. It is where most coalition soldiers flew into when they arrived in the country. It is where insurgents were detained before being sent to Guantanamo Bay and other lesser known prisons. Sitting in the market, even with lowered number of troops, helicopters take off regularly, drowned out only by the occasional C-130 cargo plane. Perched on a small hill over the river, a new fort built of HESCO bags keeps watch on passersby.
History at Bagram, however, has many layers. The Americans were far from the first to occupy the area. Concrete Soviet housing blocs, built for the Afghans working on the base when it was filled with Soviet advisors in the 1970s and 1980s, look down on the plywood and container architecture of the US intervention.
Further north, a former French archeological excavation on the banks of the Kabul River marks a campsite of Alexander the Great’s army. Holding the area is in many ways the key to holding Kabul. Anyone who can amass an army on the plains here is likely to be able to push on down hill into Kabul. The British, for example, were first driven out of an outpost in Charikar, to the West of the base in 1841 before their disastrous retreat from Kabul during the first Anglo-Afghan War. The Americans also used it as a staging ground before chasing the last of the Taliban out of Kabul in 2001, about 160 years later.
At Bagram Airbase, the withdrawal of American troops is in full swing and everything must go.
I’ve been coming to this area since 2005 and have watched the small bazaar transform into a booming market, where the line of trucks going both into and out of the base seems endless. The bustle of the bazaar and the Pakistani merchants making deals in local teahouses, give the area a very different feel from Istalif, a sleepy town in hills northwest of Kabul.
I conducted my initial research in this town with a group of potters between 2006 and 2008. Even though there were tensions over land ownership and which clan should dominate local politics, most decided that it was better to solve these problems within the community, quietly negotiated by local elders, lest they draw unwanted attention from international troops or lose development funds.
This is not true in Bagram and the difference is not just driven by the economic bustle. Much had to do with the way US money and political influence disrupted local politics, creating a noxious mix of patronage, violence and business. The jihad against the Soviets, the devastating civil war and finally the Taliban era, which did most of the real damage to the area, divided people politically.
Following the initial US invasion, there were hopes that these rifts could be repaired. Instead, the immense inflow of resources has revived and reworked these divides. For the most part, the rich and powerful warlords in the area have taken advantage of international funds coming into the area to solidify their positions. Average town folks have become increasingly disenfranchised when compared to earlier periods when leaders needed to at least feign concern for them.
The tensions overflowed in 2012, when following the burning of several Qurans, confiscated from prisoners on the base, rioting spread across the country. Cars were burned, Afghan police assault and businesses destroyed. US officials I spoke with were mostly baffled by the violence and animosity generated by what they saw as an unfortunate mistake. Afghans on the other side of the wall, however, were outraged.
To understand the way the physical presence of the base reworked the political and economic landscape of the area, I’ve talked, over the last five years, with Afghans from all walks of life, many of whom tell very different stories. Local elders who remember a pre-1970s Afghanistan, unsurprisingly, view the politics of the area very differently than the young translators who work on the base with the international troops.
For the most part, the rich and powerful warlords in the area have taken advantage of international funds coming into the area to solidify their positions.
Each of these interviews seems to me like a landscape portrait. It is a snapshot of the present that reflects the past. A landscape can indicate to us how the mountains and valleys have shaped the communities that live in the fertile plains below. You can look over the plains and see the passageways that the Greek troops took and the roads that Soviet tanks trundled down.
Thinking about these conversations as pieces of landscape art is useful because we know that art is a lie. A landscape looks stable and simple, but it never is: move forward a moment or back a beat, and things have shifted. The artist defines the perspective for the viewer. Two different artists on the same hilltop are likely to give very different renderings of the scene below. So, while much of my interest in the area remains on the politics and economics of the US-led intervention, my approach is to gather as many of these landscapes and images as possible and look at them with a critical eye.
To help me in this process, I traveled the area with Gregory Thielker, an artist and an old friend. Greg had previously worked on interactive art installations in Bangladesh and India. I felt that his techniques for involving the viewer, while simultaneously exploring historical sights, such as the Grand Trunk Road were compelling particularly in the face of the overly simple narratives that tend to dominate the international press.
Around Bagram, I talked with locals in the communities, while Greg’s sketches, photographs and paintings, provide alternative views, focusing on details that conversations might miss. His drawings seize moments in time and after a day spent in the field, we would discuss the images and the stories we had collected.
In the winter of 2012, we visited an abandoned district government office near Bagram base that had been partially destroyed by rockets in the fighting in the 1990s. With looping rolls of barbed wire laid out in front, we had to carefully pick our way up to the building.
Until 2007, the basement had been a bustling centre of local political activity. I had spent time there interviewing local elders and officials. Most were hopeful still that the new US backed government could create real political change. By 2012 however, insurgent attacks in this relatively pro-government area had increased. In response, the Americans built a massive, fortified compound on the adjacent hill. It seemed like a reminder of how tenuous support for the Afghan government had become in recent years.
When we returned in the summer of 2013, the gardens outside were in full bloom. With elections scheduled in 2014, the gardener was again hopeful that a shift to new leadership from then President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt regime, would signal a new era. He had built a small shrine in some of the restored rooms to local Tajik leaders who he hoped would help usher in economic growth and more accountability in the government.
Returning there in the spring of 2015, however, the road approaching the town was blocked by an Afghan Army personnel carrier. A man working by the road told us that about 20 Taliban fighters had been spotted in the area and that the soldiers, most of who appeared to be lounging around their vehicles, were working on rounding them up. Not to worry, he laughed, come back tomorrow and all would be well.
For most in the area, the past 15 years have similarly been shaped by such oscillations in expectations. Hopes about the future lead to new homes being constructed and marriages being arranged, but continued attacks, general economic uncertainty and a deep distrust of the government has left many concerned about the future. In particular, the international military presence at Bagram and across the country has failed to bring the economic and political change that many Afghans had envisioned. Thousands of lives have been lost and billions of dollars have been spent. This failure, however, is not a simple story.
country. These maps attempt to label communities that are more supportive of the insurgency as distinct from those that are pro-government. Such mapping, however, does not take into account the way history still shapes the present. The mixed ethnic makeup of the area is a result of centuries old political engineering. Most of the Tajiks in the area had moved south from the Central Asian cities now in Uzbekistan. Centuries later, the Afghan king rewarded Pashtun tribes for their assistance in fighting against the British by granting them lands in the area. Resentment between the groups remains.
The international military at Bagram has spent millions on political mappings across the country. These maps attempt to label communities that are more supportive of the insurgency as distinct from those that are pro-government. Such mapping, however, does not take into account the way history still shapes the present. The mixed ethnic makeup of the area is a result of centuries old political engineering. Most of the Tajiks in the area had moved south from the Central Asian cities now in Uzbekistan. Centuries later, the Afghan king rewarded Pashtun tribes for their assistance in fighting against the British by granting them lands in the area. Resentment between the groups remains.
Digging into this history and extracting artifacts warrants an archeological eye. Such a study of the area, however, is not simple. Historical objects around the base have been reused and re-appropriated. Scrap metal from old Soviet military gear is used to make bridges or makeshift lodging. Even so called historical artifacts from the Kushan or Bactrain periods, dug up by the French archeology society earlier in the 20th century seem to have lost their context in the aftermath of the US invasion. Evidence of Afghanistan’s pre-Islamic past, which miraculously survived the Taliban, are hidden in boxes in the basement of the national museum.
Yet when Greg and I went to visit them in the Kabul Museum, we found that National Geographic had put them on tour to New York, Washington, London and beyond. Because of concerns about the safety of the objects, once returned to Afghanistan, the tour had been extended indefinitely.
These representations of history had become so surreal, that tearing them seemed the only way to prove that they existed at all. It was almost as if the organisers felt that Afghanistan was too dangerous a place to keep its own history.
Mostly plastic and plywood, the debris from the US invasion looks very different than the debris left from previous empires. As the international troops left, they pulled down the temporary buildings that they had hastily been constructed over the past decade. Much of what remained was bound for Pakistan and to the south of the base. Men worked to pull apart containers so that the disassembled metal sides could be more easily stacked and shipped as scrap. Other pieces were more difficult to understand and one small yard was filled with thousands of empty ink cartridges.
Yet even the post-industrial debris of this intervention is used in ways that fit the Afghan understanding of the world. For example, many of the large compounds where these salvaging efforts are taking place closely resemble the caravanserais found scattered across the country, where merchants on the Silk Road would rest for the night. These compounds, with open courtyards in the centre, were designed to protect the goods and animals inside, while often providing housing on the second floor for the merchants.
These new serais have similar layouts, but house trucks instead of camels, and are built out of used shipping containers. They lie together tightly, end to end, and two containers are stacked on top of each other.
This debris of the American empire, however, does not simply pass through the hands of the merchants; it is carefully weighed and judged. Merchants in the bazaar scoff at the quality of the buildings being torn down on the base. The material from the torn down walls was not fit to be used locally, and were being sold off as scrap in Pakistan where the demand was higher.
Others point to how the translators that work on the base, coming from far off provinces live in makeshift rooms made out of mud-and-scrap materials that they rent for a few dollars a night. Just down the road from the base are an odd block of communist style apartments, a slightly rickety version of what can be found in Budapest today, which the Soviets build for Afghans on the base more than thirty years ago. Long since sold off to local families, they remain highly desirable.
The political remains of the current occupation are also intertwining uncomfortably with the deeper history of the area. In some cases, relics seem to have been revived. In the roundabout just outside of the base hangs an Afghan flag, but so does a flag from the 1990s coalition government that collapsed during the civil war. The white, black and greens speak of the continued influence of commanders who fought in the jihad against the Soviets and who had helped destroy the district government office that Greg and I had visited.
As the flag suggests, those that dominate the political landscape of the area have remained, for the most part, even while the materials that they are fighting over may be new. After taking the base with American Special Forces in 2001 from a rapidly crumbling Taliban, the smartest warlords changed track. They saw that by selling their services and information to the Americans, they could call in airstrikes against their rivals.
As it became clear that the Americans were staying and building up their presence, bids were sought for contracts to build up the base and supply it with food and fuel. Warlords found that with some threatening phone calls they could get legitimate business to pull out and soon they were contractors as well as commanders.
For the artist, in these years, the materials that seem to make up the intervention also shifted. The barbed wire that wrapped around the district office that seemed to represent previous iterations of the conflict was replace by slick concrete Jersey barriers and the ubiquitous oil tankers rumbling down the newly paved roads.
Warlords saw that by selling their services and information to the Americans, they could call in airstrikes against their rivals.
These objects also increased the available scams. Using intimidation to chase off other bidders in the race to construct the base and extend the miles of Jersey was the least graceful. Others were more complex: Slipping cash to international soldiers to sign for half full fuel trucks, charging massive sums for security, then just paying local Taliban commanders not to attack, and at other times, paying the Taliban to attack so they could charge more on the next contract.
International forces on the base were slow to catch on, but eventually they did. Contractors were black listed and US soldiers were charged with taking bribes. Few of the contractors, however, were prosecuted. Some were the sons of high-level US allies, others caused more trouble than it was worth, threatening to join the insurgency.
By the time these figures were blacklisted, it was too late anyway. Most had seen the end coming, moving into more legitimate businesses and investing in land. Among lower level commanders, it has become popular to purchase gas stations and the road to Bagram is now filled with them.
Recently, however, some of these previously blacklisted figures have emerged again. Material is pouring off the base so fast that the internationals are apparently having trouble keeping track of it.
At the same time, last year’s presidential election ended in a stalemate where negotiations among the elite eventually left Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive officer, a position that previously had not existed. In the resulting political ambiguity, supporters on both sides have essentially claimed victory. A billboard overlooking the highway in the provincial capital declares “Abdullah, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.” Government officials are either too busy or disinterested to take it down.
In the meantime, warlords and tribal leaders who delivered the votes in the highly corrupt election clamoured for key government positions. Contracts and stuffed ballots have, in many instances, replaced guns as the move effective weapon, but as any artist knows, it all depends upon the angle that you use to view the landscape.
Suddenly for local and provincial leaders, there is more to fight for as the national government struggles to stay upright. There is a sense in the bazaar outside Bagram that with a limited number of US troops, the centre will most likely hold. But that doesn’t mean that everything else isn’t up for grabs.
At Bagram, the Americans are not gone yet and are likely to remain for several years from now. And still, as another truck filled far beyond its capacity trundles south towards Kabul, it is easy to imagine the base slowly being buried in dust. Another layer of relics.
~ Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College and author of Losing Afghanistan: An Obituary for the Intervention (2016), which looks at the failure of the intervention in Bagram and elsewhere
~ Gregory Thielker is a multi-media artist, whose international work focuses on pressing political and social concerns. Their combined art and ethnographic exhibition on the Bagram area, ‘(Un)Governed Spaces,’ opened at Gettysburg College in September 2015 and previously showed in Paris and Vermont. For more images, see www.ungovernedspaces.com