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Straight up. This is an Afghanistan photo/story. But perhaps not the story you expect.

When I began drafting this narrative, the Afghanistan evacuation calamity was yet to be. The work by thousands in the U.S./Afghanistan civilian-military community when I served as a civilian was still part of my positive, collective memory. Somewhere among the complexities and confusion that defined Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 was still a measure of hope and future. We made mistakes; we seconded guessed. But I guarantee that those of us who worked with, lived among, and believed in the Afghans who were true and on the path to a better everything during those years felt it could work if we just stayed on it.

And suddenly, in August 2021, it all collapsed. During several tragic days everything we thought and hoped and dreamed for Afghanistan went poof. Disappeared. Reality TV gone epically wrong in front of our disbelieving eyes.

So, sorry about the brief history re-cap. It was not my intention with this pic story. But that context is necessary because it’s important to know that before the August 2021 Afghan meltdown, things were different. Now that we witnessed everything go to hell, allow me to put a marker down for those of us who believed and then were tragically betrayed.

Back to the pic. At the end of the day, it always came down to a shura, an Arabic word meaning something close to “consultation.” The Qur’an, I’ve been told, encourages Muslims to decide their affairs in consultation with each other. What do I know?

As non-Muslim westerners, civilian and military, we embraced this consultative concept. Who wouldn’t? Made sense. Let’s get together, talk about our problems, work it out, come to a consensus and then move on. We put the shura label on everything. No non-shura decisions, please. The military loved it. So did we civilians.

I attended dozens of shuras throughout my time in Afghanistan. Different leaders. Different issues. Different problems. Different solutions. Never saw a “Shura Rules Book” though. Didn’t exist. I’m confident that the PRTs had weathered notebooks passed down from commander to commander to commander throughout the years on how to conduct a shura, but no official, approved shura rulebook. We had to wing it.

Roughly, it worked like this. The dates and times were determined several days prior to the shura and messages were delivered to the local leaders near the military base inviting them to the compound to discuss whatever hot mess issue was irritating Afghan leaders at that moment. The shuras mostly occurred at the military base for obvious convenience, but also so the Afghan leaders could collect expense reimbursement for that travel. Sometimes meals were part of the deal too, so the incentives to attend would rarely be contested among Afghan and military leaders alike. The shuras I attended were usually held in large canvass tents to accommodate numerous entourages and one-star brass. Electricity was a must for AC in the summer and heat in the winter, powered by gas-fueled generators. I have very hot shura memories, with noisy AC fans. Can’t remember cold, winter shuras.

Shuras never started on time, a huge annoyance to military staff, but one unwritten shura rule was all invitees had to be accounted for and some arrived late-to-way-late after the appointed hour. Posturing is after all, an Afghan skillset beyond compare.

Once everyone was seated, tea was poured and introductions went around the room with several interpreters providing English or Pashto or Dari versions of the intended message. Once the intros concluded, the US. Military lead, usually a colonel, sometimes a captain or major, sometimes a higher rank, would make a statement of thanks and praise and then introduce the theme of the day, be it the need for water, or schools or health clinics or fill-in-the-blank whatever. Usually, the Afghan elder of the group, here is where the photo enters stage right, would begin a long-winded complaint session on how ISAF was doing everything wrong, was never consulting with him, was never spending enough money. Or how the Afghanistan government did nothing for him and on and on. Then the other Afghan shura participants had a go at the colonel. The green suits (friendly term for our military) always had notebooks, but I never learned what they recorded for posterity.

Notes were taken. Assurances were made. Promises were given. At some point when everyone had their turn, the shura would end, the leaders would politely give thanks and praise and then it was lunch time. When the post lunch meal concluded and tea was drawn, the Afghans would depart in their white Toyota pickups to wherever it was they lived. Trails of white powder wafting behind the trucks long after they disappeared down the valley. The colonel and staff would return to do whatever they did. The generators were shut down, the fans went quiet and that was that.

I remember taking this pic. It was at a forward operating base, or FOB, in the far west province of Farah. We were dropped in by helo and were introduced by the military command as the civilian representatives that could provide the development assistance requested, read money. That was mostly proven to be untrue. But a shura was a shura and let’s see how it goes.

What I remember most about this Afghan tribesman was his passion and I tried to capture it here. It wasn’t anger, though he was clearly emotional about his plight. I can’t give you a transcript of his speech. But I can say after we wrapped up and I shook his hand, I realized the depth of the chasm in which we found ourselves. We all were sincere about trying to help, and I had no doubt that the colonel and our civilian teams would follow-up to see what we could do for him and his village, but then what? That’s where I think we went sideways. We didn’t have a “then what” plan.

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