Losing Afghanistan
An Obituary for the Intervention
Noah Coburn



Surveying the Intervention from Above

The mountains surround Bagram like the walls of a castle.
—Café owner near Bagram


If one had been looking down from above the Shomali Plain just north of Kabul during the late 2000s, the most noticeable thing would first have been the way the plain seems to pour out from the Hindu Kush Mountains, a shocking fan of green amid the gray hills. From the streams and larger waterways that eventually merge to form the Kabul River, countless irrigation channels split off. Powered by gravity, these channels hug the sides of hills, naturally highlighting the area’s more gentle topography, in contrast with the surrounding sharp mountains. In the spring and summer, neat green fields and orchards spread out alongside these water sources; where water is abundant, grapes, figs, and other fruits are grown and, in drier, less fertile areas, wheat. Mud walls divide the fields, turning the landscape seen from above into puzzle pieces. Narrow, zigzagging boundary lines tell the stories of land feuds and generations of inheritance as the land has been divided and redivided among sons and grandsons.

Settlements in the plain have a similar logic to them. Most spread out from hilltops above the fields, slight rises where the land is less easily cultivated. As in much of Afghanistan, large walled compounds with a central courtyard are favored. Over time, as a family grows, often extensions are added as sons marry, and many of the settlements seem to sprawl out like thick bushes, linked by narrow pathways that also mark property boundaries.1 Except for the occasional small town, usually just a slightly larger cluster of houses, this pattern of fields and settlements repeats itself across the plain for over fifty miles.

Floating above here, the viewer’s eye is drawn to the southern part of this fertile plain, where an odd slash runs southwest to northeast, breaking up the rhythm of fields and houses. As one looks closer, two distinct dark lines become visible—two roads to nowhere.

The slashes are two asphalt runways, 3,500 meters long, straighter and wider than any of the roads in the area. Although these are striking in and of themselves, the topography around the runways raises even more questions. The organically spreading compounds, whose mud walls sometimes blur into the fields next door, are replaced by dozens of neat rectangles, laid out in a well-organized grid pattern that appears almost stamped on the landscape like a strange crop circle. The greens and soft browns are exchanged for grays and blacks.

The area is Bagram Airfield, one of the key centers for international military operations in Afghanistan. The airfield contains several connected bases and houses military personnel from the various countries making up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). As with much of ISAF’s presence in the late 2000s, however, most of the soldiers are American. This airfield was at one point the busiest American Department of Defense airport in the world with an average of 1,200 people moving through its terminal daily.2

The smaller rectangles, primarily to the west of the runway, are living quarters for the troops, packed tightly together; the larger ones are hangars, administrative buildings, a hospital, a prison, and other facilities. Closer to the runway there is a group of larger rectangles and other odd shapes at regular intervals. These are large cargo planes, smaller helicopters, and other aircraft, including strange hybrids like Ospreys, which take off like helicopters but fly like planes and look almost insectile. They are parked near the runway with blast walls between them to ensure that if one is hit with a stray rocket the explosion will not set off a chain reaction. These concerns about protecting aircraft are not overcautious; in 2012 a small group of lightly armed insurgents destroyed six Harrier jets causing more than US$200 million in damage at Camp Bastion, a similar base in the southwest of the country.3

As odd as these vehicles are, for the observer from above, most remarkable are perhaps the edges of this area. In nice crisp lines, the neat outer walls of the base, occasionally punctuated by a guard tower, outline the perimeter and then stop; almost immediately on the other side the fields and flowing compounds typical of the Shomali begin again. In some cases, the fields come right up to the walls of the base. To the southwest of the base there is a much larger cluster of buildings and a traffic circle: the central bazaar for the town of Bagram. To the more rural east of the base wall are the faint traces of compounds that have been razed by the international troops, concerned that insurgents might use them to launch attacks. From above, it is as if an alien city has been simply dropped into the otherwise green, fertile plain.

Figure 1.1. Guard tower. Photo by Gregory Thielker.

In some ways the view from the ground was even more disorienting at the height of the intervention. As one walked through the town of Bagram there were few vantage points in the area, the military having secured any spot from which insurgents could fire rockets into the base. This was a trick learned from the mistakes of the British in the first Anglo–Afghan war in 1842; they faced constant sniping from compounds near their cantonment, which similarly abutted local communities. The lack of vantage points meant that I and the others in the bazaar were always forced to look upward at the base walls, never sure of what was happening within. High walls with the occasional guard tower loomed over the bazaar, and yet people seemed to have become accustomed to the international military presence. There was an occasional sonic boom as a jet took off, but this did not halt conversations.

On a typical day, traffic in the bazaar would come to a brief pause when a patrol came through. Chatting with a local store owner, four patrol vehicles, or MRAPs as they are usually called (because they are Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected), and an armored vehicle that appeared to be a cross between a Humvee, a pickup truck, and a giant tow truck came rolling through. The MRAPs were close to twenty feet tall and looked like khaki dinosaurs, with long hornlike guns sticking out of the turrets on top. Atop the first, a young man in dark wraparound sunglasses swept his gun across the crowd, which had paused to let them through. The other vehicles had guns but no men; instead the guns were attached to video cameras. The guns swiveled eerily as the camera peered out unblinkingly at the pedestrians.

Despite the presence of the latest military technology, the history of occupation here runs deep. Just north of the base, the road descends toward the river, drawing close to the ancient field where Alexander the Great camped. Here, in the first half of the twentieth century, French archaeologists excavated a treasure trove of gold and Silk Road wealth, ranging from Chinese porcelain to Roman statues. Many of these artifacts toured Paris, New York, and other Western capitals as a part of the National Geographic–sponsored Bactrian Gold exhibition. As we drive down this track, a nineteenth-century citadel built adjacent to the site suddenly towers above. It has been transformed to a small, impenetrable, but oddly quiet, military base. This is one of several satellite bases that surround the main airfield at Bagram. HESCO barriers and sandbags stand twenty feet high on top of the ancient walls at this smaller outpost. Rolls of razor wire are wrapped lackadaisically around the slopes below. Just inside the tangle of wire, on the slope of the hill leading up to the smaller base, a charred building sits, long abandoned, with DAFA, the name of the French Archeological Alliance, spray painted on its side.

The base stands over the river and another smaller, quiet bazaar that has been built up alongside it. From the small cluster of shops, it is impossible for the Afghans walking through the market to tell whether there are Afghan or America soldiers within—or no one at all.

Tilting at Windmills in Kabul

Not all the building associated with the international intervention in Afghanistan was so menacing and disruptive of the local landscape. In 2009, Alliance Wind Power (AWP) sat under a broad corrugated roof on a small side street in western Kabul. Filled with tools and half-finished projects, it looked like many of the other workshops in the area and not unlike one that you might find in a small town in America. This neighborhood, one of the more planned areas of Kabul, was shaded by trees and cleaner than the haphazard settlements that had grown up on the hills around it. The crush of Kabul traffic, however, was still ubiquitous, and snarls could spring up unexpectedly when young nomads moved their flocks through town.

Figure 1.2. AWP Workshop, Kabul. Photo by William Locke.

Set up in part by William Locke, who owned a 23 percent stake, AWP was remarkable for several reasons.4 In a country where power was unreliable and often produced by smoky diesel generators, AWP and its dream of providing wind energy offered the promise of clean, sustainable, and, most important to local communities, cheap and easily accessed power. Owned primarily by a group of young, dynamic Afghans, who for the most part came of age after the most brutal fighting in Afghanistan, working with Will’s support and relying initially on international grants, the business also offered a model for wider economic growth in Afghanistan and a way for independent Afghan businesses, with a helping shove from the international community, to stimulate real internal growth.

AWP was in many ways the perfect development project for the later 2000s in Afghanistan: It was Afghan led, with international assistance on technical aspects and in funding start-up costs but still privately owned. It produced a product, energy, that was in economic demand, that Afghans were willing to pay for, and that would seriously improve quality of life. More reliable electricity allowed students to study at night and families to watch news on the television and to connect with a wider world after charging their cell phones. For the security oriented, energy in more rural areas would give communities light at night and hopefully increase the ability of local Afghans to call security forces when threatened by insurgents. AWP had something to offer every aspect of the intervention: hearts and minds won for those counterinsurgency practitioners, business growth and investment for neoliberal development experts, increased access to educational opportunities for human rights advocates.

Will also seemed to have started the company at an opportune moment: Between 2002 and 2008 the U.S. government spent an average of $25.1 billion per year in Afghanistan. In 2010–2011 that average jumped to $106.2 billion.5 AWP was founded in 2008, after Barack Obama had made winning this “just war” a centerpiece of his campaign strategy and as the resulting international funds really began flowing into the country. Yet, although an ideal project, like so many others, AWP’s story is unique and, despite being set up with some of the “best practices” from the development world, the company struggled.

Too Good to Succeed?

Will started the company with Amir, a young Hazara student with an entrepreneurial spirit. While looking for someone to help them make fiberglass blades, they met Farouq and Abdul, both Tajiks who had experience welding. All of them became partners in the project. Symbolic of the growth of business in the 2000s, this group represented two of the major ethnic groups that had caused severe damage to the neighborhood they were now working in during the Civil War of the 1990s. But this was a new era, and such young men were looking forward, not back.

Originally the group wanted to name the company Afghan Modern Power, which would have given it the apt acronym of AMP, because it was always important in Kabul’s nongovernmental organization (NGO) scene to have a catchy acronym as a name. For unclear reasons, however, the official at the government licensing office told them their name was unacceptable, a typically vague answer from the Afghan bureaucracy. Needing to come up with a new name on the spot, they ended up with Alliance Wind Power, or AWP, which was slightly less catchy but close enough, Will supposed.

For the outside viewer, the AWP had a distinctly Afghan–international hybrid feel. Its workshop looked like many of the others found crammed onto the rough streets outside the center of Kabul, and, as with almost everything in Kabul, a thin layer of dust covered the equipment and half-finished projects. At the same time, AWP maintained an international feel that most other Afghan businesses did not have.

The company, for example, had a website entirely in English, with action photos of their various projects. On the “Contact” page of the website they gave the typical if somewhat cryptic address of “Across from Architects Union of Afghanistan, Darulaman Road.” Such an address seems strange only to those who are not familiar with the way in which Kabul’s building boom, combined with the chronic refusal to label streets or assign house numbers, made people consider addresses such as “Behind the Old British Embassy”—one of my first addresses in Kabul—completely appropriate.

Similarly, navigating Afghanistan’s ethnic and linguistic diversity was a challenge for the few businesses that were truly trying to cater to both an international and a domestic audience in the 2000s. As a result, the website contact lists told English speakers to contact Will (and included both his email address and cell phone), Dari speakers to contact Farouq with his details, and Pashto speakers to contact Amir. Along with the contact list, next to a group photo of the AWP crew, a caption helpfully pointed out that Will was on the far right, Abdul was second from the right, and Amir was on the far left. In the photo, the crew stands outside their workshop, looking sternly at the camera. To understand, however, how Will ended up in this picture working with this ethnically diverse wind company on a dirt street in one of the most booming parts of Kabul, one must step back several decades.

Although for many American twenty-somethings the thought of relocating in the mid-2000s to Afghanistan may have seemed daunting as security deteriorated, Will’s move to Afghanistan in 2006, he says, “did not feel abnormal in the slightest.” His parents had worked there in the 1960s and 1970s, living in Jalalabad; one of his older brothers was born in Kabul. Will’s family left the country before the chaos that spread across the country in the 1980s and the 1990s began but stayed in close contact with many of their friends from the country, and Will grew up eating kebab and hearing stories about the country.

In 2004 the senior Lockes returned to Afghanistan with many other foreigners during what was essentially the first wave of relief workers returning to the country, many of whom had worked in the country before or among Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Will’s father, a doctor, began working at a prominent Kabul hospital. They moved to a quieter area west of the center, away from the embassies and government buildings, which was popular among many of the longer-term expats. Shortly afterward, Will’s older brother, wife, and young daughters joined the family in Kabul. Will, in the meantime, was in college in Pennsylvania, where he majored in engineering and minored in philosophy. After graduation, he spent some time working for an NGO in Dhaka and then went traveling in Australia.

Lacking much of a plan, Will decided to visit his parents, as many twenty-six-year-olds do when at a loss for what their next step in life should be. And so, Will “moved back home” to Kabul.

Luckily for him, however, this was also a time of growth in development spending, particularly on construction projects. Government and NGO programs were all growing, and qualified workers were in short supply. Many relief workers seemed to have degrees in international affairs or management, but few had studied engineering. Will discovered that his technical background was in high demand, and he was much more employable than he would have been back in America. As a result, he quickly found a volunteer position with International Assistance Mission, or IAM.

In 2006 when Will arrived, IAM was in and of itself unique. Founded in 1966, it is the longest continuously serving NGO in the country. An “international Christian organisation serving the people of Afghanistan through capacity building in the sectors of Health and Economic Development,” IAM was notable for its commitment to staying in Afghanistan during both the Civil War and the Taliban period.6 By 2006, IAM’s international staff was going through a period of expansion and was a mixture of newer arrivals, like Will, and those who had decades of experience in the area. Except for having completely evacuated for a couple of months just after the September 11, 2001, attacks, IAM as an organization had a longevity and continuity that most other groups in the country lacked.

IAM’s position, however, also reflected some of the cultural tensions that came with the growing international presence. In a country where conversion from Islam to another religion was punishable by death, faith-based organizations, even those that did not proselytize, needed to maintain a low profile. As “people of the book,” Christian groups had been able to work in the country relatively undisturbed in previous decades. This, however, had been shifting. In other Islamic countries, such apostate laws may have been on the books but were rarely implemented. In Afghanistan, since the passing of the new Afghan Constitution, there had been several cases where individuals had been sentenced to death for conversion or other perceived religious violations.

In one case, a man from the north of the country was arrested during a custody case after converting to Roman Catholicism sixteen years before. Only after significant international pressure was the man released and allowed to seek asylum in Italy, despite an outcry from Afghan religious leaders and the inconvenient fact for many of his supporters in the international community that his detention was likely legal under Afghan law at that time. In fact, the Afghan Constitution mentions both adherence to the country’s conservative brand of Islamic jurisprudence and respect for the UN Declaration of Human Rights.7 Much of the time these systems quietly coexisted. The contradictions and tensions at the points where culture, development, and the law meet grew, however, as the intervention went on.8 Although the man was released, he was still forced to leave the country, essentially exiled from his family and community. The case generated a good deal of hostility toward the international community in the Afghan press, and many suggested that this was just another case of the West imposing its values and laws on Afghanistan.

Such cases made navigating relationships difficult, but Will also benefited from IAM’s sensitive awareness of cultural issues. Due in part to its long-term commitment to the place, international volunteers at IAM were required to learn either Pashto or Dari, something that few other NGOs or international organizations were prioritizing during the busy years of expansion of the international presence. Finding internationals who spoke Pashto was particularly problematic because there were few Pashto language programs in Europe or America. Dari is a close cousin of Farsi, and it was much easier to find language programs that taught Farsi in the West; to get a head start on language learning, I had enrolled in one of these courses in Boston, just around the corner from my apartment, before first traveling to Afghanistan in 2005. As a result, most international organizations relied heavily on translators. In contrast with this approach, IAM offered six months of intensive language training for those who were planning on working long term in the country. Because Will was not initially sure he was going to stay in Afghanistan much more than six months, he chose the more relaxed route of three classes a week, which, as he put it, got him “up to speed with things like buying in the bazaar or using a taxi, plus greetings.” In addition to facilitating communication, however, it also gave Will a certain amount of cultural capital, the ability to forge friendships and earn the trust of the Afghans with whom he worked. This gave him a significant advantage over most internationals in the country, particularly those diplomats and officials working brief rotations in various Western embassies.

After Will had spent three months in Kabul, improving his language skills and working on a technology project for IAM, several of his colleagues approached him about working on IAM’s Renewable Energy Sources in Afghanistan Project, or RESAP. RESAP provided electricity to rural Afghan communities using renewable energy sources, emphasizing technology that was especially appropriate for Afghanistan.9 Particularly in the 1990s, RESAP became rather well known for running a series of micro-hydroelectric power projects in small villages in the mountains north of Kabul, above Bagram Airfield.

By 2006, based on its earlier success, RESAP was considering other forms of renewable energy beyond their hydroelectric projects. Solar energy, popular with other development projects, was difficult because solar panels, largely made in China, were expensive and difficult to repair, and rechargeable batteries were costly.10 So they began exploring options, including wind energy. This was appealing to IAM because, although RESAP had had good success with micro-hydro plants in various villages in the foothills of the mountains, for areas farther away from such reliable and quickly moving water sources, there were challenges. One of the areas that appealed to Will almost immediately was the Shomali Plain around the international airbase at Bagram. This area is flatter than the foothills that surround it. The rivers here are large but slow moving, so hydroelectric generators make less sense. The area also receives a fair amount of consistent wind that made it well situated for generating power on a village-level scale. Smaller wind turbines could even potentially be connected to water pumps, greatly expanding the amount of cultivable land beyond the narrow confines of the areas that gravity-driven irrigation channels reached. The amount of farmable land is a concerning issue in the Shomali, which has seen a drastic population increase in recent years as refugees returned from abroad. With this potential in mind, IAM gave Will and his associates funding to initially set up AWP under IAM’s management, with the idea that it would soon become an independent company.

Owned jointly by an American and Afghans of various ethnicities and working to generate clean, renewable energy on a small scale in a strategic area that had received a good amount of international aid just as Obama was announcing a significant increase in troops and spending of all types to Afghanistan, AWP seemed well positioned to succeed. Despite this, six years later, AWP closed up shop, having completed a few small projects but falling far short of its real potential. Later, as I discussed with Will how he might have done things slightly differently, he focused on details like the size of the blades they manufactured and the types of batteries they purchased. Even in his reflections he was constantly tinkering with how the turbines could have been better constructed. Stepping back, however, these changes seem minor and unlikely to have had much impact. Instead, even as Will second-guessed some of these small decisions, I increasingly got the feeling that AWP, much like the intervention itself, was doomed from the start.

In many ways Will’s story was unique. His family had deep ties with the place; instead of using armored SUVs or even a Corolla with an Afghan driver, Will was known for traipsing around Kabul on his 150 cc Chinese dirt bike, which you could hear coming from a couple of blocks away; he seemed more committed to the place than many of the international workers who seemed to be just passing through. But in many ways the story of every Afghan and every member of the international community in Afghanistan during the fateful years around the surge was unique, making it difficult to tell a single collective story of the intervention. As I tried to make sense of the intervention myself and spoke with both Afghans and internationals about it, I was struck by how, looking back, the people I spoke with all seemed to have the urge to tinker with how they could have changed the projects they were a part of, and several themes began to emerge regarding the struggles individuals faced during the years of the surge.

This book will look at Will’s experience in Afghanistan, along with the experiences of three other very different individuals. None of them ever met each other, but as I traced their journeys through the intervention I could see that they intersected and overlapped numerous times, particularly in the places that were hubs of the international presence, like Bagram Airfield. These individuals come from very different places and have very different experiences of what the intervention was. Ronald Neumann, as the American ambassador to Afghanistan, worked on policy issues that seemed far above Will’s considerations about the cost of fiberglass and wood. But Neumann also had deep family ties to the place, his father having served as American ambassador to Afghanistan in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and as a young man Ron had visited him there. For others, the intervention was a war, a direct result of the attacks of September 11, and Navy SEAL Captain Owen Berger was often frustrated by the complex layers of development, state building, and counterinsurgency that marked the intervention. For some, like Omar Rassoul, an Afghan businessman working with the international community, this meant serious opportunities to earn money and help his family. Despite these differences, however, there are patterns and lessons that can be drawn out of how Will, Ron, Owen, and Omar lived through the intervention. These lessons will help us begin to look at what exactly the intervention was and what repercussions it had on the Afghans and internationals that were a part of it.

When we study wars and other conflicts, focusing too much simply on the battlefields and even the political negotiations ignores the ways in which conflicts are actually having an impact on those involved and shaping the ways people make decisions and perceive the world around them. With Afghanistan’s political future still far from certain, this book attempts to begin the processing of writing a more nuanced history of the intervention in Afghanistan, a history that looks at how individual lives were shaped socially and economically by the vast resources that flooded the country.

In the end, the ultimate failure of Alliance Wind Power had little to do with Will, the design of his projects, or the effort that he and his colleagues put into the company. Particularly as money and troops surged into the country in 2009, the constraints put on Will as he applied for funding and attempted to navigate the new political economy that the international presence created pulled him increasingly into a system that restrained his ability to make the decisions he needed to make. His situation grew only more challenging with increased competition from those larger international contractors who prioritized short-term profits and Afghan government officials and merchants who became increasingly talented at diverting international development funds. All of this constricted the real creative potential of AWP, eventually dooming his project.

And so AWP was added to rusting tanks and other archeological shards of empires that are scattered around Bagram Airfield.


1. Barfield and Szabo (1991) present a series of case studies of typical Afghan domestic architecture, including a qala, or fort, style compound from the area. These structures remain the dominant form of residence type in the plain.

2. Dobrydney 2012.

3. See Rubin September 16, 2012.

4. Throughout this book names, and in some cases identifying details, have been changed, except in cases of public officials and those who asked that their names not be changed.

5. Belasco March 29, 2011. The costs of the intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere are notoriously and worryingly difficult to calculate due to their political nature. For an innovative attempt to explain some of these costs, see the Watson Institute’s Cost of War project at www.costofwar.org.

6. International Assistance Mission n.d.

7. See Tarzi March 22, 2006, and Afshar 2006 for some of the legal issues with this setup.

8. Suspicion about cultural imperialism, particularly couched in religious terms, meant that some organizations were accused of proselytizing even when they were not at all faith based.

9. International Assistance Mission n.d.

10. In the years that followed, the price of solar panels and the batteries that they charge fell drastically, leading to something of a boom in solar energy in Afghanistan. Issues with repairs, however, remained, and most of these solar panels were used for only small-scale electrification, making hydropower still more appealing to communities with the potential for waterpower.