Faces and stories of 10-year Afghan war

October 5, 2011 - 1:40 AM
Afghanistan War Profiles

This Sunday, Sept 25, 2011 photo shows Mohammed Ali, 21, an Afghan National Army soldier at his barracks in Kunduz, Afghanistan. When the Taliban were driven from his homeland he was barely 11. His family had fled the bitter fighting of the civil war that ravaged his country in the decade before. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (AP) — The United States led the war in Afghanistan, but the stakes — and the losses — are high for all.

At least 1,782 American soldiers have died over the past decade. NATO has lost 954 soldiers, with Germany supplying the biggest contingent after the U.S. and Britain.

The Afghan National Army has suffered more than 1,500 deaths. And while there are no reliable figures for how many insurgents have been killed, the estimate is more than 10,000.

In the meantime, the Afghan people are caught in the middle. About 2,930 civilians have been killed in bombing raids by the U.S. and NATO, while another 7,686 have been killed by insurgents, according to estimates from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

Here, The Associated Press puts a face to several sides of the war.

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ALL IN THE FAMILY: KYLE MCCLINTOCK, 23, U.S. soldier

KABUL (AP) — Growing up, Pfc. Kyle McClintock hated his Mom and Dad for being Army reservists because they were gone for long stretches. His father fought in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, and his mother served in Afghanistan.

Today, McClintock, a native of Rockford, Illinois, is the second generation of his family to fight in Afghanistan, in what is by some measures the longest war the U.S. has fought.

"I don't know why my life is the same as theirs, but I like it now," McClintock says. "Now I understand."

The United States, with its 120,000 soldiers, is the largest fighting force on the ground. It has also suffered the most casualties. In 10 years, 1,782 American men and women have died in Afghanistan, and hundreds more were wounded.

McClintock was only 13 when terrorists headquartered in Afghanistan carried out the Sept. 11, 2001 assault on New York and Washington. Less than one month later, on Oct. 7, the U.S. and its allies launched Operation Enduring Freedom to hunt down the Taliban and al-Qaida.

McClintock's brother and cousins joined the military, and he dressed up as a soldier nearly every Halloween. When he married, he told his wife the Army was his calling.

He did his basic training in Kentucky. Then he left for Germany, where he was born, to prepare for Afghanistan.

Three months into his first deployment, McClintock, 23, is standing guard at an outpost on Afghan mountain for a clear view of the Pakistani border, through which terrorists enter. It's his first time in a war zone. His parents rarely spoke of what they saw and did in the military.

"It wasn't really dinnertime conversation," he says.

But so far combat has been restricted to the odd indirect rocket fire. "It's a lot better than I thought it would be," he says.

There's the Internet, and he can make the occasional call to his wife. He passes countless hours playing games.

It's the physical activity that's grueling, says McClintock. Most of the soldiers of the 172 Infantry Brigade are accustomed to working on and with tanks, not hiking up mountains on foot.

"We climb mountains, we are like ... mountain goats. The mountains are horrible," he says. "There is no way to describe how spent you are after missions."

McClintock thinks his parents are proud of him. But he still hasn't decided whether to make the military his career, as they did. One thing is certain in his mind: He won't encourage his 19-month-old son to be the next generation of soldier in the family.

"I feel like, I'm doing this so that other people don't have to do this," he says. "And he might feel the same way. But if he doesn't, then that's what I've done. I at least made my son not have to do this."

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THIRD LARGEST ARMY: TIM RUPPELT, 30, German soldier

Tim Ruppelt served nine months in the German army because he had to. But he signed up for the next 12 years because he wanted to.

Ruppelt, then 21, had a dead-end job at a warehouse in his hometown of Bremen, so he left to do military service, which was compulsory in Germany. As he entered his seventh month, he realized he was enjoying the camaraderie and the daily training and stayed.

"It was interesting, every day it was something different," says Ruppelt, who is now a paramedic in the army. "If I stayed, I could get an education."

Germany's deployment in Afghanistan is the third largest after the United States and Britain, with 5,000 soldiers. So far, 53 German soldiers have died. Since the start of the Afghanistan war, NATO and its partner nations have lost 954 soldiers.

Germany is also still haunted by the legacy of World War II, which has left mixed feelings about the military. In hitchhiking across Afghanistan in 2009, Ruppelt met two young German women who had never heard of al-Qaida or Osama bin Laden, and who asked him why Germany was in Afghanistan.

"I have the feeling that Germans are not very proud of their soldiers fighting in Afghanistan," Ruppelt says. "Sometimes I have the feeling they have forgotten we are here."

Not everyone. His mother still can't watch a single news program in case something about Afghanistan pops up on the screen.

"She doesn't want to know or even hear anything about Afghanistan when I am here," says Ruppelt, who speaks softly and carefully, a faint smile crossing his face.

Ruppelt studied hard to become a paramedic. His first tour of duty came in 2009, when he was deployed to Faisabad in the north. The patrols were hard and long, sometimes 155 miles (250 kilometers) at a stretch. He felt as if he had been transported to another world.

Yet when he returned to Germany, everything made him think of Faisabad.

"We were barbecuing," he says. "I had been home five months and I looked at the barbecue and it reminded me of barbecuing in Faisabad."

But his friends weren't interested. "Shut up. Forget Faisabad," they said. For them Afghanistan is something they see on the news, and not that often.

Ruppelt's second deployment came this year, and this time he was sent to Kunduz. There his comrades told him that Faisabad was a walk in the park, while Kunduz is war.

Ruppelt looks out over the brown sunbaked mud compounds of the villages in northern Afghanistan, its people dirt poor, and he wonders if it is all worth it.

"For what have our soldiers died is for me the most difficult question I hear," he said, his face clouding over with the memories of fallen comrades. "I don't know the answer. Perhaps in a few years when Afghanistan is a safe place and the terrorism stops and we have no more al-Qaida problems, then we can look back and ask ourselves if it was a successful mission here."

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SOLDIERS FIRST TO DIE: MOHAMMED ALI, 21, Afghan soldier

Mohammed Ali, 21, used to watch the Afghan National Army soldiers on patrol in and around his village. He liked their smart-looking camouflage uniforms with the army's black, red and green insignia.

"I would see them and think that one day I will be one of them," Ali says.

He kept his dream to himself. He knew he would face resistance from his family, who had witnessed the civil war of the 1990s and the severe Taliban rule that followed. "War and death are so much a part of my country, and my family always wanted to save us," he says.

Ali is an ethnic Hazara, a minority group targeted both by the Taliban and factions of the Northern Alliance that ruled before them. When he told his mother he wanted to join the army, she tried to dissuade him. "The first casualty is always the soldier," she says. "I'd hate for you to join."

Then a suicide bombing killed two Afghan soldiers on patrol in his northern Sar-e-Pul province.

"Again my family and friends all said: 'The first one to die is always the soldier.'"

Ten months ago, he defied his family's wishes and put on the uniform.

The Afghan National Army has struggled for 10 years to emerge as a cohesive fighting force. Now there's a sense of urgency: When U.S. troops withdraw by 2014, security will be in the hands of the Afghan army and police.

About 175,000 Afghan soldiers are deployed throughout the country, with the number expected to jump to 195,000 in a year, according to the Afghan ministry of defense. More than 1,500 soldiers are believed to have been killed.

"My mother, whenever she hears of an explosion or a soldier dying in Kunduz, she calls me and asks: 'You are all right?' " Ali says. "Mothers are the same everywhere. They worry."

As he speaks he plays with a ring he always wears. He read somewhere that Islam's Prophet Mohammed will protect those who wear the reddish-brown stone, called "aqeek," while praying.

Ali says he had never picked up a weapon before the army. During four months of boot camp, he learned how to shoot, how to search a building and how to react under fire.

Training in first aid made the greatest impression. By simulating ambushes and firefights, "I learned how to save myself and my friend's life."

His first mission came five months into his service. The Afghan army was called to a district to quell a disturbance caused by the local security force, a village militia supposed to be helping the army. Many Afghans are finding such local forces may bring more headaches than help.

Ali had to spend several nights in the district. On one night a report came to his unit that three suicide bombers were trying to enter the base dressed in Afghan National Police uniforms.

"I was very scared and I turned to the other people with me. They were more senior and they were not afraid so I understood I had to be brave."

He knows the U.S. and NATO will leave in three years. He looks around at the cavernous barracks that he shares with about three dozen men.

"I believe we can defend our country but we need to have the good weapons," he says. "My M-16 rifle keeps sticking and sometimes after four shots it is stuck."

He now knows there's more to the army than the smart uniforms.

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THE TALIBAN MAN: MOABULLAH, early 40s, Taliban soldier

Moabullah was a schoolboy when the Soviets invaded his homeland in 1979. He was a teenager when he joined the battle to drive them out, and he went on to fight in the civil wars that tore Afghanistan apart in the 1990s. Today, in his early 40s, he is still at war, this time against the Americans and their allies.

He didn't start out as an Islamic firebrand, joining a moderate guerrilla group instead. In 1992, three years after the last Russian soldier had left Afghanistan, he returned to school, this time to become a cleric.

But peace never returned, and the militant Islamic movement called the Taliban was taking shape, rallying clerics with battlefield experience to fight the warlords who had rushed into the post-communist power vacuum and were widely regarded as corrupt and brutal.

Most people were fed up with the bloodletting and longed for someone — anyone — who would restore peace and order. The Taliban did so, while at the same time imposing their own harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Moabullah came with the Taliban to Kabul and remained with the movement as a fighter, often battling Northern Alliance soldiers who controlled a few small pockets in northern Afghanistan.

In recent days he met The Associated Press in Kabul, a tall, thickset man seated on a thin red cushion as he described years of fighting two superpowers and his fellow Afghans.

On Sept. 11, 2001, he was in Kabul, having just returned from his front-line position north of the capital. He was well aware that Osama bin Laden was based in the country as guest of the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, but says he never met the al-Qaida chief and is certain the Taliban were not in on his 9/11 plan.

"The fighters, commanders didn't know about the World Trade Center. No, Mullah Omar never knew what Osama was planning," he said.

The U.S. warned Omar to hand over bin Laden or face an invasion, but Moabullah said Omar would never have done so, because it would have violated a code of hospitality that requires a host to protect his guest at any cost.

Just days after the Oct. 7 start of the U.S.-led assault on Kabul, Mullah Dadullah, a one-legged and famously ferocious Taliban leader, circulated a note predicting the coalition would win but urging the Taliban to stand and fight anyway. "It said we couldn't win," Moabullah recalled.

On Nov. 13 the Taliban fled Kabul. Moabullah said that at their last meeting, Mullah Omar told him, "I am going to resist." He says he hasn't seen him since, but hears the messages he records on cassette tapes. "Mullah Omar is in Afghanistan," he says.

When the Taliban were defeated, Moabullah says, he got tired of fighting and went home. But then the Northern Alliance came back as America's ally and went after its former enemy, the Taliban.

"They knew us because we had kicked them out years before because they were thieves and criminals. They came to my house and took me and beat me and wanted money or they said they would tell the Americans I was Taliban."

Moabullah fled to Iran, but returned two years later and rejoined the Taliban. He describes his function as more of a supportive role, providing shelter and helping with logistics.

At first his family objected, he says. "My wife and children said 'stay home. leave it alone. It's enough. We have had enough of war.'"

But misplaced bombings and successive night raids by U.S. and Afghan soldiers on his village, which he refuses to identify, changed things, Moabullah says. "Now my wife and children said, 'You have to fight.'"

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TEACHING PEACE: SHAHIRA SAIDY, 20, teacher

Shahira Saidy slips into her burqa, steps out of her home and climbs into a rickety old white minivan. A driver takes her to a building hidden behind 10-foot (3-meter) walls.

There, at the Afghan Canadian Community Center, she teaches English to young children and takes classes in business management.

It's a dangerous daily routine for a 20-year-old woman in the southern city of Kandahar, the old Taliban heartland where tribal law and ultraconservative traditions remain sacrosanct, despite the ouster of the religious militia 10 years ago.

"Every morning my mother says to me, 'My heart is burning when you are going to the center,'" Saidy says with a smile. Her expression grew serious as she recalled two girls who were shot and killed on their way to school.

"They were going to school and they were killed, so I am also scared," she says. "But still I am coming and trying my best that I will be able to do something."

The girls were among thousands of Afghan civilians killed in this protracted war. Since 2006, about 2,930 civilians have been killed in errant bombing raids by U.S. and coalition jets, while 7,686 civilians have been killed by insurgents, according to estimates from the United Nations and Human Rights Watch.

Now, as the U.S. and NATO push reconciliation with the Islamist Taliban, activists worry that any peace pact would threaten fragile gains over the past decade, such as seats for women in parliament.

Wrapped in a large black shawl decorated with images of $100 bills and small doves, Saidy says she doesn't know whom to fear most — Taliban, tribal elders, neighbors or shopkeepers. Many in this town find it distasteful that girls or young women would pursue an education and a career.

Teachers receive threatening notes and telephone calls, including some from neighbors who also give parents finger-wagging lectures not to send their girls to school. The schoolgirls are frightened by the shootings and harassed by taunts and teases.

Rarely are women seen on the streets of Kandahar without a burqa, which covers them from head to toe.

Shahira says her father tells her that she must wear the burqa when she leaves home — because he is afraid for her. She says she feels safe beneath the volumes of mesh material.

"No one can see us but we can see all of them," she says with a laugh.

Saidy dreams of seeing the rest of Afghanistan, and then the world beyond its borders. But she wonders about the future of her homeland. When the Taliban left, there was lots of hope, she says, but now people are killing again.

"The education is going backward again so some of the people have lost their hope and are thinking maybe again Afghanistan has no future," she says.

Yet Saidy says she won't give up on her country. Even in male-dominated Afghanistan, she imagines one day a woman could become the president. And that it could be her.

"If I became the leader of the country, first I will bring peace," she says. "Education is important — if everyone gets education first, then they will first clean their houses, then their cities ... Everything will be all right."

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Kathy Gannon is The AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan. She can be reached at www.twitter.com/kathygannon AP Interactive Producer Matt Ford contributed to this report from Outpost 1 with the 172 Infantry Brigade