Nancy Barnes: On the ground in Afghanistan ...

  • Article by: Nancy Barnes
  • Star Tribune Editor
  • January 31, 2010 - 9:33 AM

As many of us were preparing for the holidays late last year, veteran journalists Mark Brunswick and Rick Sennott quietly took off for a trip to Afghanistan with some of the Minnesota National Guard. Their four-week assignment was to get a close-up look at this war through the eyes of our soldiers; we wanted to give our readers a better understanding of the stakes and a more informed perspective on the raging debate over whether America should stay or get out.

Their report, in words and pictures, begins today and runs through next Sunday.

One thing that comes across clearly in their reporting is the agonizingly slow pace at which anything gets done in a country where time has little meaning and citizens carry a cynicism born of centuries of war. The series begins aboard a convoy ride along the Helmand River Valley, where the military is trying to forge a strategy to secure a large network of fixed bases. The story of the convoy is in many ways the story of the war -- long, tortuous, dangerous, with enormous effort exerted for small gains that may prove meaningful. Or not.

Brunswick, who has also reported for us from Iraq, said the mission in Afghanistan seemed far more ambiguous than in Iraq. "It's much more confusing about what we were doing, and many more problems getting from one place to another." Still, he said, it was clear that, unlike in Iraq, the intent was to have as small a footprint as possible.

Some of the soldiers he traveled with had also fought in Iraq, and while proud to be called to serve in Afghanistan, they couldn't conceal a down-to-the-soul weariness. As we've carried on our daily routines, sharing dinner with our families and sleeping in soft beds, they have spent years trudging through windswept deserts and watching comrades fall. One guardsman opened up to Brunswick about the difficulty of going back to war, day after day, haunted by the images that replay themselves in his mind.

The residents also seemed weary, Brunswick said. "You get the idea that the Afghan people have seen this before, because it's been going on for centuries. They put up with it, probably thinking that this will pass. Because it always has. Nobody has ever stayed, not the Brits, the Russians ..."

America's plan is to leave, too. The strategy, announced late last year by President Obama, is to have a surge of troops to get the job done, with more than 30,000 bound for Afghanistan this year, in hopes of being able to withdraw by 2013. That means more Minnesotans will likely be headed to Afghanistan sometime this year. In his State of the Union address last week, Obama tried to brace Americans for the fact that more pain was ahead.

Brunswick's and Sennott's work also suggests that Obama's timetable in Afghanistan is daunting.

If the Afghans are to be taught how to defend their own country, they must first learn how to run the military equipment that often can be found idled. If the Afghans are to manage with their own military, their officers must first learn how to manage the soldiers they lead. If the Afghans are to learn from the Americans, they have to overcome the cynical belief that this too shall pass, even though, perhaps, it will.

We hope readers come away from these stories with a greater understanding of the enormous challenge facing our troops in Afghanistan, as they soldier on, taking pride in small accomplishments, hoping that collectively, those accomplishments will result in something that will make the sacrifices worthwhile. We hope our readers also come away with a better understanding of the depths of the sacrifices of the troops on the ground. "These guys are making a sacrifice, and we're going about our daily lives, not knowing much about what they are doing," Brunswick said. "These are the people who we live next to, who teach our kids, who sell you milk." Some of them will not come home.

We're grateful to have our reporter and photographer back safely; the Heetal Hotel where they were staying was bombed three days after they left.

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