The treatment of local civilians formerly employed by foreign militaries in Afghanistan is a source of shame for the soldiers with whom they served.

In Afghanistan’s upper Gereshk Valley, a Danish infantry platoon descends from high desert into green and pink fields of poppy. They are headed for a small village on the bank of the river. It is morning, and although the sun has barely risen, the soldiers are sweating under their equipment. They mostly look the same, despite great efforts to differentiate themselves. They have trained together for months, and by now default to the same military fashion: scruffy beards, customised body armour, semi-rolled-up wizard sleeves and Oakley M-frame fragmentation glasses.

One person stands out. He is wearing the same sand-coloured uniform, uncomfortable body armour and helmet. But his jacket is too large, his armour a bit too small, his helmet not properly fastened under his chin. He does not carry a rifle. The scarf around his neck, his wristwatch and the heart-shaped Afghan flag on his body armour show he belongs to this landscape even more than his comrades, to whom rural Afghanistan is something of a mystery. 

As the platoon enters the village, the local elders gather and a shura is held with the platoon commander. He delivers his message through the Afghan interpreter, although not without first trying to greet the listeners, unconvincingly, in Pashto. The interpreter has already helped to point out key village leaders, and to tailor the message for a rural people with little interest in the overall purpose of the war. He, and other English-speaking Afghan civilians like him, have been vital to the conduct of international military operations.

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Asger Pedersen is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna, Italy.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

June-July 2017

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