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Off the Record

Off the Record

How do you tell fact from fiction in a war zone? Sometimes, myths reveal more than you might think.

A young Afghan man gestures to the camera as he makes his way past discarded Soviet missiles in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2009. Photograph by Rafal Gerszak.

I arrived at la Cantina, a Mexican restaurant in the Kabul neighbourhood of Shar-e Naw, to have a drink with a few men from the US Army Corps of Engineers. Bill, whom I’d met a week earlier, had served as a Marine in both the first and second Gulf Wars. He didn’t care much for reporters, he told me, but he was curious to know what a novelist was doing in Afghanistan. I admitted that, like everyone else, I was looking for stories, and he was soon explaining how things worked in the south of the country.

“Everything you hear is bullshit,” he said. “We know where the poppy fields are and where the Taliban are. Because we have to look like we’re trying to stop the heroin trade, we have our people meet with the Taliban to discuss which fields we can burn.”

“Why not just burn all of them?” I asked, more as prompt than genuine question.

“It’s obvious,” Bill said. “We’d be starving the locals, and they’d hate us. It’s the same reason we can’t knock off all the Taliban. What people call ‘Taliban’ doesn’t always refer to the same thing. Some of these guys actually serve as police, and do a pretty good job keeping order. Anyway, we pick out the fields we can burn—the least profitable ones, usually. You know, we’re real careful about public relations down there. We don’t dust the fields with pesticides because that reminds the people of when the Soviets sprayed sarin gas from planes. The heroin trade isn’t disappearing. The State Department’s poppy-eradication project is a joke. The farmers only know how to grow poppies, and each load changes hands at least twenty times, so there’s an entire economy built on that. You would destroy this country if you got rid of it.”

Now Bill hesitated, narrowing his eyes. He glanced around at his silent colleagues. “But look, man,” he told me. “You know this is off the record. Don’t use my name, or you’ll get my ass into a whole world of trouble.”

By now, I was used to statements like this. Because I heard them so often, I assumed that a lot of what people told me wasn’t entirely true. The residents of Kabul seemed to get far too much pleasure from sounding in-the-know and swapping jaw-dropping stories. To show up to dinner in the capital without a tale of corruption or intrigue would be poor form.

Just a week before, at a bar, a man had told me how the Afghan government was milking his security firm. He described ridiculously high taxes on armoured SUVs that, he claimed, were collected monthly and amounted to approximately 20 percent of each SUV’s value. That meant paying about $24,000 “each goddamned month!” he declared. Then he hesitated. “Or maybe it’s a little less. Anyway…” He went on to explain how some companies were fighting the taxes through legal avenues, while others were paying bribes to get around them. In short, the Afghan government knew that Westerners needed the SUVs and was taking advantage of this vulnerability, even if it undermined their ability to work together.

Then he made a chopping motion with his hand. “Off the record,” he said. “Totally off the record. Besides, if anyone writes about this, he’ll never get a visa to this country again. Someone in the government will make sure of it. That I can guarantee you.”

On another occasion, an Afghan working for one of the ministries told me, over coffee, that President Hamid Karzai appointed only the most incapable women to public office in order to make all women look incompetent. “Don’t repeat that, though,” she said. “At least, you didn’t hear it from me.”

These requests were understandable. Any of these people could have been fired for saying such things. But as a result, Kabul teems with more rumours than verifiable news. Many Afghans, if asked, will tell you about smuggling rings; which politician is addicted to heroin and who is trafficking it; links between the International Security Assistance Force and the Taliban; the weapons-opium pipeline between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban; American helicopters flying Taliban to the north of the country to perpetuate the war and justify the occupation; or how swine flu came from US soldiers because Christians eat bacon.

Resident Westerners, however, will discuss situations almost equally farfetched, and their reluctance to go on the record allows their stories to spiral into gross exaggerations. I read one account by a journalist who tried to investigate the supposed north-south weapons-heroin trade only to realize—after a week of slogging across Afghanistan in a dusty car—that his informants were making a buck off him. It was easy to see how novice reporters looking for stories could get lost on false trails. Bill once told me, “I ran into this journalist today. He was looking for scandals.” He laughed and shook his head. “I really hate journalists. They’d go broke if they didn’t make up all the crap they write.”

The comment stung; I’d worked as a journalist, and I knew how difficult it could be to verify most of what was said. In a bar that hosts much of Kabul’s expat social life, a man who’d been coming to Afghanistan since the days of the Soviet occupation explained to me what he called the “casualty rule”: every time a mujahed bragged about how many Soviet soldiers he’d killed, you had to divide by four and take away one zero. “If he’d killed two hundred,” the man said, “then he’d probably shot five. We need a rule like that for all of the shit people say in this city.”

He was right. And yet rumours are not entirely useless. In seeking the truth, we can forget how much myths tell us about a place and its struggles, about uncertainty and the frustration of feeling powerless—in short, what myths have to say about the overwhelming confusion of wartime. Kabul’s stories echo the clumsy corruption of Vietnam novels such as Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, and often seem better premises for fiction than investigative reporting. The novel is well-suited to this territory of the unconfirmed, as it offers the space and flexibility to show the messiness of war, its real and perceived motivations and injustices. For the writer, it takes time and patience to accurately depict the erosion of trust in authority during wartime, the craving for explanations, the full power of delusion’s inexorable spread. For those who start to believe in it, a rumour is not an easily dismissed line in an article but a driving force; it fills a vacuum, finding a place in the stories we tell ourselves.

It would be a mistake to think that only Afghans depend on such myth-making to come to terms with this seemingly endless war. From a number of educated Americans in Kabul, I heard that the West was losing because the average age of US soldiers was eighteen—too young for them to carry out their duties responsibly. And yet a look at the list of the roughly 1,800 US soldiers killed in the Afghan war reveals that fewer than ten were eighteen. Our need to understand, coupled with the lack of access to reliable information, inevitably leads to facile explanations, spread by word of mouth and taken for fact.

As a novelist engaged with these questions, I saw Kabul as a fertile ground for believers in fiction—not only those who appreciate what they hear for its hyperbolic or mythopoeic value, but also those who understand the human need to connect through storytelling, to make sense of failure in whatever terms are available.