Article by Peter Maass

Special Operations

The New Republic Online  |  December 15, 2001
How to change a tire in Kandahar.

The United States Special Forces have had many fine days in Afghanistan of late, but yesterday was not one of their best, at least not in Kandahar.

The Taliban surrendered their spiritual capital a week ago, and now the city’s dusty streets have become an occasional parade ground for an impressive-looking assortment of broad-shouldered, tight-lipped American soldiers who zoom around in Toyota 4x4s—which, until recently, were the preferred mode of transport for Taliban soldiers. Unfortunately, these men from America (I haven’t spotted any women) are reluctant to tell you what military unit they are from, or what they are doing here, or much at all, except a pleasantry or two through gritted teeth. They live in odd places here. For the first few days they were based at a compound that housed Mullah Mohammed Omar until he fled, and now the shy GIs are living in a courtyard behind the headquarters of Gul Agha, the new warlord—excuse me, governor—of Kandahar province.

You never know what might turn up on the streets here, so I paid attention when, driving down one of the main arteries today, past donkey carts and beggars and audio shops doing booming business in music tapes, I noticed a convoy of nearly a half-dozen serious-looking vehicles heading toward me; as they raced by, I realized that the heavily armed men in the back of a jeep and two 4x4s were not Afghan military rabble, nor the usual Special Forces fellows in desert fatigues; these guys wore rugby shirts and black fleece jackets and had bandanas over their faces, like bandits, and they had enough high-tech firepower to capture Fort Knox. As it turned out, the guys in the Toyotas were American, and those in the jeep were British.

I ordered my driver to make a u-turn, and although the commandos had a jump on me, I was able to catch up because, as I neared them, they happened to swipe an Afghan on a motorcycle, sending him spinning onto the dirt shoulder. To their credit, the oddly clad Special Forces guys pulled over while their Afghan escorts sorted things out. Several cars of journalists also pulled up, and this made the men with M-16s, sniper scopes, and pistols strapped to their legs and under their arms somewhat uncomfortable because we milled about asking polite questions, and they stared back at us in silence. Accustomed to stealth, they were stranded like turtles on their backs.

The U.S. soldiers here—no more than 50 in the city itself, though a huge contingent of marines has just arrived on its outskirts—are under orders not to give any interviews, which is unfortunate because they are taking part in a mission that has been, from a military perspective, an astounding success; in less than two months the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been crushed. These men would be written up as heroes if only they would open their mouths and tell us a bit of what they’ve been up to; we of course have other ways of finding out, but it would be so much better if we didn’t have to rely on Afghan soldiers and commanders and civilians whose economy with the truth is exceedingly economical.

As it is, the most you get out of these guys is a polite “No photos, please,” followed, if the photos continue, by a less polite, “I told you, no photos.” They don’t have to warn you a third time. This makes for an upside-down situation, because most Afghans are now delighted to talk, and happy enough to have their pictures taken. In a way, the photo-shy, press-shy Americans are picking up where the photo-shy, press-shy Taliban left off.

After matters were straightened out with the stunned motorcyclist—his brush with the Special Forces yielded only scrapes and bruises—the nearly silent men from America and Britain roared off again, heading out of town. After a few miles, their second encounter with indignity struck: One of the 4x4s got a flat tire. They pulled into a two-pump gas station and performed a task they likely had not been trained for by the Pentagon. They changed the tire. Several journalists gathered around, keeping a respectful distance, along with a crowd of Afghans who took it in stride; they have seen much in their aggrieved lifetimes, so the sight of a half-dozen real-life Rambos performing the work of grease monkeys did not seem to faze them.

The silence was awkward, but what do you say to a Special Forces or Delta Force soldier as he undergoes the humiliation of changing a tire under the gaze of a dozen journalists and Afghan peasants? I thought I had the right question, which I asked to a commando who was standing guard over his colleague who was squatting on the ground, jacking up the Toyota.

“Do you see any humor in this situation?”

“Not really,” he replied.

I’m pretty sure I saw a smile under his bandana.

After ten minutes the tire was changed and the vehicles roared off. I followed for about ten more miles, wondering where they might be going—they were heading west, in the direction of Mullah Omar’s hometown—but the sun was setting and if I went any further I might have had to return to Kandahar in the dark, which would be unwise, as the country is not secure after dusk. So I turned around as the mysterious Americans and Brits sped deeper into the desert, toward the obscurity of an Afghan night.