07/24/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

War and the Afghan Shepherd

I saw the war in Afghanistan from myriad points of view while embedded with the U.S. military in the spring of 2010. Inside the walls and barbed wire that surrounds the major bases at places like Kabul and Bagram and Kandahar I talked to generals seated in front of banks of screens in command centers as big as NASA's mission control. I listened to two- and three-stars (and even a four-star in the form of the soon-to-be-fired Gen. Stanley McChrystal) speak in jargon strings about "intel fusion" and "sig acts" (short for "significant activities," a way the military measures progress in a war without battle lines).

And at forward operating bases ("FOBs") closer to the fighting -- places like FOB Salerno and FOB Sharana -- I was briefed by colonels in front of smaller banks of screens who used the same jargon as their bosses in their attempts to convince me that there was a sound plan in progress.

The technology at the disposal of the International Security and Assistance Force -- the official name for the coalition side in Afghanistan -- was impressive, but it struck me at the same time as disproportionate in its scale. An American Army squad would radio about hearing a rifle shot of unknown origin, and the ISAF machine would spring into action, sending attack helicopters, drones, and jet fighters to the scene in short order. A single act of Afghan teen angst yielded several million dollars of American military response.

The results of these kinds of efforts took the form of after-action reports, data points added to the profusion of information that told -- depending on one's interpretation -- of imminent victory or an un-ending stalemate. The senior military officers seemed to see both at the same time, allowing that they had frustrations while remaining bullish on the notion of a favorable outcome.

But my clearest view of the war and how it might turn out came during my days in Paktika Province near the border with Pakistan when I was embedded with elements of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division operating out of the combat outpost at Yosef Khel.

The area between Yosef Khel and Yahya Khel to the south was hotly contested. The Taliban wanted it because of its proximity to trade routes and the amount of commerce that took place there. The landscape was relatively verdant with an abundance of flowing streams that made growing crops possible. The Americans cared about it because the Taliban wanted it. If ISAF could win hearts and minds there they might just have a chance across the rest of the country.

I found out in hurry what life was like in what the Army labeled a 'kinetic' part of Afghanistan. On my first full day in the area I joined the brigade commander and the provincial governor for a shura -- a gathering of tribal leaders -- that was interrupted by a Taliban mortar barrage and a firefight that had the Americans shooting from the roof of the command post at insurgents in the surrounding fields. Later I was witness to the grisly results of an Afghan boy who'd freshly surrendered his left leg to a landmine buried along the main road that divided the village from the outpost.

In the days that followed I accompanied American troops and their Afghan interpreters as they walked the dusty streets of villages like Mest (where Bowe Bergdahl, the sole American POW from the war, disappeared) and watched them try to convince the locals that they should stand up to the Taliban and fight for things like schools for their children and the right to choose their elected officials.

And the mission of providing the security and means to vote took us to the fields beyond Yosef Khel where the platoon leader -- a highly motivated and capable West Point grad -- and his men chased coordinates that were supposed to be where previous polling stations were but that wound up being nothing but dirt revetments nowhere near any population centers.

At one of those coordinates we happened upon a tall, thin man. (There are no fat people in Afghanistan.) He had long brown hair, a beard, and intense dark eyes under an expressive unibrow, a look that reminded me of "All Things Must Pass"-era George Harrison. He was wrapped in a shawl and holding a walking stick. Nearby a boy and two girls herded a handful of goats. Across the revetments a few hundred yards away was a single dried mud dwelling.

Through the interpreter the American platoon leader introduced himself and offered the Afghan man a prayer rug wrapped in cellophane. The man accepted the gift with a slight nod and nothing more. The interpreter prodded him with questions, but the man seemed reluctant to engage in conversation.

The questions yielded a few basic facts: He was a shepherd. The children nearby were his. That was his house across the field. Those were his goats. He didn't know anything about the location of a polling station in the area.

At one point the platoon leader allowed his frustration with the wild goose chase in progress to get the best of him, and he removed his sunglasses so the shepherd could see the concern in his eyes and asked, "Don't you care about voting?"

The shepherd processed the question for a time, and then his posture stiffened. For the first time in the exchange he directed his answer past the interpreter toward the American officer. His voice took on a more forceful tenor as he explained his life and where things like voting fit within it.

They were standing on his farm. In the warm months he lived there. When it got cold he migrated with his family across the mountains to Pakistan. "The border," he said gesturing to the east, "is something you care about, not me."

The platoon leader asked him if he knew who President Karzai was, and the shepherd shrugged and said, "I know he is president, but Kabul is a long way from here." There was nothing he needed from Karzai and nothing the president could do for him even if he did.

The platoon leader asked him if he felt safe from the Taliban as a result of ISAF presence. The shepherd replied that he actually felt more threatened by the Taliban because the Americans were there and that the insurgents would kill him if he helped the infidels at all.

"It was more peaceful here before you came," he said. "It will be more peaceful after you leave."

The platoon leader put his hand to his chest and offered the shepherd an "Inshallah," and the American troops and I got back into our armored vehicles and returned to the outpost without having found a single polling station or anyone who could remember the existence of one.

I don't know if the elections were held in Paktika Province that year (or ever for that matter), but if they were I'm sure the shepherd didn't vote -- not because he didn't grasp the concept of voting, but because like most of Afghanistan the outcome of an election had no bearing on his life any more than the occidental notion of a line on a map creating national boundaries had any bearing on his life.

During my embed I was very impressed with how American troops actually fighting the war conducted themselves. They lived in combat outposts for weeks at a time with no running water and few hot meals. In spite of their frustrations and the casualties they sustained there was no door kicking or hassling of the locals of any kind.

They tried their best to forge relationships that might improve Afghan lives. They fixed aqueducts and opened schools. They secured roads so they could be paved (by Chinese contractors). They did as much State Department-type work as they did trigger pulling.

But as I think of us pulling out in 2014 and what 13 years of American effort will ultimately yield my mind goes not go to the general in the command center or the platoon leader on patrol.

I think of the shepherd.