Daykundi, Afghanistan
Trevor Chartier
Trevor Chartier • Aug 19

Daykundi, Afghanistan

by Trevor Chartier

Preface from the author:  This article was written before the US full withdrawal and the shocking events of the last week.  We can only hope that the new Taliban regime that has taken control of the country will continue to allow the Hazara to live in peace with some autonomy over their lands. It is my fervent hope that the people of Afghanistan will live in safety, and that their new government will establish a more modern system of laws that guarantee human rights for their citizens while allowing women the freedoms they have gained over the past 20 years.  

We flew through the jagged mountain passes in central Afghanistan.  A small team and I had departed by helicopter almost an hour prior from an Australian military base in Uruzgan Province.  Since then, we’d seen rock and snow and not much else.  We spotted a small person, probably a child, herding some goats, but no buildings appeared in our field of view.  We flew over the remains of old “star forts”, most likely from the first Anglo-Afghan war judging by their design and placement.  Then there was nothing; just rock. No roads. No trails. No water. Just mountains of rock towering on both sides of our helicopter.

By this point in 2011, I had accumulated over three years of combat deployments, this being my second in Afghanistan.  I was on-edge, focused, tired, angry, and this mission to the capital of Daykundi province was the last thing on my priority list.  A general was coming the next day to meet with the Provincial Governor, so I was sent to make sure security was tight and to advise during the meeting.

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Little-by-little, signs of life began to spring up; a jumpable creek with some buckets next to it, a donkey tied to a post, small farming compounds with terraced fields no bigger than a garden, and then the houses crept a bit closer.  The crew chief gave me the single-finger one minute signal that sent me preparing my gear for a quick exit as we flared to land.  As soon as the wheels touched down, the door flew open, I jumped and ran to a large soldier waving his arms. The helicopter was back in the air making its dramatic turn to the south, the excruciating high-pitched engine noises soon diminuendoed into a thump-thump-thump, and finally the electric whirling that faded to nothing.  By the time I reached what served as Headquarters for the eight soldiers stationed here, the word had come in: “a storm was coming in the southern pass, General X is not coming, meeting is canceled, first available return flight in ten days.”

Immediately, I contacted my deputy on the scratchy satellite phone, we reviewed my itinerary and my stress rose with each scrapped mission and meeting.  In an act of self-admitted petulance, I turned my frustration on the poor base Commander. 

Hazara Security

“Why is there only one guard post? Why haven’t you reinforced your fighting positions? Why aren’t your soldiers in body armor? Have you even tried to get a better satellite shot?” 

With a steady calm, foreign to my experience of wartime commanders, he shook his head and began the speech he’d probably given a hundred times, starting with, “Sir, that just isn’t how it’s done here…”

I didn’t know it at the start, but my ten days in Nili, Afghanistan were exactly what my nerves and my soul needed nine months into this year-long deployment.

I’d heard it my entire career: “places shape people and people shape places”. But I never really understood that saying until my time in Nili. To understand the phenomena of Central Afghanistan, you need to understand the people, the Hazaras.  Everything about the ethnic minority Hazaras is just different enough from the dominant Pashtuns to have led to long term persecution and isolation. They are both Muslim, but the Hazaras practice Shia Islam, which is more prevalent in Iran, and Pashtuns practice Sunni Islam, which is prevalent in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  They both claim Asiatic nomadic heritage, but as professed by their physical features, the Hazaras claim direct Mongol lineage to Genghis Khan.  Even their languages are different, with a Farsi dialect serving as the governmental “common tongue”.

To sum up Nili in one word: remote.  Roads out of the city travel in three directions, but each is a day’s hard ride on slick mountain roads to the nearest “city”.  The soldiers stationed here frequently won’t see a helicopter for weeks and are resupplied by airdrop, ensuring they keep at least a month’s worth of supplies on hand in case of emergencies. While a giant “ring road” has been constructed circling Afghanistan and the country has received tens of billions of dollars in aid, the central provinces filled with peaceful populations did not receive the wartime infrastructure boom brought on by Allied donations and investment. 

As I met with Mayor Azra Jafari, it was clear that things here were more different than I had imagined.  In contrast to the smoky rug rooms I’d grown accustomed to, filled with old men and untrusting eyes, here was Afghanistan’s first female mayor.  She walked up and shook my hand with a smile and we casually talked over tea for the next two hours.  To my astonishment, through the entire meeting, she didn’t ask for a single thing.  We discussed overall security and the new girl’s school, but one thing was clear: Nili was de facto autonomous.  A centralized Afghanistan Government had seemed difficult to grasp for most Pashtuns. In Daykundi it was fully understood, but the seat of government might have well been on Mars for the good it did them.  Here they were, still rejoicing the removal of the Taliban and instatement of President Karzai, which meant they no longer had to actively fight for their territory.

I was told to leave my body armor and sling my rifle as we headed into the market.  The market looked no different than most I had seen in small villages across the Middle East; the difference was the people.  Smiling, jovial, going about the day’s work with no weapons, no looking for bombs, no thought of the war that raged in the surrounding provinces.  My group took some time to try some of the local food and bought some chai to bring back to the tea fiend Australian Diggers.

For the next ten days, the war did not exist for me.  I set my own agenda of adventure.  I explored the mountains. I visited local memorials and landmarks. I talked with anyone who would take the time. I took every chance to find out more about this special place. This mountain paradise in the eye of the storm taught me Afghanistan was more than just war and poppies.

Exploring Daykundi

Ten years later, I still think about Nili often.  Did the children I met get married and stay there? Did the single hotel that was being built ever have visitors? Do the Hazaras still feel safe in their mountain fortress, or is Afghanistan’s uncertain future starting to draw them into conflict?  In those moments, I find myself rooting for the Hazara people, hoping they find a place within a new peaceful Afghanistan, and the continued sanctity of their mountain paradise.

(Since 2015, outside of the Hazara controlled provinces, 1,200 ethnic Hazaras have been killed and over 2,300 wounded in ethnic persecution.) 

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Trevor Chartier
Trevor Chartier

Trevor Chartier recently retired from the United States Army as a Lieutenant Colonel, after a 20 year career as a Military Intelligence and Infantry Officer. He has conducted four deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of combat units. He currently resides in Huntsville, Alabama where he works as the lead information security officer for Bright and as a Department of Defense contractor.

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