Afghanistan’s Wars

Accustomed to sunlight streaming in during Sunday morning services, the darkened windows and diminished light in the church add to the somber tone on this hastily assembled Tuesday evening prayer service. The silence after the pastor’s introductory prayer is interrupted only by the creaking of the back door as more people filter in and find seats. Unlike Sunday mornings, most of the pews are completely filled, many with unfamiliar faces.

Spontaneous prayer, interspersed with soft sobbing are the only sounds breaking the silence. A voice reads a familiar passage from Scripture:

“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

Part of God’s instruction to Solomon nearly three thousand years ago, it is a timely call to revival. Looking to find strength in the Lord, more readings follow:

“In repentance and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15), and yet another reads the oft-quoted passage:

“For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chronicles 16:9). But, that is only part of the verse; following along in my Bible, a shudder courses through me when I read the rest:

“You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war.”

The passage in its entirety was spoken by the prophet reminding Judah’s King Asa, by forming an alliance with the King of Syria rather than trusting God for his strength as he had the previous 35 years of his reign, things would no longer be the same. War and struggle, not victory, would be his lot for the rest of his days.

Has our nation erred similarly? Is this in store for us too, I wonder on this September 11th evening? By the time someone reads a passage from the Book of Revelation, my mind is swirling, sensing a deeper Biblical context for the day’s events.

Fifty years after Paul Simon penned the lyrics,

“And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made,”[1] words rendering an eerie context to,

 “The kings of the earth who committed fornication and lived luxuriously with her will weep and lament for her, when they see the smoke of her burning,  standing at a distance for fear of her torment, saying, ‘Alas, alas, that great city Babylon, that mighty city! For in one hour your judgment has come.’ (Revelation 18: 9-10).

Could this attack be a shot across the bow, a warning, a call to repentance, a return to our roots as a Christian nation? Could the Mystery Babylon of Revelation refer to an unrepentant US?

Deeply troubled, I know life in America will never be the same, especially if we stay on the path we are on.

* * * * *

Prayer vigils like this filled churches across the United States on that evening in 2001. Praying for our country, our leaders, and the families affected by the disasters in New York and Washington, DC, many suspected as I did life in America would change forever. Security had been breached, innocence was lost, and lives were interrupted. As a result, financial markets and institutions closed, airlines suspended operations, and spectator sports faded into insignificance. For a week or two we were a changed people. Hope flickered for a spiritual revival in a nation addicted to hedonism.

Then the politicians made their speeches, misapplying Scripture to claim the proper historical gravitas. Prideful defiance in the face of our world-wide humbling emerged as the approach du jour.  Overnight, bumper stickers appeared proclaiming “American Pride.” Sleeping government agencies charged with our security suddenly woke up. Within forty-eight hours Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were fingered as the culprits. The caves and CIA training camps used a decade earlier while driving the Russians from Afghanistan, were deemed the lair of Osama bin Laden’s terrorists living under the protection of the ruling Taliban. Demands to turn over Bin Laden were dismissed; as a result, less than a month after 9/11, the US and Britain birthed a long war against Afghanistan.

Also born in the aftermath of 9/11 was the Department of Homeland Security, announced on September 22. Tom Ridge the Governor of Pennsylvania was named its director. With images of tragedies still playing on television screens, the seemingly miraculous conception of an instantly intrusive Cabinet-level department, complete with director, passed without question, as did rapid curtailments of individual freedoms under the banner of security. In time, Homeland Security became an empire within a nation, employing a quarter million people, evoking unflattering comparisons to other famous and infamous national police forces.

With a mantra of pride, a terrorist to hate, and a war to wage, hope for spiritual revival was short-lived. Countering the financial collapse following 9/11 with lowered interest rates and sub-prime mortgages, unprecedented levels of consumerism ensued, further killing any thoughts 9/11 may have been a watershed moment to an out of control nation.

Not content dropping million dollar missiles into five dollar tents, troops were deployed to Afghanistan. Joining the Northern Alliance freedom fighters, known as Mujahideen, in their long-running civil war with the Taliban, the US war objective became finding Osama bin Laden and rousting out the Taliban. Interestingly, the Northern Alliance’s leader and charismatic champion for democracy and reform, Ahmad Shah Massoud, had been assassinated mysteriously two days before 9/11. Speaking at an EU function the previous July, he had cryptically warned of an imminent large scale attack on US soil.

Bin Laden and most members of the Taliban proved elusive in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain riddled with caves; alliances and tribal bonds shift rapidly in Afghanistan. Re-wrapping their turbans, many Taliban seamlessly switched sides. Ideology, loyalty, and truth are puzzling Western concepts to most Afghanis who view Westerners with deep suspicion. But now a generation of young men who had only known fighting as their way of life were partnered with American style war. Objectives and goals were grafted onto tribal animosities and hatreds. The long time static front began moving, the afternoon tea-break from fighting was eliminated, and with the advancing front, villages were emptied and refugee camps filled. The twentieth century, dubbed the century of the refugee by the UN, was barely completed; the new century was off to a bad start.

Aware Afghanistan’s long time refugee crisis was about to become much worse[2], Medical Teams International with recent experience in the Kosovo War, decided to send medical personnel to Rustaq in relatively safe northern Afghanistan. Several large refugee camps outside the town of 12,000 had accommodated thousands of women and children displaced by the fighting in the region. The camps and numerous villages in the area had not seen medical care in over a year. Dr. Mike Pendleton, a Family Practitioner, Erda Fuller, an OB nurse who served with me during the Kosovo War, and I, a pediatrician would be the first medical relief team sent to Afghanistan. We would be part of a group known as ImPart, a consortium of four Christian NGO’s. World Concern, Food for the Hungry, and Central Asian Development Agency (CADA), based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, were the other partners. CADA, interested in expanding their influence into northern Afghanistan, would be the managing organization in the field, in charge of details and logistics.

After many interviews, meetings and delays in obtaining necessary travel documents to an area considered a war zone, we prepared to leave the week before Thanksgiving, 2001.

[1] Sounds of Silence, Paul Simon, 1966

[2] More than twenty years after Russia invaded Afghanistan, Afghans remained the largest single refugee group in the world.

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