New essay for my column at Nailed Magazine

“After record opium year, Afghans plant new crop.”

–AP headline on November 13th, 2013

When I was in basic training to become an infantryman at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1993, the drill sergeants would occasionally yell at us, “What makes the grass grow?” The correct response was for all of us new privates to scream at the top of our lungs, “Blood and guts, Drill Sergeant, blood and guts.”

While we can agree that the Afghanistan War has been the longest war the United States has ever fought, we may not be able to agree what the hell we’re fighting for. On the day the AP wrote the headline and article cited above, 28-year-old Staff Sergeant Richard Vasquez, one of our elite soldiers, was killed in Kandahar while on a dismounted patrol with an IED. That means he was on foot and he died after an explosion ripped through his body. He was on his third deployment. SSG Vasquez’s brother Romario told their hometown paper in Sequin, Texas, that, “He loved defending his country and he did it well. I could sleep better at night knowing he was protecting us.”

In total over 17,000 United States service members have been wounded in Afghanistan while “protecting us.” The latest numbers put the death toll for U.S. service men and women at 3,396 lives lost in Afghanistan alone. According to the AP the death toll for Afghanistan troops has gone up 80 percent this year. What are we fighting for? What are they fighting for? What are people killing and dying for?

Seriously, I’m asking you. If someone came up on the street and asked you why we are sending troops to fight and die in the longest war we’ve ever fought, in a place that history has shown is a no-win situation, what would you tell them? Are the troops we send to Afghanistan defending our country? As a soldier who was critically injured in an IED blast myself, I want to know the answers to these questions. During the incident that crushed the right side of my body and injured my brain, a good friend of mine was killed, another good friend was critically injured. Why? I really want to know.

We are throwing away the lives of some of the best people of these generations.

According to Marine General Joseph Dunford, who now leads the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), winning this war doesn’t mean taking down al-Qaida anymore. We are not planning and executing missions to find and destroy the Taliban or al-Qaida. The general said that winning now means, “Setting the conditions for the Afghans to exploit the decade of opportunity that will come in 2015 and beyond.” Sounds like the man in charge just said we’re focused on building up their government, not defending ours.

There are over 400,000 acres of poppies growing in Afghanistan. Every acre yields about fifteen pounds of poppy paste and this is bought from the farmers at around $600. This may not seem like a lot of money to us, but in Afghanistan no other crop comes close to bringing in this type of money for the families growing it. Of course the Afghan Government has decreed that growing this crop is illegal and has been since 2001. U.S. forces had been encouraged by the U.N. and instructed by their chain of command to destroy the crops as recently as 2009, but now our official policy is to ignore the fields. In fact, Army Major Charles Ford in Kandahar, the same region where SSG Vasquez died only a few days ago, says poppies are a source of stability for the country. Yes, and they are also a major source of income for the people violently killing our service members.

For years during the war we had burned the poppy fields, but that ended up throwing the country into chaos. Almost immediately there were bombings and assassinations of the poppy eradication agents. The Taliban terrorized the farmers who desperately pleaded for help against them or picked up arms themselves sending the regions into complete lawlessness. Destroying the illegal drugs became “a distraction” from the real mission of the war. So now, the farmers sell the poppies to the Taliban. The Taliban creates heroine and sells it for a huge profit. The profits are used to fight U.S. service men and women. U.S. service men and women die.

After record opium year, Afghans plant new crop.

What makes the grass grow?

Why aren’t you outraged?

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