The Sandbox

GWOT hot wash, straight from the wire

Welcome to The Sandbox, a forum for service members who have served or are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, returned vets, spouses and caregivers. The Sandbox's focus is not on policy and partisanship (go to our Blowback page for that), but on the unclassified details of deployment -- the everyday, the extraordinary, the wonderful, the messed-up, the absurd. All correspondence is read, and as much as possible is posted, lightly edited. If you know someone who is deployed who might have something to say, please tell them about us. To submit a post click here.


February 18, 2008

CAPT Benjamin Tupper 
Posting date:
Returned from: Afghanistan 

A cat has nine lives. Most of the people I know have one. But apparently, if you are an Afghan National Army 1st Sergeant named Iftak Kharullah, you have two lives to live.

Iftak, who I eulogized in a previous Sandbox post after his purported death in combat in December, has pulled a Lazarus on me, and risen from the dead. So I offer this post to those who previously read about Iftak's demise, to correct the historical record, and also to demonstrate how difficult it is to communicate, understand, and process information in Afghanistan.

To recap, I received an email from my personal Afghan Interpreter Janis a few months ago, which informed me that the First Sergeant of the Afghan Infantry Company that I mentored for six months had been killed in combat. He never mentioned him by name, and knowing that soldiers switch positions, I made the precautionary effort to confirm that it was Iftak who was killed before I sat down to write a story about his death.

I sent Janis a photo of Iftak, and asked him to confirm in fact it was the man in the picture who was killed. In a following email, in jumbled and broken English, he agreed it was the man in the picture. Or so I thought.

Last week, I got an email from my partner Corporal Polanski, aka "Ski", who made up the other half of our two-man embed team in 1SG Iftak Kharullah's 3rd Company, which simply said, "Yo, Iftak isn't dead. I talked to the terps -- it was some new guy who had only been there for two days who got killed."

After my initial relief that Iftak, a close friend and comrade, was in fact alive and well, I was reminded that some other poor soul was killed in action while fighting against the Taliban. But I don't know his name, I never met him, and as wrong as it may sound, I'm glad it was this nameless and faceless soldier who died and not my close friend.

But Iftak's resurrection is not the important point of this essay. The scenario should serve as a simple and poignant example of how easy it is for us as Americans to mistakenly think we know what is going on in Afghanistan. From such a basic level as notifying me of the identity of a soldier who has died, to the more complex and comprehensive efforts being made as part of the overall COIN (Counter-Insurgency) campaign, it's clear that there is a great deal of miscommunication between Americans and Afghans.

I cringe at the thought of the many times I stood before a gathering of Afghan elders and rattled off an eloquent speech on our good intentions and well wishes for their village, only to have the interpreter look at me, confused, and mumble a few words in Pashto to the assembled crowd. The elders, instead of responding to the good news, looked equally befuddled by the message brought by a strange foreign-speaking soldier. The margin for error in these situations is slight, and having even one word miscontrued can easily have dramatic results for those involved.

Just ask Iftak. He was dead for two months.


Not one, but TWO good friends risen from the dead!

If only all soldiers could be so blessed.

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