A Warrior-Actor's Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back
A Warrior-Actor's Odyssey from Afghanistan to Hollywood and Back
“The problem in Afghanistan is that everybody there, holds a piece of a mirror, and they all look at it and claim that they see the entire truth."
- Mohsen Makhmalbaf, President of Asian Film Academy
Before 1980, Most Americans knew or cared little about this impoverished, land-locked, Central Asian nation. After the Soviet Union invaded, though, Afghanistan became a flash point—one that threatened to ignite a Cold War into the flames of a World War. Throughout the 1980s, American foreign policy sought to counter the Soviet presence there. The Carter and Reagan Administrations secretly supported a Mujahedeen resistance movement that eventually led to Soviet defeat and a 1989 withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics imploded two years later. The dissolution of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, beckoning a period of unprecedented world peace. Or at least many Americans believed so at the time—not understanding the unintended consequences and true legacy of our Central Asian policies.
“What is most important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire?” asked Zbigniew Brzezinski who served as National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, in a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur. “Some stirred-up Moslems or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”
Understandably proud of America’s Cold War triumph, Brzezinski rationalized and tolerated the emergence of Islamic extremists in post-Soviet Afghanistan, even in 1998. However, in retrospect, he significantly underestimated the Taliban’s impact on world history. We collectively washed our hands of Afghanistan after the fall of the USSR—and paid dearly for it. While the Communist-Mujahedeen conflict in Afghanistan displaced millions of people and destabilized the region, Western leaders largely ignored the chaos in favor of their more pressing national concerns, like trade policy or common currency. Almost every country, including the U.S., slashed defense spending.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama argued in The End of History and the Last Man that with the fall of the Soviet empire, Western liberal democracy had arrived as the ultimate form of government, in a world of diminishing conflict. Fukuyama, like other intellectuals who predicted a period of international tranquility, didn’t anticipate the rapid rise of Islamofascism, or what that rise would mean to our national security.
In an August 1996 CBS News/New York Times poll, voters listed the top problems in the country to be crime, the budget deficit, the economy, welfare, and jobs—all domestic issues. Foreign policy came in 25th, after illegal immigration and racism. Domestic policy issues dominated the 1996 U.S. presidential campaign, which ended with Bill Clinton’s reelection victory over Republican Bob Dole. Their debates focused on taxes, ethics, and even tobacco use. Foreign affairs received scant attention.
That neglectful mindset changed on September 11, 2001, when Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked four airliners and killed almost 3,000 people in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. Suddenly, the attention of America—and the world—was focused on Afghanistan, home to the Al Qaeda plotters.
My attention was also focused of Afghanistan. Before the end of October, I was back in a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel’s uniform, working on the Operations Staff at United States Central Command inTampa, Florida. That’s where General Tommy Franks took charge of Operation Enduring Freedom’s mission to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and remove the safe haven it provided to the Al Qaeda leadership.That mission was accomplished by Christmas. By the time I left Central Command in May, its focus was already shifting from Afghanistan to other theaters, as America’s leaders sought to maintain the initiative in what came to be known as the Global War on Terror.
However, almost nine years later, Americans were still fighting in Afghanistan, with a casualty rate that increased five-fold after President Barack Obama doubled U.S. troop levels there, following his 2009 inauguration. I returned to active duty in 2010 to again support Operation Enduring Freedom, this time as a field historian for Marine Corps University. My mission was to document Marine Corps efforts in Afghanistan. Accomplishing this mission required me to travel throughout the Marine Corps Areas of Operation in Helmand Province to interview Marines at Combat Outposts and Forward Operating Bases. Connecting with these forward-deployed Marines meant several helicopter flights, usually at night, as aircraft seldom flew without escorts during the dangerous daylight hours. I also joined ground convoys imperiled by mines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Before one motorized night movement, the convoy commander gathered all personnel to review signals and immediate action procedures to take should we run into an ambush or hit any IEDs. Then he held an optional prayer session—a poignant reminder about the dangers of road travel in Afghanistan and not part of the standard convoy briefing format as taught stateside. Accustomed to the secular world of American college campuses, I found this unabashed appeal for divine protection to be sobering and humbling. The brief prayer session allowed convoy travelers to honestly and publicly acknowledge both fear and faith before driving off into the perilous Afghan night. Most of the Marines participated, including me.
The convoy got through without incident, and I spent several days interviewing members of the Second Battalion of the Second MarineRegiment (2/2), nicknamed the Warlords. Over 70 Warlords had won Purple Hearts while taking the fight to the Taliban in the Helmand River Valley, including the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John E. McDonough, who was badly injured and evacuated after an IED blew up his vehicle. The Warlords shared many accounts of life and death in Afghanistan, and the lessons I learned from them served me well as I moved from outpost to outpost.
In March of 2010, I traveled to Delaram, where Helmand, Farah, and Nimroz provinces converged. This crossroads town was strategicallyi mportant, and the Third Battalion of the Fourth Marine Regiment (3/4) had been conducting combat and civil affairs operations there since the previous October—to great effect. District Governor Asadullah Haqdost recognized 3/4 for its work by presenting an award to its commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Martin Wetterauer, at a special ceremony at battalion headquarters. I attended to take photos and conduct interviews. A long-haired, bearded interpreter in an American uniform capably translated before, during, and after the ceremony. Afterwards, everyone headed towards a humble table in the battalion conference room for a banquet of sorts, honoring Asadullah. A 3/4 staff officer pointed to the interpreter standing in line to get some chow and mentioned that the man was born in Afghanistan, but had made his way to America to become a Hollywood actor. While “Hollywood actor” could mean almost anything, the term held some caché with me. Wasn’t that a glamorous profession? What roles had he played? Why was he now in dangerous Delaram?
The bearded interpreter posed for a photo with another visiting Marine Corps officer and then sat down across the table from me. His dark eyes sparkled and he laughed easily. Everyone in the room seemed to be his brother. I picked up on his charisma and asked if he’d like to record an interview for USMC History Division.
“Of course!” was his immediate answer. The interpreter and actor showed no reticence about going on the record to talk about his experiences. We sat down later on an outside bench in the battalion compound where he spoke at length of his life’s journey. Born and raised in Kabul, he’d fought the Communists who took over his country in 1978. He eventually made a harrowing escape to a refugee camp in Pakistan. Approved for asylum in the United States, he reunited with the rest of his family and moved to southern California where he learned English and pursued his dream of an acting career. For 15 years he accepted Hollywood jobs as an extra, while working at whatever full-time positions he could to get by. Despite subsequent success as an actor, he put on a uniform and certified as an interpreter who understood the Afghan languages, Pashto and Dari. He asked for the most dangerous assignment in Afghanistan—translating for a Marine Corps infantry battalion in volatile Helmand Province. He was so effective as an interpreter—bringing together Americans and Afghans—that he earned the special enmity of the Taliban, who offered a sizeable reward to whoever could kill him. As he patiently responded to my litany of questions, I realized that he epitomized what so many Americans yearned to see—an immigrant/refugee from an Islamic culture unafraid to express a deep love for and commitment to his adopted homeland.
Throughout American history countless people have put the mselves in harm’s way to defend a country that didn’t always treat them as equal citizens under the law. Here was another, contemporary example of such a person. He bravely joined a fight that required him to wear his new country’s uniform in a cause that put him in conflict with some kinsmen from his old tribe, back in his native land. This naturalized citizen left his family, community, and acting career at the age of 43 to risk everything while serving with a new, adopted tribe—the United States Marines.
Who was this man?
His name was Fahim Fazli.
This is his story.
Michael I. Moffett, Concord, N.H