As the setting sun turned the craggy Afghan mountains blood red, soldiers stood in a tent not far from where a young lieutenant and seasoned sergeant had been killed just a few days before. In combat gear, covered with dirt and grit from the surrounding lifeless Reg Desert that dominates Kandahar Province, soldiers spoke from their hearts about their fallen friends.
It was a powerful moment — even for a diplomat toughened by a 25-year career in foreign service.
"I had a real lump in my throat," remembers Bill Harris, the senior U.S. diplomat assigned to Kandahar Province.
Following President Barack Obama's controversial 2009 decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Harris worked with the military for a year, until his November return to Colorado Springs. Today, he declares his mission a success, thanks to the 10,000 soldiers assigned there — among them a Fort Carson unit — along with 1,000 "intrepid, courageous" civilians who endured Spartan conditions and daily violence to secure one of the most unstable parts of Afghanistan.
But unless Pakistan stops resupplying and harboring insurgents, he says, it's all for nothing.
Coming out of retirement
Harris' career took him all over western Europe and Latin America and, in 2002, to Afghanistan for three months. He retired in 2004, after last having served as the State Department liaison here at U.S. Northern Command. He lives in a tan, stucco home in Pine Creek — a well-earned slice of Easy Street, you might say.
Yet, when given the opportunity in October 2009 to return to Afghanistan to work for Gen. Stanley McChrystal, his roommate during his first stint there, he grabbed it.
"He wanted guys he knew from 2002 to come back, and I wanted to be part of that," Harris says. "I really felt there weren't many in the senior foreign service who worked with the military like I had."
Arriving in November in Kandahar at Camp Nathan Smith, Harris moved into a one-room, 8-by-20-foot shipping crate with a bed, metal locker and student desk — right next to the swooshing and thumping of round-the-clock flights on the helipad.
"When I first saw it, I thought, 'Oh my God, this is going to be a long year,'" Harris recalls, noting the winter was frigid and summer brought 130-degree scorchers. But he jazzed up his stark billet with three Afghan rugs (today in his Colorado Springs home) and a poster of Pikes Peak.
From the outskirts of Kandahar city, population 800,000, Harris was tasked with using a civilian corps to set up six outposts that would help Afghanistan government districts and assemblies disperse services to rural Afghans. He'd mold a similar structure inside the city, starting at the neighborhood level.
The Americans helped with tangibles, such as a trash pickup service and construction of municipal buildings and roads, installation of electricity and clearing of irrigation canals. Harris estimates his unit spent $400 million in U.S. Agency for International Development funds.
Such missions normally are undertaken after wars, not under enemy guns, he says. And at first, locals were skeptical and afraid. But the tide turned after a time, notably when two 5,000-soldier units rotated in last summer — one of them the 1st Brigade Combat Team from the 4th Infantry Division.
Under command of Col. Jeff Martindale, the Carson unit hit the insurgents hard, Harris says, helped by a unit from the 101st Airborne. "They used everything from B-1 bombers to snipers, and every time the Taliban turned around, they were trapped," he remembers. "They didn't know what hit 'em. They never recovered."
The soldiers took Malajat, a rural suburb of Kandahar. Next, they assaulted Arghandab district in the central part of Kandahar Province. "This brigade from Colorado Springs did both of these things," says Harris, who helped the U.S. military and Afghan security forces plot the raids. He himself went on 100 patrols, 20 on foot, wearing 40 pounds of body armor. In fact, he says, "Everyone who worked for me operated outside the compound almost every day." That increased the risk, and the risk in this area was all too real: Maj. Earl Brown, spokesman for the Carson unit, says in an e-mail that the Carson unit lost 11 soldiers and sent nearly two dozen wounded home for treatment of serious injuries.
But thankfully, the payoff was real, too.
"When we first arrived, nobody would approach coalition forces," Brown says. "They would never be seen working with us. They would throw rocks, and IEDs were everywhere."
Now things are different, he says. Afghans volunteer to help work the programs, kids wave at passing vehicles, shops and markets are thriving, tips come in reporting suspicious activity, and IEDs are reported almost daily. And Brown says Harris' unit provided a key civic push after the military secured troubled areas like Malajat.
"Bill's team has been a valued partner in establishing that strong foothold that has branched out throughout the entire area," Brown says. "We are seeing the fruits of those labors everywhere."
Just four hours away
Harris says his biggest challenge was to provide something that's hard to come by when bullets are flying: optimism.
"To be a leader in that setting, you have to be just the most optimistic son of a bitch there," he says, "and you have to do it all the time."
Camp Nathan Smith was visited often and regularly by media, because Kandahar was ground zero for engaging the insurgents after the controversial surge. Many members of Congress also came, he says, notably members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees.
Harris says he wrote to U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who represents Colorado's 5th District, which includes Colorado Springs. "I invited him to come," he says. "He never came, and he never answered my letter. It became ridiculous when you had a unit from Fort Carson in the biggest battle of the war."
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, did come, Harris says, and was escorted to Malajat right after it was liberated.
While the Taliban have been hamstrung by the Kandahar initiative, it's only a matter of time before insurgents reappear. Their refuge in Pakistan is only a four-hour drive from Kandahar.
"The insurgents could come and go as they pleased," Harris says. "It's the biggest single potential failure point. We have money, troops, civilians and the strategy, but the sanctuaries were the problem. We have one hand tied behind our back. I'm convinced if you close down the sanctuaries, you would have no problem meeting the 2014 deadline [for withdrawal of American troops]."
Harris says in 2001, 30,000 members of the Taliban army were "rolled up" in two weeks. "We can't roll them up [now] because they can run away," he says. But he's somewhat encouraged that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton vowed last week (the day of our interview) to push Pakistan to cooperate.
"I hope it's true," he says. "Afghanistan, the failed state — that's a movie we don't want to see. This is our war to lose. We shouldn't lose our nerve."
The return home
Although the food, including Häagen-Dazs ice cream, was amazingly good, Harris is glad to be back in Colorado. He's been through meetings with psychiatrists in Washington for post-traumatic stress disorder assessment and a physical.
Now, Harris finds himself wondering about the need for 10 rooms in his Springs home. But he's returned to normal sleep patterns after a year of five-hour nights strafed by small-arms fire, explosions and helicopters.
He's been featured on NPR and in the Washington Post, Financial Times and the Times of London. Wanting to remain part of the policy discussion, Harris is toying with writing a book, based on audio notes-to-self he made every night before turning in. Those notes deal with high points — his surprise 60th birthday party on July 31 — and sad moments, like when he stood among those dirt-covered mourners one day at dusk.
"I realized these guys are gone forever," he says. "But we're here, and we have to believe they died for something. It brings the lofty sloganeering of patriotism to reality. It's a moment of clarity."