An interpreter’s damning and disturbing look inside America’s Afghan-Iraq wars

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chayya

An Afghan American linguist and interpreter, who spent close to a decade on the frontlines of the Afghan and Iraq wars, paints a sometimes damning, sometimes bizarre but mostly disturbing picture of the disastrous engagement in the region.

In his just released book ‘An Interpreter’s Nightmare: The Afghan Debacle’, the author Elmer Ahmady offers unprecedented insights from the ground, particularly of the follies that attended America’s longest war lasting nearly 20 years.

The book is a remarkable and first-of-its-kind account of the nuts and bolts of the wars by someone with a top-secret clearance. Ahmady, who has lived in the United States since 1973, ended up with a severe case of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) having experienced firsthand what the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did to the people of the two countries as well American soldiers. Initially motivated by America’s capacity to do good around the world, Ahmady writes he discovered soon enough the follies of these hugely expensive wars.

“My work was generally devoid of anything dramatic except one day when Special Forces captured and brought in a middle-aged Iranian civilian. I found out that he was a spy for the enemy and used to carry messages back and forth. The sergeant in charge of interrogation was chisel-faced and cruel. He roughed up the captured spy so much that I was reminded of the Abu Gharib prison and the utterly inhumane torture that prisoners were subjected to. I remembered prisoners being tied to chains like animals.

Since this was my first brush with the US war machine, I persuaded myself not to be distracted by some infractions and transgressions since America’s overall objective was the force for good for the rest of the world. I told myself America was trying to make the world a better place for everyone. I decided to deal with my misgivings with logic and facts,” he writes.

However, as his time in Afghanistan extended from 2008 end to nearly 2018 end, he became a witness to the horrible underbelly of the military industrial complex. While he gets into the dust and grime of the U.S. military and intelligence establishment navigating Afghanistan’s complex tribal equations dominated by feuding warlords with conflicting interests in the country’s future, Ahmady also writes with great dismay how eventually America handed over the country to the same Taliban it had fought for nearly two decades.

In his chapter2 titled, ‘Was early Taliban takeover of Afghanistan known to the US?’, Ahmady writes, “Any possibility that after a protracted and eventually militarily ineffective US invasion of Afghanistan would lead to Washington negotiating with the Taliban seemed like an absurd idea early into the occupation. As years rolled by without Afghanistan getting any better, however, signs were becoming apparent something as unthinkable as that might just happen.

It is well-known that Washington had been trying for years behind the scenes to get the Taliban to the negotiating table as the effort to stabilize it through the military began failing. That approach gained momentum with the rise of Donald Trump as America’s president in 2016. Given the scandal-a-day nature of his administration, nothing much seemed to be happening for the first two years of his administration even though there were indications that his government was keen to end the US presence in Afghanistan.

After months of back and forth in Doha in Qatar the two sides reached what was then considered a landmark deal. The deal was signed on February 29, 2020, a leap year, between the US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban negotiator Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Having been involved with Afghanistan for years and that too on the ground on a daily basis I was taken aback by the weakness of the deal Khalilzad struck with Baradar.

Other than securing the assurance that the Taliban would not attack the US and other troops as they withdrew from Afghanistan within 14 months of the deal, it was more or less gifting away Afghanistan to the Taliban. I was quite shattered by what I was reading about it. Just how ineffectual the peace agreement was became stunningly obvious in the chaos that followed the US troops’ withdrawal in the face of a cakewalk takeover of not just Afghan countryside but even the capital Kabul as then President Ashraf Ghani fled.

My heart sank as I watched the scenes of desperate Afghan parents handing over their babies over the fence at the Kabul airport to US soldiers in a desperate effort to save some members of their family. Although Ghani later said he fled Afghanistan in order to avoid bloody street battles, it was clear that the rot that had set in much before the collapse was deep and total.”

Spread over 21 chapters, the book is a valuable chronicle of an enormously costly war. “By the time, I returned to America in 2018 after years of deployment in Afghanistan it was depressingly plain that America had lost that war. When you consider the blood and treasure that were invested in the nearly 20-year-old war, you begin to realize how much of an epic debacle it has been.

For instance, the cost of the Afghan war worked out by various university studies have been pegged it in excess of $2.3 trillion,” he writes.

Ahmady also expresses the worry while watching the goings-on in the Russia-Ukraine war that it could also go the Afghan way. Writing about Ukraine and Afghanistan, he says, “Of course, the two situations are entirely different with the single common factor being that both Afghanistan and Ukraine have profoundly suffered from Moscow’s brutality. In Afghanistan’s case the wounds of wars have been incomparably higher than those of Ukraine’s. However, in so much as it means the two countries having become the playground of Russia on the one side and US-led NATO forces on the other, there are some parallels. The biggest differentiator in Ukraine’s favor is that it is a Western nation in most ways that matter and as a matter of cultural solidarity the West will never allow it to become as bad as Afghanistan.

A time will come, and it is hard to predict when the West will say enough is enough. In the meantime, Ukraine has become a plum target for the notorious military-industrial complex quite like Afghanistan did. The Russia-Ukraine war offers weapons manufacturers and their patrons in various government agencies a great opportunity to fatten up their profits like they always do and like they did in Afghanistan.”

(The book is available on Amazon at

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