Atheist in a bunker: Richard W. Powers

Shortly after attending FFRF’s convention in Seattle last year, Richard Powers headed to Afghanistan, where he wrote this in August. It had been edited for space. He and his wife Coral are Washington members.

Greetings from southern Afghanistan. I’ve been here for nine months. My current deployment will end around Thanksgiving. I’m here as a civilian structural engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Kandahar Airfield. Our mission “is to execute quality and timely construction and engineering operations throughout Afghanistan and to provide sustainable projects for the Afghan people that employ the populace, build skilled human capital and promote stability.”

I’m happy to say this isn’t just a slogan. We focus on improving the lives of ordinary Afghanis, particularly women, who have suffered terribly under a patriarchal religion that dominates this part of the world.

Last December I sat on two Source Selection Boards (SSBs) in Kabul. An SSB evaluates contractor proposals for technical merit. I pointed out to other members on one of the boards that a proposal from an Afghani firm noted it had a large percentage of women in the firm and in high positions.  We gave this firm an excellent rating, and it was later awarded the contract.

Kandahar Airfield is known for dust, oppressive heat, winter mud, rocket attacks, noise from generators and aircraft and the smell from the infamous Poo Pond. It’s the world’s busiest single-runway airport and operates 24/7. We work seven days a week, 10 hours a day minimum, except for Saturday, which is our weekend, when the shift is only four hours. We live in prefabricated housing units, 8×20 feet, and have a roommate. We wear Army uniforms (desert camouflage) and full-body armor when “outside the wire” or when certain dress codes are in effect during security threats.

I have been fortunate enough to see quite a bit of the country, including Kabul, Qalat, Shah Joi, Herat and near the Iranian border to the villages of Zindah Jan and Ghurian. I’ve seen an Afghani woman make angry gestures to our convoy. I’ve seen Afghani children smiling and giving us a thumbs-up. In Ghurian, I saw large groups of young girls in school uniforms, carrying books, on their way home. That’s a sight you won’t see if the Taliban or other fundamentalists regain control.

Rocket and ground attacks

We sometimes go weeks without a rocket attack, but we’ve also had four in 24 hours. We usually get just a few seconds warning before impact and then rush to a concrete bunker to wait for the all-clear, generally 10 to 40 minutes. Some have landed fairly close. The 107-mm rockets are Chinese-made, have a range of about six miles and are highly inaccurate. Insurgents prop them up in ditches and set them to go off with timers so they are not around when they launch.

One day at 11 a.m., our office was rattled by a large explosion, the loudest since I’ve been here. About 30 seconds later, the rocket attack alarm sounded.  Then the ground attack alarm sounded, and you could see the anxiety in people’s eyes. The ground attack alarm sounded eight more times the next hour.

A suicide VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) explosion had torn a hole in the perimeter fence. Insurgents wearing suicide vests and armed with AK-47s and RPGs tried to get through the hole. A Canadian soldier cut them down with a 25-mm cannon, and that was that. They weren’t sure how many died because anyone hit with a 25-mm incendiary round simply disappears. Only one soldier on our side was wounded. The Taliban later proclaimed they’d killed 165 “American terrorists” and destroyed three helicopters. I thought religious people weren’t supposed to lie.

If anyone wants to see what becomes of a society in the full grip of fundamentalist religion, come to Afghanistan. It’s not just the Taliban. I just read that President Karzai signed a law allowing Shiite men to beat their wives in accordance with Sharia law. The Taliban recently stoned a couple to death for adultery and also hanged a 7-year-old boy. Ain’t religion great!

Religion deadly as rockets

Backtracking a little: When I got to Winchester, Va., for processing, I was given dog tags that read ATHIEST. A young woman working there was happy to correct the spelling, however, and did so without any unpleasantness. Coming from Seattle, I was a little unprepared for the general piety here. A lot of guys bow their heads before eating. Many go to church on Sunday, and almost all will bow their heads anytime some anointed religious leader tells them to do it.

The most egregious violation was when our entire group of about 200 went to an event to welcome a visiting general who is the chief engineer of the Corps of Engineers. During his talk, he told us he was raised a Christian.

While I was pondering the significance of that, it was announced that the chaplain would give an invocation and to bow our heads. And so, except for me, every head was bowed. (I looked around to see if there were any other heathens and was disappointed to not find any.) The chaplain babbled on about Jesus and how, in this arid land, we actually need the Lord more than we need water.

He went on and on in this vein and finally closed by saying, “in the name of the Lord, Jesus Christ.” I stood there thinking that this a-hole has no idea what religions are represented by the company of people at this event. Nor did the brass or anyone else question the propriety of these imbecilic sectarian religious comments. Nor did any of the people responsible think about the propriety of it occurring in an officially Islamic country where we are trying to gain the support of the populace. It was the single worst thing I’ve had to endure here in nine months.

I haven’t gone too deeply into why I think it is important for us and the other members of NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) to be here. I know a lot of you will disagree with my position. I can tell you this: If ISAF pulls out, a lot of moderate Afghanis, including some I have had the pleasure to meet, will be killed.

There are Afghani policewomen who have to wear disguises to get to work. They have explicitly stated that if the Taliban come to power, they will be killed.

I am here for them.

Freedom From Religion Foundation