Reading Shakespeare in Kandahar

The United States has won some measure of revenge in the 10 years since 9/11. But as in Shakespeare's bloodthirsty play Titus Andronicus, has the cost been too great?


“Thank you for coming,” Prof. David Kastan told the half-full auditorium. “You did not have to be here this morning. I did. It means the world to me that you came.” I looked around at my fellow classmates; we were all tired and dazed. The night before, the acrid, unforgettable smell of melted steel, atomized concrete, and human remains had drifted seven miles north, from southern Manhattan up to Columbia University’s campus.  

It was Sept. 13, 2001, and I was 21 years old. Two days earlier, I had walked into Kastan’s Shakespeare class before the attacks began and walked out after the second tower had already fallen. Columbia canceled classes for two days. I spent my time at the daily student newspaper, the Spectator, where I was managing editor. On Thursday morning, the first class back was Shakespeare.

“I will not make a political statement today,” Kastan continued. “But I will say this: This play we will discuss today is about revenge — and what demanding revenge can do to a person. I only hope that the people who will be making decisions on how to respond to Tuesday’s attacks read Titus Andronicus.”

When he finished, the class gave him a standing ovation.

Nine-and-a-half years later, I found myself standing outside a large house in Pakistan. It was 1:00 p.m. on May 2, 2011, and I was a correspondent for ABC News. Twelve hours earlier, the United States had finally taken its revenge. In the middle of the night, Navy SEALs shot the man who ordered the 9/11 attacks in the head and chest. After loading his body onto a helicopter, they flew it to Afghanistan and then to a ship at sea, where they dumped the prepared body in the ocean. I was the first American reporter to arrive at Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. My team and I aired the first video from inside the compound and filed 11 stories in five frantic days.

It was only after I had returned to my home in Islamabad, about a 90-minute drive away, that Titus Andronicus and Kastan’s warning came to mind. I was sitting with a group of American and British friends — journalists, NGO workers, and diplomats — having that familiar melancholic conversation about 9/11: “Where were you?” And, because we now lived where 9/11’s plotters had fled: “Did you imagine you’d be here, 10 years later?”

No, I said. I hadn’t imagined, sitting in my Shakespeare class a decade ago, that I would end up in Pakistan reporting the death of Osama bin Laden. But perhaps Shakespeare might have imagined the United States would be “here,” 10 years later.

Titus Andronicus is a play about revenge. It is about how a general fighting for an empire — Rome — finally defeats the “barbarous” Goths and returns to his capital with prisoners, the vanquished queen and her sons. Despite the queen’s pleas, Titus kills her oldest son to avenge his own sons’ deaths, beginning cycles of brutal violence that end in the death of nearly every major character.

At its core, Titus Andronicus is a play about how good people can  become unhinged and indeed overwhelmed by the need to avenge. It is about how powerful people surrender themselves to cycles of violence, how tribal and religious customs unequivocally demand retaliation, and how two tribes’ or two religions’ speaking past rather than with each other can lead to chaos.

“Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,/Blood and revenge are hammering in my head,” one of Titus’s enemies says before the bloodletting begins.

Kastan was right to worry. The United States has made many of the same mistakes that Titus Andronicus and his fellow tragedians made: prioritizing revenge and killing the enemy over helping the local populations; choosing allies who help produce short-term gratification (security gains) but long-term trouble; refusing to truly engage with a population that seemed so different from themselves.

Had the Americans learned from Shakespeare’s epic of vengeance, might Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I have lived for the last three years, been less violent and more welcoming of the United States today?

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‘Tigers Must Prey’

In early November 2009, I walked through what had been the colorful and crowded aisles of Meena Bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan. Every time I visited, the city always felt ancient, mostly unchanged from how it has been described for decades: filled with dust, smelling of diesel fumes and baked brick. In this part of town — far from the old British-built cantonment of green lawns and red mansions — the streets were thin and gray. Autorickshaws competed with horse-drawn carts.

Meena Bazaar was rare in that it catered to families — one of the few places in Peshawar where you saw women in large numbers. But on this day, there were no girls choosing colorful bangles, no women buying dresses. Most of the small, fragile shops were now piles of debris, destroyed two weeks before by a massive car bomb that had gutted this crowded corner of the city. The explosion was one of the most violent acts of terrorism in Pakistan’s history. The official death count was more than 110, but residents said at least 60 additional bodies were never found, obliterated in the blast.

The explosion coincided with a visit to Islamabad by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her timing could not have been worse. The bomb in the Meena Bazaar exploded just before she began to speak. The aggressive, ubiquitous Pakistani TV channels showed her news conference in split screen: Clinton on one side, the aftermath of the explosion on the other.

The Pakistani Taliban were in the middle of one of the most violent campaigns of retribution the country had ever seen. They were blowing up police and soldiers, but also bombing mosques and markets full of civilians. And yet the depravity of a Peshawar bomb clearly designed to kill as many innocents as possible somehow did not stoke the city’s anger at militants. (For their part, the Taliban denied involvement in the attack.)

Most people in Peshawar blamed the United States — not the Taliban. Clinton’s speech about developing a “partnership between the people” of the United States and Pakistan fell on deaf ears. Residents either directly accused the United States of planting the bomb or accused it of inspiring the violence by pushing Pakistan to fight “America’s war” along the Afghan border.

Shams ul-Ameen, a property dealer, told me he was walking into the bazaar as the bomb went off. He was blown off his feet but survived, and he saw a scene like “doomsday.” A few days after the explosion, he had found the body of a 4-year-old girl on a nearby roof. Like everyone I spoke with that day, Ameen blamed a “foreign hand” for the violence — including the United States, India, Afghanistan. Anyone but the Taliban.

“These are foreign forces,” Ameen said. “Hindus and white men together want to destroy Pakistan. This is an American trick. On the surface, they pretend to be friends, but they strike Muslims in the back.”

Siraj ul-Munir, whose shop was destroyed in the Meena Bazaar explosion, told me he was worried Pakistan had no future.

“We are wondering what will become of our future generations who today ask us, ‘Father, why do these bomb blasts take place? Who are these bombers?’ We can’t answer them,” he said. “We are innocent people. Tell us what we did to deserve this. It’s since the arrival of the Americans that there’s been a spike in all this violence.”

For years, U.S. officials have found statements like that unfair. They have been frustrated by the anger that Pakistanis and the Pakistani media often exhibit toward the United States — despite billions of U.S. dollars flowing into the country. In 2010, one U.S. diplomat told me, with some derision, that Pakistani perceptions of the United States were “a collection of conspiracy theories.”

But the people of Peshawar were reacting to a basic fact: Their lives have gotten worse since the United States invaded Afghanistan. A decade ago, there were no suicide attacks on markets in Peshawar. (There was only one suicide attack in Pakistan before 9/11. Since then, there have been some 300.) A decade ago, the phrase “Pakistani Taliban” did not exist. The people of Peshawar were responding to the world around them and what they saw the United States doing. They saw CIA drone attacks in the nearby tribal areas. They saw U.S. soldiers fighting and killing in Afghanistan. They saw the United States pouring money into developing Pakistan, but much of it going to high-priced Western consultants who did not engage with the population and demanded big, expensive programs that helped the elite, not the masses. And the people of Peshawar saw the United States unconditionally pour even more money into a Pakistani military that supported Afghan militants labeled “good Taliban,” even though blowback into Pakistan was evident.

A U.S. official once admitted to me that, for years, “U.S. policy in Pakistan came from Langley rather than Foggy Bottom,” implying that the CIA (and the Pentagon) ran the show and that drones and counterterrorism tactics were more important than the diplomats and development experts.

In Titus Andronicus, Titus gets halfway through the play before he realizes that not only do his historic enemies — the Goths — seek revenge; his fellow Romans may as well. “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers,” Titus says. “Tigers must prey.”

Elsewhere in Pakistan, where the United States sought not to avenge but to assist, the population doesn’t blame its ills on Americans. A few months before the Peshawar attack, I visited the Government Centennial Model High School in Dadar, a school destroyed by the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. One student was killed and more than a dozen injured when the buildings crumbled on top of them. By 2009, the school was filled with shiny new classrooms, one of which displays a large plaque from the U.S. Agency for International Development. The principal, Mohammad Irfan, said he was proud to have received U.S. help.

“We were destroyed. We were ruined at that time,” he told me. “Now, we feel very, very happy with America. We now feel, ‘Long live America, long live USA, long live Pakistan!'”

Down the road, Badr ul-Islam, an old man with a long white beard, had received $5,000 from the United States to buy refrigerators for his struggling dairy business. He was not a government official or bureaucrat, like so many recipients of U.S. aid. He was just a private businessman, and he was even more positive: “The people who oppose America, they should see how they’ve helped me. And they will change their minds.”

But these vignettes are sadly rare. In most areas of Pakistan — where people perceive their lives as less secure and less developed since 9/11 — there is still a strong anti-American narrative, from the streets of slums to elite drawing rooms.

That feeling extends even to Islamabad, the capital. In September 2008, I arrived at the swank Marriott hotel on a Ramadan evening. Rubble was piled 10 feet high, electric wires sparked against pools of water and gas, and mangled iron gates poked out of the mud. I saw at least eight bodies. As one police officer walked outside, he threw up into his own hand, sick with the stench of death. Inside the lobby, the reception desk had been crushed, a piano was thrown against a wall, and a fish flopped against the marble, its glass aquarium lying shattered nearby. Twenty minutes earlier, militants had exploded 2,200 pounds of military-grade explosive at the outside gate.

Even then, some of my fellow Islamabad residents — who opposed the Taliban and their suicide attacks — blamed America. “It’s not a good thing what they are doing, but they’re doing it out of compulsion,” said one Islamabad resident of the Taliban, asking me not to print his name. “If my home was bombed,” he continued, “and my parents and brothers were killed, wouldn’t I become a suicide bomber?”

Revenge is ingrained in this culture. In Pashto — the language spoken by 40 million people in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a saying: “Even if I wait 100 years to take revenge, I’ve made haste.”

For Pakistanis, the war launched to avenge the 9/11 attacks had created a vicious cycle of revenge.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images 

‘Ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind/By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.’

On a sunny morning in October 2009, Capt. Michael Thurman, an eloquent military police commander out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, drove me through the streets of Kandahar.

Thurman was an example of a gifted, post-9/11 breed of officer I’ve come across in Afghanistan: men and women in their late 20s or early 30s who have come of age inside a military as it fought two wars. Smart and brave, it seemed like Thurman had read every book about insurgency and Afghanistan. He was respected by his men.

I’d come to southern Afghanistan ahead of an expected surge of U.S. troops. Forty percent of the population of southern Afghanistan lives in and around Kandahar city, and I’d spent about a week with Canadian troops, the only soldiers who were living inside the city at the time.

If Peshawar was mostly the same after the last few decades, it felt like it had been centuries since Kandahar had changed. Some of the dirt-packed roads had been replaced by asphalt, but most shops were still made of mud, as were the large boundary walls that protect every house. The city rose early and filled with the sound and smell of diesel generators. Men with beards and turbans filled the markets; women, when they appeared in public, were covered by burqas.

Thurman’s orders were to get through the city quickly, but on the way out of town, his convoy of 30,000-pound, mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles skidded to a stop. On the other side of two lanes of traffic, an empty fuel truck and a passenger van had overturned after a crash. A group of people surrounded two drivers who were badly injured.

Thurman wanted to help, so we hopped out of the vehicle and walked over to the crash site.

For 30 minutes, Thurman’s medic examined the large, bleeding gash on the truck driver’s head and the dozens of cuts on the body of the van’s driver. Thurman handed out water, teased children who nipped at his heels, and engaged with local elders who had congregated to watch. At one point he took off his sunglasses and helmet — something U.S. soldiers weren’t supposed to do — so he could better relate to the crowd. Most just stared at him in silence. They did the same with me.

After the wounds were dressed and the kids had scattered, Thurman and his medic packed their gear and began to walk off. As they did, not one person shook Thurman’s hand. Not one person said thank you. In Afghanistan, guests are royalty; not shaking hands was the equivalent of a slap in the face.

“They still don’t like us,” Thurman responded when I asked him why he thought he had been snubbed. “When I took my helmet off, a kid jumped away from me…. We haven’t spent enough time engaging with the people.”

For years, soldiers were suspicious of everyone who lived in this Taliban stronghold, and they often failed to take the time to connect with the people. And crucially, many of those whom U.S. soldiers did spend their time with and helped install into government positions were the very people whom Kandaharis trusted least: ruthless warlords who had been thrown out by the Taliban. (One Kandahari once joked to me that the United States had brought “demoorcracy” into his city, purposely mispronouncing the English word by inserting a Pashto word in the middle that means, roughly, “mother-fucking.”)

One of those warlords is Abdul Raziq, a local police commander who at that time controlled Spin Boldak, the crossing between Kandahar and Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. I met him on Christmas Eve 2009.

“You are welcome anytime!” he greeted us with a slightly squeaky and much younger voice than I had expected. Despite his position of seniority, he was only 30 years old. “The embassy has given us a lot of money! Come, sit!”

Raziq’s boyishness hid a ruthless history. Western officials — speaking only on background — have, for years, accused him of helping run drug rings, private militias, smuggling rackets, and his own prisons in Kandahar. They accuse him of helping to fuel the insurgency with his opium connections. Kandaharis from other tribes associate him with the pre-Taliban warlords who ruled different parts of the province in the early 1990s by controlling segments of road with the help of murder and rape. Raziq’s uncle worked for a particularly cruel commander back then; he was later hanged by the Taliban from the turret of a tank.

Despite that history, the United States allied with Raziq because he provided immediate security gains. He controlled the vital border crossing, and he had done this job effectively: As the rest of Kandahar became increasingly violent, the border town of Spin Boldak was an island of relative calm in late 2009.

Which is why, after we left his office, the U.S. military officials I was with told me that Raziq was an example of what was going right in Afghanistan: a strong commander bringing peace to his little area. America needed Raziq because he could produce quick results. But by prioritizing short-term security gains, the United States is risking Kandahar’s long-term stability. The Taliban originally gained their popular appeal by opposing the ruthlessness of leaders like Raziq’s uncle. By in helping install Raziq, the United States became associated with such discredited sources of power.

Like the characters of Titus Andronicus, the United States was seduced by those who could provide immediate satisfaction: “ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind,/By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.”

Recently, the U.S. military stopped handing over detainees to Raziq until it can be confident he is not secretly torturing them, as his critics allege. But his power has only grown since I met him at the tail end of 2009: U.S. forces have increasingly teamed up with his men throughout Kandahar province, and U.S. commanders have praised him as a go-to leader. Today, he has moved up from his position on the border. He is the now the police chief of Kandahar city.


‘I Tell My Sorrows to the Stones’

In December 2010, I sat in a small guesthouse in Kunduz, Afghanistan, near the border with Tajikistan. The owner was an affable German-Afghan who had made a lot of money working with the cash-rich coalition and ran small hostels on the side. On this night, we sat around a wooden table below a single light, powered by a generator, that illuminated a meal of fried fish, the local specialty. I sat with my ABC News colleagues and the owner’s guest, a thin, 30-something contractor who worked at the local NATO base staffed with German troops. The guesthouse was unmarked, and men with automatic weapons guarded the front gate. Security in the city was not good.

The guest was a serious, well-read Afghan from Kunduz who lamented the state of the once-peaceful north. He believed the United States had squandered the support Afghans initially provided. Eight years before, when the war began, most in the country had welcomed the young Americans who threw out the Taliban. Afghans heard U.S. promises and dreamed into the future, expecting American-sponsored beneficence and development. In early 2002, President George W. Bush promised to rebuild Afghanistan in the tradition of the Marshall Plan.

Slowly, some things improved: The number of Afghan children in school is, today, seven times what it was on 9/11; almost eight times more Afghans have access to health care, compared with 2001; and women’s gains have been especially inspiring. As Habiba Sarabi, the only female governor in Afghanistan, once told me while we overlooked gaping holes in the rock where the Taliban had blown up Buddha statues in Bamiyan: “Women were deprived for a long time — deprived of education, deprived of facilities, deprived of rights. I can be a role model for other women, and other women in society can see that if a woman can be in a higher position like a governor, they will feel more comfortable and gain self-confidence.”

But over time, the United States failed to deliver on that Marshall Plan promise. Just as people in Peshawar saw their lives worsen after 9/11, many Afghans feel let down by the lack of improvement in their lives in the last decade.

The guest in Kunduz, after we ate our dessert and drank our tea, recalled a story that helped summarize the United States’ failures. He remembered that on a sunny morning, the troops he worked with stood proudly at a news conference, helping the local governor open a multimillion-dollar school that the troops had paid for and helped construct. But every Afghan there — everyone but the foreign troops, the guest insisted — knew the school wouldn’t last. The foreign troops’ funds weren’t allowed to be used to pay for maintenance or teachers’ salaries. And the Afghan government certainly couldn’t afford either. And so, eventually, the building deteriorated and the teachers stopped coming. The area where he worked became more violent, leading the troops to become more aggressive, leading to less education, development, and governance work.

“Don’t build me a school,” he implored. “Give me a teacher. That’s how to pacify an area.”

It was a lesson I had seen for myself the year before in the poor province of Zabul, Kandahar’s neglected neighbor.

Qalat, Zabul’s capital, is filled with the same Pashtun ethnic population as Kandahar and Peshawar, but it has a fraction of the wealth — or the charm of either city. Downtown, a simple market is filled with some cars and carts, but there are no tucked-away, middle-class areas. The city of 40,000 quickly becomes rural: Just a stone’s throw from the market, entire neighborhoods are composed of mud houses.

But, like Kandahar, it has always been a key location on the road toward the Indian subcontinent. On the city’s highest point sits the ruins of a 2,000-year-old castle built by Alexander the Great. Down the steep hill from the castle, the senior U.S. officer on Qalat’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) walked me through “New Qalat City.” It had been built in 2006 as a sign that the United States cared about Zabul province. It was meant to be a sort of Emerald City, with relatively modern buildings that would revitalize the town.

A new hospital. A new governor’s house. A fire station. A justice center. A visitors’ center.

But there was a problem: Nobody ever asked whether the Afghans wanted those buildings, according to the 2009 PRT commander, Lt. Col. Andrew Torelli. And they never taught the contractors how to maintain them or how to use the Western construction equipment.

And so, as we walked from building to building, each sat empty and crumbling. The power director’s building had no water, so nobody worked there. The hospital was collapsing and reeked of urine. Most medical supplies were unused, as the staff had never been trained. The fire station was never going to be filled; Qalat had never had a single firefighter.

I told that story to the dinner guest in Kunduz. He said it represented everything the United States was doing wrong.

“They never listen,” he said of the West. “They only did what they wanted to do.”

As Titus says when he feels his former allies have abandoned him: “I tell my sorrows to the stones.”

STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images

‘Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge’

For centuries, Titus Andronicus was neither popular nor particularly respected by critics, who believed the play’s barbarity was overindulgent and implausible: After Titus kills the captured queen’s son, her other sons rape Titus’s daughter and cut off her tongue and hands; Titus kills her after she is raped; and the list of brutal, violent acts goes on. T.S. Eliot called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.”

But in 2011, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this revenge-driven cycle of violence does not seem so far-fetched. In this “post-9/11 world,” where we have seen so much barbarity, Titus is less shocking than ever. In many ways, Titus Andronicus is a play “written for today,” as the director Julie Taymor put it — and that was back in 2000.

In one of my first interviews in Pakistan, in 2008, Gerald Feierstein, then former U.S. deputy ambassador to Pakistan, made it clear to me that revenge was not a solution for Pakistan and Afghanistan — that “kinetic activity,” as the military calls offensive actions, was not going to be enough.

“What we need to do is give people an alternative narrative for hope for the future. And that’s really much more important in terms of how we’re ultimately going to achieve success in that part of the world than anything we’re going to do in terms of kinetic activity,” he said. “What we need to do is prevent them from being drawn into extremism in the first place, and you do that through education and economic growth and other kinds of development activities.”

But three years later, it seems the United States is no closer to this ambitious goal. And on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan and Afghanistan are suffering from continuing cycles of violence. I am making the final edits to this piece late at night in a hotel with failing Internet on a trip to Peshawar. It has been a long few days. On Wednesday, Sept. 7, in Quetta, militants stormed a military officer’s house and killed his wife and 22 others, including two children. A few days before, in Kabul, police picked up the body of an American civilian working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He had been strangled to death.

Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of Titus Andronicus ends when Titus’s grandson walks out of the Coliseum where much of the action takes place — suggesting that the next generation of Romans could exit out of the cycle of revenge.

But nobody expects a Hollywood ending for Afghanistan or Pakistan.


<p> Nick Schifrin is a correspondent for ABC News in London. Before his current assignment, he served as ABC News' Afghanistan and Pakistan correspondent. </p>

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