Lessons from the field

Lessons from the field
Field work: A shepherd tends to his flock in Takhar Province, northern Afghanistan. Photo by Reinhard Cate ’07
Taut and tranquil moments in Afghanistan.
Shepherds show off one of their flock. Photo by Reinhard Cate ’07

“Wake up, you’re on.” I opened my eyes to the glare of a headlamp in my face. A U.S. Army Special Forces soldier stood above me in full kit—a tactical vest holding the essentials for any soldier in Afghanistan: radio, extra ammunition, first-aid kit, and, most important, Kevlar plates meant to stop the 7.62-millimeter bullets fired from an AK-47, the weapon of choice for the Taliban insurgency. The soldier’s M4 rifle was slung at his side, and he wore green-hued night-vision goggles on his helmet. I looked up at him from my sleeping bag on the ground.

“You’re roaming,” he said. He walked off, eager to get to his own sleeping bag. “Boz is in the truck.” Beyond the glow of his headlamp, the countryside was an eerie pitch black, despite several villages being less than a kilometer away.

I got up and hastily put on my boots and slung my own kit and helmet on over my head. My gear was a little less aggressive; a digital camera and notebook for interviews took up space meant for extra ammunition magazines. Still, I was armed like the rest of the team, and with rifle in hand I was ready to walk the perimeter of the camp we had just made that night while another soldier scanned the countryside from one of the gun trucks.


A plainclothes member of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Takhar. The NDS serves a dual role in Afghanistan as a national law enforcement organization as well as an intelligence agency. Photo by Reinhard Cate ’07

April 2012. We had traded the high deserts of Ghazni Province in the east—and, with them, the constant harassment with small arms and mortar fire from Taliban insurgents—for the tranquil green plains of Takhar. Our mission was to recruit Afghan local police for the area and train them in a compound we were to build ourselves. The nearest U.S. Forward Operating Base was hours away. We parked our gun trucks defensively in a circle, like a wagon train in the Old West, and began to set up camp.

Eleven years earlier, the then-fragmented Northern Alliance—reeling from the assassination of their leader, the iconic Ahmad Shah Massoud, in September 2001—had planned to make its last stand in Takhar against the Taliban. With momentum from Massoud’s death, the Taliban had made major military gains across the country. The nearly beaten rebel group decided to fall back to the centuries-old mud-brick hilltop fortresses that loom over the pastures and small villages that checker this northern province.

When the U.S. troops landed in Afghanistan that fall, Special Forces soldiers—much like the men I was attached to—rode on horseback into battle alongside Northern Alliance warriors here and called in air strikes on Taliban positions. In 2012, more than a decade into the war and with the Taliban pushed out, the north of the country had achieved relative peace and stability. But the violence of the insurgency had crept back. Locals we were tasked with training would, it was hoped, prevent the Taliban from returning permanently.

I was in Afghanistan working for the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force as a social science researcher and advisor. I’d been recruited into a little-known program called Human Terrain System—pairing civilian experts to work with the military and help bridge what’s often a broad social, cultural, and political divide between local Afghans and U.S. soldiers. The job had taken me all over the country embedded with Special Forces soldiers and conducting research on the local population.


A playground, part of a girls school, sits in front of a bombed–out qalat, or housing complex, in Ghazni Province in eastern Afghanistan. The school was opened in 2005 and hasn’t been used since. Photo by Reinhard Cate ’07

I’m a journalist by trade. In 2010 I had just finished my master’s degree at New York University and secured a gig with News Corporation in the Big Apple. But after a few months I was miserable. I had gotten a taste of the field the summer before and couldn’t stay in a newsroom, let alone an office.

During summer 2010, I worked in Israel and the West Bank, shooting a documentary on the seemingly never-ending conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people. I also taught a journalism course to students from An-Najah University in the city of Nablus.

My interest in this region of the world was inspired five years before in the classrooms of Santa Clara University. I’d studied U.S. foreign policy and the politics of the Middle East. I then took part in a direct-exchange study-abroad program to London and ended up interning at the House of Commons, a life-changing opportunity. I researched critical international policy issues, constantly listening to debates on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The energy and pace of Westminster were mesmerizing.

During graduate school, when a chance to do fieldwork in the West Bank came along, I jumped at it. There I witnessed pitched battles between Palestinian protesters and the Israeli military, traveled and filmed the biblical countryside, and listened to intimate stories of people affected on both sides of the conflict. The work that I was doing in the News Corporation offices months later felt empty in comparison. Before I knew it, I was training to go to another war zone, this time attached to the U.S. military.


Tribal elders at an Afghan Local Police validation shura share a meal on a Special Forces compound in Takhar. Photo by Reinhard Cate ’07

Spring 2014. It’s been well over a year since I left the camp we built in Takhar. The day I flew out via Black Hawk helicopter, we had finally put up our front gate. Before then I could literally walk outside the earth-filled Hesco walls of our camp and be greeted immediately by farmers, shepherds, and young men passing by on motorbikes. All were excited just to have their pictures taken.

Building rapport with the people you’re interviewing is critical for a journalist, whatever your medium; the same holds true for field research. As a journalist you truly rely on getting people to trust you, which can be especially difficult if you want to film, photograph, or write about them.

Yet somehow the awkward back and forth of getting to know one another and building trust wasn’t a tremendous hurdle when I did my research in Takhar. Maybe it was the history that the people have with U.S. Special Forces or simply that the Americans with fancy weapons and camera equipment were an exciting reprieve from the violence and abject poverty faced by so many people in Afghanistan. Either way, the openness and trust given to me by the hundreds of people I interviewed was powerful and moving.

This year a classroom at Santa Clara has replaced the office of grass and dirt I was accustomed to in Afghanistan. I teach journalism at the place that inspired me years before to discover and develop my own interests and seek adventure across the world. I try, in turn, to inspire my students with the lessons I’ve learned in the field in places like Afghanistan, Israel, and the West Bank. I know there are important stories for them to find and tell, some of adventure and some of life lessons learned right here or half a world away.


Selected photographs from Reinhard Cate’s “Seasons of Afghanistan” and “Fields of Takhar” documentary photo series. To see more of Cate’s work, visit his website.

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