May 05 2009
Twenty nine year old Rick Reyes was born to immigrants from Mexico, and grew up in Boyle Heights. He joined the Marine Corps and served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, based on his experience in Afghanistan and given President Obama’s promised troop surge, he thinks the US should at minimum rethink the Afghanistan war. In April Reyes testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee alongside other veterans of the Afghan war.
Rick Reyes, a former corporal in Afghanistan, one of the first to enter Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
Watch the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing on Afghanistan here: http://www.senate.gov/fplayers/CommPlayer/commFlashPlayer.cfm?fn=foreign042309&st=435.
Sonali: So, why did you say what you said at the Committee hearing? That the occupation is not going well, that you think at minimum, we need to rethink our strategy in Afghanistan?
Rick: The reason I made that statement was because of, through my experience on the ground in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I was able to see that the strategy wasn’t working and the objective wasn’t being met.
Sonali: Give us some more details. What do you mean by that? And, in fact, what is the objective of the United States?
Rick: Well, our objective there was to locate and detain suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
Sonali: And, that’s it? I mean, what about the larger goal of security in Afghanistan and women’s rights and human rights in general? Was that a stated goal or was that just expected to be a side outcome perhaps?
Rick: Well, as a ground troop in the infantry, our main objective was to locate terrorists.
Sonali: How did you do that? Like, what was the conduct on the ground – day-to-day operations of U.S. troops?
Rick: We would patrol through neighborhoods.
Sonali: Just in villages and cities?
Rick: Yeah, exactly, we just would patrol through these neighborhoods with a translator that was, a translator – I’m not sure where the translator came from but to the extent of my knowledge, it was just someone in the general population in these countries and the way these translators would come about was we would offer them an incentive for the amount of information they were able to provide. So, based on that, it seemed like most of the time we were just on a wild goosechase.
Sonali: Because the intelligence you were getting was based on being able to get some income for the translator but not necessarily be accurate?
Rick: Exactly. Yeah, they were offering incentives by providing intelligence and there was no way to prove that intelligence was correct or not.
Sonali: And what did you do with the intelligence? Like, what did you do when somebody told you that there was a suspected Al-Qaeda or Taliban person living in this house?
Rick: We’d patrol the area first just to get an idea of what the terrain, just to get an idea of the general area. Once we felt comfortable enough with the area we’d plan raids or attacks on these suspected points of interest.
Sonali: What was a raid like?
Rick: There were usually night raids. We’d go in there mostly when the people were probably asleep. We’d just raid the home from all directions and arrest and detain whoever was in there.
Sonali: And, what was the effect of such a raid and did you often get the wrong person?
Rick: It, it didn’t work. Every time we detained someone, at the end of it all, we just let them go.
Sonali: So, they were mostly innocent?
Rick: They were mostly innocent. And whatever we did destroy along the way we tried to compensate the destruction with offering food or money or replacing doors or windows or whatever it was. So, just the entire operation was just counterproductive from beginning to end.
Sonali: So, in your entire time that you served, did you ever apprehend an honest-to-goodness member of the Taliban or Al-Qaeda?
Rick: From my experience, no.
Sonali: So, what was then the result of these actions, these on-the-ground actions? Did people accept the compensation of food and the replacement of doors and windows graciously?
Rick: No, they were very angry. The population was just very angry at us. They didn’t want us there. Whenever we’d enter into a neighborhood for the first time we were never greeted humbly. We’d have young kids as young as 5, 6, 7 years old throwing rocks, giving us the finger – who knows where they learned that but that’s what they’d do.
Sonali: You served also in Iraq. How similar are operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Rick: Very similar. Very similar. Almost identical. The only differences are maybe some of the terrain but overall it’s the same strategy.
Sonali: I’m speaking with Rick Reyes. He is from Los Angeles, served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He testified at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee very recently about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. We’re having this interview the day before President Obama meets with the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan tomorrow in a high-level summit. So, let’s talk about the President’s strategy in terms of adding more troops. I’m not sure that the President has discussed changing the on-the-ground strategy of these new troops or even the existing troops. So, adding more troops it seems as though will just make the problem bigger.
Rick: Yeah, I mean, the biggest elephant in the room that Washington doesn’t want to admit to is the problem with the strategy being implemented with the escalation in troops. It’s the same strategy. It didn’t work before. It’s not going to work today, especially now that the approval rating by the Afghanistan population has decreased dramatically.
Sonali: And the approval rating has decreased predictably because of the actions you were just describing.
Rick: Yes, by the strategies implemented by the ground troops.
Sonali: Are the Taliban becoming more popular now as a result of the U.S. actions?
Rick: It’s hard to say if they’re becoming more popular. I know that they offer an incentive to side with the Taliban versus what we’re doing is we’re giving them a motive to oppose us. With the combination of the incentive from the Taliban, they side with the Taliban.
Sonali: And the Taliban are very openly saying that they want to drive the Americans out so they become a more attractive force to join.
Rick: Right. After the Congressional hearings in front of the Foreign Relations Committee, I met with some of the members of Congress and one thing that they mentioned was that the Taliban have a great business model. They have a tremendous business model, that Washington is having a very difficult time countering that business model. So, they know there’s a problem.
Sonali: And is that, basically, that the Taliban has a secure source of funding and that they offer social services to the people?
Rick: Exactly. Yes.
Sonali: Let’s talk about that source of funding. The drug policy in Afghanistan. The United States has not been clear as far as I can tell. You were among the earliest troops to enter Afghanistan. What was the U.S.’s drug policy when the war first started? I know currently there’s a push for troops to actually take part in drug eradication efforts but that wasn’t the case in 2001, 2002, was it?
Rick: Most of the times these fields are just being mowed down.
Sonali: Just mowed down?
Rick: Mowed down and destroyed.
Sonali: And did that happen even early on?
Rick: I don’t know if it happened earlier than that but during that time these fields were just being destroyed which just leads to another motive for the Afghanistan people to oppose us.
Sonali: So, and who controls the poppy fields? I’m not sure if you can tell just serving there, there are also drug lords who are serving in parliament. But then there are ordinary people who are benefiting from the drug sales because people are so poor there so drugs are lucrative. But then the drugs are also funding the Taliban.
Rick: I guess they are. Through what I’ve been able to research is that in the late 60s, early 70s, Turkey was a mirror image of what Afghanistan is today.
Rick: Turkey. It had a very deteriorated government, a huge drug problem and the policies that were placed on Turkey was to legalize these poppy fields for pharmaceutical purposes. If you look at Turkey today, it’s a member of NATO. You would never imagine it was very similar to what Afghanistan is today. So, we really need to look at those different strategies and that’s just proof that going about it that way will work.
Sonali: Rick, when the military announces that we’ve killed, you know, x number of “insurgents” in a particular area of Afghanistan, what does that mean? Just from your personal experience being there, can the military tell the difference between who’s an insurgent and who’s just a civilian?
Rick: I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell the difference and I was there with them within arm’s distance and I couldn’t tell.
Sonali: So, it’s likely that the casualties of civilians is a big understatement?
Rick: I think the success rate is very low. It’s extremely low to the point where it just doesn’t make any sense. There is no effective way to tell them apart from the general population.
Sonali: So, just getting a sense of what you’ve been saying in this interview, what you said in your testimony, it seems as though the U.S. went in there – I mean, we’ve been there for 7 ½ years now in Afghanistan – we went in there with objectives that were fairly narrow with tactics that didn’t seem to work, that made things only worse and the President wants to now add more troops which is not necessarily going to improve the problem, it’s only going to make things worse. What should U.S. troops be doing in Afghanistan, do you think, if anything?
Rick: Well, right now, they’re also conducting humanitarian aid missions but the line between humanitarian aid and combat operations is very thin…
Sonali: …and that’s not a good thing…
Rick: …and very blended. That’s also another reason why a lot of the humanitarian aid right now being implemented by the U.N. is being attacked.
Sonali: So, basically, people are associating the U.N. aid with military operations because the American and NATO soldiers are carrying out humanitarian aid work while also carrying out military operations?
Sonali: Tell us about these provincial reconstruction teams as they’re called, the p.r.t.s that the U.S. and NATO operate. So, basically, it’s like groups of soldiers that go out and try to get some goodwill in a village by building a well or building a school?
Rick: Through my experience, it just goes back to offering incentives for intelligence, which is basically the same way these groups are operating. They’re offering aid…
Sonali: …as a tool in a way?
Rick: …as a tool to receive more information on where suspected Taliban or Al-Qaeda forces might be.
Sonali: And for anybody who is part of a non-governmental humanitarian organization, this is like the biggest no-no that you do in a battlefield. To use aid as a political tool to get information is sort of violating a lot of human rights ethics. So, you’re saying that that’s happening regularly. Rick, I want to turn now to your own personal background. You served as a Marine. You’re from East L.A. You grew up in Boyle Heights. What made you join the Marines? And did you think you would sort of be where you are today? Did you think you were going to be fighting in two wars and then – you’re a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War so you’re against the Iraq War and questioning the Afghanistan War – did you imagine that you would be in this position?
Rick: No, of course not. I grew up in Boyle Heights like you mentioned and just coming from a rough neighborhood there wasn’t much direction, not much guidance. After-school resources were scarce or non-existent. So, as I got older, I decided to take responsibility for my own life and I thought joining the Marine Corps would be the best thing to do.
Sonali: And, what about your background has influenced what you’ve seen in the Afghanistan War? As part of your testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, you said, “patrols were conducted through populated neighborhoods. The populations on those neighborhood streets weren’t any different from the population on my street.”
Rick: Well, on my street I see mothers, I see fathers, I see kids playing, running around the streets. Just the regular neighborhood. And, during these patrols in these foreign countries, those neighborhoods were very identical to mine. You’d see children playing, fathers coming home from work, mothers chasing behind those kids and it just was like a patrol through my neighborhood. And, when we’d take the fight to their front door, to me, it just didn’t seem right.
Sonali: You’re a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, as I mentioned. So, you’re against the Iraq War. Do you think that the U.S should withdraw all forces from Afghanistan and end that war too?
Rick: That’s a very difficult question to answer. What I do know is that escalating the troops is not the most effective way of winning.
Sonali: And, IVAW has not taken a position on Afghanistan yet?
Rick: Not yet but we’re getting more involved, getting more educated and just looking at the current policies that are being implemented in Afghanistan and then we connect the similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan and it’s almost one and the same.
Sonali: And, how common is your sentiment, your questioning of the Afghanistan War among veterans and also troops currently serving in Afghanistan, you think?
Rick: It’s funny because when I delivered my statement in front of the Foreign Relations Committee, after all was said and done, one of the other panelists came – I’m not going to say which one – came to me to thank me for delivering my statement and admitted that they all feel the same way but for some reason no one wants to say anything about it. I’ve been able to talk to some of the guys I’ve served with and, at first, they were, they just didn’t agree with my outlook but after they gave it some thought and started to realize what was happening, now I have their full support. So, amongst veterans, I think the sentiment is very common but most aren’t coming out and saying anything.
Sonali: I want to thank the folks at Brave New Foundation, Robert Greenwald’s organization, for helping us bring you to Uprising today. You found Robert Greenwald, who is doing a series of short documentary films called “Re-think Afghanistan” online. You found him through Facebook. Was this your first sort of reaching out to speak out about the Afghanistan War? As you’ve said, not too many people are willing to sort of speak out against our policies there. And, did this meeting, if you will, give you the confidence to say that?
Rick: I saw them on Facebook like you mentioned. I sent them email messages saying keep up the good work, you’re doing very necessary work. I didn’t expect anything after that but he replied and asked me a few questions. So, I answered his questions and I just gave him, you know, just gave him some of my experience and then from there I got involved with the Re-Think Afghanistan Campaign. We pushed the petition for the Congressional Hearings. I just never thought I’d be the one to deliver a statement at the Congressional Hearings.
Sonali: And perhaps other troops, other veterans now may, seeing your testimony, change their minds about speaking out. Rick, where can listeners find out more? Can you give the website for Re-Think Afghanistan?
Rick: Yes, it’s www.rethinkafghanistan.com and there’s also www.getafghanistanright.com
Sonali: Rick Reyes, I want to thank you very much for spending the time in studio and sharing your experience and insight with us.
Rick: Thank you for having me here.
Special Thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview