In 2010 while he was embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, war reporter Carmen Gentile was hit in the face with a rocket propelled grenade. Luckily it didn’t explode… but it did shatter his face and blind him in one eye. He tells what he endured and learned in the new book: Blindsided by the Taliban: A Journalist’s Story of War, Trauma, Love, and Loss.
Gentile: I was injured by a rocket propelled grenade that hit me in the side of the head. Fortunately for me, it did not detonate.
Sharyl: In simple terms, for people who know we have troops in Afghanistan but really don't know why we're there and what they're doing, how would you say, how would you describe that?
Gentile: We went there because of al Qaeda and September 11 and the effort to root them out and to remove them from their comfy home that was given to them by the Taliban. Why we're still there 17 years later if you asked me why I think we're there, I'm not quite sure.
Sharyl: What did you learn in the big picture from your time there?
Gentile: The big picture that I learned there is that the more time I spend in Afghanistan, the less I know about Afghanistan. It is a very complex country in terms of their tribal dynamics, their history, the politics. There is several generations that have grown up knowing nothing more than violence and fighting. If all the violence were to end today, there would still have to be a several decades of healing before the country could maybe return to that time before the Soviet invasion.
Sharyl: How would you describe what you see as the US strategy there and what would you say, if anything, is wrong with it?
Gentile: I think that there has been some mission drift over the years, and now we’ve gone through a period of initial invasion, and then there was the shift towards Iraq, and Afghanistan was seemingly forgotten for a number of years until the Obama surge in 09, and during that period it seemed as though there was a concerted effort to try to regain control of parts of the country that the Taliban had a firm grip on. Now, that control has returned to the Taliban, and in some places the Islamic State, that now the US is drawn down and now the Afghan forces are in the lead. What they’re trying to achieve with this recent escalation as ordered by the Trump administration, I have no idea. I don't think anyone really knows what the final objective is because if we haven't figured it out in 17 years, then there's definitely a problem.
Sharyl: How do the Russians figure into this? I think you noted that Russians are arming the Taliban government officials.
Gentile: Well the Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan said in a recent interview that there was evidence that Russia was arming the Taliban. I can imagine that they are laughing their heads off in Moscow about that frankly considering the history with the United States and Russia in Afghanistan in the eighties.
Sharyl: You said the longer you were there the more you understood that you didn’t know. What things did you learn there that might be of interest to people outside Afghanistan?
Gentile: The Afghan people that I met in rural Afghanistan are the strongest, hard-willed, determined people I’ve ever come across. They live in remote mountain regions and they now do it under the constant oppression and fear of danger and violence from the Taliban or Islamic State or other extremist groups. It takes a special kind of person to be able to endure and to even want to wake up every single day and continue to go about your daily life, have children and survive. So that’s one of the things I’ve learned. If you want to be inspired by someone who endures, look at the Afghan people.
After Gentile recovered from being shot in the eye, which took lengthy rehab and multiple surgeries—he returned to continue reporting in Afghanistan.