Vanessa M. Gezari, for the Pulitzer Center
In honor of the Afghan New Year, a group of U.S. soldiers stationed in southern Afghanistan organized a barbecue with the local Afghan National Army regiment. The American and Afghan bases lie along a desolate stretch of road in Maywand District west of Kandahar. The land is dry and dusty, with scrub trees and a thin skin of new grass blanketing the dunes. Kuchi nomads pitch tents along the roadside and graze their camels, and the area is thick with Taliban insurgents who plant IEDs aimed at Afghan and international patrols.
Known as Now Roz and also celebrated in Iran, the Afghan New Year is most extravagantly observed in the north. But the Afghan soldiers stationed in Maywand come from all over the country, so the Americans decided this would be an opportune occasion to show off their cultural knowledge.
"What's the mission?" Lt. David Ochs barked before the men set out from their base.
"Go party!" the soldiers yelled. "Kill the goat!"
"And what's the purpose?"
"Build relations," the men called out. "Make 'em happy. Facilitate operations with the ANA."
Two days before the barbecue, the Americans had delivered a sheep, which they had named Gumbert, to the Afghan Army compound. Gumbert had been a guest of the Americans for a couple of weeks, and the soldiers of Delta Company had grown attached to him. He had originally been purchased as a compensation payment, after soldiers in another company shot and killed an Afghan man who refused to stop at a checkpoint nearby. The soldiers had been warned of potential suicide bombers in the area, and they thought the man might be an attacker. They ordered him to stop, said Captain Michael Soyka, Delta Company's commander. When he kept coming, they shot him.
The soldiers took the sheep to the man's family as a gesture of goodwill, but the family refused it. So the animal came to live on the base, where he was named after a fellow soldier. The sheep grazed on tufts of grass and the soldiers washed it with a pressure washer and shampoo. They anticipated Gumbert's sacrifice – and a lunch of mutton kebab – at the Afghan Army compound. But when they arrived, Gumbert was mincing around the sandy yard, big and woolly and bewildered but unhurt.
Instead, as the Americans entered an inner courtyard, two Afghan cooks grabbed a brown and white goat with blue-gray eyes and a soft muzzle. They bound the animal's feet with a thick yellow hose. One man held the goat's head and moved two fingers along its exposed throat, as if he were taking its pulse. The goat bleated softly. The man, a Hazara, brought a knife to its neck and with a quick, heavy thrust, sliced its windpipe in half. Blood poured into a hole in the ground.
The American soldiers, members of the Second Battalion, Second Regiment, First Infantry Division, looked on in fascination. A few men couldn't bear to watch, and walked away. When the blood had run dry, the cooks dragged the carcass to a piece of burlap spread on the gravel. One man cut through the animal's skin along one of its back legs and put his mouth against the hole. He blew into the opening until the goat's body swelled like a beach ball. Then he sliced it down the middle. He began to skin the animal methodically, slicing the connective tissue between skin and flesh so they separated easily.
The soldiers watched for a while, then suggested a game of volleyball. There was no net, so the Americans and Afghans stood on either side of an invisible line, batting a ball back and forth. They soon switched to soccer and on the gravel field, the Americans, in their tan T-shirts and camouflage pants, were almost indistinguishable from the Afghans, who wore yellow shirts and darker camouflage pants. Capt. Soyka had been a goalkeeper at West Point. He emerged from the game after an hour with a sweat-soaked shirt, his hands bloodied from falling on the gravel.
The Americans had lugged boxes of food to the compound, and soon Afghans and Americans filed past a table, scooping up cheeseburgers and bottles of Gatorade. After more games under the hot sun, the Afghan commander appeared in the courtyard. The goat was ready.
The Americans filed into a mud-walled room and the Afghans brought steaming metal trays. The meat was served on the bone, with big portions of rice and Afghan bread. The Americans ate what they could, given all they had eaten already. The Afghan commander asked if they liked the food. The Americans said they did. Thank yous were exchanged. Then the Americans packed into their armored vehicles, giant dinosaur-like conveyances that mitigate the effect of bombs and mines, and pulled off into the dust, leaving boxes of Rice Crispy treats and cases of orange soda behind.