Why an American fighter is risking his life in Afghanistan

Image copyright Al Jazeera From his home in Southern California, Matthew Conley weighs hundreds of pounds, part of a large bodyguard detail that protect his family and protect his life. But since last year,…

Why an American fighter is risking his life in Afghanistan

Image copyright Al Jazeera

From his home in Southern California, Matthew Conley weighs hundreds of pounds, part of a large bodyguard detail that protect his family and protect his life.

But since last year, this Air Force veteran has been sending out some extra muscle.

Thousands of miles away from his wife and daughters, he’s fought to free seven Christian Afghan men from their captors.

But he says his faith gives him a better understanding of their situation than he ever would have as a combat medic in a war zone.

Five of the men are from his tiny hometown of Crystal City, Virginia. The sixth and final survivor is from a little town in Northern Virginia called Winchester.

“There’s one thing I know they’re saying – ‘we’re going to give you a lesson. You have to go somewhere.’ And I believe that will happen one day, and I can do that,” says Conley.

The survivors were part of a foreign exchange student programme.

They lived in the same one-room apartment as Pashtun Afghan students from Qalat, a city in the Taliban-controlled countryside.

Initially, Conley says the exchange students treated the Afghan students well.

But that was in August. In November, an intense firefight broke out between the Afghan students and Taliban militants.

Image copyright AFP Image caption Taliban members return to a compound in the northern town of Pul-e-Khumri

“They were walking on the road and they were being driven by the Taliban,” says Conley.

“They were in front of us, and I could see bullets and then I could see they were being followed by one of these [Taliban] vehicles. I literally saw it directly.”

Conley later heard the older Christian men talking about how their housemates had been seized, but they were not allowed to see them.

The Taliban’s guards at the compound, who it is believed were loyal to the group’s leadership, appeared surprised when they saw the American men, either confused, frightened or worried.

“They had their guns pointed in our direction. They were looking at the Americans and they were getting agitated,” says Conley.

He insists his American brothers-in-arms were never fired upon – but that’s not the only thing standing in the way of their freedom.

Image copyright AFP Image caption The Red Cross has been rescuing the men’s family members and friends from hiding

The Taliban’s reported final death sentence on the seven was a turning point.

Almost no one else has listened to the Red Cross’s plea for help – but Conley is the first American man to return home to get involved in what may be a long war.

“This will always be the line in the sand for me,” he says.

“If this could be the outcome, I would rather be in combat with people in Afghanistan because that would be what the mission was all about. If I could, I would do that in Afghanistan.”

Image copyright AFP Image caption Kabul police in November tried to arrest Matthew Conley

But Conley says he is learning more from the Taliban than he has from most Afghan citizens.

“They [the Taliban] have totally misunderstood our policy. They think that if there’s not enough of us in their villages, they can attack us,” he says.

“We’re telling them, no, we’ll go [to the villages] later and start the process of building up our community. We don’t want to occupy other people’s country.

“We’re not taking ownership of the countries of the world. We want to build community.”

Image copyright AFP Image caption Matthew Conley has been heading the reconstruction of a ruined mosque in Qalat

Now, Conley says, he has decided to give his life to the people he sees in the combat zones, helping them rebuild their own villages, bridges and roads.

Back in Washington, DC, about 2,500 miles from the two American men he’s been caring for for months, Conley’s family is enjoying a quiet Christmas.

But Matthew Conley tells them that Christmas is also about bringing hope and love to those who are suffering in other parts of the world.

“I’m going to continue doing this until the end of my life,” he says.

Conley’s original two-year commitment to the project ran out in early December – but he says his work is far from over.

He’s anticipating that American and international leaders will eventually sit down to try to come up with a solution for the Taliban, because the current turmoil in the region is threatening to destabilise much of the country.

His job for the next few months will be to convince them to do the right thing and ultimately to save lives.

And Matthew Con

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