Christina Lamb – The Sunday Times July 9, 2006
When you twice stare death in the face in ditches in southern Afghanistan, first with Afghans and then fighting Afghans, you start to wonder what it is about this country that keeps drawing us back.
The first time I was 22, in and out of love, and thought I was indestructible. I was with a young, chubby and then unknown Hamid Karzai and a band of turbanned mullahs who would later go on to become founding members of the Taliban.
Armed and funded by the Americans and British, they had gone on an ill-conceived operation to attack a Russian base at Kandahar airport that had ended with us pinned down in a trench by Soviet tanks with hot dust and rubble raining on us and several dead.
Had anyone told me then that 18 years later Karzai would be the president of Afghanistan and I would end up under fire in a similar ditch with British soldiers
in the neighbouring province of Helmand fighting Afghans, I would never have believed it.
Yet 10 days ago in the mud-walled village of Zumbelay, I accompanied British paratroopers on a hearts and minds patrol and ended up in a Taliban ambush. This time, crouching in an irrigation ditch, surrounded on three sides, with bullets pinging just past my ears and mortars landing nearby, and by now a wife and mother, I thought I was going to die.
It was impossible not to wonder whether any of those attacking us could be the same men as those I was with back in early 1988. And how, when Moscow had got such a bloody nose in Afghanistan, losing more than 15,000 men in what is seen as Russia’s Vietnam (and a defeat that had played a crucial role in the collapse of communism), had the British ended up taking on the same enemy?
It’s not as if we don’t have a history. When the paras moved into Camp Price just outside Gereshk in May and their commander had his first meeting with local officials, it took the Afghans just 10 minutes to bring up the battle of Maiwand. One of the worst defeats ever suffered by the British Army in which more than 1,000 men were slaughtered by the side of the Helmand River, the battle may have happened in 1880 but Afghans in Helmand talk about it as if it were yesterday and all claim that their forefathers were there.
If any further reminder were needed that one gets involved in Afghanistan at one’s peril, the Kabul headquarters of the Nato-led peacekeeping force is on the site of the old British cantonment. Its entire strength fled from here in January 1842 after a tribal revolt against the British-imposed ruler.
Of the 16,000 soldiers, wives, children and camp followers who left, only one got away; the rest were massacred or taken prisoner by Ghilzai tribesmen. Only Dr William Brydon was deliberately left alive to tell the tale and warn people back home of the consequences of getting involved in Afghanistan.
In a country that has ended up as a graveyard for so many thousands of British soldiers, why don’t we learn from history?
This time the politicians tell us that we have gone to make peace, not war — to “secure the area so that development can take place and extend the reach of the Karzai government”. But we are woefully underequipped for either: already six British soldiers have lost their lives within 24 days, victims once more of the Ghilzai Pashtuns.
Last month saw 53 “TICs” — troops in contact, in other words under Taliban attack — and last week there were two nights during which all but one of the British bases and outposts in Helmand came under attack.
How did it all go so wrong? Why does a senior British military officer talk despairingly of “military and developmental anarchy”?
Afghanistan was supposed to be the success story. Two months of precision bombing by American B52s — in revenge for the Taliban’s refusal to throw out Al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks in America on September 11, 2001 — soon had the Taliban fleeing over the border into Pakistan.
By December 2001 the Taliban had been ousted and a new English-speaking, westernised Afghan was president. The fact that most Afghans outside Kandahar had never heard of Karzai, that he dared not venture outside his palace and even inside had to be protected by US soldiers, and that he had once been chief fundraiser for the Taliban were all conveniently ignored.
By August 2002 Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defence, was describing events in Afghanistan as “a breathtaking accomplishment”. He pointed to Afghanistan as “a successful model for what could happen to Iraq if individuals were liberated, allowed to vote freely and to work”.
In some ways there has been remarkable progress from the days when women were forced to wear burqas and were banned from working, studying or laughing out loud.
Last year a parliament was elected in which a quarter of the MPs are women, including a voluptuous gym instructor from the city of Herat. They sit side by side with mullahs and former Taliban commanders to the astonishment of Afghans watching the proceedings on television. Their first debate was over their own pay.
An estimated one-third of the male MPs are warlords, gross violators of human rights or drug smugglers; but, as Karzai says, “better to have them inside rather than outside doing damage”.
But while George W Bush and Tony Blair insisted on declaring Afghanistan a success — and a model for the pacification of Iraq — they apparently forgot one crucial lesson that the British had learnt years before. “Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over” were the sage words of Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of North West Frontier Province.
Far from Afghanistan being a model for Iraq, Iraq has become a model for Afghanistan. There have been 41 Afghan suicide bombings in the past nine months, compared with five in the preceding five years. IEDs — improvised explosive devices — have become a fact of life. Three were left in roadside handcarts in Kabul last week to detonate as buses went past.
According to United Nations officials, not a day passes without a school being burnt down or a teacher being murdered, often in front of schoolchildren.
If there is one factor most responsible for the Taliban resurgence it is the war in Iraq, which distracted the attention of London and Washington at a critical time. While US marines were toppling statues of Saddam Hussein and then finding themselves fighting a bloody insurgency, the Taliban regrouped and retrained in Pakistan.
From just a few hundred guerrillas last year, Mullad Dadullah, the Taliban commander, now claims that he has 12,000 men under arms in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan.
The southern third of the country, which British troops are supposed to “secure for development”, has long been ungovernable and a no-go area for aid agencies. It is all too easy here for the Taliban to tell local people that the West — and the pro-western government in Kabul — promised aid but has done nothing for them. Where the Taliban are not openly controlling districts, they have set up shadow administrations that assume power as soon as dusk falls.
More alarmingly, the Taliban are no longer just in the south but have even moved into the province of Logar, 25 miles from Kabul. Among their Afghan victims they particularly target police and their relatives as well as guards, road builders and interpreters for western contractors. About 1,500 Afghans were killed by the Taliban last year; 400 have died this year.
Last week an Afghan friend travelling from Kandahar to Kabul on a bus was shocked when a bearded passenger got up, walked to the front and replaced the music cassette that had been playing with a tape of Taliban chanting: “For the next 2½ hours we all sat listening to this terrible stuff and nobody said a word. Two years ago that would have been unthinkable.”
So confident are the Taliban that leaders of the once secretive group have started giving interviews on Afghanistan’s new US-funded Tolo television station. This prompted Karzai last month to impose reporting restrictions that he was forced to rescind by the international community, which felt “censorship” did not sit well with attempts to showcase Afghanistan as a liberal democracy.
“People are scared when they see the Taliban on TV,” said Jamil Karzai, MP for Kabul and a nephew of the president. “Every day I get constituents coming and asking: what does this mean, are the Taliban coming back? We could never have imagined we would get in a situation where such a thing was conceivable.”
“We need to realise that we could actually fail here,” warns Lieutenant-General David Richards, British commander of the Nato-led peacekeeping force. “Think of the psychological victory for Bin Laden and his ilk if we failed and the Taliban came back. Within months we’d suffer terror attacks in the UK. I think of my own daughters in London and the risk they would be in.”
Unlike Iraqis, most Afghans welcomed foreign troops, seeing them as the only guarantee of peace after years of civil war. Also, unlike the war in Iraq, Afghanistan has been an international effort involving soldiers from 36 countries.
Right from the beginning, however, there have been conflicting objectives. Commanders and politicians talk loosely of “coalition” forces but there are two command structures with different goals.
By far the largest contingent of forces is from the United States, which recently increased its numbers from 19,000 to 23,000 to pursue Operation Enduring Freedom, a key part of the global war on terror. Its main objective is to hunt down and destroy Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, even though they are believed to have long fled across the border into Pakistan. It is commanded by Karl Eikenberry, an American general who takes his orders from home.
Then there is the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, now under Nato control and the command of Britain’s Richards. Its main purpose, as the British government keeps telling us, is to make Afghanistan safe for development.
Until two years ago ISAF was only 4,000 strong and was limited to Kabul where it was widely derided as the International Shopping Assistance Force for its tendency to hang around Chicken Street, centre of carpet shopping. Even now, with 9,700 troops, it is far smaller than the peacekeeping missions in Liberia or Kosovo, countries with a fraction of Afghanistan’s 25m population.
To add to the confusion, ISAF has no control over troops in the south, including the British in Helmand, who come under a Canadian general in Kandahar.
Some of this will change at the end of this month when Nato/ISAF will take control of all operations in Helmand and the south. But the strategic contradiction will endure.
One crucial point of conflict is over warlords and militias, a symptom of Afghanistan’s old agony.
The Karzai government is so worried about the deteriorating security situation that it is allowing local Afghan commanders to re-create militias, even though it was popular anger over child abductions and extortion by these private armies that first led to the emergence of the Taliban a decade ago.
Foreign diplomats are trying to put a gloss on this retreat by referring to the militias euphemistically as “community police”, but there is no doubting the alarm of Richards and others who see it as undermining their efforts to create a national army and police.
To British dismay, one of those forming a militia is Sher Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand, who was forced out by the British because of his alleged links with the drugs mafia.
“He and around 100 people, including the former chief of police and some district chiefs who were sacked went to Kabul for a big meeting to demand to form a militia,” said Engineer Mohammed Daud, the new governor. “They say they need to protect themselves.”
Failure to deal with the warlords has been one of the biggest criticisms of the Karzai administration. Back in December 2001 the warlords were running scared, discredited because of the damage they had wrought on the country.
Karzai and his elder brother Qayyum joked about what to do with them, the latter suggesting they could run guided tours of Kabul, each showing the destruction for which he was responsible.
“I will not tolerate warlords,” insisted the new president to me in 2002, adding jokingly, “I’ll hang them all!” Yet they have found themselves named as ministers, governors and police chiefs.
Yet while ISAF commanders regard the warlords as part of the problem, the Americans have seen them as the best source of local intelligence and paid them millions of dollars.
Just as damaging have been the continuing air raids across Afghanistan, sometimes on wedding parties or innocent villagers, which have led to the loss of thousands of civilian lives. In May this year there were an astonishing 750 bombing raids, according to American Central Command.
Karzai has repeatedly complained to the Americans about the bombers and the lack of cultural sensitivity of raids on the ground — doors kicked down in the middle of the night, male soldiers entering women’s quarters or taking in dogs which are considered unclean.
Another bitter complaint is of American convoys driving too fast and not stopping when they run someone down. It was such an incident in Kabul that provoked a six-hour riot last month — yet two weeks later a US truck ran over a child in exactly the same place.
“How can we go in offering school sets and candy to people when the Americans have just bombed someone’s family or run over their daughter?” asked an exasperated senior ISAF officer.
Few Afghans see any difference between ISAF activities and America’s Operation Enduring Freedom. The result is that even in the mosques of Kabul, mullahs have started preaching that ISAF are “infidels here to destroy Islam”.
Against such a backdrop, it seems hopelessly naive for the British to hope that locals in Helmand will differentiate between them and the Americans. At every meeting I attended, para commanders started off by telling local elders, “we’re British, not Americans”, an odd comment for such close allies.
At a shura or traditional meeting in Gereshk, elders complained about soldiers bursting into their women’s quarters.
“It’s not us, we’ve had endless cultural training about this,” said Major Paul Blair, the local British commander. “But of course they don’t see the difference.”
“You don’t even differentiate between Pashtuns and Tajiks, let alone different Pashtun tribes,” replied a local teacher. “Why should we?”
Back at the camp after this discussion we found that a convoy of Americans had arrived. They were laughing about running over some goats on the way in. “Now I’m going to have to make another phone call to the district chief to sort it out,” grumbled Blair.
To add to the confusion, while the men of Blair’s C company of the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment are pursuing hearts and minds in Helmand, their fellow paras in A Company are taking part only a few miles away in a US-led offensive called Operation Mountain Thrust.
This is actively seeking out the Taliban, something British ministers have never said was part of the mission. Three members of A Company were killed in the small town of Sangin last week.
I was with the paras a few days after they first went in to Sangin late last month after a Taliban massacre of local people. The paras were on patrol by foot and in soft hats, yet the hostility to them was palpable. This is the heartland of the country’s narcotics industry — which is encouraged by the Taliban — and nobody wants to be seen as a friend of the British.
The soldiers set up base in the local district commissioner’s mud-walled house. It has been attacked almost every night since.
British commanders in Helmand admit that they have been taken by surprise by the Taliban’s numbers and sophistication. “In every contact they lose maybe 15 or 20 yet they just keep coming,” said Colonel Charlie Knaggs, commander of the Helmand taskforce.
The greatest shock for me in the two-hour firefight in which I found myself in the village of Zumbelay — south of Sangin — was the cunning employed by the Taliban to outflank and surround us.
My memories of travelling with the mujaheddin in the 1980s were mostly of disorganisation and chaos. I always felt that one of the reasons why the Russians found it so difficult to outwit them was that the Afghans had no idea themselves of what they would do next.
Last week was different. “They used the tactics we would use,” said Captain Alex Mackenzie, commander of C Company’s fire support group, when we finally escaped from the ambush.
“Maybe they learnt them in the same place,” said a fellow officer, pointing out that many senior Pakistani officers have been trained at Sandhurst.
Karzai himself has repeatedly insisted to Blair and Bush that the Taliban are once again receiving training from Pakistani military intelligence, ISI, which was behind the creation of the movement in the 1990s.
Foreign journalists have long been barred from going to Quetta, the Pakistani border city, where local people report that the Taliban stroll in the streets. “If you British really wanted to end insecurity in Helmand you would do something about Pakistan,” a white-bearded man insisted last week to Knaggs. “The fact that you don’t makes us think you are not interested in solving the problem.”
Western intelligence on Helmand is also seriously flawed. “The British don’t have good field intelligence,” said Zia Mojadeddi, one of Karzai’s national security advisers.
“The past formulas do not work. You have to know every village and who is in the village, otherwise they are doomed to failure.”
There are few even among the most on-message British senior officers who do not privately concede that the mission in Helmand is two years too late. Not only has the distraction of war in Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup, but the British forces are telling locals that they have come to help the Afghan government at a time when the credibility of the Karzai administration is at an all-time low.
Just as the international community has not been committed or consistent enough in its military support, so there has been chaos in aid for economic development. The amount of aid has not been enough. At about £5 billion, it is far less than that spent in East Timor, Haiti or Kosovo; yet Afghanistan has a much bigger problem.
There has also been a lack of co-ordination and a focus on First World priorities such as gender rights rather than basic health or infrastructure. There has been an endless stream of American feminists intent not only on sweeping away the tyranny of the burqa but also on introducing western concepts of sexual equality. Yet in a country where children regularly die of malnutrition, all the Afghan mothers I know are far more interested in food, clinics and security. Liberation can wait.
More than 1,000 NGOs have pushed up rents and put a lot of concrete blocks around their offices, but it is hard to see where else the aid money has gone.
Not a single new dam, power station or water system has been built in the five years since the Taliban fell. Only one important highway has been completed. Kabul still has no sewerage system. Its streets remain piled high with rubbish and running with green effluent. Only 6% of the population has electricity and Afghanistan remains at the bottom of all social indicators.
There may be 5m children at school, as the politicians like to say, but many have their lessons in tents which they attend in shifts for just one or two hours’ tuition a day. This is not just in rural areas but also in Kabul where the Saluddin Ansari school has 3,700 children sharing a cluster of tents and one pit as a toilet.
“People just treat the children like garbage,” complained Asadullah, a Pashto teacher. “Every so often some foreigner comes by and says how shocking, but they don’t do anything.”
“The international community must start working better together to deliver,” warned Richards. “The West has been guilty of applying western precepts on an almost post-medieval economy. We need to address a basic economy with basic solutions. The lack of amenities is staggering. A quarter of children die by the age of five. Worrying about civil service reform and gender rights are really tomorrow’s problems.”
In recognition that development was failing, the so-called Afghanistan Compact was signed in London in February, agreeing that far more aid would be channelled through the Afghan government. Contractors say this has simply resulted in widespread corruption, with ministries regularly demanding a “gift” of between 20% and 30% of a contract. One deputy minister refused a $120,000 armoured vehicle paid for by USAID, demanding instead the $230,000 model with the latest electronic windows and DVD player.
The irony is that there has been a private financial boom. Kabul now boasts shiny blue-glass office blocks. But officials say most of the new money is from drugs. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that Afghanistan earned $2.8 billion from opium production last year — more than it received in aid.
Given the international community’s failure to create any alternative economy, it is not surprising that the people of Helmand, who depend on the poppy and grow a quarter of the country’s total, will fight to safeguard their income.
It did not have to be this way. Just as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would never have taken hold if the West had not abandoned Afghanistan after the Russians withdrew in 1989, so we would not be in the mess we are today if London and Washington had focused on Afghan nation-building after 2001 instead of pursuing other foreign adventures.
If only they had remembered their history, maybe British blood would not once again be spilt on Afghan fields and I would not have once more ended up in a muddy ditch cowering from a rain of fire.
Christina Lamb’s memoir of Afghanistan, The Sewing Circles of Herat, is published by HarperCollinswww.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2092-2261727_1,00.html
Last updated 11/07/2006