It was Bonfire Night last year in the Officers’ Mess of 2 Rifle and I was jokily explaining how fighting is such a national sport among Afghans that they fight with birds, kites and even boiled eggs, when I suddenly realised my heart had gone out of it. As one of the few journalists to have been reporting from Afghanistan since the days of the Soviet occupation, I had often been asked to visit regiments before they deploy and had always enjoyed talking to young soldiers about a land I love and hearing their expectations.
But that grey November evening in Abercorn barracks in the Northern Irish town of Ballykinler was different. I had been in Helmand the previous month and was shocked at the lack of progress. How could I give a positive presentation of what the troops might achieve when the security situation was so much worse than before British troops arrived in 2006?
In one-camel opium towns like Sangin, Musa Qala and Nawzad, which no one back home had even heard of three years ago, our soldiers were repeatedly fighting over the same dusty scraps of land that previous troops had been killed trying to secure. The top Foreign Office mandarin inside the wire and thick walls of the British headquarters in Lashkar Gah tried to convince me progress was being made because the bazaar was open and we could drive through (albeit at high speed in a heavily armoured convoy). Yet I had stayed in the town for a week before the British deployment when the bazaar was flourishing and people walked around freely.
For the many Helmandis who have lost their homes or relatives in the bombing, it is stretching credulity to say that the British presence has brought them a better life. I’ve met families in tents outside Lashkar Gah who lost everything as they fled from village to village to escape fighting. The cost of one Javelin missile to blow up a compound of suspected Taleban is 80 times what the average Afghan makes in a year.
That night in Ballykinler, I looked around the room at the faces of the soldiers so eager to get out to Afghanistan. Some were so young they still had spots. As a mother myself, I couldn’t shake the thought that many would not come back. For all of them their lives would be changed. Over breakfast the next morning I heard one of the wives ask what arrangements had been made for bereavement counselling, and I vowed there and then that I would never again do such talks.
When I heard the news in late July that eight British soldiers had been killed in one day, five from the same regiment, my heart sank. Sure enough the five were from 2 Rifle. Three were just 18 years old.
I emailed the commanding officer and he replied that it had been ‘a grim day’. However, he continued, ‘we are making progress’, ending ‘we are undeterred and back on the ramparts’.
Last week 2 Rifle returned from Helmand. On Bonfire Night in Ballykinler this year, they will have their medals parade. But 13 of them never came home. And 11 more were so badly wounded that they are in Selly Oak rehabilitation centre.
Lt Col Thomson’s spirit of the ramparts is admirable. Like him, I believe we should remain in Afghanistan. Having lived in Peshawar when the Afghans were abandoned by the West after ousting the Russians in 1989 and seen what this led to, I feel strongly we should not make the same mistake again.
I used to argue quite vociferously that the answer was more troops. I was in Kabul when the first foreign forces arrived — the Royal Marines driving through Chicken Street — and they were welcomed by Afghans, believing only foreigners could bring an end to more than two decades of civil war. And I do believe had we sent more troops in the early years when the Taleban were on the run and numbered just a few hundred, we would never be in today’s situation.
But Messrs Bush and Blair had another war to fight. I was in Kabul on the eve of the Iraq war and before I left for the airport to go and cover it, I met with President Karzai who told me ‘everyone’s going to forget us now’. Four years ago, Nato had just 8,000 troops in Afghanistan — for a country of 30 million — and didn’t venture outside Kabul. We just didn’t seem serious. Meanwhile the Taleban, helped by some of their old friends in Pakistan’s military intelligence, took the opportunity to regroup and recruit.
By the time military commanders had woken up to what was happening and started sending in troops, we had lost that consent. Today, I for one no longer believe that the answer is more troops. Over the last year troop numbers have doubled — by the end of this year Nato will have 100,000 deployed there. Yet as troop numbers have spiralled, so have violence and insecurity; 444 foreign soldiers have lost their lives on Afghan fields so far this year, compared to 294 in the whole of last. At the same time the Taleban has spread up from the south and east to surround Kabul. And it can strike inside the capital as it showed again this week with the attack on the UN guesthouse and rocket attack on Afghanistan’s only five-star hotel. This year it has even broken out of its traditional Pashtun ethnic power base to move north and west. As one Taleban fighter put it to me: ‘We don’t worry about reinforcements; they are just more targets.’
In the late 1980s I lived in Peshawar and travelled with many of those we now consider bad guys, but who were then on the same side against the Soviets. I even spent three weeks going round Kandahar on the backs of motorbikes of the incipient Taleban. These long links enable me to travel to areas few other foreign journalists can go to. But for the last two years, each time I visit Afghanistan, I find I can travel to fewer and fewer places, my Afghan friends insisting it is too dangerous to travel on the roads built with billions of dollars of our taxpayers’ money. Last time I went, in August, I barely ventured outside Kabul. Even in the capital foreign residences are surrounded by ever more concrete blocks.
Last month I moved to Washington just as General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, presented President Barack Obama with his assessment warning that we need to send more troops or risk failure. He and his boss General Petraeus clearly thought that if they flashed their medals and cited the success of the Iraq surge, they would automatically get more troops from an inexperienced President.
Fortunately Obama realised Afghanistan is not Iraq. Over the last month he has held 20 hours of war councils in the Situation Room. No doubt the delay is playing into the hands of the Taleban, who interpret it as a weakening of international resolve. And they would be right. Most Europeans are now eager to leave. Spain (with 1,000 troops in Afghanistan) has proposed leaving by 2015; Germany, with 4,000 troops, has suggested a ‘transition strategy’ by 2013; and some Italian leaders have demanded that their 2,800 troops are out by December. In Poland 71 per cent of the public are opposed to the deployment of its 2,000 troops.
US commanders, angered at national caveats such as that of the Germans that they are not allowed to fight at night, would argue that most of these troops are there for ‘tree-hugging’. But even among the troops which are doing the fighting, the Dutch say they will pull out their 1,800 troops from Uruzgan province by next year, the 2,800 Canadians will withdraw from Kandahar by 2011. Within two years it could just be the US and us Brits.
It is easier for the Americans to justify their involvement. They were the ones attacked on 9/11. But the organisation responsible for that is now, as Vice-President Joe B
iden keeps arguing, largely based in Pakistan not Afghanistan.
If McChrystal gets the 40,000 extra troops he wants, Nato will have almost as many as the 150,000 the Soviets had at their peak. But as the general himself admits, success is not guaranteed. Rather than lack of troops, the real problem in Afghanistan is the lack of a credible government, a situation brought to the fore by the shambles of the August election. Though, given the record of the Karzai government, we should have expected the corruption and the fraud.
Isolated in his palace behind seven layers of security who don’t allow journalists to take in pencils or lipsticks, Karzai has become increasingly paranoid. Angered by the criticism over the elections, today he is like a wounded bull. If, as expected, he is re-elected in next week’s poll, one can only wonder what kind of relations he will have with the international community.
In village after village, people explain that they are on the fence. On the one hand, they have Taleban terrorising them and offering speedy justice, a key issue in a land where 30 years of war and disruption have left many property disputes. On the other, they have what McChrystal described as a ‘predatory government’, with corrupt police and officials demanding bribes.
A recent report from the Institute of War details how British forces took the district of Nad Ali last year, losing a number of soldiers. They then handed control over to the Afghan police, who set about raping young boys. Eventually the people got so fed up that they asked the Taleban to come back to protect them.
The Taleban may have smashed TV sets when in power, but they can teach the MoD propaganda skills any day, and argue that if they come back to power they would not shut down girls’ schools or insist on long beards. Mullah Omar recently issued a rule book, a 61-page volume explaining to his fighters how to win hearts and minds.
Nato commanders talk of building up the Afghan army to fight their own war but this is a slow process (so far we have only managed to create an army of 80,000 out of 30 million people — by contrast Iraq has one 600,000 strong). In the end the only way out of this mess must surely be to deal with the Taleban. At the moment, while they are in the ascendancy, it’s hard to see why they would agree, unless their sponsors in Pakistan could be persuaded.
If the situation is to have any hope of being turned round, Afghans need to see some benefit from the presence of international troops. The US is spending $4 billion a month to keep its troops in Afghanistan, but the country remains one of the poorest on earth, and even in the capital most residents don’t have running water or electricity.
Just like last year, and the year before, we are being told that this year is the critical year in Afghanistan. Since ousting the Taleban with great ease eight years ago, we have made endless mistakes: getting distracted by Iraq; giving Karzai too much leeway; supporting warlords; being unable to differentiate tribal infighting and Taleban; bombing wedding parties; believing Pakistan shared our interests; putting the Italians in charge of building a justice system.
Don’t get me wrong. I care passionately about Afghanistan. As the autumn chill settles on DC, I dream about pomegranates, red pips shining like tiny rubies. The scent of pine in Rock Creek Park brings back memories of Herat or the mountains of Nangahar, and I miss squatting in villages listening to fantastical stories of ancient feuds. But as those stories illustrate, Afghanistan has always been beset by fighting. I don’t envy Obama pacing his Situation Room and wondering how to avoid this becoming his Vietnam. I don’t think we should just withdraw and let the Taleban take over. But I do believe we shouldn’t compound the mistakes already made by sending yet more young men to die.
Christina Lamb is Washington correspondent of the Sunday Times and won this year’s Prix Bayeux Calvados for war reporting for her coverage of Afghanistan.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 31, 2009