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‘Touch wood,’ Karzai said to me. You hear it all the time

From the President downwards, all Afghans know that the peace in Helmand is precarious.Fraser Nelson reports from a shattered land of corruption and murky power where warlords wait to see if the West has what it takes to stay the course and thwart a horrific new conflict

28 May 2008

12:00 AM

28 May 2008

12:00 AM

There is something oddly soothing about going to sleep to the sound of gunfire in Kandahar airbase. The shots are fired by British troops, honing the night combat skills which achieved such success over the Taleban last winter. The fighting season was due to start four weeks ago, when the poppy harvest ended — but so far, nothing. British commanders are quietly optimistic that the Taleban has counted its 6,000 dead, learned it cannot win firefights and switched to guerrilla tactics instead.

Only in Afghanistan could the rockets being fired into the Kandahar airbase be seen as a sign of progress. Much as the prospect may terrify visitors, the soldiers themselves are sanguine. For those who were in the Iraqi bases being shelled 60 times a night, using body armour for pyjamas, the four-a-week rate of Kandahar is nothing. The main complaint of the servicemen and women is that the Taleban may well have gone underground and sporadic missile alerts could be all the action they see.

If the Afghan Question were about routing the Taleban, then it would be some way to being resolved. But nothing in this barren, war-ravaged country is ever quite as it seems. There are usually three layers to each Afghan issue. First is a superficial story laid on for the many Western visitors brandishing chequebooks. Then there is the real story: a murky world of drugs, thugs and racketeering. And finally, the question which preoccupies Russia, Iran and India: what happens when — as they all expect — the West gets exhausted and leaves?

Last week I accompanied Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, for one of his regular trips to Afghanistan. I was able to sit in on many of his meetings with the British and Afghan military, as well as to make my own inquiries in military bases and in Kabul. It was remarkable access, evidently granted by Mr Browne to showcase what he believes to be Britain’s extraordinary military and diplomatic progress.

From the quality of the food to the quality of the intelligence, the British base in Lashkar Gah have been transformed in the two years since the deployment. Then, just 3,300 troops were sent out, told by a dodgy Nato intelligence assessment that there were just a thousand Taleban in the southern Afghan. The real figure was closer to 10,000, as the soldiers found out when coming under direct assault. After some of the most sustained fighting since the Korean War, a truce was negotiated in the town of Musa Qala and the Taleban later moved in.

When Musa Qala was retaken in January, it symbolised the turnaround in Helmand. The Afghan National Army led the offensive with embedded British soldiers — the model successfully used by Americans in Iraq. Britain has accepted an offer of American help and Marines are now patrolling the Pakistan border. There are 7,700 troops, and none has been killed in a firefight this year. With the bases lost and the Taleban driven out, its main enemy is the landmines planted in the dust tracks.

‘The Taleban realise they can no longer control the ground, so they switch to this tactic instead,’ says Mark Carleton-Smith, Commander of Taskforce Helmand in his headquarters in Lashkar Gah village, dubbed ‘Lash Vegas’ by camp residents. The troops are finding three times as many IEDs as people are caught by them. Most of the victims of the IEDs are Afghans. ‘The Taleban base their legitimacy on a claim to be heirs of the mujahedin and custodians of the Afghan people,’ he says. ‘They have dramatically proved that they are not.’

The Taleban explosives are several grades below the sophisticated Iranian-made devices which tore through Land Rovers in Iraq. I heard how a suicide bomber exploded seven feet away from one British soldier yet only blew his helmet off. No ball bearings had been fitted to the suicide belt. That said, the frequency of these incidents is increasing. For all their crudeness, such attacks — unknown four years ago — are now happening at the rate of two a month.

Aged 44, Carleton-Smith is the youngest brigadier in the military and already tipped as a future chief of the defence staff. He is strikingly realistic about the task — it is not rebuilding government, but introducing deeply suspicious tribesmen to the concept of central government. ‘Any previous experience of government was of a predatory and feral police force whose only role was confiscatory,’ he says. ‘They have no expectation from central government at all. So we are trying to merge local tribal customs with local government.’


On base, British officers can be seen with bushy beards grown to gain kudos with locals. Anglicised names for local villages (Esma’il Kariz is ‘Cardiff’, Golstãn Kalag ‘Newport’) have been dropped. Care is taken not to impose Western priorities on tribesmen. ‘Life expectancy here is 43, so if you tell a 40-year-old man what you’ll do for him in three years he’s not too interested,’ one officer explains. ‘The link between education and a better life is not obvious to them. But they do see speaking English as a ticket out, to Kandahar or to Kabul.’

Deeper local knowledge, and links with the Afghan army, have vastly improved intelligence. Mr Browne’s trip into the local village was cancelled, for example, on advice that the risk of insurgents attack had heightened that morning. He made up the time in being briefed on the local justice system (appalling) and a project to renovate the Kajaki Dam.

Afghanistan has so far proved a graveyard of many Western aid projects. Horror stories abound about schools opening with no teachers, of contracts being eaten up in consultancy fees and roads built at £500,000 a mile. The economy is so fragile that each pound spent there has unintended consequences. ‘Within six months of starting my job as finance minister, my best people had been stolen by international aid organisations offering 40 to 100 times the salary we could,’ said Ashraf Ghani, who quit soon after. Yet schools are hugely popular, with a national roll of 6.4 million pupils against 900,000 five years ago.

It is hard to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan for any length of time, because loyalty is cheap and easily bought. The best form of loyalty is to provide economic security, which is why the initial counter-narcotics strategy posed so many problems. When Tony Blair first justified the intervention in Afghanistan, he argued that the country supplied 90 per cent of the heroin in British streets. The impression was that the wicked Taleban were funding a narco-economy which would collapse when the mullahs were deposed.

British troops have now realised that the industry is impossible to eliminate by edict or at gunpoint. Legitimate crops never make it to market, as the roads are strewn with African-style customs officials imposing tariffs. Typically, Afghan farmers survive winter with a loan from a heroin dealer who is repaid in poppy crop. Should he default, he will have to forfeit his land or, in the worst case, his daughter.

So British troops are keen to stress they will not take away poppies, knowing that to do so is a sure way to send otherwise starving farmers into the hands of the Taleban. The soldiers I spoke to say they go to extraordinary lengths to assure Afghans they will not deny them their crop. I saw one government paper that referred to the ‘one to two decades realistically needed before the opium economy dwindles’. Production has halted in the safer 18 of the 34 provinces — but if it is poppies or starvation, there is no choice.

Economic power in Afghanistan rests with those who control the drugs trade. &#8
216;They have integrated themselves into our new government effortlessly,’ one official moans. ‘It will be the local police chief, or his brother. The local governor, or his cousin. And the political corruption comes in the form of a phone call saying, “I’m getting some heat from the border police, can you get them off?”’

To Mr Browne, this is a huge stumbling block in attempts to establish the Afghan government’s legitimacy. ‘Both the perception and the reality of corruption are endemic in Afghan society and destabilising the government. How do we get a peasant farmer in Helmand to obey the law and not grow poppy if he sees some important people in this country got very rich due to corruption? It is a problem I focus on in all of my conversations with ministers.’

Nato has even drawn a power diagram laying out the de facto power base. It is a classified document — a shame, because it perfectly depicts Afghanistan’s governance problem. At the centre lies the theoretical power structure: President Karzai and his Cabinet. Then beneath, it has another diagram of the nepotistic links. Mr Karzai is at the middle with links to his brother (an MP who hasn’t attended parliament so far this year), his second cousin (another MP), uncle (a minister), etc. The same diagram is drawn for others.

And yet there is a power even above this official oligarchy. It is the warlords, the former leaders of the anti-Soviet mujahedin who have never relinquished their power base. It was they who did the real damage to Afghanistan’s infrastructure during the civil war of 1992–96. Human rights organisations have thick files of their sickening atrocities over the years. If this were Bosnia, they’d be in The Hague now awaiting trial for war crimes. But this is Afghanistan, so they are either ministers or MPs — amassing wealth under the system through drugs, smuggling or the new racket of Western contracts.

The warlords have grown rich in the new Great Game, collecting money from the various countries with various agendas. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, has been a Soviet general, mujahedin commander, was funded by the CIA and is now offering his services to rout the Taleban. With permission, he said last year, he’d happily raise an army of 10,000 and annihilate every insurgent in Helmand. What is frightening about Afghanistan is that no one disputes Dostum’s ability to rustle up such a force.

The Afghans I spoke to repeated his point: why can’t a world power like Britain eliminate 15,000-odd Taleban? In a country where double-dealing is the norm, there is a theory put forward in the Afghan press that Britain and America are — like Pakistan — tolerating the Taleban while pretending to fight it. When a Nato helicopter accidentally dropped an arms cache into a Taleban stronghold two months ago, this theory was bolstered. ‘This isn’t a war to the West, it is a game,’ one Afghan journalist told me. ‘But if you leave now, the warlords will fight again and hell will open again.’

Mr Browne’s mission in Kabul was to persuade regional powers — India, Russia, China and Pakistan — to join ISAF, the international force supporting the Afghan government. He held a dinner for their diplomats at the British embassy, asking them what he could do to persuade them to join in. Each country is conspicuous by its absence from ISAF. It is as if they, like the warlords, are all standing back, poised for a war of Balkan complexity and horror when the West goes home.

At the middle of this stands President Karzai himself, whose scornful nickname — the Mayor of Kabul — actually exaggerates his freedom of manoeuvre. He is occasionally lambasted for failing to tackle corruption by those who presume his fledgling government has the power to take on the warlords. I met him briefly when Mr Browne’s delegation had finished their visit and we spoke about the peace in Helmand. ‘Yes, touch wood,’ he said.

These words are on the lips of everyone who talks of progress in Afghanistan. Risk factors remain everywhere. Nato may run out of members willing to send troops into harm’s way. Taleban troops may yet come pouring into Helmand from across the Pakistan border. Americans may rush the other way, taking the fight to al-Qa’eda camps. Or worse, they may find Osama bin Laden and send troops home.

In Lashkar Gah, I asked Brigadier Carleton-Smith how long Britain should stay in Afghanistan. He did not hesitate in his response. ‘This is a task which one measures in decades,’ he said. The Taleban believe the West has stopped measuring tasks in decades. It misjudged the British military in Helmand. The future of Afghanistan depends on whether it has misjudged the West in the same way.


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