‘The NATO Commander in Eastern Afghanistan has said that this year 54 foreign bases have already been closed...’
Last December Channel 4 aired a documentary entitled Billion Dollar Base: Deconstructing Camp Bastion, the predominating ‘takeaways’ from which were a) what phenomenal amounts of money we’d spent on our eight-year operation in and around Helmand Province, and b) how unimpressed the Afghan brass were by what ‘little’ we were leaving behind.
I found myself watching most of it through gritted teeth; but it was hard, nevertheless, not to have some sympathy for the incoming Afghan soldiery.
A new documentary film has now taken up that very story. Tell Spring Not to Come This Year (dir. Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy) offers us a rare glimpse of the Afghan National Army – specifically, the heavy weapons company of the ANA’s 3/3/215 Corps, in Nahr-e-Saraj – as they take on the continuing Taliban (et al.) threat through the ‘transition phase’ and into their first year without the support of a standing NATO troop presence.
Many of them are evidently in two minds as to whether this is necessarily a good thing. A mid-ranking officer, at company prayers (sic): ‘In 2014 our foreign colleagues will be leaving Afghanistan... [They] supported the army, police and the Afghan state. They suffered a lot of casualties in Afghanistan. They spent a lot of money, they worked hard for over a decade. But now they’ve left us. Left us alone in this mess.’
And it is not clear that they are ready to deal with this mess unsupported. Their skills and drills are pretty dodgy; their infrastructure is unstable (nine months without pay, and counting...); and their company commander likens his relationship with his men to that of ‘God’ and his ‘servants’.
And there is still a widespread lack of gratitude viz. their out-going counterparts (referred to, near-universally, as ‘Americans’). One officer walks aghast round the shell of an abandoned ISAF camp, looking for so much as an electrical cable. Another man avers – somewhat charmlessly – that if ISAF knew an attack was imminent, they wouldn’t even warn the Afghan soldiers.
But they are sincere in their efforts, even in the Taliban heartlands. ‘These are our people. We should talk to them and find out what they want, so we can take their security seriously.’
Watching history repeat itself – as, in Afghanistan, it appears to do more quickly than anywhere else on the planet – what is still somehow surprising is in just how many ways the Afghan National Army’s war is almost exactly the same as ours was.
Their complaints are as old as Thersites: our company always gets the worst chores; the kiss-asses get promoted quicker; the officers aren’t leading from the front. Their lifestyle is broadly similar: they smoke, they lounge about, they play-fight, they watch trashy videos on laptops, they send cutesy messages to their boy/girlfriends. They wish they were not there. Two of the most prominent talking heads, Captain Jalaluddin (who had wanted to study literature) and Private Sunnatullah, were both unemployed before the ANA presented itself. ‘They ask the poor and the hopeless, “Do you want to serve?” and they say, “Yes, I’ll serve.” So they send them to places like Sangin.’
They even have the same tactical, strategic and political dilemmas: they don’t have enough in common with the locals (most ANA soldiers are not deployed in their native areas, for obvious reasons); they do not trust the local police units; they think they’re being sold out by their own politicians; and they have little or no faith in the military future. ‘Everyone thinks another war is coming.’
Every one of these conversations was had ten times a day by British and American soldiers during their time in Afghanistan, and in these very same towns and villages. It is no consolation to see that the Afghan National Army has not yet found the answers, either.
Captain Jalaluddin assures his parents: ‘Helmand is safe, there’s no need to worry about me.’ But they watch the news, he says: they know. And the overarching reality, of course, is that this young officer’s war is nothing like mine, or any other British soldier’s in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin has been in Helmand for seven years now. Most of us were there for less than seven months.
'Tell Spring Not to Come This Year' premieres at the Sheffield Documentary Festival on 6 June
A.S.H. Smyth was a trooper in the Honourable Artillery Company. He served in Helmand and Kabul, in 2013