6 Jan 2011

A ceasefire 'deal' in Sangin that may cost even more lives

Our Chief Correspondent, Alex Thomson, looks at the reported “deal” between US forces and local tribes in the Sangin area of Afghanistan which could see an end to attacks on allied forces in return for some degree of autonomy for local people.

The first reaction to this “deal”, which is not written down anywhere, has to be caution. Extreme caution. The kind of caution you try and exercise every time you step outside the base at Sangin and walk into the killing zone.

It just could be that the next time I am there it really will be different. I might feel different about walking out in Sangin bazaar. I might actually believe the endless British spin that “things are improving in the Sangin valley”.

But nobody’s taking chances. Only today the US Marines repeating that the first thing they’ll do is patrol hard, thick and fast right through the Alikozai territories in order to test the mood. Test the deal. See if anyone fires. A deal that exists only by nod and handshake in the shura doesn’t exist at all until tested on the poppy fields and pomegranate groves of Helmand.

They have tried these  deals before and they have failed with bloody consequences. Nonetheless the old adage that “you cannot buy an Afghan but you can certainly hire one” holds true and nobody – but nobody – understands that better than the Taliban who bought much of their control over Afghanistan rather than won it in battle.

So Uncle Sam has paid up and paid good. Perhaps offered far more than the Brits ever could or would and the suspicion has to be that this is why the Americans are claiming an accommodation in the Sangin Valley that the British so painfully failed to achieve.

But let nobody doubt the potentcy, belief and motivation of the insurgency – stronger now than when the western occupation began a decade ago, such is the depth of the west’s failure in Afghanistan.

America will need deal after deal after deal to work along these lines before it can even claim to have an environment in which to begin leaving from July onwards.

And how does anybody know that the tribesmen in the shuras are not simply biding their time? Waiting quietly until the Americans pull out – safe in the knowledge that they are well enriched by the Americans.

They have the poppy trade too which NATO has simply given up on trying to tackle in any significant way (probably quite wisely). They can live, prosper, buy as much weaponry as they want, set up their own security patrols and generally be well placed if/when another civil war ensues as the Americans and British finally fathom a way out of the mess they have created.

So, you get the picture. A deal – even if it “works” in the limited sense of western young men no longer being killed – might in fact simply be the next chapter of the west financing yet another phase of Afghan internal warfare.

Never underestimate therefore the cynicism of war, not least when the creators of it – America and Britain – are verging on desperation in their efforts to get out of the war they declared on this country and so many of its people.

Over a hundred British lives were lost during their four bloody years in the Sangin bases. The US Marines fared no better – losing 29 men to some of the most effective snipers even Afghanistan has seen. Scores more remain scarred for life, horribly injured by IEDs and so forth.

Could it be that if this deal “works” these young men gave their lives and limbs merely to plant the seeds for future killing across the fields of Sangin? Few in Afghanistan would care to bet heavily against this stark proposition.