3 Mar 2010

Afghanistan: getting a meeting organised is some feat

Alex Thomson on the problems of meetings in Afghanistan and talks between the district governor and the British army.

Camp Shawqat, Afghanistan: Around here, even though the security situation is rather more benign than a few weeks back, simply getting a meeting organised, or a shura – as the British soldiers now happily say with no self-consciousness, is some feat.

Which is why, the first we heard about Ali Habibullah, the district governor, coming into the camp was the unmistakeable whup whup whup of the approaching Chinook helicopter.

Then there he was, sitting down in the Ops Room here at Camp Shawqat and unburdening himself of his concerns to the CO here – Lt Col Roly Walker.

And they were fascinating. There had been a message from the Taliban. Sent by proxy. One bloke talking over the mobile.

“Er – did you get the number?” asked Walker.

“Yes – why not,” beamed the DG, “he said he would call again at 2pm but there was no call I am afraid.”

And there was more.

“So many shuras. Every day. I have no time. There was a delegation from Taliban this afternoon to see me but I was out. I could not be there for them,” he continued, speaking through his translator. “It is a pity.”

At that various British military heads nod in silence around the table.

But the British are relaxed:

“Well Ali,” says the Colonel,” this one is very much for you. I mean we will give you all the help that we possibly can. But you know, the reason many of these men are fighting is because of us in the first place. So much better you talk to them if you can. You know – sort of Afghan to Afghan.”

So this is what you see front-end, of what the politicians talk about when they say they wish to buy up or otherwise encourage insurgents to come over and lay down their weapons.

It is a very delicate business. The odd phone message here; RV promises left unfulfilled there; delegations arriving to talk terms only to find that their man is in another village attending equally urgent business elsewhere.

And no, if you are a Taliban delegation or individual putting out feelers about perhaps laying down your arms, you cannot simply take your Toyota or motorbike up the road and try to track down the DG.

Too many vehicle checkpoints, too many chances of being seen by villagers you might not want to be seen by. Too high profile altogether. Much too much face.

Many messages will have to be left and meetings remain unfulfilled before some individuals might one day find themselves talking terms – and possibly money – with the DG in his office and getting safe passage out of the building and back to their base, as proof of good will and trust.

Ah yes trust, that most talked-about but rare commodity here on the ground of central Helmand.