2 Apr 2014

Only politics can lead a path out of Afghanistan’s darkness

It is clearly not the reality the Afghan government wants publicised. Still less the west, which bankrolls Afghanistan’s army and armed police.

But it is the reality of America’s longest foreign war that large areas of the countryside are no-go for the Afghan National Army and National Police.

Whatever else may be happening, the insurgency in Afghanistan and its mujahedeen are not going away. Only this week we read that 22 tons of home-made explosive has been found. But found in a northern province of Afghanistan hardly noted for any insurgent activity – until now.

So it is that large rural areas of Afghanistan are off-limits for Afghan security forces that now cost America $1.1bn each year.

And off-limits to western journalists, too, because when it comes to media-savvy, the insurgency is still in the stone age.

Result? Kabul – where today a suicide bomber killed himself and at least six policemen outside the Interior Ministry – is left having to stand so often as representing Afghanistan in the western media. Absurd.

Which is why our latest film with Taliban fighters in Kunar province matters so much at this time. Filmmaker Najibullah Qureishi managed, after months of planning and negotiation, to spend just a few hours with a small band of fighters, but he gained an awful lot in his limited time.

They see the election not just as against sharia law, and so both illegal and evil all at once. They see it as a political sham.

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One commander – Amir Sahib, his fighters call him – says: “It’s just a show to deceive Muslims. The Americans have already chosen their man and this is just one big drama to fool people. So we’re not having it. We’ve warned people that we’ll demolish the election.”

But quite how to do that troubles them. Najibullah sits in and films a planning meeting. This surely has not been filmed before, as fighters debate how best to sabotage the national presidential election on their country.

The commander stresses over and over again the need to avoid civilian casualties. In a war where the UN estimates insurgents kill and injure 80 per cent of Afghan civilian casualties, such concerns are not without irony.

Hideous episode

Just last week, one of their suicide bombers ended the life of a young Kabuli girl.

In a hideous episode on 20 March, several of their fighters somehow penetrated the extreme security of Kabul’s Serena Hotel. They made their way to the restaurant.

There, nine people ended up shot dead, including the noted Kabul journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife, and two of their three children. Even by Afghanistan’s long years of civil war (and let’s start being honest, it is a civil war), this looked pitiless, pointless, vile – find the words…

Up in the hills of Kunar, Commander Amir’s deputy is keen to address this.

“Well, now,” he begins, as if sensing this is going to take some explaining. “They were suicide attackers targeting Americans in there. I reckon they needed the help of hotel security to get in there.

“But I have to tell you about the journalist Sardar Ahmad, his family, his children. The police officers shot them – they did it to smear our fighters and pretend to the world that they would kill women and children.”

Well – who knows? For sure, the Serena Hotel is full of gun-toting security guards and the restaurant is still completely cordoned off.

Legitimate targets

But the facts of this war prove beyond question that these fighters kill their own people day in, day out, year in, year out.

There is much debate about mosques at their meeting. Should mosques or areas near them be used for polling is a grave issue for two reasons. First, there is the issue of polling being considered religiously and politically wrong. Then, as one fighter suddenly says: “There is the problem that we cannot mount suicide attacks in mosques.”

Such are the dilemmas you get into when you consider polling stations as legitimate targets in your war.

In wide-ranging interviews, two of the commanders present explain that, as they see it, the Taliban (and they’d call themselves Taliban) and al-Qaeda “are both struggling for the same goal” – it is just the AQ fighters follow “Sheikh Osama” and they do not.

No beef with the west

There is, of course, one very large difference: while AQ has declared jihad against the west, the Afghan insurgents’ fight is merely to rid their country of foreign invaders and usurp the government they see as the puppet of said invasion. They say they have no beef with the west beyond that, but their past hospitality to AQ bases, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar in their land might lead many to question that statement.

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So why do they matter? Why risk life and limb to speak to people who could be droned by the Americans any second?

I can supply many answers, but with elections now imminent, one really comes to the fore. Ultimately, politics must work in Afghanistan when the gun can do no more. Right now, the politics that can lead a path out of the darkness of the IED and suicide bomber is some kind of deal between the western-sponsored Afghan government and the insurgents.

That – far more than any election result – is the really big prize, and nobody has much clue right now what it could look like.

But until we find out the mind-set and where that deal could begin to form, we have only explosives, bullets and broken lives here in Afghanistan.

And a vast, open-ended bill which you are probably paying right now if you pay your taxes in the west.

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7 reader comments

  1. Wyrdtimes (@Wyrdtimes) says:

    Why won’t the “west” start buying the opium?

    This would solve the worldwide shortage of medicinal opiates. Give farmers a living. Deny the Taliban both funds and recruits. It would also do much to reduce the heroin on the streets.

    Taxed properly it would also create a massive new revenue stream for the Afghan Govt, helping to rebuild and regenerate the country. With that and their mineral wealth they could turn the country round

    Win, win, win etc.

    1. David says:

      Is the world community really that ignorant? Just delete Pakistan from the world map and peace shall rain over Afghanistan overnight. As simple as that!!

  2. Martin Roberts says:

    Slightly irrelevant, but what is the top left photo in the group of 4? It is rather odd – the others are pretty self-explanatory.

  3. john barnes says:

    Why give these bearded mad men air time. Sure Khazi is corrupt but the Islamists want to go back to the stone age. We lost 400+ soldiers helping to stop FMG. honour killings and the total relegation of one half of the population to servitude

  4. DU 48 says:

    It’s not very often that opium is mentioned when it comes to reporting in Afghanistan.

    Surprise, surprise, tonight Channel 4 tells us that opium poppy production accounts for 30% of the country’s economy!

    Opium Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy is the title of a book by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy (I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd 2009).

    ‘Only Politics’ will always fail. It has until now.

    More precisely, ‘uncovering the politics of the poppy’ as suggested by the author above provides practical alternatives to finding a solution to the illicit drug trade.

  5. marina.manager says:

    Dear Alex,

    As always a great article, a great point of view, but that is all that it is.

    We cannot change mindset. The US and its allies cannot be where they should not be. Your own evidence proves this when you state that the Afghan conflict is “America’s longest foreign war”
    With all the might, wealth and gung ho approach of the west nothing, but nothing will change the mindset. The Russians tried and failed. America, UK and its allies have tried and failed and have pumped in billions of $$$ only to be beaten by a $30 IED and a willingness to detonate a vest and the ability to discharge a 15cent round of ammunition. That is the cost of life.
    The US government did not learn from history, instead it chose a path that will leave a legacy forever. Can we really blame the Taliban? I think not. The wrong approach, the wrong tactic and it is our boys and girls and innocent victims that will pay the price. Just what exactly was it that the US and its allies ever hoped to achieve? Just what exactly did the US and its allies ever think was going to be the Return on Investment for all these billions of $$$?
    And even more to the point just what exactly did the US and its allies ever think was going to be the result of Operational Expenditure in the form of soldiers lives, innocent casualties and broken families?
    The US and its Allies will be judged by history and a very sorrowful and painful judgement that will be.

  6. Terry Norman says:

    Why do you never mention the status of the Trans Afghanistan Hydrocarbon Fluids Pipeline which has been planned by “The West” across Helmand Province and through Pakistan for the last 16 or more years. This surely explains the real reason for being in Afghanistan and the troops dying to protect the pipeline route. Just negotiate a good financial deal with the Taliban, say 25% cut of throughput instead of probably 5 or 8 % that’s been on offer and its all sorted! Infact the Taliban would provide the security for the West and there would be no need for troops there at all! Come on – publish this and open up the debate properly Mr Snow.

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