For the first Friday in ages I’m not going out into Kabul due to continuing sickness. (didn’t make it to Ghowr). All week I’ve been stuck in bed with my close friend Mr. Bucket listening to BBC Documentary (the Radio 4 Khmer Rock Doc was excellent and sad. Oppressive regimes always clamp down on art and music) and being fed DVDs from the market by friends.
Watched a truly awful camjob of the passably good, but long State of Play, the main highlights being Helen Mirren hamming up her loveable battleaxe role as a newspaper editor (basically Prime Suspect recast) “knickers” “wanker” “spliff” and other ‘genewhine English slang’ being liberally sprinkled. Other highlights included audience coughing and, on one occasion, retching.
So I’ve had nothing to write about, although I seem to be making a good job of nothing. I’m just waiting to be well and to start on the election stories madness. Perhaps this is projection, but the whole of Kabul seems to be waiting. Waiting, most likely, for the next bomb or attack, as the city has seen a weirdly low occurance of ‘incidents’. Of course there a few scattered here and there: (failed) rocket attacks on our base and the odd explosions. Only last night there was a big bang - but that could have been anything from a landmine to a weapons cache to a gas explosion. And also, the police do seem to be getting better at foiling potential bomb planters. But we all know that we’re waiting for the big one to come around election time.
The streets are busy but quieter than usual. The people are more mute, the traffic more polite, the bars and restaurants are meeker. We’re waiting.
EDIT: This just in - truce with the Taliban agreed in Badghis (north-west). Seems like it’s time to talk with the Taliban.
First I gushed about the North. Then I worried about it. But, of course, I didn’t make any difference. The Taliban have shut down all girls schools in Kunduz and imposed a 10% tax on the locals.
However, the locals say they’ve brought security and ‘swift justice’, although they’ve killed a few locals and soldiers along the way.
Why stay and fight in the South when the North is under-resourced in terms of Afghan Security Forces and Police, aka an easy target for the Taliban?
Some say that, as Kunduz is a mainly Pashtun area, the Taliban find it easier to exist there without opposition from the locals (this BBC article also claims farmers don’t want to lose their harvests). But I’ve heard from a couple of Afghan friends there’s a new Uzbek Taliban commander in town (being a stupid westerner, his name went in and out of my mind) garnering support among non-Pashtun Afghans and moving with frightening ease in and out and through the country.
And today I hear Karzai’s running mate, the striking-looking Mohammad Qasim Fahim, was shot at in Kunduz yesterday. Taliban have claimed responsibility, but to be honest, I reckon most of the country would be up for having a pop. Not popular, is Mr. Karzai and his buddies from what I understand from the marketplace.
I was talking to some American special forces yesterday and they were pessimistic about election day and the immediate aftermath being peaceful. There hasn’t been a major incident in Kabul since the co-ordinated attacks on ministry buildings back in February.
"They’re lulling us into a false sense of security", said one. Now, this may seem a little ridiculous considering the much increased levels of violence in the South and East at the moment, combined with the significantly higher and quicker loss of ISAF soldiers. Add to that the civilian casualties and ANSF deaths, not least from the recent co-ordinated suicide attacks in Gardez, Jalalabad and Nimruz and any ‘sense of securitiy’ seems to be a myth.
And yet not in Kabul. The city is quiet. Well, incident wise, that is. It’s still a bustling, shouting, car-horn-tooting mass of humanity, but there’s been no kerfuffle beyond a few, very small, demonstrations of late.
Of course, you can’t help but notice the increased security. Policemen everywhere; ISAF forces at every corner and pretty much every few days, I try and drive down a road that’s no longer there, having been blocked been new concrete reinforcements.
There have been some rocket attacks of late on our base. Thankfully they were duds and fell short of the airstrip. Either duds, or, as surprisingly often happens, the attackers forgot to attach the detonators. And just last night I heard distant thuds and sirens. But it could have been rehearsals.
Who knows what will happen on election day? Perhaps it’ll be peaceful and the shit will hit the fan over the next couple of weeks when the votes are being counted. The fact that it’s Ramadan and people will be hungry and pissy won’t help.
Yet, the point of the elections is that they are Afghan-run and Afghan led. The ANP take the first line of security, then the ANA can step in and only if they fail, can ISAF forces appear. There will be no western security visible on the day. As a reporter, I’m torn between getting footage of the historic voting process and being without familiar security.
“There is a key difference between men and women. Men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them”—From The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. (brought into mind by the case of Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein)
Good article about the reality of Afghan women’s ‘rights’. The big cities tend to be different and there are several women I know who wouldn’t want international forces to leave mainly because of the very real threat of another civil war. But let’s not kid ourselves that the war will do anything to ‘liberate’ women.
World Have Your Say - an excellent discussion programme on the BBC World Service where I did a work placement - discuss Afghanistan. A pity many comments seem to be along the lines of ‘pull troops out and close our borders to anyone dusky looking’. Examples such as these…
"We recently discovered, for example, that 10,000 Pakistani students are allowed into Britain annually. Yet our lying politicians insist that we must fight ‘them’ in Afghanistan in order not to fight them here, the security forces advise us that terror attacks are inevitable for years to come, and foreign and home-grown Jihadists are tried in our courts on a regular basis"
'A regular basis' - really? And are every one of the 10,000 Pakistani students Jihadists? Is it just me that thinks our medical system might suffer a real injury if we denied these students access? I know my last few hospital consultants have all been Pakistani. But that's just one example compared to the 'thousands' of Pakistani suicide bombers we've rolled out the red carpet to.
Or along the ‘why are we fighting poor old Afghanistan?’ when ‘we’ are actually fighting insurgents and supporting the government.
Of course, whether it’s all actually worth it considering the long history of failure by western powers in Afghanistan and considering the wide opinion of the government as corrupt is another matter. The ‘donkeys’ editorial in the Guardian rings alarm bells not just in the ears of Afghans, who misunderstood the reference (obviously) to WW1 and find it a great insult, but in all those whose job it is to back the chosen government of Afghanistan.
Then there’s the ‘we have to find Bin Laden’ argument and the inevitable ‘it’s all about oil' argument. Although I don't know if a pipeline through Afghanistan would be a particularly wise idea.
I think the days of ideological argument are dead and gone. There’s no black and white good guys and bad buys. There’s no axis of evil to be defeated. But I don’t buy into the comparison to Vietnam, either. Should we be there? Probably not. Should we leave? Probably not.
But even if you’re of the opinion that the reasons for going in are bogus, there is an argument that seeing as we partly created this mess, we should probably stick around to clean it up. It’s only polite.
I have completed three five mile runs in the last few days and seeing as the furthest I’d run before this week was to the end of the road to catch last orders at the shop, I can only ascribed this feat to my running playlist. Don’t judge me:
1. Little Sister - Queens Of The Stone Age
2. One Armed Sister - At The Drive In
3. Killing In The Name - Rage Against The Machine
4. Land of Sunshiine - Faith No More
5. Come Out And Play - Offspring
6. Deceptacon - Le Tigre
7. Invasion! - The Futureheads
8. The Pulse - Holy Fuck
9. You’ll Find A Way - Santogold
10. Because The Night - Patti Smith
11. Drop Kick The Punks - The Faint
12. Mr. Brightside (Jacques Lu Cont Remix) - The Killers
The beautiful north is seeing more violence, more fighting between local warlords, more bullying of the local people and much, much less acceptance of foreign forces. The Germans in the north were slow to build up Afghan security forces, especially police and there isn’t the security structure to support the weak Afghan government up there or enough employment to support otherwise moderate Afghans. I’ve seen the villagers in this area and they really have nothing. I’d hate to see the most beautiful country, the most friendly people torn apart but I’m feeling pretty low about this.
Badakshan is the most stunning province. Some video of the countryside near Feyzabad here.
But the focus is on the South. The huge Operation Khanjar in Helmand is a pre-election clean out of the Taliban strongholds and frustratingly my colleague down there with British troops can’t tell me what’s going on. (Oh and, incidentally, it’s officially not a ‘surge’ but an ‘uplift’, but let’s not get into PR semantics here)
Casualties and deaths aside, it seems like the thousands of US, UK and various other not often mentioned nations (Canadians being the stalwart fighters down there) aren’t encountering much resistance. However, it seems to me that, if I were Terry Taliban, I’d be of the opinion that a tactical retreat to watch and learn from the new ISAF tactics would reap far more benefits than an out and out fight.
I suspect if the elections pass relatively peacefully (although there’s always the danger of a highly planned attack concentrated specifically on this period) we’ll see lower levels of violence for the whole of the winter. But then a sharp upturn, which may have dire political consequences. You can’t push without expecting to be pushed back.
The hope, of course, is that ISAF troops hold the areas successfully, something that certainly British troops have not been able to do, and convince local Afghans and potentially the Taliban among them that, hey, this peace thing’s not so bad. Perhaps we could roll with it a little longer?
In short, Killing Taliban is officially supposed to now take a back seat to protecting Afghans.
Anyhow, the new official ‘Tactical Guidance’ will be revealed by new ISAF commander, Stanley McChrystal on Monday at a press conference I’m hoping to tweet (both for @ruthowen and @natochannel) here in Kabul. But I much prefer the informal name given to these new ‘be nice’ tactics coined by Brig Gen Larry Nicholson: ‘drink tea and eat goat’. You can see Larry doing a shop here.