By Ahmed Faruqui
The British campaign in Afghanistan, from 2006 onwards, was focused on the province of Helmand. It is the largest province, which covers nine percent of the country’s area, but houses only four percent of the Afghani population. For centuries, armies have marched through Helmand from Iran to India. Unsurprisingly, the capital city of Helmand is called Lashkar Gah (army barracks).
Helmand contains forty percent of the surface water of the country. Opium is the primary crop and Helmand supplies ninety percent of the country’s output. That is one of the reasons why the British focused on the province. The US also sent a third of its forces there.
The mission of the invading armies, euphemistically called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), was to ‘wage a counter-insurgency to protect the population.’ However, the plan backfired. As the ISAF started destroying the poppy crop, the farmers felt that their livelihood was being taken away and fought back.
The British generals told the locals that they had come there to save them from the terrorists who had carried out the 9/11 attacks in the US. But the locals saw the intervention through a different lens. To them, the arrival of the British brought back bad memories of the invasion by the Angrez in the 19th century.
The war in Helmand gets a book-length treatment by Mike Martin in The Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict. He was posted there as a captain of the British Army. Later, as part of his doctoral dissertation at King’s College, London, he interviewed 85 individuals in Pashtu, most of them in Helmand, and some in London, and consulted several secondary sources. That research forms the basis for the book which he was only able to publish after resigning from the army.
General Sir David Richards commanded the ISAF in Afghanistan during 2006-7 and was the Chief of the Defence Staff during 2010-13. In 2009, he came under fire for saying that the British may have to stay in Afghanistan for another 40 years. After he read the book, he wished it would have been available to him when he was ISAF Commander in Afghanistan.
Martin does not believe an insurgency is being fought in Afghanistan. It is a civil war between the tribes. The conflict has continued for 35 years, involving the same individuals, family networks, and clans, clashing over the same tribal, religious, and state issues.
When the US forces arrived, after the 9/11 attacks, they quickly deposed the Taliban. Mullah Omar and the top leaders of the Taliban went into hiding. The ‘enemy’ went underground, as a different enemy had done in Vietnam a few decades earlier and as yet, another enemy would do in Iraq just a few years later.
The Taliban would torture people caught smoking cigarettes, cut off hands for theft, and beat people for failing to pray. They would not allow anyone to have a TV and forbade girls from going to school.
Anxious to capture the leaders of the Taliban, the US began to offer bounties for their capture. But the US failed to understand that Afghan society was fractured and poor. Some people would denounce the people they were having a feud with and turn them in to the ISAF to collect the bounty. Others would simply turn in some innocents. Some of the captives ended up in Guantanamo, almost all were tortured to extract ‘confessions’, and some died.
The UK ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, said that he was guilty of self-deception and ‘lived the lie.’ An army commander convinced his troops that the insurgency was real and they got in the mood to wage a counterinsurgency. Many believed him, including Martin. At some point they all realised the narrative was false, contrived and self-serving and turned sheepish.
The ISAF revisited the blunders that the Soviets made during their occupation during the 1980’s. And they “improved” upon them by their lack of local knowledge. Unlike the Soviets, they had no Tajiks (or other locals) in their ranks. And the Soviets had yet another advantage. The typical Soviet officer was posted in Afghanistan for two years, compared with six months for the typical British officer. Compare that with the ten years that the British officer stayed in Imperial India.
The Helmandis, argues Martin, knew “we did not have the resolve to fight a real battle; otherwise, we would have sealed the border with Pakistan.” They thought we had nefarious intentions: “However, we were more ignorant (and more stretched) than they could have imagined.”
For the forces deployed in Afghanistan, “It was easier psychologically to go along with the official narratives, because truly understanding the Helmandi viewpoint… would remove their raison d’etre for being in Afghanistan.”
Martin says there were several reasons for the failure of the ISAF to understand the real reasons for the conflict, with language as the foremost barrier.
Looking back at the war, Sir Sherardsays, “The West’s road to Helmand was paved with good intentions but the West failed to understand the war it was fighting.”
It resorted to coercing the local population into obedience rather than winning their “hearts and minds.” Martin says we often made the situation worse, not better, by intervening in Afghanistan.
The ISAF had unmatched firepower on the ground, in the air, and in the sea. Missiles and bombs could be brought down on the invisible enemy at any time and at any place. But the collateral damage reached a tipping point at some stage and then serious alienation with the ISAF set in among the local population.
The locals killed by the army turned into heroes and martyrs. For every ‘enemy’ who was killed, one or more took his place and families were outraged. Once again, Afghanistan had lived up to its reputation of being the graveyard of empires.
As the counterinsurgency progressed, some fighters simply disappeared into the mountains or crossed the border into their safe havens. One such fighter was Osama bin Laden, who escaped from Tora Bora, which lies some 31 miles west of the Khyber Pass, to Pakistan on a donkey to start a second life.
(The writer has authored Musharraf’s Pakistan, Bush’s America and the Middle East. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Ahmed Faruqui