The long goodbye to Afghanistan

Nad-e Ali's most senior politician, Mohammad Ibrahim, knows that the consequence of pushing too hard for change could be a Taliban resurgence. Striking this balance would be a challenge for a political veteran but Ibrahim is only 29 years old.

Of all Fort Farangi’s unwelcome residents over the past century, only one group has steadfastly remained. The warm, dry nooks in the pockmarked mud-and-brick walls are home to a clutter of camel spiders – huge, hairy-legged things that can scuttle at high speeds and give a nasty bite if disturbed.

Historians disagree over the precise origins of the fort but according to local legend it was built by the occupying British forces during the second Anglo- Afghanwar, towards the end of the 19th century. When the First Infantry Brigade was defeated at Maiwand in 1880, the British army abandoned Farangi and retreated to Kandahar. In 2009, it returned and Farangi became a fortress of sorts once more.

A fortified perimeter was built around its battered walls to create Camp Shawqat, a forward-operating base in the heart of Nad-e Ali, an area of Helmand that in 2009 was still under Taliban rule.

Of the 55 British bases dotted around Nad-e Ali at the height of the insurgency, Camp Shawqat was the last remaining outpost. The Sky News cameraman David Rees and I witnessed the final days of the base, the end of another chapter in British military history.

Together, we visited Nad-e Ali’s most senior political figure, Mohammad Ibrahim, the district governor. The governor’s compound used to be a Taliban prison; Ibrahim was once locked up there as a teenager, for playing football, of all sins.

Behind Ibrahim’s mahogany desk hangs a life-size picture of President Hamid Karzai. Karzai might be the country’s leader but, in reality, all politics is local in Afghanistan. Whoever succeeds him in the presidential elections next spring must find a way to liberate the country’s regional structures, allowing them to govern according to specific local needs, while also encouraging the 34 provinces to stay loyal to the Kabul government.

Stacked up against one wall of Ibrahim’s office is a small library of modern British literature: political autobiographies, journalists’ war stories, novels. It’s a respectable library by any standards but these are textbooks for an aspiring leader, lessons on how to govern and how not to.

“The governor is worried about your stamina,” Auliya Atrafi, his translator and secretary, explains solemnly.

My stamina? Why?

“Because the governor could talk all day about the changes round here!”

Everyone smiles politely and I sip my tea bashfully.

Ibrahim is shrewd enough to know he cannot be a politician who dares to grandstand. If he pushes too hard or introduces change too fast, he risks upsetting the elders. The consequence of that could be a Taliban resurgence. Striking this balance would be a challenge for a political veteran but, for all his interest in books, Ibrahim is only 29 years old.

There are plenty of statistics attesting to progress in Helmand Province. Almost 80 per cent of the population lies within ten kilometres of a health-care facility. Thirty thousand girls are enrolled in school; 259 kilometres of road have been built or repaired.

Yet progress here comes at a high cost. Nearly 1,000 Afghan soldiers were killed between January and August this year. I’m not sure that’s sustainable. The cost to British soldiers in Nad-e Ali over the past six years has also been considerable: 52 lives have been lost and many more have suffered lifechanging injuries.

If the past were the sole measure of fate, you would hold little hope for the future. Many foreign armies have tried unsuccessfully to impose their will on Afghanistan. Why should it work this time?

A small number of Afghans I spoke to said that the British troops have achieved little. Others said they would never forget the sacrifices made by foreign soldiers to help their country. Yet all agreed that the moment had come for Afghans to stand alone.

In the late-summer evening light, the walls of Fort Farangi glow deep amber; bats dart out of a cave to begin their nightly missions. It is an enchanting place. And yet, we heard the grumble of friendly jets overhead and occasional unfriendly gunfire nearby. Curious locals peered into the camp from the tin roofs of the bazaar, aware that this fort will soon be theirs again.

The last time British troops left Fort Farangi, more than 130 years ago, they were chased out of town. This time, it is a long goodbye: an organised departure on their own terms and in their own time.

However, only if British soldiers can one day return as guests rather than occupiers – only if they can walk freely without a flak jacket or a gun through the fields and villages in which they once fought – will they be able to say with conviction, “Job done.”

Alistair Bunkall is the defence correspondent at Sky News

Afghan children play Ludo as they celebrate the second day of Eid al-Adha on the outskirts of Jalalabad. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.