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

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution