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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times