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.

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

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