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Voices of war and hope

The children of Afghanistan have never known peace in their own country. They are seldom heard, but

Dusk is falling over Kabul, and for Mortazar, a 17-year-old boy with an easy smile and a red waistcoat, it's time to go home. The silhouette of "TV Mountain", with its dense thicket of broadcasting towers, dominates the skyline. Every day, Mortazar stands for ten hours on one of Kabul's busiest streets, amid CD stalls and shop mannequins, hawking mobile phone top-up cards. He makes about $5 a day. "Nowadays I've almost lost interest in becoming something else," he says. "Maybe I'll be an interpreter if I can improve my English - or perhaps a footballer."

Afghanistan, seen through the eyes of its children, is a difficult mix of hope and hardship. Forty-seven per cent of Afghanistan's 33 million people are under 14. They have never known peace in their own country. Mortazar's family, tempted back to Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, is now struggling to survive in a dysfunctional city. The billions of dollars of reconstruction aid sloshing around have not touched their lives. "Because of the economic problems, I have to work," he says, "and everything is getting more expensive. Four years ago I was a refugee in Iran - at least there I could go to school."

With winter approaching, the poor are preparing for the cold. Chronic power shortages, exacerbated by a long-running drought, which has reduced the amount of power generated by hydroelectric dams, mean that families must make do with just a few hours of electricity each day. Most cannot afford generators and many will be unable to buy firewood.

"The government doesn't care for anyone," says Mortazar. "It's just stealing money and doing everything for itself. When the foreigners are watching, they behave. But as soon as backs are turned they just take whatever it is - blankets, food, whatever - and sell it. I've seen it happen. My sister has, too. A charity came to her school and started giving out stationery: when the foreigners left, the rest just went missing."

Saleem, a slight, ten-year-old boy with kohl smudges beneath his eyes, is more sanguine. "Whatever you say about it," he says, referring to the government, "it's better than the Taliban." His cousin Fareed doesn't comment. He is absorbed in trying to mend a battered bicycle wheel.

Fareed's bicycle repair shop is located on a dusty slip road not far from Kabul airport. Chickens scratch for food in the rubbish strewn all around, and the neighbourhood of mud and brick houses that stretches out behind is one of Kabul's poorest. "I'm open early morning until late at night," he announces proudly, glancing up at a sky pierced by a single, bright star. With calloused hands, an oily salwar kameez and serious eyes, Fareed looks older than his 15 years. He did not grow up; he was just forced by circumstance to become an adult. He doesn't go to school and his business brings in, on average, a dollar a day. "Things are not great right now," he concedes, struggling with an inflated inner tube. "But they'll soon be looking up." "The next few years are going to be good," Saleem agrees with enthusiasm, though he is unable to say why they will be good.

All the signs are that they won't be good. The insurgents, with safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas, are well-resourced and growing stronger. Robbers and kidnappers operate with impunity and Afghans travelling by road are sometimes stopped by militants and searched for any evid ence of involvement with foreign companies or NGOs: the wrong business card in your wallet or number in your mobile phone can get you killed.

President Hamid Karzai, up for re-election in 2009, is widely perceived as indecisive and his government as corrupt. Politicians have built mansions in wealthy Kabul neighbourhoods such as Sher Pur, and Karzai's own brother, Ahmed Wali, has been accused of involvement in opium trafficking, which he denies. Last month's cabinet reshuffle came too late to inspire much confidence and relations with the British have been poisoned by a series of incidents, notably Karzai's refusal in January to accept Lord Paddy Ashdown's appointment as UN envoy in Afghanistan. The police, riddled with corruption, are in desperate need of reform, and the Afghan army, though improving, is still under-strength and unreliable.

Civilian casualties have eroded public support for Nato troops and it remains to be seen if, under Barack Obama, the troop surge will make things better or worse. Leaks and contradictory statements from the Afghan government and its western allies reveal uncertainty and division. Tentative negotiations in Saudi Arabia have shown that the militants are in no mood for deal-making - this winter, there may be no respite before the inevitable spring offensive.

Along way from the bustle, dust and razor wire of Kabul, villagers in Keshem, a district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan, are gathering the harvest. Donkeys smothered beneath thick loads of fresh hay are driven along narrow roads hemmed in by high mud walls and clear, fast-flowing irrigation channels. The fertile Keshem valley, once famous for its poppies, is at peace.

At Jari Shah Baba girls' school, the tranquil sound of children learning Dari - a variant of the Persian language spoken in northern and western Afghanistan - by rote drifts in through the open windows of one of the classrooms. Out of a class of 15 girls aged 13, all in neat white headscarves, just one has a mother who went to school. But there is change, largely because of economic reasons. The girls here say that their fathers now support them going to school and, when asked what they would like to be when they finish studying, most shout out "doctor", "teacher" or "engineer". Educated girls make more money.

Two new school buildings are under construction with money raised by Afghan Connection, a British charity that, working closely with the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan, has so far financed the building of 30 schools for more than 30,000 children. Jari Shah Baba is one of many good news stories that can be found in Afghanistan.

Children hurry along corridors and play in the grounds outside. The air of eager optimism, in and out of the classroom, is unmistakable. "We want to work to improve Afghanistan so that it can be like other countries," is the line often repeated, but always with conviction.

The students say they are not worried about security and seem unwilling to think about it. "I used to watch the news," says one of the girls. "But it's always bombing and killing. We're bored with the fighting - we don't want to hear about it any more. I prefer to watch Indian soap operas."

Still, even in Badakhshan, the indicators of war are all around. Empty shell casings do for school bells, old Soviet tanks lie sunk in the grass, and red and green flags flutter by the roadside (marking landmines and martyrs' graves). Many Afghan officials predict that it is only a matter of time until the insurgency spreads this far north. But for now, thoughts are on future dreams.

"I want to go to university and study medicine," says 19-year-old Zulfiya. "But it's difficult." Zulfiya is fortunate to have her father's support. Of the 1,150 students at Jari Shah Baba, approximately 400 are married and many of these are already looking after their first child. Burkhas, belonging to the older girls, hang inside classrooms ready for the journey home. Expressive faces vanish suddenly behind blue nylon. For those able to compete for a place at one of Afghanistan's few state-run universities, competition is stiff. Last year, 35,000 students took the entrance exam; there was space for 10,000.

Kourban, a student from Sang Boran boys' school in nearby Baghlan province, is not worried about passing the exam - he has always been top of his class - he is worried about paying for his studies. "I'll face a lot of financial problems," he says. "I know people who dropped out after one or two years at university because they couldn't afford it."

Neither of his parents went to school and just one of his three older brothers can read and write. The family makes its living farming and there isn't enough left over to support a son studying in the city. Now aged 20, Kourban has had to spend time catching up on school years missed during the fighting.

Through Afghan Connection, his school is "twinned" to Eton College: the students exchange gifts and letters in order to attain a mutual understanding. Kourban's demeanour is usually one of calm determination but, when confronted by photographs of Eton's grand architecture and oddly attired students, he is momentarily bemused. "Can I have a scholarship?" he asks, eventually.

Like many Afghans, Kourban believes that Afghan istan would collapse in all-out war if the foreign troops were to leave. His attitude is pragmatic: "We don't have a military force capable of controlling the country," he says. "So for now, it's better for the foreigners to stay."

Others are not so sure: "If the foreigners went away, I think the problems would go with them," says Abdu Rahmin, a 14-year-old boy from Khost, a troubled province in the east that borders North Waziristan, one of Pakistan's most militant-run tribal agencies. "A roadside bomb exploded when foreign troops were driving past my school. My friend was injured in the blast; now I'm always scared something will happen."

His story, and lasting anxiety, is not unique. “My sister-in-law was killed in a bomb blast,” says Nabila, a 13-year-old girl, also from Khost. “When I go to school, I am afraid there will be a bomb on the way; when I get there I start worrying about my father – especially when he goes to the city because there are lots of security problems there.”

Afghanistan's children have learnt the vocabulary of war. When talking about violence, they quickly reduce their experiences to specifics. Terms like "security", "suicide attack" and "roadside bomb" are deftly employed by children younger than Nabila and Abdu Rahmin. These are the words used to describe their world.

"The Afghan government cannot make 30 per cent security for the people," says Abdu Rahmin, angrily. "That is the big failure and disappointment. The Taliban were bad: they didn't like music or fashionable clothes, but the one important point is that when they were in charge, we were safe."

Nabila is not interested in taking sides. Her father is old and she has no brothers to help support the family. She is worried about money, and about losing her parents and maybe being blown up. But, when asked how she compares life under the Taliban with life now, she answers without hesitation: "In the Taliban time, there was security; in this time, no." She is equally matter of fact when asked about the foreign soldiers: "I don't know about them any more. Since they came to Afghanistan, there has been more killing."

Across the border in Pakistan, a tilted half-moon hangs in the black sky above Aza Khel Afghan refugee camp in Nowshera, a district of the North-West Frontier Province, and the call to prayer rings out over the vast community of flat-roofed mud houses. People here are deeply distrustful of western involvement in Afghanistan. Militants hide among the houses.

"They say there is a problem in Afghanistan and that they are there to fix it," says Hairullah, a confident 16-year-old boy whose family originally came from Nangrahar, a province in eastern Afghanistan. "Then they say there is another problem, so they need to stay. It's obvious the soldiers are just there to cover Afghanistan and make it part of the United States."

His brothers nod in agreement. Hairullah is one of more than three million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. He has visited Afghanistan just once, four years ago. The camp is located next to a river on the other side of the railway tracks that run along the main road. Floods regularly damage the houses and conditions are basic, but at least there is mains electricity most of the time. Many of the 9,000 families living in Aza Khel have been here as long as 30 years. Despite this, the atmosphere is one of uncertainty and impermanence.

For Hairullah, there is no question of staying. "As soon as I am a doctor," he says, "I am going back to Afghanistan to help my people. I want to make my country strong."

"I'm going, too!" interrupts his brother, Zaidullah, a small, outspoken 11-year-old. He is dressed in a turquoise salwar kameez.

"I don't like being away from my homeland. When I am taller, I am going back to help my country."

Sam Alexandroni was awarded a 2008 Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship. For more information on the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust visit

For more information on Afghan Connection visit

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror