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The fog of war

In 2001, British troops marched into Afghanistan on a mission to combat al-Qaeda and topple the Tali

Out into the attack with the Royal Marines last year, we drove in dust-choked Viking armoured vehicles through the sand desert and to the crest of a ridge that overlooked the lush, irrigated valley along the Helmand River known to the soldiers as the Green Zone, their battlefield. Then, in the landscape below, people began to run. Men on motorbikes went from house to house to announce the battle. In all directions spread a panorama of terror, as women, children, boys, anyone not fighting, ran for safety. The Americans call this the "blue stream" - the indicator, almost every time, of an impending engagement.

Two days later, I was in another Viking, clutching some bit of metal in an attempt to anchor myself as it charged back to base across a poppy field. There were little grey puffs of exploding Airburst rocket-propelled grenades near us, and the crump of home-side mortars landing on the trenches from where the Taliban were firing. I looked out of the small porthole in the back, and there, in the middle of this "contact", was an old shepherd nonchalantly herding his sheep across a field, unflinching.

Two visions of the Afghan population - one of terror, one of apparent unconcern. But in both, a battlefield where the population can rarely just watch unaffected.

Seven years into Britain's fourth Afghan war (the previous battles being those of 1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919) and three years into its campaign on the Helmand River, those in command emphasise that the objective of military action is no longer focused on those Taliban firing rockets and laying bombs, but rather on people like the farmers I saw so fleetingly. General Stanley McChrystal, the US and Nato commander in Kabul, has designed this summer's offensive in Helmand, launched ahead of the 20 August presidential election, not as a counter-terrorist mission, but rather on classic counter-insurgency principles. Success would be measured, he said, by the numbers of people shielded from violence and the influence of the enemy.

The aim of this new offensive, in which British soldiers have played a major part, is that the Taliban will be cleared and the troops will stay to hold and build something for the people. Operation Panther's Claw, as the British part is known, has been costly. And at least 43 British servicemen have died since the beginning of May. But what of the cost to the Afghan people, so often forgotten? And do we have any conception of what the Afghan people, supposedly now so central to the west's thinking, make of the commanders' new slogans?

After a year spent researching a book on the Helmand conflict, twice visiting the war zone and Kabul, and interviewing more than 200 soldiers and officials who have served there, I am struck that no one has much of an idea. The lack of any real connection with, hard data on, or understanding of, the Afghan population is arguably the Achilles heel of the whole campaign. Is the population sitting on a fence, as some generals will tell you, waiting to see that Nato is in control before jumping over to support the Afghan government? Or does the rebellion, as I suspect, have deeper roots?
One thing is clear. While the cost to British forces has been great, no one has suffered more from this war than the civilians in whose fields it has been fought. They are not spectators. When Britain's combat troops arrived in April 2006, they came on a mission promising to provide security for
development projects. Instead, they entered an all-out battle with the Taliban. As the British defended themselves, using heavy weapons, the Afghan people were driven away in their thousands and turned into internal refugees. Parts of some of the principal towns of Helmand - Sangin, Musa Qala, Garmsir - were reduced to rubble. Others, such as Nawzad and Kajaki, became ghost towns.

Again and again, Whitehall warriors have repeated the big lie, talking of tipping points and endless progress. The military campaign might ebb and flow. Towns and districts have been captured and recaptured. But through it all - and despite the best efforts of so many who have tried to help and have improved the lot of people here and there - the local people have been the greatest victims of the fighting.

When you are embedded in all the excitement of this war, deep in the machinations of how to win this compound or that village, or control the province, it is easy to lose perspective on what the British are supposed to be doing there. Oddly, the purpose of this conflict often seemed irrelevant to soldiers I met. A veteran corporal just back from a tour of Afghanistan in which two good friends had been killed (following two hard tours of Iraq) had some strong views on the politics of war - much stronger and more left-wing, I have to say, than most.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were interlinked, he said, and "a massive war over power and money and oil". Although called terrorists, Britain's enemies were "fighting for the same things that we're trying to fight for". He added: "We're being terrorists, really. We're going over [to] their countries, blowing them up, and taking their oil . . . We only do things that are going to benefit our own economy and that's the only reason we're over there, I believe."

Even so, he said, the Afghan war was more justified. About politics, "there's no point massively getting all worked up . . . At the end of the day, in the army, you're just a pawn to the politicians." As with many other soldiers I interviewed, these discussions were largely a matter of passing the time, almost an intellectual pursuit, not something that really affected morale. Many of the men said they were in the army for "the craic", a term that covered all the adrenalin and honour and proving yourself that war involved. It was important that they weren't doing something bad; beyond that, for most, it did not seem that the details mattered.

Ultimately, however, the cause does matter. Whether lives have been risked wisely depends both on the nobility of that cause and on the quality of the leadership that deploys the troops. It has been hard, though, for soldiers - for anyone - to follow the detailed explanations of just why we are in Helmand. It was to combat al-Qaeda that British forces first entered Afghanistan in 2001. That was a limited commitment. Five lives were lost in the first five years. Then, in 2006, when the troop numbers rose dramatically, the British headed south to Helmand with a mission described by the then defence secretary, John Reid, as being "to support reconstruction", but which has shifted constantly. Others have spoken since of the need to support the Afghan government. Or to lift the war-torn country out of poverty. Or to fight the growth of the world opium trade that is centred in Helmand. Or, as is the official line now, to secure the country from a revival of al-Qaeda. "If we can't even get straight why we're there, how
can we get straight our strategy to win?" one UK battalion commander said to me recently.

Beyond the official aims, the Helmand war also has a secret life as a battle for the reputation of British arms, a battle in which the stakes have been raised high by what most in the US and UK military perceive as Britain's failure in Basra, Iraq. I've found that nothing touches the raw nerves of top generals like mentioning the view that - despite an occupation lasting almost as long as the Second World War - it took decisive US action last year to rescue Basra from the murderous militias to which the British had ceded power.

So far, Helmand has fared little better. Where Britain once had a reputation for successful counter-insurgencies (whether in Malaya, Oman or Northern Ireland), the sense that Americans generally lag behind has almost completely evaporated. Now it is British leadership that is most in question. As John Nagl, the counter-insurgency guru and adviser to the US commander General David Petraeus, told me: "Until you admit that you have a problem, that you are not doing everything as well as you could, it's really hard to get better. I have not seen that same spirit of public self-criticism in the British army . . . The British army, for which I have so much respect, which has such a history of success in counter-insurgency, has not done everything right in Helmand Province, did not do everything right in Basra. It needs to think hard about those lessons."

After three years of British involvement, the once-quiet province of Helmand has been transformed into the most volatile region in the country. The UK has been blamed for stirring a rebellion. And, just as in Basra, it has needed the arrival of the Americans for there to be a serious shot at winning. A confidential debriefing given by a US marine commander this spring, and revealed to me in notes made by a senior British commander, voiced a litany of concerns on the part of the Americans about the way the British have been operating. UK forces were said to patrol in formations that were too large, to spend too much time "recovering" from patrols, and to patrol too often without the Afghan police or army.

They also, the debriefing suggested, have too many bases, spend insufficient time living among the people, are not in Afghanistan long enough to learn about the people or the place, and are generally deficient in trained intelligence-gatherers. They are "cautious about the enemy and overestimate their strength", are too secretive about sharing information, have insufficient cash to dole out, and are disrupted by their system of R&R (rest and recreation). Finally - insult of insults - the British were told: "Your standards of personal hygiene and field discipline aren't good enough and you have too many non-battle injuries."

The reputation of the British is on the line in Helmand, and they clearly have a mountain to climb.

There is a strange mood as the coffins come back from Afghanistan. Media interest is high. The crowds at memorial events show that support for soldiers is also high. And yet there is a kind of collective hypocrisy that combines a concern for the welfare of the armed forces with a lack of interest in the war. Few are sold on the aims of the war, however often they are repeated. How many of us have bothered to learn even the names of the principal places where this war is being fought - in Helmand, the towns of Lashkar Gah, Garmsir, Sangin, Musa Qala?

What really gets soldiers' goat, however, is the endless speeches saying "Thank you, thank you, thank you" for their sacrifice. There is that hoary old George Orwell misquotation: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf." Soldiers in the field generally wish a handful fewer people were sleeping peaceably and a few more - and particularly those who work for the peacetime-focused bureaucracies of Whitehall - were spending a bit more time wide awake, supporting them meaningfully.

On top of the toll of deaths and injuries, there is the psychological damage. As you read this, several hundred soldiers are back in Britain on mid-tour leave (their R&R). Knowing that their friends are right now facing the bullets, most wish they weren't here. They will be staring at people in the street who don't give a damn. They will be talking to so-called friends in the pub who will listen to about a minute of the truth before their eyes glaze over and they change the subject. The soldiers will hate every minute of their so-called rest and recreation. Those I know will spend their "holiday" with a can of beer in one hand and the remote in the other, flicking between the sport and the agonising headlines that flash along the bottom of Sky News.

Talking to soldiers back from Helmand for my book took me into a dark, dark place. Among the confident lines journalists like to spin is that to spill your guts to a tape recorder will somehow do you some good: "It's really like therapy. You'll feel better for getting it out of your system." For the first time in nearly 20 years of reporting, I just had to stop interviews.

I got to realise I was not a shrink. I could get someone to take me to the worst moment in their lives - to describe the horrors in their head that they themselves had yet to face - but how to get them back out again? I wasn't sure. How do you cope with chatting to your best friend and, a second later, seeing the stump of his leg leaning against a wall?

It wasn't grown men crying that bothered me. It was those with minds that began to wander, without them realising it, mid-sentence, jumping like a needle on vinyl as they conflated one horror into the next: a stirred-up soup of things that seemingly can't get any worse but then still do.

And it wasn't just combat soldiers. They at least got attention and perhaps counselling. Few would think of checking up on the storeman who broke down, blaming himself for not sending the bit of kit that might have saved a life. Or the young captains in the operations room who told me how they had to play God: to interpret the rules on which young kid who turned up at the base could get a ride to a hospital in a helicopter, and which might just be left with his family, probably to die. Or the padres who were not only the sponges for every bit of dark emotion from all around, but who helped, literally, to pick up bits of flesh and tried to put them together to create a semblance of a body to send back home.

Speaking at Chatham House in May this year, General Sir Richard Dannatt - the outgoing chief of general staff and one of the few to have the courage to speak his mind while in post - used Leon Trotsky's warning that "you may not be interested in this war, but this war is interested in you" to underline what he called the globalisation of our national security interests. In effect, interventions such as Helmand are at the core of those interests: international activism is "hardwired into our political and national DNA", he said.

The weakness with such arguments, over which so many in power now labour, is not the assumption that global issues affect British security, but the implication that the way we have intervened in places such as Basra and Helmand has matched the British military official slogan of being a "force for good".

Whether you like these wars or not, Dannatt was right to emphasise the consequences of them to us all. If not the cost of billions of pounds diverted, or the cost in blood, or the cost for years to come of so many young men going through such trauma, then consider the strategic cost to national interests if such a grand adventure turns out again to be a grand failure.

Stephen Grey is the author of "Operation Snakebite: the Explosive True Story of an Afghan Desert Siege" (Viking, £16.99).

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War