Understanding the Taliban

Rethinking the war in Helmand has made the British army revise some of its basic assumptions. Workin

There is a popular slogan seen stencilled on American gun trucks: "We do bad things to bad people." Prince Harry had those words on the back of his cap. In the Afghanistan War, the difficulty is working out who those bad people are. An even tougher question is: which of them to kill, and which to put in positions of power and authority?

Winning the war here is not for the squeamish, and a long way from the "ethical foreign policy" of early new Labour. It all boils down to dealing with those bad men. Some of them are already our allies. Others, including men who are currently trying to kill our soldiers, will have a place as our future allies. As one intelligence officer said to me: "In this country, you get to power because, at one stage or another, you've done something really awful. You can't waste time looking for the good guys."

He was probably exaggerating. But you can still see the problem in Musa Qala, the former Taliban stronghold and opium bazaar, wrested back into coalition and government hands last December. I was present during that combat operation and watched as the Afghan flag was raised in the town centre. I have just returned from a trip back.

If you believe the chief of police of Helmand Province, Brigadier Moham mad Hussain Andiwal, the new district governor of Musa Qala is a "war cri m inal" who was invol ved in the slaughter of prisoners, and is a leading heroin dealer - although, given their past history, he may be overegging things a little. Andiwal is referring to Mullah Abdul Salaam, the Taliban com mander who switched sides and was appointed governor of the town in January by President Hamid Karzai, with British backing.

Karzai also sent back to Musa Qala its former police chief. Known to all as Commander "Coca", Andiwal is remembered by the British soldiers in the town two years ago chiefly for rumours that he and his men were kidnapping young boys from the streets.

Today - however unsavoury their pasts may be - both "Coca" and Mullah Salaam get cautious and qualified support from Britain. They get it because they are doing what the British need: establishing a presence for the Afghan government in a dangerous corner of Helmand, and helping to persuade both ordinary Afghan farmers and one-time enemy fighters that the smart move is to reject the Taliban.

Salaam, as a "reconciled" Taliban commander, has been in many ways a disappointment. When I was in Helmand last year, there was talk of his bringing over a large band of Taliban fighters to the government side. This never happened. But he has proved to be a persuader, travelling from village to village having outreach shuras (meetings) and telling people that the return of British and Afghan forces is the way ahead. He is doing so at great risk to his own life.

"I'm a marked man," he told me. "When you return to Musa Qala, I will most likely be dead."

I had tracked down Salaam while he was out of town, preparing to return to his governor's compound in liberated Musa Qala. The word was out that the Taliban were hoping to greet him or Coca with a suicide bomb.

With his great, bushy, black and silvery beard, flowing robes and curled slippers, Mullah Salaam cuts a striking figure. As his comments were being translated, he kept uttering a strange, rasping noise. He was in a gloomy mood, his head sinking steadily between his palms as he contemplated the gap between promises of redevelopment in Helmand and the grind of reality.

"I have promised the people so much," he said, "but we have delivered so little and people will turn on me. Everything comes so slowly." It wasn't foreigners such as the British he blamed, particularly. "The whole government here, they are all criminals," Mullah Salaam said. "They keep the money for themselves."

Situation report

It is very easy to be critical about British intervention in Afghanistan, particularly for the commentators who rest easy in their armchairs. If you looked at an honest situation report after two years of bloody fighting in Helmand, it would have to include some strong negatives: towns deserted due to fighting; an opium harvest so vast that some suggest only a lack of space prevents it getting any bigger; an enemy that still roams free in great swaths of the cultivated "green zone"; and an electricity supply to the towns which has got worse. Add to that an alliance with "friendly forces" which have proved to be deeply corrupt.

Where is the good news? It certainly does not come from winning the war. Soldiers will tell you that, despite some clear territorial gains, we are nowhere close to it. And yet, among the British, morale is pretty good. It comes not because there is an end in sight, but from a series of tactical successes and a sense that a strategy for a victory of sorts is at last evolving - and the resources to achieve this are gathering on the horizon. Above all, there is a feeling of relief that this is not Iraq.

As I reported in this magazine three years ago, it was hard to find a British officer in southern Iraq who believed the invasion had been a good idea. The aftermath was equally depressing: in Basra, soldiers complained of training Shia militiamen who were policemen by day and planted bombs to kill them at night; officers complained of supporting a Iraqi governor who was stealing oil revenues and in league with death squads. "In Afghanistan, the police may be just as corrupt," one senior officer told me, "but at least here they are on our side. They want to go and kill the Taliban."

For the soldiers, Afghanistan has, at least until now, provided an enemy that shows its face and which can be fought with the weapons soldiers have to hand, from SA80 rifles to artillery guns. At a higher level, however, commanders are less convinced by such logic. But they, too, learned bitter lessons in Iraq - and, after two years of sometimes pointless fighting in Helmand, there is a feeling that a road map of sorts is emerging which could ultimately lead British forces to some kind of success. Working with the likes of Mullah Salaam in Musa Qala is part of that new strategy.

Rethinking the war in Helmand has posed a challenge to some basic assumptions, among the greatest of which is our understanding of the enemy. After the 11 September 2001 attacks, when American and British forces first arrived in Afghanistan, a basic misunderstanding became the doctrine. Because the Taliban had sheltered al-Qaeda, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were wrongly labelled as a joint force.

More than six years later, the mistake is in continuing with those assumptions, imagining that the Taliban who fight British troops are merely proxies for Osama Bin Laden. Instead, as military intelligence officers will tell you, the new Taliban insurgency is a battle not for international jihad, but a struggle by tribes, factions and strongmen against an unpopular Afghan government that appeared to have abandoned the largely Pashtun south of the country.

While religious ideology, madrasas, training camps and volunteering for al-Qaeda have a role in creating the fanatics who come to Helmand to die in large numbers, Taliban commanders in the field, who send young Talibs into battle against the British, are often local men with local grievances, local pride and local ambitions, even if they take advice from the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. "You can't look at him and say that religion or ideology has anything to do with why he is fighting," said one British officer, talking of a prominent Taliban commander around Musa Qala. Tribal allegiance and the Pashtun code of honour, as well as the simple provocation that foreign troops represent, all play a part in motivating such men.

What this boils down to is a classic insurgency where some of our most ferocious enemies are potential allies. Few Afghans or Britons now believe that progress can be made without some form of reconciliation process taking place - or without working with those bad men. Most importantly in such an insurgency, as Mao Zedong said, "The people are like water and the army is like fish." Without the tacit support of the population of Helmand, the Taliban would flap around on dry land.

Imposing security

A T-shirt on sale at Kandahar Airport, and worn by some soldiers in Helmand, bears the words "Taliban Hunting Club". In Helmand, there has been plenty of killing. You can measure the rise in violence by the bullets and bombs. Each successive brigade in Helmand, except the last, has expended ammunition in ever greater quantities.

However, the grim truth, as soldiers in Helmand tell you, is that much of the bloodshed has been to no effect. Although a central zone of stability in the province has been gradually expanded, whole parts of the countryside have been "cleared" time and again, only for the Taliban to return. One former British commander bluntly called it "mowing the lawn". A scorecard would read simply: "Many Taliban dead; precious little territory gained."

And yet - as some commentators seem to have missed - the lesson is being learned. Last October, when a new British brigade took command in Helmand, its then commander, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, declared "a concept of operations" where the deaths of enemy soldiers were no longer a measure of success. "The population is the prize," wrote MacKay. A campaign based on counter-insurgency principles, he said, needed operations not so much designed for "kinetic effect" (inflicting physical damage on the enemy), but calibrated to "influence" the population: decreasing support for the enemy and increasing the standing of the Afghan government.

Defeating the Taliban was not the end goal of the campaign, he explained in an interview. Even if thoroughly beaten, they might linger on as a nuisance like the Real IRA "for a hundred years". The tactic was to disrupt them just enough for the Afghan government to be able to re-establish control - and to consolidate its hold with real gains for the local people.

Of course, such "hearts and minds" thinking was always part of the theory. The original British plan for Helmand, taking lessons from counter-insurgency in Malaya, spoke of "inkspots" of security, within which the population could see tangible development gains and in which solid support for the Afghan government could be established. These inkspots would, in theory, expand and then merge.

The reality was different. An understrength British force arriving in the summer of 2006 was spread thinly across the province. With little mobility, it became beleaguered in a series of encircled platoon houses, under constant Taliban attack. Even though the army successfully fought off the attacks, the towns became battlegrounds devastated by fighting. Development went backwards and support for the Taliban grew.

Since then, British objectives have been far more cautious. While UK troop strength has more than tripled (with more than 7,000 deployed to Helmand), MacKay's aim in the past six months was to get away from "mowing the lawn" and concentrate instead on consolidation: creating a lasting presence of British and Afghan forces that not only expands the so-called inkspots of security, but has a "civil effect", making life obviously better for ordinary people.

In practical terms, this has involved a big expansion of the chain of British forts - known as FOBs, or forward operating bases - as well as similar increases in patrol bases and checkpoints for the Afghan army and police, despite ongoing shortages in their numbers.

One example can be found around the market town of Sangin in northern Helmand, which was fought over and reduced to rubble during the first year of British intervention. A ring of new patrol bases has been positioned around the town. They have not halted the fighting, but they have brought a measure of relief to the town centre. The population has returned and some reconstruction has begun. A few bazaar traders even dare fly the Afghan national flag.

MacKay's philosophy of "population is the prize" had its greatest effect during December's military operation to retake Musa Qala, a town that in effect had been handed back to the Taliban just over a year earlier.

The deployment of thousands of British, American and Afghan troops around the target area achieved such an "overmatch" of forces, that, after some initial fierce fighting, the Taliban were forced to flee, allowing the recapture of the town with minimal destruction of property.

But key to the future was the arrival of a team of military development experts - a so-called "stabilisation team" - a day after the Afghan flag was raised. I watched as they unfolded precise blueprints for the construction of a new mosque, for the rebuilding and reopening of a school, and for roads and improvements to local water and power.

Three months later, when I returned, the impact of this strategy could be seen. The mosque project was still being held up by bureaucracy, but a small road had been built, the market had reopened, a health clinic was in operation, the school was up and running, with more than 800 pupils, and a cash-for-work scheme had been set up employing more than 300 people every day.

But if Musa Qala is the success story, it is still clear that fundamental problems remain. Even here - despite the concentration of British efforts - tangible gains for the population are slow in coming.

The most glaring problem is the limits to what the British soldiers themselves can do. While the strategy places "civil effect" centre stage, any kind of reconstruction requires an input from non-military sources, whether from the Foreign Office, from Afghan officials, or from civilian contractors. With the security situation still so unstable, their involvement is proving painfully slow in getting off the ground. "We have got to learn, and learn fast, to deliver aid and reconstruction not only when it's all quiet and peaceful, but under the noses of the enemy - while the mortars are still raining in," said one senior officer.

Yet the slow delivery of aid and reconstruction projects is not just down to security. It is also because British strategy relies on delivering most of its multimillion-pound aid budget by channelling it through the Afghan government in Kabul. For the soldiers on the ground - whose security depends on rapid action to win over the population - such a strategy can be hard to fathom. "All we can do in imposing security is buy time for the Afghan government to step up and do its job," said a British officer. "The problem is that we can't and won't stay here for ever; things have to move faster."

Meanwhile, the situation is getting more dangerous for the British. A softer, more end-focused approach will in all likelihood mean more bloodshed, not less. Getting the "hearts and minds" right means leaving the base and mixing with the population - and thereby facing a daily and increasing threat from suicide bombs, mines and roadside explosive devices.

Even as Helmand moves from blunt conventional war to a smarter counter-insurgency, don't expect a quick fix.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood