Strong language, adult content, unpalatable truths. I’m afraid my book contains them all. But I suspect it would be impossible to write an honest account of any conflict without them and the war in Afghanistan was no exception:
“There was, however, another reason why I was attending the symposium. Brigadier Douglas Chalmers, the Task Force Helmand Commander was to give a keynote address. I’d made some potentially treasonous claims in my after‑dinner speech about the progress of the mission in Afghanistan. I was curious to hear what he had to say.
Naturally the senior British officer in Helmand Province could speak only of success. His military masters and his future career prospects depended upon this. But he chose some unusual metrics that suggested, perhaps, that he too had private reservations. He even touched upon the Helmand malaise of self‑deception to which I had myself acceded.
His commanders and advisors, he told us, would often tell him what he wanted to hear. In order to get to the ‘crystal truth’ about the state of Helmand he ended up talking to butchers and grocers instead.
‘I picked them because the Afghan capacity to eat meat is unrivalled on the planet, and the need for them to get a good supply is quite prevalent. On earlier tours I saw they were only really selling goat and chicken and on this tour I saw a lot more beef. Now, cattle are expensive and when you slaughter a cow, with a lack of refrigeration, you need to have the confidence to sell that cow. I saw a lot more cattle being slaughtered and a lot more cattle in people’s compounds.
I became fixated by tomatoes… it is quite a soft fruit and easily damaged, and again there is a lack of refrigeration. The market stalls were never without tomatoes. And the ability for them to be moved from the villages to the market towns was a good indication of the freedom of movement that the stall holders have.
From those two elements I got a sense of the micro economics in the market towns and cities.’
The Brigadier was right. Beef and tomatoes were both prevalent in the local markets and bazaars, and there seemed to be no shortage of customers with sufficient disposable income to purchase such luxury foodstuffs.
But I was less certain of the causality he presumed. The explosion of poppy production over which the British had inadvertently presided was more likely to be at the heart of the economic growth he described. Nahr‑E‑Saraj remained the most violent district in the most violent province in the whole of Afghanistan, manifestly unable to sustain itself on beef and tomatoes rather than poppy.
I think the Brigadier knew this too. I think he also knew, but could not publicly state, that there could be no effective military solution when the political objective was so far from aligned with the country’s underlying social framework.
DfID’s state building hubris and incompetence, together with the tsunami of poorly regulated international aid and the vested interests of the narco‑industry, had combined to create one of the most corrupt nations on earth, alongside Somalia and North Korea. These were metrics of which Brigadier Chalmers was surely aware but could not discuss. So instead he spoke of cautious optimism for the future.
I took this to be code for an excess of caution coupled with a lack of optimism.
If the Brigadier was visiting the bazaars and talking to the stall holders as he claimed, then he must have seen the same things I had seen. He too must have observed the dissonance between the official narrative of a better life with GIRoA and the evidence of his own eyes and ears. Or perhaps, despite his best efforts, the butchers and grocers he spoke to told him only what they thought he wanted to hear.
Brigadier Chalmers was clearly an intelligent and experienced officer and I did not believe he was blind to the realities of the failing Afghan mission. He did, however, have the unenviable task of motivating men for battle and of justifying whatever pain and suffering might then result. This may well have convinced him to keep his own counsel, for which I would not blame him.
In preparing for Afghanistan I’d been much motivated by the British 19th century philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Although Mill had no personal experience of combat he’d theorised that an honest war could be a means of personal regeneration.
At a time when I was trying to seek some purpose and guidance in my life beyond the accumulation of wealth and possessions I’d seized upon this notion to justify abandoning my wife and young children in the pursuit of some higher purpose.
With hindsight, despite our very best intentions, it seemed we all had fought under a misapprehension. Rather than protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice we had preserved tyrannical injustice in the form of a hopelessly corrupt and irredeemable government.
We had been used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a governor in the pay of the illegal opium trade and of a police chief feathering his own nest and lining it with little boys for unspeakable purposes.
Rather than face up to the unpleasant reality of the things we knew to be happening around us, and which we appeared to be perpetuating, we blinded ourselves with self‑deceit.
Perhaps it was fanciful thinking on my part to believe that Brigadier Chalmers might share my own deep misgivings. After all we had met only once before when he had misjudged my efforts to influence policy in Afghanistan as ‘deeply impressive’. But if I was right, we were not alone in self‑deceit.
It enveloped us all:
In the pronouncements of the Provincial Reconstruction Team; in the declarations of successive Prime Ministers; in the statements of visiting government officials, movie stars, musicians and glamour models; in the cautiously optimistic reports of the international media; in the glittering array of honours and awards bestowed upon Afghan veterans, and in the millions donated to service charities.
Rather than admit the possibility of failure we embraced this deceit, basking in its warming, self‑satisfying glow before perpetuating the deceit ourselves so that others might also enjoy its embrace.
But these were just my personal musings. I wasn’t a government minister, or a glamour model, so what did I know?
Perhaps in years to come the third Anglo‑Afghan War (2003–2014) will be seen as a blueprint for military intervention, counter‑insurgency, international development and state building. Catriona Laing, the head of the Helmand PRT seemed to think so when she earnestly pronounced:
‘We have presented the people of Helmand with an opportunity. They have grabbed it enthusiastically, confidently… it’s now in their hands for the future.’
I am far less certain history will agree with her.”
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.