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1000’s flee fighting

Father and sons, Zumbalay

Displacement due to conflict within Afghanistan increased by 40% from 2014 to 2015, and this year could see another increase.

According to an OHCA report published yesterday, about 118,000 people have already fled their homes since the beginning of the year. 1,000 Afghans Flee Fighting Every Day: UN.

In 2009, General Stanley McChrystal observed that “Destroying a home or property jeopardises the livelihood of an entire family – and creates more insurgents.” I certainly saw evidence of this:

“Although Mirajdin invoked Allah in his endeavours to kill British servicemen his was not a Holy War. Mirajdin was a proud Muslim, but not a Jihadist nor even a Talib. He did not fight for reasons of faith or ideology.

Nor was his an intergenerational struggle against a colonial oppressor, even though his forebears had routed the British at the battle of Maiwand. As a wide‑eyed toddler at his grandfather’s knee, Mirajdin had listened in awe to bloody tales of the last stand of the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment of Foot at the Mundabad Ravine, not far from where he now lay.

These stories, passed down the generations by the village spin zhiras, had nothing but praise and admiration for the bravery of the Angrezis who’d fought to the last man in the defence of their Colours. It was said these men, surrounded by thousands, died with their faces to the enemy, fighting to the death and their courage was the wonder of all who saw it.

It was a courage Mirajdin did not recognise in the men who now came to avenge them, hiding as they did in armoured vehicles while raining death and destruction from the sky.

Although Mirajdin, along with many others, was of the firm conviction that the British had returned after 150 years to avenge their ancestors, his own motives for opposing them dated back to a much earlier time. As an Ishaqzai tribesman, Mirajdin fought to resolve an injustice imposed upon his people over two and a half centuries earlier when Ahmed Shah first united the Pashtun clans of Afghanistan and founded the Durrani Dynasty.

Prior to 1747 the Ishaqzai had been the dominant Pashtu tribe in Helmand. Under the Durrani Confederation their fortunes had waned and another tribe, the Barakzai had come to prominence. Loss of power and prestige had resulted in a loss of livestock, many lost their nomadic lifestyle, and some were also deprived of their respected status as warriors.

Impoverished Ishaqzai nomads were forced by circumstance to become farmers and earned the derogatory nickname Sogzai or Vegetable People. Ironically perhaps, the Vegetable People had learned to grow poppy and, under the Taliban, their fortunes had revived.

Mirajdin now fought the British not from religious zeal, or from racial hatred, but because the British, following the fall of the Taliban, had been duped by the Barakzai leadership into supporting their efforts to take control of the opium trade in Helmand. The British, and the Americans before them, had empowered the Barakzai by awarding them lucrative construction and security contracts. In return, the Barakzai had fooled the British into believing their old tribal rivals were insurgents, or Taliban.

In 2006, in the face of Barakzai intimidation, with the unwitting collusion of British troops, Mirajdin’s family had been forced to abandon their home to the north‑east of Gereshk and resettle in less fertile lands outside the green zone. Seen through the lens of a centuries‑old intertribal rivalry, Mirajdin had endured this humiliation as a teenager and had silently vowed to restore his family and his people’s honour. Six years later, lying in the dust beside the road, with pounding heart and trembling fingers, he was just moments from realising his pledge.

If God willed it.

Mirajdin was no more than an accidental insurgent. He fought the British simply because they were his rival’s allies. His forefathers had contested Barakzai domination long before the arrival of the Angrezi kafirs, and his descendants would continue to do so long after they had departed.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent 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.

Seek Out Danger

ACOG optical weapon sight, Saidan

I discovered James Elroy Flecker’s verse play Hassan (1922) at the weekend. His words ring true, perhaps because they reference snow covered mountains or perhaps because they so perfectly describe my mid life crisis. Ironically, they are also much admired by the Special Air Service, with whom I was mostly at loggerheads throughout my time in Afghanistan.

Go as a pilgrim and seek out danger
far from the comfort
and the well lit avenues of life.

Pit your every soul against the unknown
and seek stimulation in the comfort of the brave.

Experience cold, hunger, heat and thirst
and survive to see another challenge and another dawn.

Only then will you be at peace with yourself
and be able to know and to say;

“I look down the farthest side of the mountain,
fulfilled and understanding all,
and truly content that I lived a full life
and one that was my own choice.”

We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go always a little further;
it may be beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow
across that angry or that glimmering sea.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent 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.

Highway to Hell

 

A long way from Legoland

Taliban Cut Off Afghan Highway Linking Kabul to Northern Gateways – The New York Times

The New York Times reports that the Kabul government is losing control of Afghanistan’s Highway network – built by international donors at a cost of $3 billion. I can’t say I’m surprised:

“The Kandahar–Herat highway forms part of Highway One, which itself is part of the southern section of a 2,200km ring road inside Afghanistan connecting the cities of Mazari Sharif, Kabul, Ghazni, Kandahar, Farah, and Herat.

Originally constructed by the Soviets in the 1960s, hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid, mostly from the US, Saudi Arabia and Japan, have been invested in its reconstruction following ISAF intervention in the country. In 2005, then US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad called the highway ‘a symbol of Afghan renewal and progress’. But in some quarters it is also known as the Highway to Hell.

Anyone wishing to travel the highway must pay illegal tolls, not only at the many ANA and AUP checkpoints along its route, but also to armed gangs and brigands, some of whom claim to be Taliban, who control its more remote stretches.

Kidnappings and killings of those unable or unwilling to pay are common, as are attacks on both military and civilian ISAF convoys that use the route. The road is heavily cratered in places and littered with burned out trucks, further hazards for the unwary traveller. In addition to logistics convoys, locals working with the government, aid agencies, and those connected to Westerners are also frequently targeted and killed.

Travelling at night is not recommended. Some sections of the highway have solar powered street lighting installed, but the photovoltaic panels have been stolen long ago. Lone headlights attract the attention of local bandits. Approaching one of the many ANA checkpoints after dark is likely to attract automatic gunfire from nervous soldiers who, with good reason, fear suicide bombers.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent 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.

Redacted#2

Front cover for Facebook

When I first set out to write a book about my experiences in Afghanistan I was informed by Army Media Communications that it could not:

Criticise our allies, other Government Departments or past/current Prime Ministers.

Include anything that would undermine the Army’s reputation.

Since I planned to do all these things it became immediately apparent that, in order to escape censorship, I would have to leave the army reserve.

I now find myself subject to censorship from an unexpected quarter.

Facebook.

Initially there was some, not unreasonable, objection to the doodle on the front cover of my notebook. This was resolved with gaffer tape.

However, the Facebook censors have also determined that the book’s title is unsuitable. With good reason Facebook insists that “posts can’t contain profanity, harassment, or references to your audience’s personal characteristics (such as gender, race, age or name).” 

So, it turns out that ‘Old Man’ was a little too personal and has now been redacted from the Facebook page name and profile image. However, the book itself remains unapologetically unchanged.

Visit the Amazon Kindle store to see what all the fuss is about.

I can’t help but wonder what Mark Zuckerberg would make of this? Facemash, the precursor to Facebook was shut down after it was deemed inappropriate.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent 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.

Das Monster von Amstetten

Women in ANA

Afghanistan’s Path to Women’s Rights Is Paved With Risk, but Built on Hope · Global Voices

Rustam Ali Seeram’s report makes for difficult reading. I see only an abundance of risk and a glimmer of hope. Although it’s hard to imagine how things could be worse, sadly it seems little has changed since 2012:

“According to its menfolk the city of Gereshk was a model for gender equality and required no further encouragement from Western infidels. It already had a school for girls and even allowed women to walk the streets – albeit covered with a burkha and escorted by a male member of the family. This was quite liberal enough.

Being an infidel, I personally believed that the vast majority of social problems in Afghanistan could ultimately be traced back to the absurd practice of gender segregation. I was pretty certain that nature had intended men and women to coexist and from time to time to engage in consensual sexual intercourse. But these were radical and seditious views that had no place in Helmand.

Curiously, the Ministry of Defence also imposed strict gender segregation rules on its representatives in Helmand and banned sexual congress entirely, not as some botched attempt at cultural sensitivity, but because ‘our personnel are expected to behave in accordance with the Armed Forces values and standards at all times’. It was never clear to me which of these values and standards applied to my sex life, but since this was an entirely solitary activity anyway it was not a question that ever came up, so to speak.

Despite their liberal tendencies, the male inhabitants of Gereshk still routinely imprisoned their wives and daughters in the family compound and subjected them to appalling abuse. Josef Fritzl – ‘Das Monster von Amstetten’ – who imprisoned his daughter in the basement of his house and abused her over a 24 year period, would have been considered an upstanding member of the community. But he was already serving a life sentence in an Austrian prison for the criminally insane.

What had shocked the whole of Europe and been utterly incomprehensible in Amstetten, however inconceivable it might sound, was culturally normal activity in Helmand.”

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

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.

Now with Gaffer Tape

V6_BW_landscape2 with tape

In order to satisfy social media censors, SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand now comes with Gaffer tape.

Spin Zhira Content Rating (and phallic imagery)

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is available as an Amazon Kindle e-book

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.

 

Unpalatable truths

Spin Zhira Content Rating

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.

SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand. A true story.