Hearts, minds and the same old warlords

Go up close to what’s happening in Afghanistan – for example,
in the city of Kandahar – and  you find crime, corruption, tribal
conflict and ordinary people powerless to resist the armed might
of the militias. No happy ending isin sight

by Stephen Grey (first published in Le Monde Diplomatique)

Kandahar, Afghanistan. We visited the snooker club at the Kandahar Coffee Shop. It didn’t sell coffee. And I can’t play snooker. So we ordered burgers and filmed street life from the terrace: the traffic went around the roundabout and a manic flock of doves circled a hundred feet above. US soldiers drove by in huge armoured trucks, policemen stopped white Toyota Corollas and searched their trunks for bombs, and gunmen of every species drove around in their SUVs and pickup trucks.

Round the corner was our hotel. Half of it was destroyed earlier this year when a man walked past, pushing a bomb on a cart. He was heading for another target but when challenged by police, he and his cart – and the side of the hotel – were blown up. The bomb was detonated by the policemen’s shots. The hotel owner is busy rebuilding. He’s expecting an influx of journalists and trade when Nato conducts what until lately was called the “summer offensive” or even “the battle for Kandahar” but now, causing confusion, is just a “complex military-political effort”.

Everyone is still playing up the game in line with a recent ABC News headline, “Campaign for Kandahar May Be America’s Last Chance to Win Over Afghans”. On a visit to Kandahar, Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, described the city as “as critical in Afghanistan as Baghdad was in Iraq in the surge”.

Sadly for the US, almost everyone supports the Taliban rebels. Even Nato commanders. A senior officer said: “If I was a young man, I’d be fighting with the Taliban.” In this heartland of the Pashtun people, the idea of being a stooge to foreigners or an unpopular Kabul government hardly appeals to the young unless there’s serious money involved. They ask themselves if they want to take the money and work with foreigners, or fight and risk a courageous death. Most people loathe those who work with the government.

I met a professional man in his 50s, a generation that dominates the administration (they were in their 20s when the Russians were here). He has a long flowing beard. “That’s because he’s a communist,” said my Afghan companion. “The people that ISAF appoint, most of them are communists.” (ISAF is the International Security Assistance Force, the Nato mission in Afghanistan.) “They support Lenin and Marx?” “No, not at all, but they were the ones that collaborated with the Russians. We call them the communists.”

“They’re still in power?” “Yes, they like working with foreigners. They’re all communists. Many of them got educated in Russian too. We all despise them.”

“And the beard?” “Oh they do like their beards. They’re trying to cover up their past.”

Who is fighting whom?

(more…)

Helmand and Kandahar – talk at New America Foundation

This is a talk I gave at the New America Foundation on the day that General Stan McChrystal resigned.

The gangs of Kandahar – the city’s real power?

First published by Channel 4 News / 16 May 2010

Author Stephen Grey writes about how “warlords” control the Afghan city of Kandahar, a population centre deemed by Nato to be its number one target in its battle with the Taliban.

Declared by President Obama as this ymilitia 1ar’s top priority in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Kandahar is the country’s second city and the heartland of the Taliban rebel movement.

It is the centre of Nato operations this summer. I spent much of the last two months in and around the city, embedded first with Nato troops and then stepping “outside the wire” to operate independently, trying to read the temperature of a place that is frequently described in news reports as the Taliban’s greatest “stronghold” in the country.

A switch in strategy ordered last year by General Stanley McChrystal, the Nato and US commander in Afghanistan, has turned attention from heavy fighting in rural areas like northern Helmand where most British troops are based, to the main centres of population, which McChrystal now declares to be “the centre of gravity” of the military campaign.

The theory goes that if the bulk of the population are made to feel secure, they will resist the temptation to support the Taliban.

Real development can then take place, and the people may start to support the Afghan government, and the insurgency will wither away. But how do things seem on the ground?

The first thing to realise is that any kind of Nato offensive has as much potential to make things worse as it does to make things better. (more…)

Taliban’s supreme leader signals willingness to talk peace

By Stephen Grey in Kandahar.

The supreme leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammed Omar, has indicated that he and his followers may be willing to hold peace talks with western politicians.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, two of the movement’s senior Islamic scholars have relayed a message from the Quetta shura, the Taliban’s ruling council, that Mullah Omar no longer aims to rule Afghanistan. They said he was prepared to engage in “sincere and honest” talks. (more…)

Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, threatens to block Nato offensive

First published in The Sunday Times, April 11,2010Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrives at 10 Downing Street

Stephen Grey in Kandahar
The president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has cast doubt over Nato’s planned summer offensive against the Taliban in the southern province of Kandahar, as more than 10,000 American troops pour in for the fight.

Karzai threatened to delay or even cancel the operation — one of the biggest of the nine-year war — after being confronted in Kandahar by elders who said it would bring strife, not security, to his home province.

Visiting last week to rally support for the offensive, the president was instead overwhelmed by a barrage of complaints about corruption and misrule. As he was heckled at a shura of 1,500 tribal leaders and elders, he appeared to offer them a veto over military action. “Are you happy or unhappy for the operation to be carried out?” he asked.

The elders shouted back: “We are not happy.”

It’s going to be quite a hunting season

First published in the Sunday Times on March 28, 2010.

by StephParatrooper of 82nd Airborne on a hill overlooking Kandaharen Grey in the Arghandab.

BY the yellow light of dusk, two American Black Hawk helicopters traced their silhouettes across the mountainside. “Medevac birds!” a soldier said. “Something’s happening.”

Taliban gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade had just struck a joint US-Afghan base on Route Red Dog, near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. An ammunition store blew up and an Afghan soldier was wounded by shrapnel.

The insurgents rode off on motorbikes. But as darkness fell, they attacked another outpost. From two miles away, I heard American paratroopers firing more than 1,000 rounds back. Afghan soldiers on a hill behind us opened up with heavy machinegun fire, right over our heads.

It was the Taliban’s first direct attack this year on American bases in Arghandab valley, northwest of the city — the first shots of what many soldiers believe will be the decisive battle of President Barack Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan.

The paratroopers of 2nd Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from the 82nd Airborne Division, have faced a largely hidden enemy since they arrived just before Christmas. Within days a chain of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) killed a company commander, Captain Paul Pena, and another soldier. The leader of the platoon I joined lost a leg.

Last week, however, the Taliban were moving into the open. A suicide bomber who attacked one patrol killed only himself. But as spring warmth and irrigated water restore the vegetation to this valley of grapes and pomegranates, the opportunities flourish for insurgents to mount ambushes.

“This is going to be quite a hunting season,” said a paratrooper, one of nearly 20,000 foreign and Afghan soldiers committed to the forthcoming offensive.

Many are guarding the approaches to Kandahar, which is not only Afghanistan’s second city, with a population of more than half a million, but is also the spiritual home of the Taliban.

While the focus of most recent fighting in southern Afghanistan has been on the neighbouring province of Helmand, where British troops are based, Kandahar was long left largely to a contingent of a few hundred Canadian troops. According to commanders of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), this inattention contributed to a steady deterioration of security.

In the city, residents describe a pervasive fear resulting from assassinations, intimidation and suicide car bombs.

In much of the surrounding countryside, the Taliban are either in open control or have threatened government officials to the point where they are too afraid to open schools or clinics.

Describing the forthcoming campaign at his bustling Kandahar airport base, Major-General Nick Carter, the British head of Nato’s southern command, revealed that his approach would be radically different in the city and the countryside.

In the countryside, Nato and Afghan units will push into new territory to restore government authority “where perhaps none exists”, Carter said. It is here that his commanders expect the heaviest fighting.

Nato’s combat power will be boosted by two new American brigades, the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division and the 1st Brigade of the 10th Mountain Division.

The RAF Regiment will play a role in securing Kandahar airfield and British special forces are in the region to launch raids on top targets.

US and other foreign troops will mostly be kept out of Kandahar city, however, as Carter strives to avoid urban warfare. The emphasis there will be on police action — roadblocks, security checks and controls on militias and weapons.

“You are not going to see a whole lot of ISAF soldiers stomping around the city. That’s not what the Afghans want,” Carter said.

For the famously cerebral general, the key mission in the months ahead will be not so much killing rebels but starting to address some of the causes of their rebellion. He therefore prefers not to call his campaign a battle. “I am not talking about an operational offensive,” he said. “I’m talking about an assertion of credible government.”

Carter regards political reform and confronting corruption as critical. Among his problems, observers say, is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council and President Hamid Karzai’s brother.

Sources close to General Sher Mohammad Zazai, the Afghan army corps commander in Kandahar, say he is afraid to drive into the city because he believes he may be killed by men loyal to Ahmed Wali. A feud between the two men is said to have begun when Zazai seized a cache of Karzai’s weapons. The atmosphere of distrust between senior figures has allowed the Taliban to gain support.

Carter said that, working with the Afghan government, he was promoting a plan to create local precinct councils that could counter the dominance of certain tribes in the region.

“Ultimately, the answers will all run back to Kabul,” he said. “President Karzai will know how he wants to resolve the problems of Kandahar.”

While Carter stresses political solutions, however, the Taliban may try to undermine them by provoking the pitched battle that Nato wants to avoid in the city. Fighters are said to be storing weapons around Kandahar, including in market stalls.

Haji Sahib Ahmad, a businessman, said the Taliban had secured a firm foothold in the city. “People are very worried about the war coming to their street,” he said. “The Taliban will resist and many innocent civilians will be killed by the Americans… The war will not solve anything.”

The paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne have worked hard to win over the people of the surrounding area, walking almost everywhere and living among the villagers in small bases.

Compared with British soldiers in Helmand, the Americans in Kandahar have a huge amount of money to spend. Each platoon has a discretionary pot of $25,000 (£16,700) a month for local supplies and $15,000 to help the Afghan police and army. American soldiers are providing medical treatment for children and funding the rebuilding of several mosques. “We’re doing a whole lot of stroking,” said Jeremiah Mason, a platoon sergeant.

On a hilltop with sweeping views of the city, Lieutenant Jordan Ritenour, the 23-year-old platoon leader, pointed round in a full circle. “I mean, there’s Taliban there, there’s Taliban here, there could be Taliban in that house right there,” he said, looking straight down.

He pointed out one village where a wife of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, used to live. Further down the Arghandab valley is the village of Sangesar, Omar’s former home, where, in the village’s white mosque, the founding meeting of the Taliban movement was held in 1994. Sixteen years later, the Taliban are not expected to cede this ground without a fight.

Ritenour also indicated a twist in an alleyway below us where the IEDs that killed the previous company commander were detonated. Nearby is a school he had been trying to reach that day. The school has been refurbished but lies empty because, villagers say, the children fear it will be attacked.

At a meeting the next day, local elders swore they had seen no Taliban. “There’s a contradiction in what you’re saying,” Ritenour told them. “You say it’s safe and secure round here and no one supports the Taliban. But you say also the children are too afraid to go to school.”

Many soldiers struggle with a broader question: what difference will all the handouts make to winning the war? Will they secure hearts and minds or is it more likely that in Afghanistan, as one paratrooper put it, “any act of kindness is taken as an act of weakness”.

As the thousands of troops prepare to spread out across the region — fighting and then sticking around to live among the people — the answer may determine whether Obama’s surge ultimately succeeds or fails.

‘Give the insurgents a role’

Pakistan’s military command has told the US that the Taliban must be part of any future government in Afghanistan if the war is to be brought to an end, writes Christina Lamb.

“The conflict won’t end if you don’t give a role to the main player,” a senior official told talks in Washington when the Pakistani delegation brought a 56-page list of demands for aid ranging from power stations to spy planes.

Operation Snakebite

OUT IN PAPERBACK updated edition, OPERATION SNAKEBITE (UK) and INTO THE VIPER's NEST (USA edition) is the story of British and American involvement in the conflict in Helmand, Afghanistan Frontline combat, strategic chaos, political intrigues, the truth about the enemy, and a tale of true heroes .... in the most dangerous place on earth.

The Latest Reviews

"Devastating … It explains why the world's most sophisticated armed forces are being defeated by the world's least sophisticated"- Simon Jenkins, Books of the Year 2009, The Times Literary Supplement

"One of the most courageous and important pieces of reporting of the Afghanistan campaign"- General Sir Richard Dannatt

"Grey tells the story with immediacy, drama and sometimes anger. A gripping and moving narrative"- Soldier Magazine

"magnificent ... a meticulously reconstructed account of the battle for Musa Qala ... frequently more vivid than any film .... confers immense authority ... "- Misha Glenny in the Mail on Sunday

"exemplary...an uncommonly vivid portrait of battle, matched by sharp investigation of purposes, intrigues and cock-ups... " - Max Hastings in the Sunday Times

"superb .... captures the grit and the gore, the exhaustion and emotion, the killing and the dying, the horrors and the heroism... a fine piece of war reporting ..."- Raymond Bonnner in the The Guardian.

"Excellent" - (Daily Telegraph)

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Synopsis

In December, 2007, Stephen Grey, reporting for the Sunday Times, was under fire in Afghanistan, ambushed by the Taliban. He was amidst the biggest UK-led operation fought on Afghan soil since 9/11: the liberation of a Taliban stronghold called Musa Qala. Taking shelter behind an American armoured Humvee, Grey turned his head to witness scenes of carnage. Two cars were riddled with gunfire. Their occupants, including several children, had died. Taliban positions were pounded by bullets and bombs dropped on their compounds. A day later, as the operation continued, a mine exploded just yards from Grey, killing a British soldier.

Who, he wondered in the days that followed, was responsible for the bloodshed? And what purpose did it serve A compelling story of one military venture that lasted several days, Operation Snakebite draws on Grey's exclusive interviews with everyone from private soldiers to NATO commanders. The result is a thrilling and at times horrifying story of a war which has gone largely unnoticed back home.