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Afghanistan: Mission Accomplished?

According to veteran war reporter Ben Anderson – no, far from it.

by VICE Staff
25 February 2013, 6:30pm

You'd almost be forgiven for thinking that the war in Afghanistan is over and that the majority of our troops are back happily "snorkelling" Smirnoff Ices in suburban nightclubs. Operations are gradually winding down ahead of the mass withdrawal of Nato forces planned for next year and coverage of the war is sporadic at best. Prince Harry blowing up the Taliban in his shiny helicopter aside, the actual day-to-day fight against the Taliban no longer draws the media like it used to, with the civil war in Syria and North Korea's nuclear big talk shifting the focus away from Afghanistan.

As things wind down, Nato have handed over control of many areas of the country to the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA). Largely left to their own devices by their Nato predecessors, the ANP and (to a lesser extent) the ANA have already been implicated in many instances of corruption, kidnapping, extortion and murder, which makes that planned prospect of an allied forces pull-out all the more dismal.

I spoke to Ben Anderson, a documentary filmmaker and friend of VICE who's just returned from a five-week embed with Afghan forces in Sangin, Helmand Province. The film he's been making out there is called Mission Accomplished? Secrets of Helmand, and it aired last night as part of BBC One's Panorama series.

Ben Anderson.

VICE: Hi Ben. So what's the deal with the police in Afghanistan? They don't exactly sound like responsible guys.
Ben Anderson: Well, the Afghan government is keeping all the best police and soldiers in the north and sending all the seemingly useless ones to the south to start preparing for the civil war. I'm thinking we'll just abandon all the useless ones in the south. We want all the good ones near us so we can fight together. 

That was one of the first questions I wanted to ask, because this film clearly sets up the premise of what's going to happen when we do fully pull out, leaving the Afghans in control of the whole country. There's a lot of talk about a civil war – what are your thoughts?
I think the civil war has started already. By some estimates, over 3,000 Afghan policemen and soldiers were killed last year. That's far more than Britain or America ever lost, so if that's not a civil war, I don't know what is. My opinion is that the police are behaving so badly in the south that it's exactly the same as the early to mid 90s, when the local people half welcomed the Taliban because they thought they'd end corruption and the abduction and rapes of young children. They're good, honest, just Muslims in comparison to the corrupt officials and warlords. 

When the pull out is fully implemented, is it going to be the Taliban riding in and taking over? How do you think it's going to play out? 
I think there are going to be warlords carving out the fiefdoms they had before. But, in the south, the army are kind of impressive; they're brave and they have the right ideas, but logistically they just can't sustain themselves or supply themselves. So I can't see them holding out against the Taliban. My translator – who's been living there for decades and who I trust completely – thinks half the police will vanish the day we leave and the other half will turn Taliban.

So it will be as it was before.
Yeah. There are places in the south that won't last 24 hours after we pull out. You can already see other provinces where we've pulled out and the Taliban have moved straight back in.

Which provinces are they?
There are a couple of eastern provinces – it might be Farah, in fact, but I'd have to check that. It's happening elsewhere in Afghanistan because the Taliban have set up a shadow government and shadow courts for years and people are relying on them far more than the Afghan government. The Afghan government is nowhere near ready to do it on their own.

Do you think we'd still have some sort of military presence in places like Kabul? Is that going to be the last stand of the official Afghan government, or are they hoping to bank on ethnic alliances up in the north?
I always thought the northern alliance would be able to hold the north. In terms of the foreign presence, we're talking between eight and 10,000 foreign troops on average, which means you're only going to have two or three thousand who will actually go out and do anything. I suspect there'll be special forces doing counter terrorism operations, so they won't be interested helping the police with the army fight – we say Taliban, but we aren't even sure if it is Taliban. I think it's just local angry farmers who want the corrupt government or foreign forces out of their gardens. 

It's history repeating itself, kind of.
Yeah, that's true. I'd love to talk more people who were there in the early 90s, because it feels like, if I was a southern Pashtun living in Helmand or Kandahar, I would see the Taliban as the good guys in comparison to the Afghan police or the Afghan government. I think the army are a lot better. I mean, the army are from the north, they're from different ethnic groups, they can speak a different language and they're seen by many as being almost as foreign as we are.

Obviously our government, Nato and ISAF must be aware of the possibility of an absolute collapse in law and order and the return of the Taliban. Why, then, is there a move to pull out quicker? It doesn't seem to make any sense. 
I've got no evidence of this, but I think we've just given up. The surge in 2010 and the big push in Marjah and Kandahar were much tougher and took much longer than anybody thought. You'd need 500,000 soldiers over five or ten years to replicate that in the south. When you look at the goals we set ourselves just a few years ago – eradicating corruption, sending little girls to school, liberating women, routing the Taliban, of course we haven't achieved those goals. I'm amazed people are still claiming we have. The statements from Hammond and Obama come with caveats now. They're kind of saying we're giving the Afghans a chance to have that rosy future, but that it's up to them now.

They're shirking their responsibilities.
Hammond said the other day that there are going to be "messy compromises", but I think that's the closest to honesty I've heard from any of them. 

Back to the film – you've got these US commanders openly saying the Afghan police are corrupt child molesters and murderers. Do you get a sense of helplessness on their part to be able to stop these guys from acting like they do?
Oh, absolutely. On average, they visit a patrol base once every three weeks for a few hours, so their influence is incredibly limited. The US major really wanted to crack down on the abuse of young boys, so he got the assistant chief of police to promise he'd arrest any commanders who were keeping young "chai boys". Two hours later, it was cancelled and nothing has happened to this day. Police in the south think it's their right to abduct and keep a boy as their servant and sex slave and they're going to keep doing it.   

How did that start?
People say it's a southern Pashtun tradition, particularly in Helmand and Kandahar. Members of the Taliban have also done it elsewhere and famous warlords in the north and the east have done it before. People have said they do it because you can't have a female companion who you take with you everywhere, because your wife has to stay at home. It's supposedly about companionship as much as it is about sex. It's been happening a lot every trip I have to Helmand. When I was last there, about four boys were shot trying to escape police commanders – three of them were fatally shot trying to escape. 

How old are the boys? 
Between 11 and 15 normally. One of them was shot after trying to poison the police who were keeping him. He was shot in the face. 

It sounds a bit like Apocalypse Now – Colonel Kurtz stuck at the top of the river. You've just got these patrol bases unchecked for two or three weeks at a time and they're literally getting away with murder. 
And smoking opium and heroin. I went to one patrol base where they tried to teach the ANP how to make some sandbags, and the guys were so high they couldn't even tie the knots in the sandbag. The guys out there all have huge marijuana plants on their base. These guys were so off their brains that I'm sure they were on something else. I'm sure it was opium or heroin. Then, a few weeks after I left, one of them was shot and the US medic who saved him discovered a bag of heroin in his pocket. 

Is that mainly the police or the army? 
The army are a lot more professional. Well, until we saw some suspected Taliban and they just lined up and fired everything they had in all kinds of directions. But, up until that point, they'd definitely been a lot more professional. I think that, if the army were seen doing any of the things I've just described the police doing, their commander would really scold them, because he was trying very hard to do the right thing.

Do you think these green on blue attacks – Afghan troops killing Nato troops – are part of the reason why the American troops are coming out of their patrol bases less? 
Absolutely, yeah. Every time they walk from the American side to the Afghan side of their base, they cock their weapons ready. There's always at least one of them who's got a loaded weapon with his finger on the trigger. The worst here is green on green attack. There are far more Afghans being killed by Afghans in the insider attacks than are killing British or Americans. I was involved in one big mission where I was laying on a roof with a guy firing a machine gun right above my head.

Two days later, he escaped with loads of weapons and ammunition and him and three others were planning to kill their commander. The Afghan army and police are so desperate for numbers that there's not much of a vetting process, so it's not that hard for the Taliban to place guys inside the army and the police. Also, there are a lot of guys who are just pissed off with the way they're being treated by us. They're being treated like dogs, so they take their revenge. 

It's just a big circle of mistrust, isn't it? We don't trust them because they've been killing us and they kill us because we treat them harshly. And their commanders probably treat them pretty badly, too. 
There are all kinds of things where their commanders or chiefs are getting the money and not paying people properly – all that kind of thing going on. Weapons are getting stolen and sold, fuel is getting stolen and sold, people are getting kidnapped for ransom – the going rate is $4,000 (£2,642) in Sangin

Have Afghan forces taken over operational control of Sangin?
Officially, no. There are five stages of transition, the first four have been completed and the fifth one happens next month. As I said, 98 percent of the time, they're operating alone. The police don't really do operations, they do one or two. The army do operations with the Marines sort of looking over their shoulder, and the Marines only step in when there's about to be a massive disaster. 

What's the general security situation in the area at the moment? 
Sangin seems as dangerous as it's ever been to me. I mean, every night you have gun fights and IED blasts – the only difference now is that all the casualties are Afghan. There are police, soldiers and civilians brought into the base with all kinds of horrible injuries, so the Taliban are still there, they're still everywhere. You hear people like Defence Secretary Gates saying the Taliban have been routed from Helmand and Kandahar and you just think 'What are they smoking?' It's ridiculous. 

How are they able to get away with those statements when everyone else – like yourself, for example – is saying the complete opposite? 
I don't know how many people are. I've been amazed at how many journalists I really respected have gone to forward operating bases with a politician or general and repeated these claims about how the Taliban have been wiped out and how the Afghans are showing massive improvements. There are very few actually going out and spending weeks on the ground with the army or the US Marines, because it's getting harder to get backing to do so. It was hard for me to get backing for this film, so I'm sure it's even harder for newspaper correspondents.

Do you think the bureaucracy of getting a position to cover troops on the ground has changed? 
No. Well, the British have made it impossible for me to get in bed with them, but the Marines were as great as they've ever been while I was filming. Last time I was in Leatherneck – the big Marine base in Camp Bastion – the media tent was full of, like, 15 or 20 reporters and photographers. This time it was completely empty.

I guess Syria is now the "sexy war".
It feels like the mainstream media can only cover one story at a time. It ceased to be Afghanistan a long time ago. I wrote a book about Afghanistan last year and it's obvious the public interest has really dried up. It was so hard to get the book even reviewed or mentioned anywhere because people just don't care any more. They know guys are coming back dead or without legs and they've got no idea why, got no idea what the goals are any more and they've lost interest completely, I think. 

Do you think you'll be heading back out again sometime this year or in the near future?
I hope so, I really hope so. This has just really whet my appetite and energised me, because the truth on the ground is the exact opposite of what we're being told, so there are loads of other stories I want to do out there. But, to be honest, I don't know who's going to back me to do these stories because the media interest has all dried up.

Thanks Ben!

Watch Ben's show, Mission Accomplished? Secrets of Helmand, on BBC iPlayer here. Footage and stills courtesy of the BBC.

More from Afghanistan:

Inside Afghanistan

Afghanistan in the UK

All of Afghanistan Is Under Taliban Control, Except for One Small Village

Obama's War