Reality in Afghanistan is often as the media portray it: it is fucking dusty (the desert topsoil is basically five inches of yellow talcum powder, a nightmare in open-topped vehicles); breathtakingly hot (52 degrees in May); our equipment is heavy; the fighting can be terrifying and hellish (although often the biggest rush imaginable); the enemy are able to hurt us if we're unlucky; and there aren't enough troops to do the job, and those there are suffer massive overstretch (my battalion finished in Afghanistan on 9 June 2008. We deploy again in September 2009).
The media can be our enemy though: the BBC's reporting in particular makes me see my arse in rage. Take this account
Through a tiny square of dirty window, all I can see are clouds of dust as we pitch and heave across the open desert. I'm crammed into the back of an armoured vehicle, heading for battle with seven British soldiers.I shared the "armoured vehicle" in this article with this woman, and Fred was in my section (fat fucker!). It's a good job I didn't read the piece until I got back from theatre, or I would have shot her on the spot. "Plain fear"? Not really. There was a nervous tension, but we weren't afraid. When I found myself on the wrong end of a Taliban 50 cal the next morning, then I was afraid: but in a landrover in the middle of the desert? Nah.
Fred is the most extrovert, the butt of endless jokes about his large appetite and weight. James is the most silent. He's only just 19.
I'm watching it all through binoculars, like a First World War general. I make out the shapes of Fred and James in the line.
What did she think she was watching, The Somme? There was no line - we ran down a hill, over an assault bridge and got stuck into the enemy compounds on the far side. I could go on (but I will attempt to maintain some objectivity). Finally, the woman focuses on the bitterness of the locals. No mention of the fact that the Taliban use locals as hostages for propaganda purposes; no mention of the fact we had spent days warning all non-combatants to leave; no mention of the food and water the locals were happy to give us.
The civilian reaction I encountered in Afghanistan was largely positive. They were understandably fearful for their families but clearly recognised the protection we offer. What the locals hate most is the endemic corruption of their own leaders and the insecurity that brings (for example, we killed three suspected Taliban who were herding locals at gunpoint into a pick-up truck. It turned out they weren't Taliban, but were the private militia of the local governor).
Ultimately, the people of Afghanistan are sick of war and just want to be left alone. It is crucial for us, however, that we do not allow the hard-line Taliban to take control again once we are gone (let us not forget 9/11, an attack on everything the West stands for, and the origin of this conflict), and we cannot leave until there is a stable security situation in the country. At the moment, we are training up the Afghan National Army and Police, and having worked with the ANA first hand, I can vouch that they are coming along nicely in many cases. On top of creating a situation in which the rule of law can flourish, is nation-building our job, though? Arguably, yes. Not in the sense of creating a centralised government (no chance - Afghanistan is a loose network of tribes, many of whom would go to war at the drop of a hat in order to resist overtures from Kabul), but I believe the establishment of some kind of stable local economy is essential to peace in Afghanistan.
If the local farmer had a regular income, and Afghan security forces could free him from Taliban threats, he would not be inclined to take $10 under duress from the Taliban to go and fight. Of course, the opium issue rears its ugly head at this point: it is by far the most lucrative crop for these farmers, and to them it is no different to growing maize (except that they earn ten times more growing the former). If we buy the crop, we create a potentially endless financial dependency. If we don't, heroin makes its way onto our streets. Catch 22?
If I had a cast-iron solution to the Afghan problem I would be a richer man than I currently am. What I can say, however, is that the war there is winnable: Taliban desperation at military defeats has led them to amateur replication of Iraq-type IED attacks, rather than the small arms scrapping of the last two summers. In the areas where the Taliban still hold sway, we are now strong enough to peg them back at every turn (although we do need more troops to finish the job). The locals still aren't safe, facing corrupt local officials, and the Afghan central government is still weak: the local governors hold far more sway than Kabul governments ever will. We can't leave until the security situation is resolved, however, and that will take years of graft and certainly more British lives. Is it worth it? I believe so: the world benefits from a Taliban-free Afghanistan, and we've expended so much effort, so many lives, and made so much progress, we cannot just walk away. But we need a clear political end-state (secure country? Liberal Democracy? An end to the drugs trade?) and the troops to do the job.
Politics geeks: over to you.
Strangely Brown of the 1st Battalion, The Trinity Tiddlers.