- Amid the withdrawal of troops and the valedictory speeches of politicians, the narrative of the mission in Afghanistan has been written to end in success. But when the reality tells a different story, has saving face become more important than saving lives? Ben Anderson investigates
Words Ben AndersonAbove: An Afghan policeman uses his gun to swipe at opium plans growing on a farm in Helmand. 2012, marked an 18% increase in opium production in Afghanistan, with the majority
chemically processed to produce heroin. Photo Majid Saeedi / Getty Images
Major Bill Steuber had seen less combat than most of the British and American troops I’ve met in Afghanistan, but he often looked as traumatised as any of them. His job was to “advise” the Afghan police in Sangin, who were, without exaggeration, guilty of child abuse, murder, kidnapping and spectacular corruption.
One local commander vanished and took almost half the police force with him. Another was issuing the prosecutor with death threats. Kabul had stopped sending fuel to the police because they had already stolen more than a million dollars’ worth. It was impossible to focus on any one thing. Most days, it was simply a matter of trying to keep up. But over time, one problem emerged as being more egregious than any other.
At first, Steuber and his men heard about a policeman being murdered by another policeman. Such stories are sadly common. Then they heard about a boy being shot by another boy, on a police patrol base. It was only when policemen from the northern ethnic groups, the Tajiks and Hazaras, were not getting paid by their Pashtun bosses and became disgruntled enough to spill the beans that Major Steuber and his men began to understand what was really happening.
- Steuber couldn’t prevent the common practice of police chiefs keeping “chai boys” – boys between about 10 and 14 years old who are used as servants and sex slaves. “Try finding a police commander who doesn’t abduct and rape young boys,” one of Steuber’s officers said to me. I heard similar stories on every trip I’ve ever made to Afghanistan. For the police chiefs and the warlords, even for the district and provincial governors, keeping a chai boy was an almost routine perk of the job.
But when a fourth boy was shot – in the leg at point-blank range – for trying to escape, Steuber couldn’t just write another report. All his previous reports had been sent to more than 200 people and nothing had happened. So he marched into the police HQ with a plan.
The chief had gone on Hajj, eight days into his job, and hadn’t been seen for two-and-a-half months. So he asked the acting police chief if he was aware of the shooting. Dark and with deeply wrinkled skin that had begun to sag, the acting chief didn’t flinch. He growled a nonchalant answer, and then switched the conversation onto the promotion of an illiterate rival, which was far more offensive to him than the shooting of an abducted child.
When Steuber eventually got him to focus on the chai boy, he claimed that the boys went to the commanders willingly. “The kids themselves want to be there, giving their arses at night,” he said, adding that it would cause problems if the chai boys weren’t allowed to stay with his commanders. “If they don’t fuck the arses of these boys, who else are they going to have sex with? Their own grandmothers?”
‘“Try finding a police commander who doesn’t abduct and rape young boys,” one of Steuber’s
officers said to me’
After a long discussion, Steuber managed to persuade him to launch a dawn raid to arrest the guilty commanders, and show the local people that he was a man “who stands for justice”. But that evening, the chief cancelled the operation. To this day, none of the commanders has been arrested, or even questioned about the murders of three young boys, or the rape of many more.
“Have you ever seen The Sopranos?” Steuber asked, describing his dealings with the police and the warlords. At 38 years old, Steuber is a huge man, like a cartoon version of an American soldier, but he is also highly sensitive. He had clearly come to Afghanistan hoping and believing he could make a difference.
Four months into his tour, he winced at the sound of his own words as he described the many awful situations he’d seen, seemingly incapable of lying to me. The police were largely illiterate, mostly untrained – and often so high on weed or heroin that they were barely able to stand, let alone function. And this is a police force that British and American troops have been training for more than six years.
“We are not leaving Afghanistan because we have achieved our goals. We are leaving because we have given up on them”
Bear in mind that the training of the Afghan army and police has supposedly been accelerated as we pull out. You see what absolute horseshit most of the statements made about progress in Afghanistan, and our commitment to the future, are. Opium production, civilian casualties, corruption, and the Taliban’s ability to attack anywhere at will, have all increased year on year. We are not leaving Afghanistan because we have achieved our goals. We are leaving because we have given up on them.
The infamous town of Sangin, where Steuber and his team were based, is home to more British casualties – 109 in total – than anywhere else in Afghanistan. When the US marines took over in late 2010, they also suffered some of their highest losses in the war. The town was laced with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and hundreds of men became, to use the brutal language of the military, double-, triple- and even quadruple-“amps” (amputees). No one knows how many Afghans died. Locals claim thousands.
Per head, Sangin has probably had more resources dedicated to it, and more lives lost in the fight to secure it, than any other town in Afghanistan. If our policy stood a chance of working anywhere, it ought to have been here. Instead, the local Taliban remain strong and we have handed power to a police force that commits heinous crimes instead of preventing them.
Steuber and his team of just 18 marines covered such a large area that they could only visit each police patrol base once every three weeks, so their ability to influence was extremely limited. “As an advisor, you’re a dog with a lot of bark but not a lot of bite,” Steuber admitted warily. There are still almost 500 infantry marines in Sangin, but they have withdrawn to the secure main forward operating base, where they lift weights, watch box sets and count down the days until they can go home. They have no contact with the local population and rarely even see the Afghan security forces, let alone train them. But they are out of harm’s way, which seems to be the main objective.
The British and American public is no longer paying enough attention to notice the disaster we are leaving behind, and mostly just wants to see the troops come home. The few reporters able to reveal the disaster we are leaving behind are either working for specialist outlets, or being blocked from covering the conflict by the many public affairs officials who were told long ago how our exit from Afghanistan would be presented.
- At a meeting in 2011, one slide on a presentation called ‘Key tenets of the Afghan narrative’ read:
2011/12 Notice what is different
2012/13 Change has begun
2013/14 Growing confidence
2015 A new chance, a new beginning
The behaviour of the Afghans we’ve empowered isn’t mentioned, nor is the fact that they are dying in record numbers. The latest estimate is that 310 Afghan policemen and soldiers are being killed every month – far worse casualty figures than all the international forces ever suffered.
And this is likely to get worse, because our Afghan allies will soon be completely alone, without any of the surveillance, artillery and air power that our forces have. In what looks like a sign of utter contempt, even the field hospitals we’ve built will be taken away, meaning that many Afghans will die from wounds that shouldn’t be fatal. In all this time, the international forces haven’t built a single hospital (although Western NGOs have built some very good ones).When pushed, the stock response to the rising casualty figures, or the criminality of the police and government, is often a shrug of the shoulders and a variation of the phrases, “They will always fight each other anyway”; “It’s Afghan good enough”; or “TIA – This Is Afghanistan”. As if things couldn’t have been different. Such responses make it sound like we did all we could, and have only fallen short because those damn Afghans were just too backward to appreciate and accept what they were being gifted.
What we actually did was abandon Afghanistan as soon as we finished bombing it, our eyes already on Saddam Hussein. When we reinstalled the warlords, the very men whose brutality and corruption led to the Taliban’s easy sweep to power in the first place, we guaranteed the role the Taliban played would be as insurgents. By the time this obvious fact was acknowledged just a few years ago, it was too late.
Our troops stood no chance of winning if the point of everything they did was to introduce a corrupt and predatory government. Many Afghans see us as being complicit in supporting criminal networks whose records were well known and whose desire for vengeance and profiteering was entirely predictable.
- By the time I returned to Sangin at the end of last year, my ninth trip to Helmand, the effort to create a competent security force had largely been abandoned. The army (in Sangin, at least) doesn’t prey on the local population, but during the biggest operation I saw them carry out, when they saw four unarmed men they deemed suspicious, they wildly fired hundreds of rockets, bullets and grenades in many directions. Later the same day, when they saw a father and son fleeing, they opened up again in similar fashion. When they were told not to shoot by one of their marine advisors, they said: “Fuck them, they are all Taliban here.”
It was exactly this kind of behaviour that led many Afghans to welcome the Taliban in the mid 90s, seeing them as the good and just Muslims who would stand up to the violence and corruption of the warlords. Every Afghan I know is sure that civil war is now inevitable (if it hasn’t already started), and an alarming number even believe the Taliban will return to power.
“The latest estimate is that 310 Afghan policemen and soldiers are being killed every month – far worse casualty figures than all the international forces ever suffered”
Almost every Afghan interpreter I’ve met has begged me to send pictures of them working with US or UK forces for their visa applications. They are all desperate to leave before we do, and to take their families with them. As things stand, most of them won’t get those visas because granting them would be an admission of failure – something that seems more unbearable to us than leaving the Afghans.
After seven years of travelling to Helmand, I can’t avoid the conclusion that the only goal we are seriously committed to is withdrawel, with as few American and British casualties as possible, while somehow saving face.
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