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Hell in Helmand

Irfan Husain
17 July 2006

A Taliban preacher is said to have told his Friday congregation soon after the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001: "Amreeka was too far for us to fight before. But see how great Allah is! He has sent the Amreeki to Afghanistan for us to kill! Allah be praised!"

For Amreeki, now read British. There is a smug belief rife in the London media that the Brits have greater knowledge of Afghanistan (and Iraq), and are better at fighting there than the Americans. This might have been true decades ago, but is now no more than an urban myth.

In an earlier era, the British used a judicious mix of diplomacy, bribery and force to control the Pathan tribes inhabiting the badlands that constitute the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now they are trying to achieve their ends through force alone, and are finding that this might not be such a good idea after all.

Irfan Husain is a columnist with Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, where a version of this article was published on 20 May 2006

Also by Irfan Husain in openDemocracy:

"Kabul vs Islamabad: a war of words"
(16 March 2006)

"Musharraf's own goals" (27 March 2006)

"The state of Pakistan" (22 May 2006)

It was the Brits who created the system of "political agents" who were posted to remote tribal areas a century ago. These amazing civil servants (often military officers on secondment) laid down the law in some of the toughest conditions in British India. The annual purse for each chief was fixed, and while he was allowed to control his own tribe according to tradition and custom, he was basically paid to keep the peace.

The political agent had a small militia recruited locally to deal with minor problems, but further away were a number of strategically located army garrisons from which punitive expeditions were launched when necessary. At independence in 1947, Pakistan inherited this structure, and has retained it unchanged.

However, after the Soviet invasion in December 1979 and the occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the whole system came under considerable strain. Large amounts of arms and cash flowed in to support the mujahideen who were leading the resistance to Soviet rule. Soon, Islamabad lost a degree of control as the money it had traditionally doled out paled into insignificance before CIA and Saudi munificence.

As the writ of both Kabul and Islamabad weakened, poppy cultivation expanded. Soon, laboratories in Pakistan's tribal areas were converting tons of poppy sap into opium and then into heroin for export across the world.

The Soviet invasion caused an erosion of the authority of tribal chiefs on both sides of the border; as warlords, arms dealers and drug smugglers could bid more for the loyalty of their tribesmen. The earlier agreements with tribal elders became outdated. Camels and horses were replaced by SUVs, and first-world-war-vintage bolt-action Lee Enfield .303 rifles were replaced by Kalashnikovs and grenade-launchers. This flood of arms and drugs had its own ramifications for Pakistani society, and it also played havoc with the delicate relationships developed over the years between the tribes and the central authority – first in Delhi, then in Islamabad.

The episode that triggered this sequence of events was the uprising against the socialist government of Babrak Karmal. Moscow sent in the Red Army to support the then exiled Karmal and install him in power in place of Hafizullah Amin, leader of a rival faction of the ruling party – and the rest is history.

But the tribesmen did not rise up because of some political differences with the new government in Kabul. They took up arms because the local mullahs told them that the new policy to educate girls was only the first step. Soon, they would be made to wear western clothes and parade in the open without covering themselves. To a deeply conservative tribal people, this was intolerable. And when the Soviets invaded, they were immediately branded as godless people. Mullahs announced that killing them would guarantee a place in heaven.

Two invaders, one struggle

For the Soviets, now read British. The same propaganda about the liberation of tribal women is being broadcast from mosques in Helmand and elsewhere. And the presence of western women in the coalition forces as well as among the teams of NGOs and development workers is being cited as proof of the alleged British intent to westernise Afghan women.

There is thus a convergence of many interest groups to expel the British presence from one of the most lawless provinces of Afghanistan. Locals are being told that apart from wanting to introduce un-Islamic values, the Brits also want to destroy their livelihood by uprooting their poppy fields. In a wretchedly poor area without any other kind of economic activity, this is a serious threat (see Paul Rogers, "The new opium war", 4 May 2006).

To many westerners, the Taliban are some kind of well-trained, well-organised underground army. In reality, they are a rag-tag collection of mostly Pathan tribesmen who congregate to launch poorly-coordinated attacks when it suits them. But now with the offer of a place in heaven if they are killed, and cash on the barrel if they survive, they are active combatants in the fight to expel the invaders. Virtually every Afghan male is armed, and most Pathans support the Taliban to some extent. In this situation, it is next to impossible to distinguish between combatants and innocent bystanders.

The tradition of vendetta runs deep in the tribal psyche. The killing of a family member or a tribesman must be avenged. Thus, each combat death creates an ever-widening circle of Afghans strongly motivated to kill British soldiers.

Soon after the fall of Kabul, many western journalists gloated over the ease with which the Taliban had been toppled. Several dismissed any future threat from the Afghan guerrillas who had defeated the Soviet army. But history shows that these irregular forces have never been good at fighting conventional, set-piece battles. Their strength lies in their resilience and determination.

The parallels with history don't stop there. It was the devastating appearance of Stinger missiles that finally tilted the balance of power against the Russians. And it is only a matter of time before the Taliban get their hands on portable surface-to-air missiles to neutralise the threat from Apache helicopters.

A final factor westerners often overlook is how little the average Afghan tribesman has to lose. Most live in conditions of unimaginable poverty. If a young Afghan is told he will be paid $500 if he kills a British soldier, and the same amount would go to his family if he dies, this sum represents a fortune he would be unlikely to see in his lifetime.

The real struggle that lies ahead in Helmand and elsewhere in Afghanistan is between political will in the west, and the Afghan ability to hold out. If I were a betting man, I would put my money on the latter.

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