Saturday, November 28, 2009

Night Letters

Khost, Afghanistan

Like shadows in the night, they deliver warnings to villagers, side with the foreign forces and we will kill you and or your family. Whilst US Forces in Khost Province in South East Afghanistan, may claim they have superior technology and thermal cameras to protect themselves and their bases. Out in the villages the Taliban deliver their messages with no one capable of preventing them.

Talk with any Afghani and without hesitation they tell you things are getting worse from security to corruption. The optimism of 2002 – 2003 has long gone, from translators to waiters we hear nothing but negativity in regard to the future of Afghanistan.

Transpose this with what the US Military continue to tell you in countless briefing after briefing and honestly you start to think they are talking about a different country to the one they are in. Reality is an inconvenient truth that every officer seems to ignore.

Things are getting better, we are working with the Afghan Army and Police to develop an effective and stable nation, is a mantra that is well past its use by date. Eight years on in this war, and yet the Afghan Army is in any way capable of enforcing security.

The Police are despised and loathed by every local, and petty issues are more important than major events. The other day we went out on a patrol and the Police did not come along, not due to staffing or morale issues but because they could not be bothered. The Afghan Army set up a roadblock outside of a small village and started checking cars. Sure enough fifteen minutes later two men are caught with an AK 47, four magazines, two pistols, a knife and two hand grenades.

The question then arose did the army have the authority to seize he weapons, what would happen to the two guys. It short it was a balls up, in the end the Army flexi cuffed the two guys and took then back to their base and not the Police Station.

Once the Police heard about this they were pissed to say the least, the main reason they were annoyed was that the Army kept the weapons and would not hand them over to them. The two guys well they were friends of someone in some high position and within half an hour of getting to the Army base they were drinking tea and having a good old laugh by all accounts.

Whilst this incident is one small event in the grand scheme it also highlights the simple fact that on the ground these are the issues that the Afghans deal with because it is something they control and each and everyone has there turf. The locals here do not care what is happening in the next province because it has never affected their life.

Everyone knows that each US Unit is only there for around a year and that after they leave another Unit will replace them and try to reinvent the wheel. With new ideas and new plans, again a simple case of taking four steps backwards follows the progress of the current unit.

The incident that best captured the lack of respect the Afghan’s have for the US Forces was etched on hundreds of faces the other morning. The celebration of Eid-ul-Ahza is on the Muslim calendar a major holiday and everyone goes to the Mosque to give thanks and enjoy friends and family, as they were leaving their Mosque to go home for lunch. The US troops decided that they had to go back to the main camp, so loaded up in four MRAP’s they drove through the people tooting horns and waving guns to get out of the way, cursing them for walking on the road and getting in their way.

The look of disgust for these foreign invaders was all to clear to see, but the soldiers in the vehicle I was in were blind to the obvious, a mission had to take place. For all the goodwill they believe that they have created they have once again set themselves back another year in this valley.

People will not forget the disregard for their religious holiday soon and those letters in the night will not seem as threatening.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Listening to Leaves fall

It was bad enough to see the General goose stepping, as the President inspected the guard of honor, what was even more funny was when he realised he was on the wrong side of the President and had to break step trot behind and commence the goose stepping again.

In yet another complete failure of democracy. President Karzai was today inaugarated for his second 5 year term. In any flourishing democracy the inaugaration ceremony is a time when the people can share the moment, cast your mind back to the scenes in Washington in January, when President Obama took the oath of office.

Today in Kabul, under a crisp winter sun, you could hear the leaves fall to the footpath. The solution to any potential problem here is to close the city and ban cars, to prevent suicide and or car bombs. The ceremony was such a controlled event that even TV cameras were not permitted into the Palace, and as such we were herded into the old Radio Television studios built in the classic Soviet style of the 1950's. the walls adorned with old black and white pictures from what looked like the 50's and 60's.

Technically it was a nightmare, but the staff there did there best with old equipment then told us about there new facility which was a state of the art gift from a foreign country. Why we could not use the new facility is still a mystery. The quality of audio reminded me of watching television with a deaf aunty, whose solution is to turn the sound up fully when there is no sound then to have it tear your ears apart when something actually does happen.

The guests can best be described as a b grade status of nations, the only other leader there was from Pakistan, whilst most of the nations involved in fighting the war here were represented by their Foreign Ministers. The Inaugaration speech was written for the West and the first clapping from the audience came after 13 minutes when Karzai promised a crackdown on corruption, but everyone here knows that words are cheap. Corruption is far more profitable.

As far as an end to the war and foreign troops, five years from now will become the mantra, as the President pledged that Afghanis will take control of all of the nations security by then. As he spoke a car bomb went off in a Southern Province killing two US service members.

As left we tried to gauge the mood on the streets, using the most ineffective method known to poll, known as Vox pops only to be told by the first person we asked as to whether he had watched the ceremony

"No, we had no electricity, I hope to be able to see it later tonight".

In a city that was empty of life, apart from Army and Police on every corner, an historic day has passed and yet failed at the same time. But it was nice to listen to the leaves fall and rustle along the footpath for a change.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Clock Ticking to Failure?

“Westerners are occasionally targeted by criminals or Taliban sympathisers, and kidnapping can be a threat. The target of suicide bombers are mostly military convoys, stay far away. Riots happen occasionally and are often accompanied by looting - stay well away from them as authorities will respond with lethal force. Avoid walking after dark, and vary your routes during the day. Kabul is generally considered one of the safer parts of the country, but bombings have increased somewhat since late 2006”

You would at first read consider the quote to have come from a security briefing, or a travel warning issued by a Government source. But no the above actually comes from the inflight magazine of Safi Airways, which flies into Kabul, from Dubai.

Not exactly a happy picture of a destination that is to be home for the next month. Then again it reflects a true picture of just how bad things are getting here in Afghanistan.

This is my third trip this year to Afghanistan and no matter how I try to reflect on the positive side the negatives of the situation here outweigh everything. Yesterday we met with US military and Western Diplomats, for once it would be good if they were to give an honest and truthful account of just how bad it is going here.

Forget the war for one moment and consider the domestic issues. Here you have a population that considers it’s own Police force not as partners in society, but as predators and according to a senior US Military Commander, “People here consider the police as worse than the Taliban”.

The level of corruption starts at the very bottom and extends to the highest levels. In fact whilst filming a story on corruption, we walked away from our vehicles to film in the market. Only to find out that the local police had shaken down our driver for 200 Afghanis or 4 dollars.

Want a passport, pay the bribe. Need hospital treatment then consider a donation as a precursor to treatment. Need to register your car then take extra to the office. According to diplomatic sources the average person here is spending a minimum of 20% of their annual income on paying corrupt officials.

In fact the Government department that is charge of monitoring corruption is regarded as “Inept and Useless”. To placate Western donors the Government has relaunched for a third time a task force to investigate corruption. Laws here do not have any legal status for any official to declare any of his assets. On a previous trip we learnt that govt officials on a salary of approx $600 a month had somehow managed to get assets worth in excess of 20 million dollars. .

You get tired of hearing Diplomats and Military Leaders saying “It’s a start” or “They have good intent”, whenever there is a relaunch of a taskforce here.

There has only been one issue on which everyone has agreed, the clock is ticking down to failure here. Victory will not be measured in Military success but by the willingness of Afghan’s and the West to “settle for an imperfect state” according to sources here.

Certain failure and the complete collapse of society is predicted to be less than twelve months away, unless things change. Eight years in the war here and the reality of expectations is at an all time low.

One reality check for Afghanistan, is that is now ranked 179th out of 180 countries in the world for “Corruption” according to the monitoring group “Transparency International”. The only country that is considered worse is Somalia.