Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Winnable War

Reflections from 36,000 ft
Afghanistan Dec 2009

The Winnable War

The irony is that the largest explosion I heard in terms of enemy attacks in this war in 30 days on the frontline was this morning on the day we were to leave Kabul. In the capital not 300m from our bureau/residence, Greg & I were just editing our final piece before 10am when suddenly the whole room and building just went blank.

Describing a bomb blast like this morning is like trying to explain the first time you hear or experience a car crash. For a second your world collapses down into microseconds, as your brain comprehends before you feel the shock wave of the actual explosion. The sound traps you before the concussion holds you, and this all takes place inside a few seconds and then realizing that you have survived the next mode of capturing the story and pictures kicks in.

It is if your mind is in a fog for those first few seconds, reality is the sound of the explosion, which is not as loud as Hollywood makes it out, but your senses combine in that one moment to terrify you before you realize that you have survived.

Welcome back to Afghanistan Conor Powell.

Half undressed, half asleep Conor looked thru the window, as I looked the camera lens. Conor our Kabul/Afghanistan Correspondent had been back in the country less than 24 hours, arriving only the late evening before after a months holiday back in the states whilst Greg Palkot & I covered for him.

Conor has seen and experienced bombs in Kabul before so being thrown out of your bed by a morning explosion is nothing new, but the look on his face portrayed that this suicide bombing is yet one step closer to the our reality of living and working in Kabul.

A city so corrupted by corruption, that to find someone not asking for a bribe is the exception. Example for a quick ten dollars at the airport the check in guy will reduce your excess baggage quota, hard cashes no questions. Just hand over the dollars quietly.

Want to drive your car thru check points with a suicide bomber ready to go, would not require much more. In we had heard that there were three bombers/bombs ready and in place in Kabul prior to this mornings attack. And that is only the media’s grapevine; as per usual all the so-called security experts with their contacts knew nothing or had any warning.

Reality check. Foreign or International Security Companies in Kabul/Afghanistan are now (8 years into this war) are having trouble holding onto there own staff. Run by foreign companies that are only in Afghanistan to suck money from International organizations from the NGO’s (Non Government Organization’s) to Multi National Companies. These Security companies under pay their local so badly that it is now common knowledge that the Taliban pay a monthly salary that is 25% more than foreign security companies offer the majority of its security staff.

The Taliban is clearly and openly offering better employment opportunities, rather than the corrupted official channels or even worse foreign security companies who are sucking the blood out of the capital and this country.

It is pathetic to try and grasp how bad it has become in the capital, you are know at this point that honestly, it is dog eat dog. Yes you survive for today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow. Nobody cares as long as someone is making more money.

This is the “Winnable War” reality check.

Flying back to London offers no solace for within months no doubt I will be back there and it will only be worse.

Military & Govt Officials will massage figures to give the appearance of it is all going to plan in the coming months, I have honestly given up on truth in any respect to do with Afghanistan.

Covering war zones I get to see a very small but honest part and after a month in country the gut feeling is that after 8 years of rebuilding, reconstructing, retraining, 98% of the population hates and loathes the US and its Allies, for what it has done and is doing now.

In regard to the other 2% I have seen, all is well, by the way in a mountain village high in the mountains of Southern Afghanistan with no water or power the local school bus has a farm tractor and you know what children laugh as they climb up to go home.

A six year old asks nothing more than a chance to grow old and prosper. In Kabul on that, 8 people lost that chance and multiple more injured will never get the chance to grow old and prosper.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Highway to ($)War

Zabul Province

It is not the fighting season, but more than anything the war of words thousands of miles away seem to dominate issues here. Sitting in a FOB (Forward Operating Base) in Southern Afghanistan we have been affected by weather for the last week, missions planned are cancelled due to weather. So far we have had everything from rain to snow and freezing winds blowing off the mountains, which means that air assets cannot fly and without air all missions are grounded.

If anything this has given me time to look behind some issues in this war, whilst Senior Administration figures continue their drive to put more troops into the battlefield here, figuring that more numbers will solve the war here, it is also a desperate gamble of a punter on a losing streak who believes that eventually luck will turn his way

Perhaps it is time to start looking at issues that they would like to ignore for on the ground the reality can be only to obvious.

It should be noted that the US Government via the Dept of Defense is funding the Taliban. Forget the Opium and Poppy trade that is small money compared to what Uncle Sam is indirectly giving the Taliban.

Food, water, toilet paper and anything else you care to think about has to be trucked from the main US Military Base in Bagram, just North of Kabul to the main battle arena of Kadahar and Helmend in the South. There exists one and only one road, Highway 1. A never ending procession of trucks bring supplies down this route every day.

As part of reconstructing the economy of Afghanistan it was decided to award the trucking contract to six local companies. All very well connected with the upper echelons of the Government here, via family or tribal connections. The value moving the logistics required to fight the war is estimated to be worth close to $2.2 billion.

These civil convoys by law are not allowed to arm themselves with anything more than a rifle such as an AK47. And the warlords who control vast stretches of these roads have no such morals, together with the Taliban they control the Highway to War.

Thus the local trucking companies who want to ensure their lucrative multi million dollar contracts are happy to pay between 10 and 20% to ensure that their convoys reach the battlefield. Taking the low percentage 10% of $2.2 billion dollars, means that the $220 million dollars is going indirectly from Uncle Sam to the Taliban to support their war efforts against the foreign troops here.

It is not a matter of the US Military turning a blind eye to the issue, they know it is happening and whilst it annoys them deeply, they are with like so many other issues in Afghanistan, powerless to end it let alone figure out how to stop it.

In the coming months, thousands more troops will be deployed, meaning that more trucks will be making the trip down the “Highway to War”. More trucks, more corruption, more money for the Taliban. Whilst we wait out the winter, the Taliban may not be as active fighting the war, but their war chest will be reaping the benefits of the surge, one truck at a time.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Life in Gitmo


Starting another embed involves moving sometimes accross the country on mujltiple flights taking days, Saturday's move to our next embed was a simple matter of being picked from our hooch/bunkhouse/room driving five minutes across the airfield base and turning into another camp, within a base.

Now not all room are created equal and our room was basically a 10 x 8 feet (not meters or yards) plywood box, in a building that must of been built around Sept 12th 2001. These were without doubt the oldest buildings I had come across at Kandahar. within the block there are 6 identical plywood boxes, no windows but a plywood square over a hole cut in the wall.

Sparsely decorated is a way to describe the bunk bed and nailed up table in the corner. For Greg and I it was easier if either one of us wanted to get anything out of a box or bag for the other to step out of the suite. After Greg had lost the pick which hand the bullet is in as to who gets the bottom bunk in Khost a couple of weeks ago. He immediately grabbed the bottom bunk, the only thing he forgot was that the only heater in the room was directly above the top bunk, effectively he had chosen the coldest spot in the whole Gitmo cell with a cold breeze coming in through gaps in the plywood.

By 4:30 am, he could stand it no more and asked to change bunks a i was lying there with barely my sleeping bag on. Given that any movement on the top bunk made enough noise to wake the dead, we swopped over. I barely noticed the cold and slept for a few more hours.

Come 7 am I wanted to get a run in before the day started and we were to move to another province with the embed. Closing the door to the Gitmo cell i put the latch across as i did not want to let the door swing open and cold air in the cell.
50 minutes later getting back from my run the door is till closed, I open it to find Greg there cross legged holding up a water bottle that is green in color. I had by mistake locked him in the cell and the call of nature in the morning had found him a prisoner.

So another night was over and if anything a funny start to another day in the war zone.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Under the Boardwalk

Kandahar Air Field

There is no doubt that General Mc Crystal is not happy with the lifestyle of troops at the ISAF base here in Kandahar. The reality is that whilst many consider that Kandahar is a key strategic location in the war, the place at times resembles a shopping mall.

Consider what is on the main area known as the boardwalk, a wooden enclosed square purpose built entertainment area. Starting by the Tim Horton’s (Canadian) Coffee shop overlooking the rink, where hockey and football are played. Past the Kebab shop whose slogan is Gyros for Heroes, next to the 24/7 Pizza Hut, which attracts a crowd of all night and day. They also offer home delivery to your bunkhouse or office. Then there is the Subway store and the Burger King, which has a sign apologizing that the Whopper is not available at the moment.

Sunglasses or lingerie no problems available at the Oakley franchise on the corner. Continuing along there is the Canadian PX store, no to mention the German PX and the French PX, which also includes a patisserie offering smoked salmon baguettes and croissants freshly, baked. The Dutch PX is off the boardwalk but like the French is a two storey complex where Play Station and Plasma TV’s are available.

The American PX is modest by the standards set by other nations, offering the necessities of life here similar to other American PX’s in Afghanistan.

If there is a danger at Kandahar then obesity rates higher than the threat faced by Taliban. Watching soldiers from various nations shoveling pizza down at 8am is not unusual, and these are not guys who are dirt encrusted from days out on operations.

When you consider that to put a US soldier into the war her costs approx a million dollars per deployment, you do start to question what the hell is the need for a shopping mall in war zone. It seems like some are more concerned with the frills of life than the mission.

There are DFAC’s (Dining Facilities) all around the base offering food and drinks over four meal sittings a day. All fully paid for and staffed by third world nationals earning a minimum wage catering to troops based at Kandahar.

For soldiers on the frontline a meal from a bag and water sustain them and they enjoy a far greater satisfaction from their efforts than the troops based at Kandahar Air Field. If as much effort was put into the war itself and less emphasis on maintaining a lifestyle enjoyed at home, then after 8 years would we still be bogged down in a war that is going from bad to worse with each passing month.

I have learnt to tune out to the words of Senior Officers as they describe how well it is going, because I heard the same words eight years ago. One soldier barely twenty years old by his appearance told us that the US defeated the Taliban after seven months. Which puts the war at an end in July 2002. Well a 300% increase in attacks on coalition forces between 2007 to 2009, a figure stated by General Mc Crystal reveals the ignorance of some soldiers, as to how the fight is going.

Perhaps that is why we are hearing that the boardwalks days are numbered and whilst it may only be a small step, hopefully actions like that may refocus some soldiers minds on the operation, because if things have not turned around drastically within a year the war can be clearly be termed a complete failure and hundreds of lives will have been lost for no reason and the Taliban, like the Viet Cong in Vietnam will claim victory and world opinion will be with them.

I never doubt the resolve of the young soldiers I meet and film at Combat Outpost’s for they are true heroes. But for a dose of reality the big news of Boardwalk yesterday was that donuts were once again available at the Tim Horton’s Coffee Shop.

The war continues.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Airport Chaos

Kabul Airport
The fact that a taxing plane wing misses the terminal building by less than a meter. Gives you any indication of the safety standards that operate at the airport.
Travelling here is never easy and lets face it flying from Kabul to Kandahar is not a route or destination of ones own choosing .
It was decided yesterday that we should cover the troop surge announcement from Kandahar rather than the bureau in Kabul, which was a former brothel called Paradise. Now online or telephone booking is impossible because you cannot factor in bribes and corruption online .
So a 4:30 start involves traipsing to the airport waiting in the cold damp dawn whilst our fixer does what he has become an expert at obtaining the impossible at a benefit to the airline staff, paying twice the ticket price and getting a boarding pass that has no destination, no name and no seat number.
As he said just sit anywhere
Another day in Afghanistan begins