Sunday Oct 12

There is something sinister about the Chinook helicopter, like a giant, dark insect bearing down from the skies to disgorge battle-weary soldiers amid clouds of hot dust. When I think about war, whether it be ones I have reported in Iraq or Afghanistan or seen in Vietnam movies such as Apocalypse Now, the soundtrack in my head is always that of the throbbing blades coming closer and closer.

Last week I sat perched inside a Chinook flying over Helmand, trussed up in flak jacket and helmet, squashed between some Royal Marines arriving for a six-month tour. Unable to talk over the loud rotors, some had earphones attached to iPods. Others, like me, had to make do with yellow military-issue earplugs and spent the journey watching the gunner scour the parched land below through the open back.

For long distances there was nothing to see but our dark shadow skimming across the desert. On the horizon was a camel train, perhaps carrying the opium that will end up as heroin on British streets. Temperatures can exceed 50C out here, and the one mudwalled settlement we see seems to be sinking into the sands like an ancient ruin. Miles and miles from anywhere, we fly low over a man with a cloth turban wrapped round his head and a small herd of ragged brown sheep. He does not even look up.

What does he think about these foreign soldiers flying back and forth, I wonder. I wonder the same as we swing round into a patch of green trees and the Helmand River, swooping low over compounds where I can see colourfully dressed women and children. We have come to help them but it looks like anger in their faces.

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The Chinook comes down to land in our own heavily fortified compound in the centre of Lashkar Gah and the marines and I jump out and run, trying to escape the burning powdery dust that gets in through the bandannas and goggles we all wear. Thirty-two British soldiers were killed during the last six-month tour – another 170 were injured – and I study the eager faces of the troops, many of whom are young enough to be my son, knowing that some of them probably won’t make it back home.

Until recently I used to argue confidently that we needed more troops – and more helicopters – in Afghanistan. As a novice reporter based in the Pakistan border town of Peshawar in the late 1980s, I had grown to love this harsh but beautiful country and felt personally betrayed at witnessing how we abandoned Afghanistan after backing its mujaheddin to oust the Soviet Union.

We paid for it with 9/11 and shouldn’t make the same mistake again, I declared to anyone who would listen. And, unlike the Iraqis, the Afghan people wanted us there.

When British troops arrived in force, in what we all described as “the lawless province of Helmand” in 2006, I was one of the first reporters out here. Embedded with the paras, I felt it was a worthy mission and a great adventure, until one afternoon we were ambushed by Taliban in a muddy field. I realised then that politicians back home might be talking of reconstruction and not firing a single shot, but this was war. Two and a half years, a doubling of troops to more than 8,000, and several million bullets later, British forces may hold five small districts in Helmand but the local governor himself says the Taliban control at least half the province.

As for the rest of the country, in all but the north the picture is unrelentingly grim. An aid worker smuggled me security maps compiled by the United Nations (no longer made public because they reveal just how bad things are). These show the relentless sweep from Helmand and the south across the country of pink, which represents “uncontrolled hostile environment” – no-go areas. In 2005, when the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), which included British military personnel, was active in the country, there was not a single pink patch; today more than half the country is pink.

Violent incidents have gone up from 44 a month in 2003 to 573 this year, and more than 4,500 people have been killed this year. In June and July the Americans lost more troops in Afghanistan than Iraq.

Most alarming is the way Kabul has been encircled by the Taliban, prompting a sense of being under siege both among Afghans and foreigners, behind their concrete blocks and armed guards. Of four highways into the capital from the south, east, west and north, built with hundreds of millions of foreign aid money, only the northern route is considered safe. Even that has become prone to rocket attacks.

So as I jumped out of the Chinook in Lashkar Gah, lugging my kit, I wondered what we British are actually achieving in this faraway country where all our previous engagements, since our first military expedition 170 years ago, have ended in disaster.

That evening I had dinner in the cookhouse with Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who has just finished his tour as commander of British forces in Helmand. He told me over turkey escalopes and chips washed down with Ribena that we should stop thinking in terms of defeat and victory.

“We need to lower our expectations,” he said. “We’re not going to win this war; it’s about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that’s not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army.”

In his view we should be concentrating on building up the Afghan army so it can defend itself – and trying to achieve a political settlement that might well involve giving some power to the Taliban.

It was refreshing finally to hear some openly expressed realism. Over the past year diplomats and military officials have been saying much the same privately. One Foreign Office official confided that he had written in a Whitehall memo that Afghanistan was “going to rats”. Publicly, however, everyone still insisted on painting a rosy picture. With the fiasco of the war in Iraq, no one wanted to own up to the fact that it was going even more wrong in the land of the Hindu Kush.

Carleton-Smith’s remarks were quickly dismissed as “defeatist” by Robert Gates, the American defence secretary. But the Old Etonian is a former head of the SAS with stories of derring-do in Iraq and Afghanistan to make the hair curl and described by those who know him well as one of the bravest men in the British Army.

The brigadier’s candour ignited a worldwide discussion that was even taken up in last week’s presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain. His assessment was backed by the draft of an American National Intelligence estimate leaked to The New York Times. The report, which combines the views of all America’s 16 security agencies, describes Afghanistan as being in a “downward spiral”. Accusing President Hamid Karzai’s government of “rampant corruption”, it casts serious doubts on its ability to stem the rise of the Taliban.

“We are spending our blood and treasure for what?” asked a senior Nato officer angrily. “For an Afghan government that is spending its time lining its pockets? It’s time to think about what we are doing and what we are really trying to achieve.”

Back in Kabul, the sensation of the Taliban approaching the gates of the city has led to a frenzied fin-de-siècle atmosphere. Among the foreigners in their ever more fortified homes, every night seems to be party night, with people drinking heavily and bemoaning the fact that their cooks are leaving because they fear they will be targeted for working for foreigners.

One night I even lay on cushions in a friend’s garden drinking Chilean merlot and watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull projected onto the back wall while surrounded by armed guards and barricades.

It was odd to think that the Taliban were patrolling villages only an hour away, switching off music at wedding parties and threatening anyone who worked with the infidels.

One morning I met Abdul Karim Khurram, the rotund information and culture minister, who comes from a village an hour and a half from Kabul. “I used to go home every weekend,” he said, shaking his head. “But the security situation is so bad I haven’t been able to go for the past year.”

Khurram may be the information minister but he is definitely not on message with the new Afghan Presidential Media Centre. Funded by America as well as with £1.7m from Britain’s international development department, this was a Nato idea, emerging from belated recognition that the Taliban were far better than the international community at getting their message out.

The Taliban may be known for smashing up television sets when in power, but they have developed a sophisticated communications operation with websites in Afghan languages and English and mobile phone videos that they send out. Their spokesmen use satellite phones to speak to Afghan and international journalists and are adroit at exploiting Nato errors, such as airstrikes that kill civilians.

Nato officers complain that the Taliban exaggerate or simply lie. Increasingly frustrated by the Afghan government’s slowness at responding, as well as differences in message between them and their international backers, they turned to new Labour’s masters of spin and brought in Allan Percival – a retired civil servant who was deputy to Alastair Campbell at No 10 and then press minder for Derry Irvine, former lord chancellor, to help draw up plans for the centre.

Apart from polite signs asking visitors to leave their weapons outside, it looks like a modern media centre complete with conference hall with plasma screens (and plastic flowers), a garden with chairs, rooms full of computers and even a lounge for visiting journalists. “The words ‘white elephant’ spring to mind,” said a UN official.

The problem is, there’s not much good news to put out. This does not deter Thomas Niblock, an irrepressibly up-beat American who is senior adviser at the centre. “You’ve got to distinguish between perception and reality,” he said. “The perception may be bad but the reality is there are millions of Afghans getting on with their ordinary Afghan lives.”

I pointed out that it is Afghans as well as foreigners who say it is too dangerous to travel on the roads. I listed examples such as the information minister I talked to and a friend at the Afghan Women’s Resource Centre who can no longer visit her projects in provinces neighbouring Kabul.

“It’s a two-sided coin,” he replied. “Yes the highways have security issues but on the plus side the drive time has reduced.”

Noting that the plaque on the centre’s door describes it as the Presidential Media Centre, I asked if President Karzai would be carrying out the official opening next month. “No, security is not good enough,” replied Niblock. The presidential palace is just a mile down the road, mostly through streets closed off to the public.

The Niblock thesis that insecurity might simply be perception is not much consolation to the terrified man I met secretly the next day. For 15 years Ahmed Bachar looked after the children of the province of Logar – orphans and those whose fathers had lost legs or eyes to the war that has gone on for three decades. Bachar made sure they got to school, had something to eat and had somewhere to sleep every night.

After the fall of the Taliban regime, he started receiving international aid money. This enabled him to arrange a proper building, books, clothes and occasionally even balloons and kites for the children to play with. Two months ago masked Taliban came to his house one night and accused him of working with foreigners and threatened to kill him if he did not stop. It was no idle threat. One British aid agency estimates that there is now a beheading every other day.

“I was terrified,” he said. “But I look after around 200 children aged from five to 16 and didn’t know what would happen to them if I stopped.”

So he went to the mosque and told the local community. It was a risk: among those gathered for prayers were local shopkeepers and farmers who he knew donned masks at night and joined the Taliban patrolling the streets. The Eid holiday collection of 50 afghanis (about 58p) per head, which usually goes to the poor, had been commandeered by the Taliban.

But the people beseeched him to stay. “We need you to look after our children,” they said. “We will talk to the Taliban and ask them to let you continue.”

A few nights later the Taliban again dragged him out of his house and told him he could stay as long as he broke off all association with foreigners.

Bachar was not convinced. Now in hiding in Kabul with his five daughters and two sons, he said: “Maybe 80% they leave me alone, but 20% chance they kill me. The problem is, I cannot trust the government forces to protect me. The police only want bribes from us. We are caught between the two.”

Tears spilling from his eyes, he is clearly racked with guilt. “I have sacrificed the orphans for the safety of my own children,” he said. “Who will care for them now?”

Bachar’s case, in a town just an hour’s drive from the capital, is typical. Although the coalition can defeat the Taliban in direct battle, what the Taliban do is control the terrain psychologically.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Taliban are not the only source of violence. Like a franchise of the disgruntled, there are also militants from the Hezb-i-Islami of the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Al-Qaeda militants from the Jala-luddin Haqqani network based in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan, drug networks, armed criminals and corrupt elements inside and outside the government. With most of the population unemployed, there are plenty of people who will happily fire a rocket for a few dollars.

“It’s not the Taliban that are winning – it’s the government who are losing,” says Haroun Mir, deputy director of the Afghan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.

“The Taliban are mining in a sea of acquiescence, a sullen, frightened acquiescence,” agrees a western diplomat gloomily. “If you ask people, they don’t want Taliban; but if it’s a choice between them and corrupt, predatory government, they prefer Taliban.”

If there is one positive to be found in the mess, it is that from London to Washington all agree that the situation is critical and things have to change. The Bush administration is conducting its biggest review of Afghan policy since 2001, with the intention of coming up with a new strategy. Both US presidential candidates are falling over each other to say which would do more. Karzai is coming to London next month for his third meeting with Gordon Brown in a year.

Concentrating minds is the fact that an Afghan presidential election must be held next year. Registration is just getting under way but most concede that in the current security situation this will be impossible in large swathes of the country.

Everyone from Carleton-Smith to the Danish foreign ministry is now advocating talks with the Taliban. Contacts began last month under the auspices of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who invited delegations from the Afghan government, the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s group to an iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast. The next meeting will be in Germany.

The contacts so far have been informal. Although Mullah Motaqi, deputy to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, took part in the Saudi meeting, some within the Taliban leadership argue that they have no need to talk because they are winning and will soon exhaust the stamina of Nato countries.

“They know they can’t outfight us but they clearly believe they can outlast us,” says Carleton-Smith.

The government is not the only one talking to the Taliban. Former mujaheddin leaders under the command of the religious figure Pir Gailani have begun their own negotiations with the aim of forming a united front for the elections.

The other hope is that with General David Petraeus taking over at US Central Command – which covers Afghanistan – after his “surge” success in Iraq, he will be able to focus minds and resources on this other war. America has already indicated that it will send three more combat brigades, the first by Christmas. This is expected to go into Logar, where the governor was assassinated last month and three US soldiers were recently killed.

“We don’t have the resources to hold the ground,” says one Nato officer. “The enemy is out-producing us and that’s got to stop.”

He points out that while Iraq is a third smaller in population and terrain, it has an army of 600,000 and more than 160,000 coalition forces. “By contrast, Afghanistan has only 80,000 indigenous forces and 51,000 Nato – of which, when you consider those who are here for the fight, not just tree-hugging, that’s 28,000.”

The United States is investing heavily in training the Afghan army, but even if it meets its targets, its strength will be only 134,000 in two years. On Friday the Pentagon resorted to agreeing to tribal militias, despite fears that this will further empower warlords.

This is not to say that there have been no successes since 2001. The number of Afghans with access to basic health facilities has risen from 9% to 85%; the number of children enrolled in school from 3.7m to 5.7m (although there are 12m under 15); and 8,170 miles of roads have been built. Private television stations and newspapers have sprung up and many Afghans have mobile phones. But it is not enough.

Much of the capital remains without water and light, and Kabul’s once-sparkling river through the centre is clogged with garbage and sewage.

It is easy to point out mistakes such as not having enough troops to start with, when the Taliban were still weak; allowing the warlords to remain powerful; not engaging in enough nation-building; and letting the Afghan government get away with corruption. But it is less easy to see the solution.

Amid the atmosphere of fear and loathing in Kabul, almost all the lead-ing actors are engaged in the blame game. Karzai spends weeks on end cooped up inside the Arg, the presidential palace where so many of his predecessors were horribly murdered.

Two months ago he stormed out of a meeting with both the British and US ambassadors and the Nato commander over highway security when they refused to fund his idea for creating a highway police force and empowering communities along the roads.

So bad is the situation that British and American forces are indirectly funding the Taliban as they get their own fuel and water supplies through. The private contractors they use estimate that 25% of the $4,000 per truck paid for security ends up with the Taliban.

Karzai’s relations with the British have long been strained over what he saw as their support for Pakistan. They sank to a new low last Christmas following what he regarded as their freelance attempts to talk to the Taliban in Helmand and his refusal to accept Lord Ashdown as special envoy after having previously agreed to it.

Recently he also took on the United States, going so far as to threaten to expel American forces in his fury over the killing of as many as 90 civilians in a bombing at Shindand, which America initially denied.

Karzai believes that an article in The New York Times last week, which repeated allegations that his brother Ahmed Wali is a drug lord and was based on a briefing by American officials, was deliberate retaliation for his criticism.

It is hard to find anyone in the international community with a good word to say about the man they chose to lead Afghanistan because he spoke good English and looked good. Influential Afghans echo their dismay.

“He’s so indecisive that he will offer X a post in the morning, then give it to Y in the afternoon,” said one former deputy governor.

Ashraf Ghani, his former finance minister, said: “Instead of the order that people wanted after 30 years of conflict, they have uncertainty and corruption where just a few become obscenely wealthy. Two individuals in the interior ministry have just declared assets of $21m and $35m. In what country can you gain that in four years?” Even Karzai’s closest friends and relatives admit that only by acting tough now to sack the worst culprits might he save himself and the country.

The name-calling is not restricted to Karzai. Nato members are also bickering. There is resentment that Germany, Italy and other countries refuse to do any fighting.

Meeting in Budapest last week, Nato countries refused Gates’s entreaties to commit more troops. They also clashed over his calls for them to target drug traffickers, arguing that this would further endanger their troops. Britain’s military commanders in Helmand insist that they cannot open up another front.

For its part, Washington believes that Britain set back talks with the Taliban when its two negotiators in a private exercise last year were expelled by the Afghan government.

“You’d think that after 160 years of being outplayed by the Afghans, London would have learnt its lesson,” said one US official. Perhaps, as the Taliban fled across the border in December 2001, someone should have remembered the words of Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor on the northwest frontier.

“Unlike other wars,” he said, “Afghan wars become serious only when they are over.”

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