It's strange being back in Afghanistan for the first time in 4 years and not getting to see any of it, often the way on an embed with the military. It seems so far removed from the life many of us led here in 2001, living with the people(well the men anyway!),and the rag tag mujahedin of the Nothern Alliance day by day, reporting on the B52 aided demise of the Taliban state as we moved from town to town on unmetalled roads that seemed to never end, with views of the Hindu Kush i wished never would.
As interesting as embeds can often,but not always, be, the one thing they lack is any connection with the real world around you. One can go to endless briefings and speak to soldiers with the best intentions in the world, but without the ability to converse with the indigenous population what kind of a picture do you come home with, how do we know if our "ethical foreign policy" is really working out, that we'll be able ultimately to eradicate poverty and the root causes of terrorism and oppression?
What i have gleaned from a night time patrol with British soldiers in a small dusty town north of Kandahar, was that the locals seemed relatively friendly, but not exactly breaking a leg to come over and have a chat and thank these young men for giving them the "security" that comes with a large deployment of western soldiers on their doorstep. The men were often sat cross-legged chatting quietly in groups outside their homes, relishing the break from the unbearably hot days as we walked past unannounced in our body armour in single file through the shadows. Only the dogs seemed to take any notice, as in Iraq they welcomed us from a distance, sensing our smell i guess, warning others of the impending presence of the Foreign invaders. From what the Paratroopers told me, the the young men in one of the villages further north often throw stones at them as they patrol. Take from this what you will, I'm merely the messenger, passing on the scraps that I've managed to gather.
The largest of the military bases i've visited is situated around the Airport outside Kandahar, the first and only place U.S troops in any numbers fought for in 2001,and a one time Russian Military base in the 1980's. It's now a home not only for Americans, but also Rumanian, Dutch, Australian and British peacekeepers with a Burger King, PizzaHut(which delivers), Subway and a Starbucks style coffee house where handsome young fighter pilots drink Iced Frappe Latte's in between missions.
I'm stuck here for the next few days with nothing to do except wander aimlessly around the immense, dusty camp in the searing 46 degree heat between my poorly air conditoned tent,which is unbearable during the day, and past the junk food trailers to the American PX, where soldiers fill up on Gatorade,body building pills, and gun magazines. Fat KBR contractors tend to buzz around the Pizza Hut trailer like flies on shit, whilst they rake in thousands of dollars a week, to sit in air condtioned pickup trucks, occasionally fixing a broken generator between mouth-fulls of pizza and chewing tobacco. The Afghans only get to empty bins and mop floors, for security reasons, earning wages that i can't imagine make much of an impact on the local economy. Of course U.S Vice President Dick Cheney continues to make a fortune from this perversity, along with may others in the West. When i tried today at the Launderette to say hello and ask how they were in my few words of Pashtu to the workers who were sullenly mopping the floor around my feet and emptying the bins, they responded with a silent glance whilst being sternly observed by a surly Russian woman, who herded them from trailer to trailer.
I wonder whether their fathers had the same kind of jobs twenty years ago, when the Russians were in our place, with the same promises of democracy, education for all, economic stability, and a modern way of life ? Of course in those days there were also bearded, religious zealots in the hills ambushing military convoys with weapons bought with foreign money, garnering popular support amongst the remote villages where they would seek refuge when the helicopters gunships would come to hunt them down.
When i first heard the news, months before an announcement was made in Parliament, that British troops were being deployed to the badlands of Afghanistan, i welcomed it. For the last five years it has seemed as though not enough was being done outside of Kabul, with our european allies reluctant to weed out what was left of the Taliban, for fear of losing lives, and to invest in the infrastructure of a nation that was far more fragile,at risk and dilapidated than Iraq. America was the only nation with enough troops on the ground trying to finish the military side of the job, hunting down Bin Laden etc and clearly making a mess of it on their own. Hopefully "Operation Mountain Thrust" or Mount 'n' Thrust as us cynical journalists like to call it will be a success and not just another excercise in alienating the majority of the population who are sick and tired of political and religious rhetoric and thirty years of war. The British generals and politicians in briefings tell us it's about building roads and schools,literally,with a smattering of military support, but we all know its really about killing