Last Night's TV: Afghanistan: War without End?/BBC2
24 Hours in A&E/Channel 4
Thursday 23 June 2011
About 20 seconds into John Ware's film Afghanistan: War without End? there was a heart-lifting shot of a Chinook landing in an Afghan compound, bright purple smoke swirling into the vortex created by its blades. It was a strangely lovely thing to look at – if you could detach it from its context – but unfortunately it was the only thing to make you smile in an hour-long account of the gap between Western fantasies and Afghan reality. Not a good choice as an anti-depressant, obviously, a documentary about Afghanistan over the past 10 years. But even after you'd made allowance for that the film still managed to lower the spirits.
Ware started with the US government's plans for war lite, a response to the attack on the World Trade Center, which aimed to get the job done fast and relatively cheap. There may even have been a degree of wise strategy in this. As Osama bin Laden's son later made clear what his father wanted most was to lure the US into a long and costly war on his home ground, grinding out their willingness to interfere in the Islamic world just as he'd helped to grind down the will of Soviet Russia. And though it's a reflex in some quarters to assume that only stupidity and arrogance have directed American actions over the past 10 years, it's surely conceivable that someone in Washington saw the trap and thought it was avoidable.
What they hadn't reckoned for – after the unexpected speed of the Taliban's defeat – was that the trap would simply reset itself if they didn't pay attention. Unfortunately, Donald Rumsfeld and his colleagues weren't interested in stabilising Afghanistan permanently, only in securing Kabul for long enough to install Hamid Karzai as the new president. And greedy for an uncompromised revenge for 9/11, which meant that when Karzai suggested co-opting the Taliban into the political process Washington refused. Ten years, billions of dollars and many lives later the Coalition has just brought itself to do what it could have done for free in the immediate aftermath of the war.
Internal evidence suggested Ware wasn't exactly looking hard for proof of success. "The biggest single mistake? Just one? Iraq," said a UN interviewee, hinting at a question that hadn't exactly been neutrally phrased. But then evidence of failure and error isn't very hard to come by. Visiting Lashkar Gah for the first time, the then Foreign Office minister Kim Howells discovered a lawless country where the drug caravans had anti-aircraft weapons and there was no centralised authority. Afghanistan was feudal, breathtakingly corrupt and fissured by tribal rivalries. In Helmand, even the director of education couldn't read or write. And yet the plan was to turn it into hotter, dustier kind of Belgium in just three years.
When the powers that be back in Britain were warned that this might fanciful they simply ignored harsh realities in favour of their own fantastical projections, a recurrent factor in Western approaches to Afghanistan, and one that should make anyone wonder about David Cameron's confident predictions that British troops will be out of the country by 2015. Already, the strategy on the ground has had to be adapted several times and that ambitious plan for pacification considerably adjusted: "Our expectations changed from Belgium in three years to Bangladesh in 30," said one observer, harshly schooled by Afghanistan's notorious reluctance to comply with Western timetables. One sensed, very wearily indeed, that in 30 years they might still be trying.
This week's The Apprentice was the episode where they take a short trip abroad, the remaining 110-per-centers heading off to Paris to flog British designer goods to French retailers. Announcing that she knew nothing about France, had never been there and didn't speak the language, Susan thrust herself forward as project manager, and rapidly confirmed that she hadn't just been modestly self-deprecating when downplaying her skill-set: "Do the French love their children?" she asked, as her team pondered whether to try and flog a collapsible child's car seat. On the other team, Melody, who would sooner paint her face blue than be modestly self-deprecating, ignored the fact that Tom was project manager and took all the decisions anyway. Unfortunately, she took a huge wrong one, dismissing Tom's hunch that the car seat would be a big seller and effectively robbing her team of a £200,000 sale. Fortunately, she had Leon and Tom sitting next to her in the boardroom so there wasn't the faintest possibility that she'd be taking the black cab home. As the prospective sackees did their edifying imitation of crabs in a bucket she ended up on top. Leon – who had been almost struck dumb by Melody's ability to speak another language besides English – headed off, bravely asserting that Lord Sugar was the real loser in this decision.
24 Hours in A&E continues to be strangely engrossing. This week, it focused on Jen, the tough-looking casualty nurse. "I must admit I've got a bit of a warped sense of humour," she said."Like that guy who'd been shot in the penis... That made me laugh for a whole shift." You can't blame her for looking on the funny side, though, given that the alternative would be a shriek of despair. Every shift is a long haul through other people's folly and vice, particularly when, as in last night's episode, two stab victims arrive simultaneously and their respective gang brethren have to be dissuaded from notching up more cases in the waiting room. Helmand doesn't look that far away sometimes.
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