Afghanistan: Stories from a decade of conflict

Western forces ousted the Taliban but the insurgency continues. Civilian and military deaths are on the rise and the Afghan government is in a fragile state. What hope is there for the country?

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The Independent Online

Ministers were "mortified" by the Prime Minister's decision to agree a plan to withdraw British troops from the country by the end of 2014, a senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) source revealed yesterday. Britain's defence chiefs are now resigned to a "face-saving" retreat from Afghanistan within three years, amid concerns over the timetable set by David Cameron.

The British military is preparing to abandon Afghanistan to its fate, with little certainty that the local security forces can protect the fragile democracy established since the Taliban were overthrown. The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, has told international leaders that Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) cannot deliver "governance and the rule of law" in time for the handover of responsibility for security.

The revelations come as Geoff Hoon, the Labour defence secretary who sent British troops into Afghanistan in 2001, confessed that no one believed they were committing their forces to a war that would last a decade. "I don't think anybody ever put a timescale on it, but I don't think anybody thought we'd still be significantly involved in Afghanistan in 2011," he told The Independent on Sunday.

The MoD now fears that the Afghan National Army (ANA) could be seen as "an occupying force" in parts of the country when Isaf leaves, as it does not have enough ethnic Pashtuns from the south among its ranks. The Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, has been warned that Afghanistan's long-term security will depend on persuading neighbouring countries, including Pakistan and Iran, to help stabilise the administration of President Hamid Karzai.

"When we first heard about the 2015 date, we were mortified," a senior MoD source told The IoS. "It wasn't part of the plan as far as we were concerned. We have since fallen in behind it but it will be a face-saving withdrawal. Nobody thinks it is going to be perfect when we leave. It is just a case of getting out of there.

"The problem is, the Afghan army as it is presently constituted does not represent the Afghan people. There are too many Pashtuns from the north, which will mean they are still essentially an occupying force in the south."

Nato's hopes of pacifying Afghanistan before withdrawing have been dealt a blow by a dismal report from the United Nations, which warns that security incidents and civilian casualties have risen significantly during the past year. The UN Secretary General said the average number of incidents – including suicide attacks – to the end of August was 2,108, up 39 per cent compared with the same period in 2010. The toll of 1,382 civilian casualties between June and August represented an increase of 5 per cent.

The assessment of the "disconcerting levels of insecurity for the Afghan people" conflicted with Nato's own appraisals, which have repeatedly suggested violence was on the decline. Isaf claimed a quarter of the UN's figures were not included in its definition of security incidents.

But, in his report to the UN Security Council, Mr Ban said: "I am deeply concerned about the increasing number of civilian casualties and the effect that the armed conflict is having on civilians caught in the middle."

He complained of an "imbalance between the emphasis on security and governance and development", and that "development, governance and the rule of law cannot be delivered in the three-year timeframe to 2014 set for the transfer of responsibility for security".

The new study, given to The IoS by Exclusive Analysis, added: "The Taliban are confident of their staying power, especially in the south and east, and their key leaders continue to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan."

President Karzai raised questions yesterday over the chances of a political settlement, when he said trying to talk peace with insurgents was futile and that Pakistan – not the Taliban – needed to be the other party in the talks. The President, who has been pushing for years to reconcile with the Taliban, said the effort was no longer viable since a suicide bomber claiming to be a peace emissary from the Taliban killed former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani at his home last month. Mr Rabbani was leading Mr Karzai's effort to broker peace with the Taliban.

The statement, in a video recording released by his office, came as Nato-led forces said they had captured the senior commander for the Haqqani insurgency network in Afghanistan. Haji Mali Khan was picked up during an operation in eastern Paktia province last week.

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan, The IoS talked to a few of the countless people whose lives have been touched, and in many cases changed for ever, by the conflict.

Zarghuna Kargar

Fled to Pakistan before seeking asylum in the UK



It was winter 1994. I was about 11. We were stuck in Kabul during the war until there was a peace deal for one or two days, and we just packed our clothes and left. I went back for the first time in 2005, with the BBC. I was working for Afghan Woman's Hour. It was very shocking because I still remembered Kabul as a green city. It was more destroyed than I remembered. It was completely changed. The people were different too, looking at women in a weird way. The war has affected me very badly because I still have nightmares all the time. I wish I was in my own country still. Losing your home, losing your childhood friends, losing contact with your really close relatives – all these things are very emotional. In 2005 I had so much hope, especially for women, but slowly it really got worse security-wise and it's very scary now.

Paiman Arafar

Plays the lead character in the Pashtun soap Salam



Under the Taliban we didn't have TV in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were here, people were brainwashed and there are some people that still have that mindset. Things have changed, but not much; the change is in very small steps.

Afghanistan is a difficult place to be an actor, and it hasn't got much better. A lot of people don't respect actors and they don't like to speak to you.

I'm from a simple family. I don't have a car, so when I walk around people stare at me. I get called bad things because people don't have much trust in acting or TV. It's not just me; most actors have these problems, especially the women. It's difficult for actors in Afghanistan to have a normal life.

Sometimes I get calls giving me warnings, saying "'you have to stop acting". I'm Pashtun and from Farah province, and when they know I'm from there and acting they don't like it. My drama is against narcotics, and people have called me and said that it must stop.

I live in Kabul, which is fine. But outside of Kabul, even in the next province, life is a big problem. It will get better, I think; the government is trying its best.

Gary Berntsen

Led the CIA's Jawbreaker team at Tora Bora



On the morning of 2 November 2001, I found myself in a walled compound in the Panshir Valley in Afghanistan, with a group of CIA paramilitary officers and a US army special forces team. This group within the hour would deploy on to a battlefield where a Taliban force of 15,000 had our allies, the Northern Alliance, outnumbered 3-1. I told them: "steel yourselves for what lies ahead."

For the duration of the invasion and expulsion of the Taliban, the British delivered big on operations. Critical among these was their uncovering of the plan for an al-Qa'ida follow-up attack to 9/11 against US, UK, Australian and Israeli embassies in Singapore.

Aside from denying al-Qa'ida Afghanistan as a continued base of operations, the most important aspect of the invasion was the liberation of Afghan women from a homicidal regime that violated their human rights. Expelling the Taliban in 2001 and blocking their return to savage millions of innocents is a just cause.

Haji Mosa

His relatives were killed in a raid by Nato forces



I lost my brother, brother-in-law and a nephew in one single night two years ago, when Nato forces raided our house on a false report that there were Taliban there. I hope no one else experiences what we went through that night.

We saw the helicopters as they landed near our house. My nephew Janan ran towards his house and I heard gunfire. I heard an explosion in our courtyard, and another explosion breaking all the windows. My brother Mosa Mohamad had gone into a barn and was shot there. It was like doomsday. When I heard the shootings I thought everyone at home was dead. Later I found women surrounding Janan. They told me he was dead.

Nobody likes the foreigners; they have brought misery in Afghanistan and created disunity. My brother was such a harmless person. I loved him because he was my only brother. The incident had a great impact on us: I have to look after 35 people, including orphans they left behind.

Shafiqa Mojahid

Kabul police officer and widowed mother of one



I became a police officer because I wanted to serve the people of my country. Then two years ago, my husband was killed by a roadside bomb left by the Taliban. That made me even more determined to help to bring security back to Afghanistan.

I wear normal clothes on the way to work and then change into my uniform at the office. A woman on the public bus is already an unusual sight – but everyone will stare at a woman in uniform on the bus!

There are several thousand female police officers now but that is still not enough. We need more. It makes women more comfortable to report crime if they can talk to another woman. We also need more women in managerial positions who can support us and take us seriously. It will change. My life is always changing. Sometimes it is very hard when the suicide bombers come. And I miss my husband. But on the whole, I am satisfied.

The past eight years have been a mixture of good and bad for me. In my professional life, there have been lots of changes for the better. I have a better salary and my rank is now third lieutenant. I can buy better food for my family. But my private life has been difficult. I want a better future for my daughter. I want her to grow up in a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. I want her to be able to get a good education and do what she wants to do. But I will be very happy if she decides she wants to be a policewoman too.

Sir Richard Dannatt

Former chief of general staff



I visited 16 Air Assault Brigade in June 2006. 3 Para had been involved in a fierce firefight at Now Zad. We wondered whether this was simply the Taliban testing our resolve, or was it a sign of things to come? By my next visit in September we knew the answer. The Taliban were going to contest our presence in Helmand. This was to be no "reconstruction and development" mission and we had made a major miscalculation. I knew that we had to get the full story out into the public domain, increase our strength in Helmand and fully resource our operation. To do that meant completing what we were doing in Iraq, focusing our efforts on Afghanistan and getting the MoD, the Government and the nation to realise we were effectively at war.

Mir Hussain

Star of The Boy Mir documentary now in cinemas



My biggest fear is having, like I did as a child, to flee the village and walk through the mountains in winter. I remember we lived on dried apricots and it was so cold. Some children died but their fathers couldn't dig a hole in the ice to bury them in. And all the time everyone was afraid of the Taliban who, if they'd seen us, would have tortured and killed us. It was a long, long journey. And so, so cold.

I have seen foreign troops in my village only once. They gave us four notebooks and left in a hurry. I can buy notebooks myself in the local bazaar. If that's all they do, they should leave. They seemed as scared of us as we are of them. We used to love seeing them because it meant no more Talib but we're not bothered by the Talib any more. I'm more worried about what I will do now I am an adult. I get work wherever I can but it is often hard or dangerous.

Nafisa Jalalie

Runs a clothing company in Kabul with 15 staff



Some days we didn't even have rice or oil. My husband, a taxi driver, had his car stolen by the Taliban. They said if he didn't give it to them they would kill him, so we had no income and no food.

My daughters weren't able to go to school for four years and we weren't allowed to walk on the street at all. We had to leave our house in Kabul.

Life is very good now. My husband is working again as a taxi driver, as my business has given us the money to buy him a car. I don't know what will happen in the future. I am worried about the foreign troops leaving as I don't want the Taliban to be able to establish themselves again. If this happens, this will make our lives very difficult and we would have to leave again.

The biggest obstacle to peace is the Taliban and other insurgency groups from other countries including Pakistan. This makes the security of my family and other people very difficult.

Ben Parkinson

Britain's most seriously injured soldier, lost his legs and suffered brain injuries in Afghanistan in 2006



I never thought I would die. The first thing I remember is my mum putting my baby son in my arms, so I've always known that things would get better. My son was born when I was unconscious. I didn't even know I had a son and then all of a sudden I'd got a baby. That made me very, very happy. What's kept me going? I'm a soldier and that's what soldiers do. And my mum keeps pushing me and willing me to get better. Afghanistan will work out in the end, I think. I know I'm getting better, so my injuries don't matter that much to me. I've met some wonderful people that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been injured. I get massive support from other soldiers – it's just one big family. I don't have any memory of Afghanistan. It's wiped out three years. I fought in Iraq and memories of that have gone as well. And of all my injuries – the loss of my legs, the loss of my speech – it's the loss of my memory that's bothered me the most.

Geoff Hoon

Former defence secretary



When 9/11 happened I went into a whole set of meetings with the Prime Minister, and by the end of that day it was pretty clear to me that British forces would soon be in action in Afghanistan.

I was aware of the risks. Part of my job was to minimise those risks, but not to the extent of not taking action. I always made a point of writing to family members when there were casualties.

Our involvement was the right thing to do, but we recognised that Afghanistan was not going to be sorted out purely by military action and that there would have to be a partnership with the people to achieve that.

I don't think we were in any doubt that this was going to be a long haul. I remember being shown a map in late 2001 that showed Afghanistan like a giant clock face and we were working our way around it.

I don't think anybody ever put a timescale on it, but I don't think anybody thought we'd still be significantly involved in Afghanistan in 2011.

I don't believe that any secretary of state who took the decision that I took would look the families of our troops in the eye and say anything other than this was the right thing to do. It is important for the families of those still fighting there that they have the backing of those who take these decisions and everyone else in the country.

Bob Shepherd

Ex-SAS soldier and author. Worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan as a security adviser from 2004 to 2010

"I have been caught up in a couple of very bad suicide bombings, one in Kabul in 2006 and one on the outskirts, in Logar Province, in 2007.

One second you're in conversation with a bunch of local people, laughing and joking and sipping green tea, and a microsecond later the birds have stopped singing, the leaves have fallen off the trees with the pressure of this large explosion and people's limbs are hanging from those trees.

Things like that stay with you. These kids were playing round you seconds before and now they're in several pieces, and parts of them are dangling off barbed-wire fences and trees. And, yes, it's completely and utterly shocking.

I don't care who you are – you can't just walk away from that and have a cup of tea and a chat and forget it. It does live with you.

The next big phase for Afghanistan is all-out bloody civil war – just like the situation between the Russian era and the Taliban era. And one of the big lies that has been going on for a long time from our politicians, diplomats and generals is the claim that we are fighting an insurgency in Afghanistan. In my view, we have never been fighting an insurgency. We went there in 2001, we took one side of a civil war – ie, the Northern Alliance – and then, in 2006, we sent our troops down to Helmand to win the hearts and minds of the people who were on the other side of the civil war!

I really think it's time to stand up and be honest and say for the last 10 years we've been lying, we've completely messed up, it's cost hundreds of British lives, thousands of Afghan lives, and God knows how much of British taxpayers' money has been thrown into a big black hole."

General Sir David Richards

Chief of the Defence Staff

"When I commanded Isaf [the International Security Assistance Force] in 2006 and 2007, I had around 35,000 troops. The current commander, General Allen, has 130,000. We had just taken on Kandahar and Helmand and were working to meet the challenge. Returning to Afghanistan now, as I do often as Chief of the Defence Staff, it is clear that communities are changing. More security and more commerce mean that, in a few years, areas riven by fighting are approaching normality.

This transition is neither uniform nor irreversible, but with the courage of Afghan forces, our own and our allies now in sufficient numbers, Isaf is delivering what we knew in 2006 was the right strategy but seemed unattainable – protecting the people from the Taliban they consistently reject. We don't seek a perfect Afghanistan, but one with a government and security forces robust enough to stand up to domestic aggression.

The military effort has clear direction and energy and is entwined with the development effort. Preparing the Afghan forces underpins everything, while supporting the economy will embed the successes we have begun. Military force alone isn't the answer, but it can't be achieved without it. The country can be very proud of what their Armed Forces are achieving in Afghanistan."

Warrant Officer 2 Mick Flynn CGC MC

Soldier

"During my three tours of Afghanistan in 2006, 2008 and 2011, I have seen many changes.

Back in 2006, when we first went into Helmand, there were high hopes that we could carry out our work there and leave without bloodshed. Well, that didn't happen. We've discovered to our cost just how tenaciously and well the insurgents can and will fight. However, Helmand is getting more stable every day.

What frightens me is the use of everyday objects to build deadly improvised explosive devices. The insurgents make them out of batteries, tools, bits of pens and the like. In the early days, it was the soldiers themselves who unknowingly gave them to the children – we learnt that mistake the hard way.

My biggest personal worry now is that my sons, both of whom are in the Army, will find themselves out in Afghanistan and in danger. The security situation is getting better and better – thanks, in large part, to our work – but, like any parent, I'll always be concerned about the safety of my kids.

So, as I reach the end of my time of going on operations, a whole new set of worries will take over for my wife and I."

Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb

Soldier

"It is all too easy to forget the dark forces that orchestrated the murder of just under 3,000 innocent souls, multi-faith alike, in a few short hours on 11 September 2011. The call to remove an increasingly unpopular Taliban regime, who had provided those murderers with status, safe haven and a home from which to prepare and execute their damned plan – and then refused to give them up following the attack – to me, as a soldier, was simply a no-brainer. To have not sought retribution against both would have been unworthy of what this nation has stood for these last centuries, and unworthy of us as British, 67 of whom died in the Towers.

Our armed forces and the intelligence community of this country did what we were asked to do. But there was no master plan in September/October 2001 to rebuild a democratic Afghanistan, nor a strategy to stay there. Others decided on that course of action and that fateful amendment saw us underinvest, over-expect and under-resource the campaign. In doing so, we failed to consolidate our immediate gains and in those preceding years lost both the momentum and the initiative.

The moment that stands out for me in ten years of campaigning was not crossing the border in 2001, nor walking through Kandahar as the Taliban regime collapsed less than a month later. It was the 23 August 2009, as I returned to Afghanistan again, and it was General McChrystal's assessment, which was the defining moment and one that set out a radical change to a failing campaign... As sure as day follows night, the Taliban will not return in strength. They will, of course, be part of the political, tribal and social canvas that is Afghanistan but they will not lead it, and that offers choice and, by Afghan standards, the possibility of a damned better future."

Dr Paul Miller

Former director for Afghanistan at the Whitehouse, and adviser to George Bush and Barack Obama

"For the first time, we have seen significant military progress over the last year and a half. The Taliban are plainly under pressure because of the surge of US troops. Sadly, however, the Afghan government is still weak and corrupt. International assistance to the Afghan government – which was the weakest and most broken in the world in 2001 – has never been commensurate with Afghanistan's level of need. The vast bulk of money is spent training Afghan security forces and building expensive infrastructure projects. Those are important initiatives, but there has been an obvious imbalance in how aid is allocated over the years.

The result is a strong Afghan army and a weak Afghan government. This may – barely – succeed in forcing the Taliban from the field of battle by brute force and denying safe haven to al-Qa'ida and other terrorists, which would be an important victory. It is not a recipe for long-term development, let alone democracy, in Afghanistan – a significant failing, though comparatively less important than denying safe haven to al-Qa'ida.

On balance, Afghanistan will probably end up better off than it was under the Taliban, which is a pretty low bar, but less well off than it could have been under a more competent, co-ordinated and well-funded state-building effort. Afghanistan's weakness, corruption, and malgovernance were not inevitable; and, contrary to popular myth, are not the perennial condition of the country

The biggest mistake the international community could make right now is to withdraw military forces too quickly, or to let donor fatigue set in. Afghanistan's periods of stability have always been subsidised by international patrons, which is not a sign of failure but a recognition of its geographic and economic realities. If stability in Afghanistan is important to the international community, we will have to keep enough troops in country to train up Afghan security forces and, even after withdrawing international military forces, continue to foot the bill for years to come. Considering what is at stake, that is a small price to pay."

Ahmad Khalid Majidyar

Senior research associate, American Enterprise Institute, Washington

"Ten years ago, I lived as a refugee with my family in Peshawar, Pakistan. Life for the Afghan refugees was rife with hardship; opportunities were scant; the future looked grim; and return to Afghanistan under the Taliban was neither possible nor desirable.

All this changed with the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan a month later.

The forgotten Afghan nation came into the international limelight. With the help of the world community, the Taliban's tyrannical regime was replaced with a new democratic system; girls schools reopened after five years; women regained the right to work; more than three million refugees returned home; Afghans chose their leader in free elections for the first time in their history; and, most importantly, the new era presented the Afghans with new hope for future.

As a humanitarian worker with the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) in 2002, I helped tens of thousands of Afghan refugees who voluntarily repatriated. They had boundless optimism about a better future and a firm determination to rebuild their country. In 2003, I returned home after 11 years, and worked with the BBC and an NGO for women's empowerment. I left Afghanistan in late 2005 to complete my higher studies in the West.

My parents, my brother and close relatives and friends are in Afghanistan. And I am worried about them. And I am worried about the future of my country. Violence is at its worst in ten years and the Taliban has made a comeback in parts of the country. And the possibility of a return to the 1990's era civil war looms large as the US and Nato troops are rushing for an exit by 2014.

Only a long-term commitment by the international community can salvage Afghanistan. A premature abandonment will undo gains of the past ten years and yet again change Afghanistan into a failed state and a haven for terrorist groups such as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida."

Saad Mohseni

Chairman of Moby Group and owner of Tolo TV, the country's most popular network

"In absolute terms, everything has changed. If you take a step back, we have more roads, more schools, more electricity, more access for media and access to education for girls. The way the country looks has changed and the way people behave has changed. There's more confidence. It's so different from 2002 – then, people were like zombies, walking around in a daze and so shocked after five years of the Taliban. The way people live is different, too: many more people live in cities.

The single biggest achievement for Afghanistan since 2001 has been the media. There are hundreds of channels, radio shows and publications. The media has played an important role in changing Afghanistan for the better.... The most important thing is empowering the public. There's a soap opera, for example, which shows a woman who is intelligent and plays an important role in the household; or we have a version of The Apprentice, with people pitching their business ideas. All of these things have had an impact on people feeling free and able to laugh at themselves; they are giving them role models. In terms of news and current affairs, we expose corruption and debate every issue. That's important.

These are all positive changes. But the disappointing thing is that expectations were not managed and people were promised too much. Most people don't feel the country has a future. They're not confident about how weak the government is on issues of governance and economic development. People feel depressed at how things have slowed. The government hasn't been able to deliver on its promises, particularly on economic development and education.

There's a feeling of helplessness, especially with younger people. The country has changed but the confidence is not there. The civil war in the 1990s took Afghanistan back two decades and it will take a generation to fix it."

Sabrina Saqeb

Women's rights activist and former MP

"After 30 years of war, I got the opportunity to run in the parliamentary election in 2005. And I had the privilege to take office as the youngest member of the Afghan parliament. I worked for five years, together with the other 248 representatives, 67 of them women from all over the country. Today, besides being a young politician, I see myself as an advocate of women's rights and human rights.

The reality is that, on the one hand, there is war going on in Afghanistan but, on the other, life is going on as well. We have girls not only going back to school but also playing 30 different kinds of sports – some of them, such as football and boxing, are known best as boys' sports. These are some examples of how things have changed on the ground. Afghanistan's democracy is a baby democracy, and there is a need to hold the hands of this baby and teach him how to walk. We may fall down once, twice or ten times, but, finally, we will learn how to walk alone.

Yet there are many risks threatening our achievements. It will be a disaster if we fail to secure these and bring about more development: it will not only victimise the innocent men, women and children of my country by poverty, violence, illiteracy, war and terror, but once again this could be a real threat to the world's security and history might repeat itself."

Ben Roberts

From Chelmsford; did two tours in Afghanistan while in 1st Battalion Royal Anglian Regiment. He left the Army in 2008

"When I first went to Afghanistan in 2002 I was fine, but when I came home I started changing. I didn't notice anything different about myself, but my friends and family did. People saw me become more aggressive and moody.

By the time I went back to Afghanistan in 2007 things were getting much worse. Then, on the day I was due to come home, I was with the medical officer when children just two and three years old were brought in. The Taliban had blown up women and children. I straight away helped but those images have stayed with me.

After I left the Army I started having panic attacks, flashbacks and night sweats. I was always having nightmares about children getting blown up.

Soldiers have a tough image and aren't supposed to show any emotions but having post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD] has affected my relationship with my family and my fiancée. I can't watch anything on television about the war. It brings back memories, particularly of the many great blokes we've lost from 1st Battalion.

Even though I have PTSD I don't want to spend my life looking back. I'm not going to mope or sulk. I'm determined to get rid of this PTSD and to move forward with my life.

I think all soldiers are doing a great job out there. We are making a difference. The soldiers are protecting this country and I have so much respect for them. I'm so grateful that I'm alive, because my friends sacrificed themselves to protect me. I must live a good life and help other soldiers in memory of them."

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