One shot. Six kills. On a superficial level the killing of a group of “Taliban” with one shot at considerable range is an impressive feat of arms. Among the soldiers involved there would have been much back-slapping, I guarantee. Perhaps the Sun newspaper's grotesque “Millies” military awards will give the lad who pulled the trigger a prize for his marksmanship much as they did to another sniper last year. On reflection, however, such an event is little more than an example of the mad luck which governs war. But this case also raises an important question - the great unmentionable if you will: The issue of who, exactly, we are fighting.
Given that the Taliban don't carry ID cards, and that my former employers at the MoD lie and deceive the public as a matter of course, I am not inclined to simply trust their word that everybody or even a majority of the people we have been killing (and who have been killing us) can easily be lumped under the neat heading “Taliban.” Combatants, certainly, but not ideological Islamists in the sense that we have been encouraged to believe.
An obvious recent example of this is the case of Marine A. The Afghan killed appears to have been called “Taliban” by the press as either a matter of reflex or, or likely, because so much of what is reported today about the military is cherry picked directly from MoD press releases. He may well have been a hard-core Talib, but little evidence has merged to support that assumption. I don’t doubt he was shooting at occupying troops but such behaviour is hardly the sole preserve of Taliban.
I’ll give you another example, this time borrowed from a former Australian army colonel turned military thinker and darling of neo-con hawks named David Kilcullen. Not your classic woolly lefty by any means. The second chapter of his excellent book The Accidental Guerrilla opens with a telling anecdote. A group of “Taliban” ambush a US Special Forces patrol in 2006, killing and wounding a number of them pinning them down for many hours.
Now this initial group may have been bona-fide, card carrying members of some hypothetical Taliban trades union but what is far more interesting is that during the firefight, for miles in all directions, locals who were otherwise unconnected with the Taliban downed tools, fetched their personal weapons from their homes and scattered caches and quite independently trudged along to take a few pot-shots at the foreign soldiers. After the fight they simply melted back into the Afghan wilderness. They were not coerced by the dastardly insurgents and they were not themselves radicals or even foreign fighters. They were military age Afghan men for whom a foreign, occupying presence was intolerable.
What is apparent to me as a veteran, but has remained largely taboo in the media at home, is that we have not been fighting a fixed and easily identifiable group known as the Taliban but rather the irate population of Afghanistan. Rather than simply accepting what we are told, this year of all years, with the WW1 centenary and some degree of Afghan withdrawal upon us, is it worth taking stock.
The Helmand handover in numbers
The Helmand handover in numbers
The number of British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2001 (of around 3,000 total coalition deaths). The vast majority of deaths have been low-rank soldiers killed on foot while out patrolling. 226 of those were caused by explosives and 116 were shot. Accidents such as vehicle crashes have accounted for 34 of the total deaths, with 21 caused by other causes including friendly fire and suicide.
2/6 23,000 sq mi
The size of the Helmand province – roughly half the area of England. The region is a mixture of mountains, farmland and desert, with three main groups (tribal warlords, Taliban leaders and drug traffickers) controlling the area prior to the arrival of Western troops.
Percentage of the world’s non-pharmaceutical-grade opium produced in Afghanistan. Helmand has long been the centre of this production and the UK army was sent to the province with the aim of stopping this illegal trade. Between 2002 and 2013 the amount of land given over to opium production rose from just under 75,000 hectares to 209,000 hectares – more than enough to exceed global demand.
The approximate number of personnel first sent to the region. The majority of these were engineers and support troops meant to help with the reconstruction of the region, with only roughly a quarter of the initial deployment actual combat infantry.
The peak number of British troops in the region in 2011. Five thousand troops will remain in the war zone until December at Camp Bastion under US command, with 57,000 more Isaf troops (the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force created in 2001) remaining in the country. The majority of these are American and plans for their departure are still unconfirmed.
The number of vehicles and major pieces of equipment in the province waiting to be redeployed. All of these must be cleaned and fitted for transport with A 25-tonne Warrior armoured vehicle taking roughly three days for a team of three working 8 hours a day to get ready for transport. So far, 1578 vehicles and items have been redeployed from the front line for future operations. Remaining kit will be auctioned off.
When I was in southern Afghanistan it quickly became clear that terms like insurgent, Taliban, anti-coalition militia were virtually meaningless as the local population began to violently reject our presence in what Kilcullen himself terms an “antibody” response to the unwanted foreign presence. That is, of course, if you accept that those terms had any real meaning in the first place. Moreover, my enduring impression was that they were used virtually interchangeably anyway and mainly to make us all feel better about ourselves as the military operation slid beyond our control.
These labels and more besides have long since become part of the white noise of post 9/11 propaganda. Though this reality is not yet fully apparent at home, history will attest to it. Personally, I have known for some time that there is far more to Britain's violent occupation of Afghanistan than a simple case of “Our Brave Boys” against “Terry Taliban.”
It reminds me of an anecdote from the late Tony Benn. As a young lad during WWII, he had been summoned to the Home Guard to learn how to be an insurgent. The nucleus of an underground resistance was being built pre-emptively in case the German’s invaded mainland Britain. A campaign of shootings and bombings would have been launched against occupying troops as they patrolled, performed sentry duties or relaxed off-duty. In other words, a popular insurgency against a foreign military occupation.
That invasion never happened. But had it come to pass we can rest assured that even the most adamant and bloodthirsty supporters of the Afghanistan or Iraq occupations would stop short of write off or lump together plucky British insurgents as extremists, despite the obvious parallels.