James Fergusson: Of course they hate us in Helmand. They are fighting a war we started 157 years ago

The British are simply outriders of the Great Satan

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There are many unanswered questions surrounding Britain's increasingly fraught deployment to southern Afghanistan, though none as urgent as this one: why us? The fierce opposition to our military presence in the region - six British soldiers dead in three weeks - was initially described by a Ministry of Defence spokesman as "unexpected". Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, has since admitted that Britain's military presence has "energised the Taliban".

Yet this response was entirely predictable. The British are not perceived as a "neutral" force in Afghanistan, and nor have they been since before the days of the Raj. Afghans call the Brits "feringhee" - a derogatory term imported from India, where it is applied to Europeans in general. In Afghanistan, it is reserved exclusively for the British. That is the measure of the singular relationship between our nations. The decision to invite Britain to inaugurate Nato's hearts-and-minds mission to Helmand province - and Britain's decision to accept - was madness. Almost any other of Nato's 26 member nations would have been a better choice.

Last week, Major Paul Blair led a company of paratroopers into the village of Zumbelay. "We are British, not Americans," he announced, through an interpreter, to locals. Soon afterwards, he and his men were answered with gunfire and grenades - a response now being repeated in the region every day. The British-not-American card was never likely to work in Helmand. Apart from anything else, British soldiers have been fighting alongside Americans in recent weeks in Operation Mountain Thrust, a renewed US-led campaign to crush what Washington is pleased to call the "remnants" of the Taliban. As many as 500 Afghans are reported to have been killed, mainly from the air. On past form, it seems likely that the dead include civilians.

"The Taliban never gather in groups of more than six or 12," according to one Pashtun source, "so every time I hear on the radio that another 20, or 40, or 50 Taliban have been killed, I know that innocent people are dying." In 1998, I met Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun warlord who sided with Osama bin Laden and is currently in hiding. "Your country may be smaller than America," one of his aides explained later, "but it is cleverer, and just as dangerous." To the residents of Helmand, the British are simply outriders of the Great Satan; the distinction between the softly-softly approach favoured by the British and the indiscriminate American "shoot 'em up" was lost long before the Helmand deployment began.

The British have conducted three military campaigns in Afghanistan, in 1839, 1878 and 1919. To the Afghans, those wars feel very recent. The legacy of Empire in the region is literally tangible. On assignment once in the Panjshir Valley, I came across a 10-year-old boy out shooting ducks with an ancient rifle. The engraved legend "VR 1840" was still visible on the lock. Pashtuns live with another sorry legacy of those days: their country's eastern border, still known as the Durand Line after an obscure British administrator who drew it on a map in 1893. In doing so, Durand split the Pashtun heartland in two. The Afghan king of the time, Abdur Rahman Khan, always claimed that he signed the treaty recognising it under duress. Millions of Pashtuns still refuse to recognise it, and ultimately hold the British responsible for the division of their tribe.

For many Pashtuns, the return of British soldiers is an opportunity to complete business left unfinished: round four in a 167-year-old struggle. They are not "Taliban", as the British and Americans keep insisting, but a rag-tag of people who have rallied to that convenient flag with a variety of motives: religious desperadoes from over the Pakistani border, poppy-farmers anxious to defend their livelihoods, Pashtuns furious with a central government that has done nothing for them in the past four years. It is not Taliban ideology that unites the opposition so much as the will to resist the infidel foreigners, perniciously meddling in their country once again.

"It feels just like the start of the [anti-Russian] jihad in 1979. The people hate the British. If they stay, there will be a lot more fighting. The international community shouldn't send soldiers anyway - they should send engineers to build roads and schools. If the engineers came from Muslim countries, there would be no problem."

His point is unassailable: in a country as ruined as Afghanistan, you do not win hearts and minds with guns but with civil engineering. Plenty of Nato armies have the capacity for that. And why shouldn't engineers from Turkey - Nato's only Muslim member - or from Azerbaijan (a member of the International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan) take the lead in Helmand? That would certainly help to assuage Islamic sensibilities. And if not Turkey, why not the Scandinavians, or the Irish, or East Europeans? Any one of them would be less provocative than the British.

With Camp Bastion, the new British HQ in Helmand, and its forward positions almost completed by army engineers, the infrastructure for the reconstruction of Helmand already exists. Our Nato allies would be welcome to it.

The morale of our troops was high last week. One officer I spoke to at Camp Bastion explained that this was because the results of their operations were so clearly visible, and that the "Taliban were obviously suffering". He was immensely proud that, so far, there had been "not one collateral damage casualty". But the British will get nowhere in their pursuit of hearts and minds if the fighting continues - and it will, if the British stay.

As the Russians found in the 1980s, the enemy they are fighting is Hydra-headed. The Durand Line is porous; reinforcements will flow from Pakistan far faster than Des Browne's ever will from Britain. The Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989 ended with 50,000 Russian deaths and a million Afghan ones. That is not an experience that Britain wants, or needs, to repeat.

The risk of terrorism at home will be increased, not diminished, by our presence in Helmand, which even our Defence secretary admits is boosting the Taliban cause. The transatlantic relationship is worth supporting, but not at any price. We do not need to shoulder this burden alone. The feringhee should swap with somebody else, at once, before tragedy turns into disaster.

James Fergusson is the author of 'Kandahar Cockney: A Tale of Two Worlds'

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