Afghan Journal

Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics

Cold War flashbacks as Americans rebuild Soviet tunnel in Afghanistan

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Under blazing June sunshine in the Hindu Kush mountains, U.S., Russian and Afghan officials gathered by the entrance of the Salang tunnel, arguably the most important stretch of highway in Afghanistan, linking the country’s south with its north.

They had come to celebrate emergency repair works carried out by the U.S. government on the 2.6 km (1.6 miles) of concrete passageway that the Soviets built in 1962. Constantly congested and leaking, the tunnel is on the brink of collapse.

But what happened next was a repeat of Cold War dynamics, unfolding in a country where Soviet forces made a dispirited 1989 exit after a decade-long war against U.S.-backed mujahideen.

Twenty-two years later, the United States will soon begin a troop withdrawal from the increasingly unpopular NATO-led war now in its tenth year.

from Photographers' Blog:

Poppy politics

It's not hard to find a field of poppies in the village of Jelawar, north of Kandahar. Some are hidden discreetly behind mud walls but others have been brazenly planted within sight of the main road. During a recent patrol, I accompanied Afghan National Army Captain Imran (he uses one name) and a group of U.S. civil affairs soldiers on a tour of Jelawar's back roads as they tried to assess the extent of this year's opium production.

A large field of poppies grows on the north side of Jelawar village in Afghanistan's Arghandab Valley.   REUTERS/Bob Strong

The first field we came to was a couple of hundred meters across, filled with pink poppy flowers in full bloom. There were several men working the field and Imran asked them what they were doing. A farmer looked up from pulling weeds and said they were working on their onions. Indeed, in a poppy field the size of a football stadium there were a handful of green onion shoots pushing out of the soil. Not exactly the perfect cover, especially after the farmer admitted to planting the poppies in the first place.

from Tales from the Trail:

Training may be the U.S. way out of Afghanistan, but hurdles high

One of the strongest messages that U.S. officials tried to convey during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Afghanistan this week was that the American mission in the war-torn country is changing from combat to training, so that Afghan forces are ready to provide security for their own country after decades of upheaval, invasion and foreign occupation. AFGHANISTAN

Biden made a stop at the Kabul military training center, an expansive site about six miles northeast of the city center, where U.S. forces are teaching members of the Afghan National Army how to be part of a modern military. On 22,000 acres of  bare terrain surrounded by mountains and dotted with cement walls and the ruins of Soviet-era military equipment, Afghan soldiers are learning everything from marksmanship to logistics. The facility has even had two all-women officer training classes, the first in the deeply traditional Muslim country, not for combat but for functions such as finance and logistics.

from Photographers' Blog:

Life and death on a medevac helicopter

An Afghan man suffering from multiple stab wounds is loaded onto a medevac helicopter near the town of Marjah in Helmand Province, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong

Taking pictures of people who are suffering and in pain is never an easy experience. From the jump seat in the back of a Blackhawk medevac helicopter, a constant stream of injured, dead and dying men and women passed in front of me during a recent week-long embed. The wounds were as varied as the patients; an Afghan soldier with kidney stones to a Marine whose legs had been nearly severed by an IED blast.

An Afghan man holds his daughter onboard a medevac helicopter after she was shot in the ear during a gun battle between Marines and insurgents near the town of Marjah, in Helmand Province, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Bob Strong The medevac helicopter crews were part of the 101st Airborne Division based at Camp Dwyer, a dusty Marine base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.  During my one week embed with Charlie Company, I would generally work from 6am until it got dark around 7:30pm. The busiest times of day seemed to be in the morning and then again in the afternoon, but calls were received 24 hours a day. About 50% of our patients were Afghan nationals, both military and civilians; with injuries ranging from amputated limbs blown off by IED’s to stab wounds from domestic disputes. The military medical facilities offer the same level of care to locals and soldiers alike, in no small part to gain a bit of good will in this hostile and volatile province.

Reporting on the Afghan war: Lies and Truths

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- An U.S. Army soldier takes photos of the eyes of an Afghan man at a checkpoint near of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) Tillman November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

A U.S. soldier takes photos of the eyes of an Afghan man at a checkpoint near Forward Operating Base (FOB) Tillman, Afghanistan, November 24, 2009. REUTERS/Bruno Domingos

“How can you live with your conscience reporting Taliban propaganda?”

The agony of Pakistan

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PAKISTAN-VIOLENCE/

It must take a particularly determined lot to bomb a bus full of pilgrims, killing scores of them, and then following the wounded to a hospital to unleash a second attack to kill some more. Karachi’s twin explosions on Friday, targeting Shia Muslims on their way to a religious procession were on par with some of the worst atrocities committed in recent months.

It also came just two days after a bombing in Lower Dir, near Swat, in which a convoy of soldiers including U.S. servicemen were targeted while on their way to open a girls school. Quite apart from the fact that the U.S. soldiers were the obvious targets, the renewed violence along with fresh reports of flogging by the Taliban calls into question the broader issue of negotiating with hard-core Islamists as proposed by the Afghan government just over the border.

Canada’s soured Afghan mission

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If you want an idea of just how much the Afghan experience has soured for Canada, look no further than a furore over allegations that officials may have committed war crimes by handing over prisoners to local authorities in 2006 and 2007.

The accusations flying through Parliament — not to mention a cartoon portraying the Prime Minister as a torturer — cannot have been what Ottawa expected when it committed 2,500 troops to Kandahar in 2005 on a mission that has turned out to be much bloodier, longer and expensive that anyone had calculated. At best, Canada’s dreams for Afghanistan are on hold: the Taliban is still strong, corruption is rampant and there is little sign of the major development that Ottawa hoped for.

Will voters in your town believe Karzai is worth dying for?

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Karzai reviews honour guard ahead of his inauguration at his sprawling Kabul palace on Nov. 19
In his inauguration speech on Thursday, Afghan president Hamid Karzai promised to combat corruption and appoint competent ministers, heading off the growing chorus of criticism from the West that his government is crooked and inept. Unsurprisingly, the Western dignitaries in the audience declared that they liked what they heard.

We predicted ahead of time that we would hear positive words about Karzai this week. After all, Western governments need to convince their own voters back home that the veteran Afghan leader’s government is worth sending their sons and daughters to die for. This autumn’s election debacle made Karzai look bad – a U.N.-backed probe found that nearly a third of votes cast for him were fake — but now that’s all over and the West needs him to look as reliable as possible.

Fighting an insurgency: you are only as good as your interpreter

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AFGHANISTANSome of my nastiest moments as a war correspondent in the Caucasus and Central Asia had nothing to do with bullets, explosions or tanks. It is one thing to cover a conflict where you speak the language and quite another when you don’t. Working with a poor interpreter is worrisome at best, downright dangerous at worst.

I got by most of the time by speaking Russian, which is not an option in Afghanistan today. A recent PBS documentary on the conflict showed a U.S. squad in one isolated village having great difficulty making itself understood properly because the interpreter was second-rate.

Pomegranates, dust, rose gardens and war

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s1On a hilltop in central Kabul, the relics of Soviet armoured vehicles sit in the shadow of an incongruously vast and empty swimming pool. A tower of diving boards looks down into the concrete carcass built by the Russians. Boys play football there and on Fridays the basin is used for dog fights; combat is the only option for the canine gladiators, as they cannot climb up the sheer, steep sides. From the vantage point you can see the city’s graveyards, its bright new mosques, the narco-palaces of drug-funded business potentates and the spread of modest brick homes where most Kabulis live. It’s a favourite spot for reporters when they need to escape the press of urgent events and get cleaner air in their lungs. 

For years journalists have sought to tell stories that go beyond the conflict in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to portray this country – the crossroads of central Asia, the summer home of Moghul emperors, the cockpit of clashing empires – as more than a place of blood, deprivation and extremism. Amid the dust and the heat it has its oases of tranquility, its laughter and its charms. From the market stalls of sweet pomengranates that line the road in autumn to the rose gardens newly planted in central Kabul, Afghanistan is a place of thorny history, cultural complexity and spartan beauty.

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