Helmand River revisited

Jun 12, 2007 13:11 UTC

 A few days ago I wrote in this blog about how the Helmand
River valley was rendered fertile by an ancient irrigation
system built by the Pashtun tribes in the area. As diplomats
here have pointed out to me, thats only part of the story.

 A look at a map of Lashkar Gah shows the extent to which the
contemporary geography of the entire province is a far more
recent creation. The provincial capital was in fact designed and
built by the Americans in the 1960s, complete with an
American-style grid layout of streets, about 20 kilometres from
the mediaeval commercial centre Gereshk. At the height of the
Cold War, when Washington and Moscow were competing for
influence in Afghanistan, U.S. engineers built one of the
biggest overseas development projects in history, the giant
Kajaki dam at the top of the Sangin valley, and the Helmand
River Valley Project below, which extended the ancient
irrigation system with a vast network of modern canals and

    Thirty years later, securing the dam and the road leading to
it are now the main objectives of U.S. and British forces in the
area. Theres a lesson about the extent to which massive
aid projects and military interventions, since the British and Russians
first plotted and counterplotted here in the Great Game of the
19th Century, have never yet succeeded in buying the long-term
political influence that planners in foreign capitals intended.

A British soldier stands in front of a school during a patrol in Mukhtar

“There’s been a fatality.”

Jun 10, 2007 16:03 UTC

Those words, spoken by Captain Jim Bewley, our British Army media operations chaperone, are the worst you can expect to hear when embedded with forces in the field. This was the third time I have heard such words while out with British troops.

Deaths are part of war, and soldiers are trained to accept them. But for a reporter, they can test your relationship with the men and women around you.

Perceptions matter. Suddenly, some of the people who may have tolerated a journalist as a harmless civilian in their midst are bound to see you as a pest, or worse: a ghoul out to
make a fast buck off a widows tears. (For the record, I get paid a salary, not by the story. I earn just as much if everyone comes home safely.)

Cooling off

Jun 8, 2007 14:46 UTC

Stewart shook me awake around dawn in the small room where they barracked us on the base in Sangin. The squaddies had made fresh porridge, a rare break from rations. It was in the headquarters building across the canal that runs right through the compound. You arent supposed to go more than 20 metres on the base without helmet and body rmour, so I suited up and hurried over.

Bellies full of oatmeal, we were given a briefing by the company commander, Major Jamie Nowell, and his staff, then sent out into the ruined town on a patrol with a young captain and a group of Afghan police. The battles fought here by British paratroops last summer have become legendary, and the first few hundred metres outside the base were lined with ruined buildings blown to smithereens in the months of fighting. But when we turned a corner onto the main road, we saw the largely intact bazaar coming back to life in the few weeks since peace has returned.

In all we marched just a few kilometres over three hours, but it was gruelling work in the hot noonday sun. On our way back, we saw most of the shops shut and the shopkeepers sleeping in the shade: no one works in such heat. Masood bought a dozen cold sodas and we gave some to the soldiers on our patrol.swimming1.jpg

Back to the Land

Jun 7, 2007 21:26 UTC

Before I joined Reuters I worked in Africa for a while, where I developed a strong sense of how geography shapes civilisation. The quality of land, access to water, distance from markets — all these can sow the seeds of conflict. Nowhere is a better example of this than Afghanistan, and I often try to throw a little geography lesson into my stories.

Afghanistan, and Helmand Province in particular, has some of the most extreme geography on the planet, and a quick helicopter flight over the area, like we had this morning, tells quite a tale.

The desert and mountains are utterly incapable of sustaining life. Except for the Helmand River itself and its scattered mountain tributaries, there is simply no water. All along the
river is an intensely fertile, heavily populated crescent where centuries ago the local Pashtun tribes carved immense networks of irrigation canals. Truly, these are wonders of engineering. The canals need to be constantly maintained in order to make the land arable, which is backbreaking and expensive labour. That means most people have access only to very small plots of usable land, and to survive they need to grow the crop that produces
the most value out of the smallest possible plots. That, of course, is opium. Other crops may be cheaper or easier to grow, and many people say they are opposed to opium on principle. But few other crops can produce enough income to feed a large family with only a tiny plot of fertile land.   soldiers2.jpg

Back in Bastion

Jun 7, 2007 14:58 UTC

    We have hit the ground running. No sooner were we
comfortable in Kabul then we were whisked off in the back of a
Hercules cargo plane to Camp Bastion, the tented camp for
British troops in southern Afghanistans poetically-named Desert
of Death of Helmand province. The camp, as a British sergeant
once reminded me, is not far from where an entire British
brigade was wiped out in the Afghan wars of the 19th century.
The Baluchi and Pashtun tribesmen who first called it the Desert
of Death named it well: it is about as forbidding a landscape as
Ive seen anywhere. Flat and dry as the moon, covered in pebbles
and grey dust like talcum powder. Blisteringly hot in the summer
and (as I learned last December) freezing cold in winter.

    Camp Bastion was set up just a little over a year ago and
has grown rapidly. The British are in the process of nearly
doubling its size. It is still quite Spartan when compared to
the luxurious digs on the big American airbase in nearby
Kandahar. Parts of it still smell a bit of sewage. But its a
whole lot nicer than it was a year ago. They have added a very
nice bar, with lots of TVs (But no booze. Unlike the American
military, British forces allow drinking, but not at frontline
posts like Bastion.) They have at last brought in a railway
box-car containing what promises to be Helmand Provinces first
Pisoldierszza Hut, but its not open yet.                                                           





 Which meant that when we arrived after dark we were stuck on
British Army rations. I had the infamous biscuits, brown with
chilli beef paste, every bit as yummy as it sounds.

In Kabul nothing changes, everything is changing

Jun 6, 2007 11:06 UTC

Welcome to the blog of our reporting trip to southern Afghanistan. I’ll be your host, Peter Graff. I’m the Reuters London defence correspondent. This is my sixth trip to Afghanistan since 2001.

I’m travelling with Stuart McDill — a Reuters TV cameraman trying to shake off a bout of flu — and Ahmad Masood, a photographer from our Kabul bureau.

The Kabul bureau is where I am sitting now. It’s a remarkably pleasant little villa around the corner from a whole bunch of embassies in what has always been an expensive part of town.

From green to black at G8

Jun 5, 2007 18:35 UTC

The U.N.’s top environment official flourished a bright green tie to help celebrate World Environment Day.

“We’re breaking through,” declared Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme, about what he sees as growing impetus towards a global deal to fight climate change after years of frustrations.

Fewer and fewer people doubt that human activities, led by burning fossil fuels, are heating the planet, he told Reuters over a cup of coffee in an Oslo hotel.

Home Chicago – journeys end after 2,500 miles

May 25, 2007 20:24 UTC

Twelve days and more than 2,500 miles ago we left Santa Monica, California, bound for Chicago along old Route 66. That journey ended today as weve arrived at our destination.

We just had lunch with our boss (Midwest Bureau Chief Peter Bohan, upper right) at Lou Mitchells, the last of our trip.
This famous diner almost right at the eastern end of Americas Main Street and is renowned as a starting point for taking Route 66 westward almost everyone else goes west.

Linda Carnes, one of the waitresses here, said to say hello. She said the last time they put me in the paper, I got hate mail.

One piece of advice for the Dixie Truckers Home

May 25, 2007 20:00 UTC

Dixie3.jpgThe Dixie Truckers Home in McLean, Illinois, off Interstate 55 and alongside what used to be Route 66, may not be the first American truckstop. But it’s definitely one of the oldest — and one of the most revered among aficionados of the old cross-country highway.

Opened in 1928, just two years after Route 66, the Dixie Truckers Home survived the federal highway’s decommissioning in the early 1980s and continues to serve as a home away from home for long-haul truckers and other road warriors and travelers.

If there’s a downside, it’s this: The original owners sold the Dixie a few years back and the new owners seem more interested in making the place a comfortable one for modern travelers than in preserving the old ambience (though they have opened up a Route 66 memorabilia room.)

Breezy stroll on Route 66s most famous bridge

May 25, 2007 19:36 UTC


This bridge was once the point at which Route 66 crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Now there is a picnic table near the middle and the closest you can get to being run over is by a short-sighted cyclist.

This is the Chain of Rocks Bridge named for a seven-mile stretch of rocks under the water stretching north of St. Louis which once carried cars and trucks over the river on their way east or west.

Built in 1929 as a toll bridge, it is roughly 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) in length and has a 22-degree in the middle of the river to enable navigation. From the late 1930s until the completion of the New Chain of Rocks Bridge just a little further upriver for Interstate 270, this bridge carried all Route 66 traffic.