Far From the City
In case you were wondering what’s happening outside the city in the districts, here’s a story and a half.
Ghorak district is north-west of the city, and not especially important in itself. Off the top of my head, it was the first district that the Soviets abandoned during the 1980s when they started their slow wind-down and withdrawal to the city. Nowadays its only value is its use and value as a transport hub for the Taliban.
Ghorak is relatively straightforward tribally speaking. It’s somewhere between 25 and 50% Popolzai (the same tribe as President Karzai), and two other big tribes are the Alikozai and Eshaqzai (along with dribs and drabs of others). There are maybe around 8000 people living there in just over 100 separate villages, with apparently only one teacher to cater for all of them. And there are no schools in the district – just 9 ‘inactive’ schools. There are no hospitals, no health clinics, and no doctors. There is no mobile phone coverage in the district either (although I imagine that will change in the next year).
It’s also not covered by the National Solidarity Programme (the NSP) which is often touted as evidence for development going on around the country (although the reality is a lot less clear). There are supposedly just under 100 Afghan policemen stationed there, but actually there are probably only about 30 present in the district, and even then they’re only in the district centre defending the building. There is no ANA (Afghan National Army) base, and the Canadian soldiers who were stationed there left some 8 or 9 months ago.
All in all, Ghorak is pretty far away from the city, and everything that the city might be seen to represent.
It also happens to be the only way to cross from Helmand (Sangin) into Uruzgan (Deh Rawud) province. It’s an important district in terms of drug traffic being transported from one place to another. The photo above is of US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne heading out for a patrol into the section of Ghorak valley that juts into Helmand province.
I was speaking to one of the big tribal elders of Ghorak in the middle of August about the jihad in the 1980s, but he kept coming back to the attack on his family home and fort a few days before. The Taliban had killed 3 of his relatives and another 3 were wounded. I saw one of the survivors that night – a bullet had entered in his neck and exited through one of his cheeks.
This attack, the elder told me, was part of a campaign to force all the big tribal families and landowners (often the same thing) to leave the area. Of course in defending their land and tribal ‘space’ many of his family were at the same time being used by the government as ‘police chief’, ‘district chief’ and so on.
Then a few weeks later I went to see a group of policemen who had just arrived that evening from Ghorak desperately seeking help for their fellow defenders of Ghorak district centre. Their guns and RPGs lay haphazardly spread around the room as if they’d just arrived or were about to head out that moment. There were policemen from all over the country sitting in that room – in the photo below you can see some of the guys from Herat, as well as the deputy police commander – and before even speaking to them you could tell that they’d been through a lot. Their eyes were red and a little bloodshot, their faces somewhat sallow and some of the younger ones fell asleep as they sat there.
Just over 8 or 9 months ago, the Canadians and the ANA who were stationed in Ghorak left the district. They handed control over to the ANP (Afghan National Police), of which there were around 120 men. Each had an AK-47 for himself, and they also had 4 PKs, 4 RPGs and 1 mortar (that apparently didn’t work properly). They had some ammunition, but once the fighting started they soon ran out.
Their commander had to travel to Kandahar City personally to petition for more supplies for his men at one point.
Assigned to protect the district centre, these 120 policemen were marooned there for six months (“a nightmare”) under siege from the Taliban. There were four major battles, but the most recent one took place just a few days before I spoke with them. The fighting was characterised by them as “fierce”, and they lost 2 soldiers there in the 12-hour engagement.
One of those two killed was the brother of the deputy commander, Fateh Mohammad, aged 32 (pictured wearing the black turban in the photo above). They had no support during this time from the government or from the Canadians, were resupplied no ammunition, and in fact their commander had to go to Kandahar City and personally knock on some doors to get some more bullets for his men.
And don’t think that ‘going to the city’ is like travelling from Windsor to London.
All the roads leading from the district centre to anywhere else are controlled by the Taliban, as is the land surrounding those roads. At some point during the six-month siege (which you won’t have read about anywhere, by the way) things got so desperate that they decided to send men out of the district centre to summon help. Four left on foot but only two made it back alive. It took them 14 hours to walk to the nearest ‘safe’ road, and that journey took them up and down through mountains and valleys. It was, I was told, “easy to get lost in the mountains.”
They said that they’d left 25 policemen back at the district centre, but that they hoped to persuade the government to open up a real road of some sort to them at the district centre in Ghorak. “If this doesn’t happen, the place will fall any day now…” they said. The lack of any connection to the world outside their district centre building was even killing people. There were no doctors in the district and their inability to transport the injured to where they can be treated meant that policemen were dying of relatively simple wounds. Fateh Mohammad’s cousin was hit by shrapnel from a grenade (or a mortar, depending on who’s telling the story) on his ankle.
A relatively minor injury, but he lost so much blood through the wound and through lack of medical supplies that he died after a day.
They had requested air support six times during their time under siege, but no bomb was ever dropped. When they passed on the GPS data to NATO in the midst of battle, they counted on getting that support. Instead – in what they assume is hesitation borne out of a desire to avoid civilian casualties – planes simply flew past but never actually engaged the Taliban.
As I left to go home they drew my attention to one of the cars standing in the yard. One day they heard that the Taliban were preparing an ambush so some of the policemen went out to challenge them before something happened. A fight ensued, and – don’t ask me how – by the time both sides had disengaged, the Taliban had seized the two police cars, and the police had taken two of the Taliban’s vehicles. These were the vehicles that the policemen had used to get into Kandahar city on the day I met with them.
This afternoon I get a call from an old friend. “Do you want to come to the hospital?” he says. I hold my breath. Every time he asks me this question it means something has gone wrong somewhere; I worry about the friends I have here, that they will get targeted or caught up in something.
The Chinese Hospital in Kandahar city is the mirror of shadows that sometimes allows you a glimpse into what’s going on in the districts. If there was a battle in Panjwayi, the wounded end up there. If there’s a suicide bomb in town, the bodies get taken there to the morgue.
So I spent this afternoon with Hajji Abdul Zahir and several of his sons, in fact relatives of the tribal elder I met in August.
You can sort of see it in the video, but he was injured in his knee, waist, and one of his thumbs had to be amputated – none of which seemed to be causing him any pain, I might add. I did some video recording during the interview with my Flip Camera but you’ll have to excuse the fact that none of this is subtitled. It would take too long, and in any case the clip isn’t long enough for what he said to be especially interesting. I’d rather have this post up sooner than in a week when the story has taken on another dimension again. And apologies for the noise in the background; we were about 15 people crammed into a very small room and everyone was having their own discussion.
600 Taliban versus 8 men from the same family defending their house. Those were the odds Hajji Abdul Zahir and his sons faced, he told us this afternoon. They had been receiving guests for the post-Ramazan ‘Eid celebrations at their homes, as is the tradition. Not all the visitors were necessarily ‘good guys’, and they went back and told the Taliban that there were few people in the house and presumably that it wouldn’t be too difficult to mount an attack.
So a week ago the government called them on their satellite phone to warn them that there were numbers of Taliban moving in their direction and that they should expect an attack. It didn’t happen that evening, but the next morning after the dawn prayer Hajji Abdul Zahir was on the roof and he saw the Taliban setting up their weapons all around. He shouted to his sons (some of whom were in a nearby house) to come and defend the main compound.
A pair of shots rang out from the Taliban side, but nobody was hurt.
Then Abdul Zahir’s sons mounted their own attack, firing some mortars against the Taliban hiding in nearby pomegranate orchards. The Taliban responded with their own volley of mortars and the battle had started. They didn’t stop fighting until many hours later at around 11pm.
The forty surrounding houses were occupied by the Taliban, and Hajji Abdul Zahir and his sons had to defend their compound. The Taliban came up close and started firing mortars and other smaller shells (from a weapon called Agayaz in Pashtu) directly into the compound. When we spoke with the sons they were still wondering how the Taliban managed to get hold of these weapons.
The last time they’d seen them was in Canadian hands while they were working together with the police forces in the area. Maybe that’s how they ended up with the Taliban, they mused.
At any rate, it was these mortars (large and small) which caused most of the injuries. Five of Hajji Abdul Zahir’s nine sons were injured on that day – one had been killed the previous year by the Taliban, also defending Ghorak – as well as two of the women from his family. Some of his grandsons were injured, too.
The only fatality of the battle was a policeman who died stepping on a landmine when leaving the house during the battle.
The 10-year old son of Hajji Abdul Zahir was also injured – he was one of those fighting to defend against the Taliban, injured on his back from grenade shrapnel. He kept quiet about his injuries until they reached Kandahar City because he was a tough guy (essentially).
During the initial hour of the attack members of Hajji Abdul Zahir’s family made frantic calls to friends in Kandahar to rally support and to alert the Canadians at the PRT (who had left a business card ‘in case you have problems in the future’). The calls they made on their satellite phone finally appeared to have paid off when they heard the sound of helicopters and jets in the skies above.
At the same time, they could hear the Taliban shouting amongst themselves to ‘bring the landmines’, with which they wanted to blow up the outer walls to the compound and thus gain entrance. In fact they managed to do this, but the jets appeared roughly at the same time and made several passes close to the area from which a massive smoke plume was now rising.
Down on the ground, neither the Taliban nor Abdul Zahir and his sons could see anything. “It was all smoke and dust, and I think we were all confused,” he said. And nothing happened with the planes either, he was quick to point out. “They hovered around and about for a few hours,” he said, “but not a single bullet was fired.”
Trying to call the PRT over the phone to get them to engage the Taliban wasn’t easy either. “Whenever we made a call, the Taliban could hear our voices and then they knew where we were. A few seconds later several mortars would get launched in our direction,” he said. They gave up trying after a few attempts.
Early the next morning ‘Americans’ came with helicopters and evacuated Hajji Abdul Zahir, all his sons and all the women from the house. The only possession Hajji Abdul Zahir managed to save from his home was a spare pare of clothes, he said. Everything else was lost. He presumes that the Taliban have blown his house up with the landmines that they were using on the outer walls.
So there are three roads leading from the district centre in Ghorak – one going to Sangin in Helmand province, one going to Garmabak/Maiwand and the other going to Khakrez district. All of these are in the hands of the Taliban, the numerous survivors of last week’s battle who were gathered in the cramped hospital room told us. “Now that we have left, the district is 100% controlled by the Taliban.”
Apart from the district centre, that is. The Taliban apparently moved on from Hajji Abdul Zahir’s house and turned on the district centre building, although as I write this there hasn’t been active combat between the police and Taliban for a couple of days.
So why is this an interesting story? Why did I write all this detail.
Well firstly, the actual detail of the story is far more complicated than actually related here, whether that’s when you consider the relationships between the police, the families living in the area, and the Taliban fighting on the other side. Then when you look at the tribal issue the stew thickens. Why, we had asked the policemen who came to Kandahar city a month ago, why are you fighting against the Taliban? Why don’t you just give up? (Or why aren’t you simply fighting with the Taliban?)
“We’re Popolzai,” the ones originally from Ghorak answered. The Taliban – and this is a generalisation, because there are in fact many Popolzai Taliban – see the Popolzai tribe as being tainted by Karzai, and as such they “have no choice” but to fight with the government.
Even if they didn’t want to do so, they couldn’t just live in their houses oblivious to things going on around them – the Taliban force them to fight.
And then there’s the whole issue of district centres. As everyone acknowledged, Ghorak is only one of several districts currently controlled by the Taliban that only have a government presence in the district centre. Others include: Maiwand to the west, Miya Nisheen to the north, Shah Wali Kot to the north, and Khakrez just to the east of Ghorak. “You can’t go even 1 kilometre outside the district centre in any of those districts,” the deputy commander of Ghorak told us. Now of course this isn’t news to anyone who has been following events in Kandahar.
But what does it actually mean to continue holding these district centres? Of the 120 policemen entrusted with Ghorak when the Canadians and ANA left 8 months ago only around 25 are still alive.
Can we say that their deaths have served some greater purpose? Can we say look Hajji Abdul Zahir straight in the eyes and say that we really care what goes on in Ghorak? Or are we holding the district centre just for show, so when the BBC or CNN produces a map of government control we can say that ‘most of Kandahar is being policed by the government’, or something to that effect. Then again, what message would it send to abandon all these district outposts altogether?
All hard questions, I think, but if we’re going to continue to claim the moral high ground in the mission that foreign troops are carrying out in places like Kandahar, we need to thoroughly reconsider our entire presence there. Are the Taliban an inevitable force? And to what extent are foreign troops the Taliban’s raison d’etre?
I ended my last post saying that I hope to write on the small group of ideas being floated around western policy circles these days: negotiations, ‘sons of Afghanistan’ or Afghan Awakening Councils, and the ‘surge’. Will get round to it soon, I promise…
[Thanks to Baghdad Brian of Alive in Baghdad for helping upload the site – unbelievably circuitous process…]