Peter and the Gandamac Lodge

August 26, 2007

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While waiting in Kabul, to come down to Helmand, I stayed at Peter Jouvenal’s Gandamac Lodge. It’s run by Peter and his Afghan wife, Hassina, and I have never stayed anywhere quite like it.
I was in Kabul in 2001 when Peter decided to open a guesthouse there. He had just finished as John Simpson’s cameraman during the Northern Alliance’s move into Kabul and found a house that had apparently been used by one of Bin Laden’s wives. In securing the tenancy he had to pay $450 of her unpaid rent.
Peter has moved from that building now into a bigger one, but perhaps because of his tendency to collect antique weapons, it is romantic in a frontier sort of way.
I don’t know any journalist, or any Englishman, who has spent more time in Afghanistan than Peter. In 1979, one morning, he took a coach from Victoria Station to try to make his name by taking pictures of the country that the Russians had just invaded. He has covered the story ever since. John Simpson would rearrange his schedule to ensure that Peter was available to film for him. It was sensible to benefit from Peters contacts and experience.
Peter and I go back a long way. We are the surviving founders of Frontline News, the agency for freelance video journalists that we started in 1989. Rory Peck and Nick della Casa, the other 2 founders were killed during the course of their work.
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Though I fancy myself to be knowledgeable about Afghanistan, the first person that I would ask questions to further my knowledge is Peter, Nobody ever asks the cameramen, which is an extraordinary oversight when you consider that where there is a television reporter working there is a cameraman. I asked Peter, who has seen them all come and go in Afghanistan during the last 28 years what he thought about the current fighting with the Taliban. Were we going to win or would the Taliban return to Kabul?
Peter, an ex-British soldier himself, reminded me of a saying that the Afghans have about war with their enemies. That “they have the watch, but we have the time”. Peter is convinced that there will have to be a political resolution that will see the Taliban back in Kabul. The question he thought was to what extent NATO’s military efforts would allow a negotiating position that enabled a sort of “Taliban-lite”. A Pushtun presence that was more liberal and prepared to prevent Afghanistan becoming a “terror” training camp again.
Peter was sure that since Kabul had been a Pushtun controlled city for the last 300 years it would be so again. That foreign troops have only ever been able to control that part of the country that was in range of their guns and Afghanistan has a way of resisting until it reverts. That this is the reason that Afghanistan still exists as a country at all, considering its geographical position between Persia, Russia, India and Pakistan and China.
It is easy to assume that foreign forces can only fail in Afghanistan, just because they always have. British diplomats in Kabul expressed concern to me journalism coming from Afghanistan didn’t illustrate that most of the country was not in conflict and this is an important point. The fighting is really only in Pustun regions of Afghanistan and that it was “very premature” for commentators to suggest that things were going the way of Iraq. They were keen for me to do stories elsewhere in the country to be able to deliver a more complete view of Afghanistan.
I don’t know how much time I am going to have on this trip when I get back from Helmand. I will try at least to balance my interview with Peter with a senior British diplomat. But now I lam off to meet up with the Grenadier Guards.