Tell Spring Not to Come This Year: The Transition of Afghanistan to the Afghan National Army
By Graham Lanktree
In 2014, western troops drew down combat operations after 13 years of fighting against the Taliban in Afghanistan. This left the Afghan Army to cope with an enemy that some of the most powerful militaries on earth have failed to defeat.
In their new documentary Tell Spring Not to Come This Year, screened at the Frontline Club on Monday 18 May, directors Michael McEvoy and Saeed Taji Farouky follow an Afghan National Army (ANA) battalion for a year as they confront the transition of power in Helmand Province — one of the most unstable areas of the country.
This intimate portrayal, which saw the filmmakers taking fire from the Taliban alongside their subjects, was made possible by McEvoy’s work as a liaison officer for the British Army in Helmand. The film has already gathered the International Human Rights award and Audience Award for Best Documentary during its world premiere at the Berlinale in February, and will screen again in the UK on Saturday 6 June at the Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Missing Afghan Voices
Almost everything Western audiences see from Afghanistan is about foreign troops, said Taji Farouky, arguing that now that chapter is over “we know almost nothing about who’s going to inherit that war.”
Those are the people the filmmakers wanted to make a film about. “The whole point was that for the past 14 years we’ve heard almost nothing from, not only the Afghans, but particularly the Afghan army,” said Taji Farouky. That’s why, he explained, there’s no voiceover in the film, which is told completely by Afghan soldiers. “It would be unjust for us to now speak on their behalf,” he said.
— Usama Fayyad (@usamaf) May 18, 2015
McEvoy is what you would call a “linguistic genius,” Taji Farouky said, citing the fact that he breezed through a 15-month military college course to learn Farsi in only four months. He also speaks Arabic and had a good grasp of Pashto before shooting wrapped up.
But it wasn’t only his language skills that allowed the two to create such an intimate film.
“The battalion was one of six that I worked with, and I actually spent quite a lot of time with that particular unit,” said McEvoy of his time in Helmand as a liaison officer. “The captain that you see, we spent a lot of time together. We got to know each other really well,” he said. “He was the first person I approached with the idea about the film. Once he understood the reason [for making the film], he was quite keen to help out.”
Why they fight
Even though a soldier in the film complains at one point that he hasn’t been paid for nine months, and another says he hasn’t been on leave in four or five months, the battalion appears to remain committed to their mission.
“Unemployment is obviously pretty big in Afghanistan. Many of the soldiers are from the north and they would join up in big groups of lads from their villages just to find work,” McAvoy said, adding that the ANA is one of the most stable employers in the entire country.
Although that’s a big part of why many join up, “there is a genuine sense of national pride: ‘We are Afghan, the Taliban are enemies of Afghanistan. We genuinely want to be here to defend our country,’” he said. “I think it’s simpler when you’re fighting in your own country and you feel like you’re defending your own home than if you go on some foreign campaign.”
It’s a testament that they stick on, he continued. “They’re not paid very well, they don’t go on leave for ages, the food sucks — big time. The U.S. stopped paying for their food budget and the ministry of finance turned to the ministry of defence and said ‘well, we haven’t got any money.’ So basically they just cut the food budget in half. By the end it was a piece of bread for breakfast, a plate of plain rice for lunch, and then for dinner some sort of watery soup with essence of meat.”
What about the civilians?
Although McEvoy and Taji Farouky couldn’t go anywhere without soldiers in tow, Taji Farouky said that he got the sense there was “a fairly functional relationship” between the army and the population. “Yes the army was asserting itself and could be quite aggressive,” he said. “But generally… there seemed to be a fairly good balance. I think there’s a lot of confusion from the military because they never know who’s with them and who’s against them.”
The conflict, as it stands, has the greatest impact on the civilians who are stuck between areas controlled by the Taliban and those controlled by the Afghan Army. “Where there’s conflict or contested areas, life is pretty hellish for people,” McEvoy said. “Because you sit in your village or your farm and one day the army walks up and they tell you ‘why are you supporting the Taliban?’ As soon as they leave, the Taliban come straight back and beat the hell out of you or intimidate you and say ‘why are you colluding with the army?’”
In reality, he said, the army really can’t offer much to the local population in these areas. “They’re not building roads, there’s no schools, no facilities, and the government isn’t really interested in some farmer” in Helmand Province.
Visit the Tell Spring Not to Come website for more information on the film and upcoming screenings.