A Discussion with Ben Anderson of VICE about the War in Afghanistan

September 7, 2015

I recently spoke with journalist, filmmaker, and author Ben Anderson about his recent episode of VICE on HBO. In his film, Afghanistan After Us, Anderson chronicled the current state of the Afghan Local Police. In our conversation, he expands on how a village in Helmand Province came to have a 53-year-old woman in charge of a local police unit (ALP), the challenges that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) face, as well as his opinion of recent negotiations with the Taliban. Anderson’s observations are of particular interest considering the reporting of Mullah Omar’s death, and accounts of further fragmentation occurring daily.

Suzanne Schroeder: In December 2013, the New York Times reported that an Afghan National Army (ANA) commander and the Taliban had reached an agreement in Sangin. The Army then launched a quick investigation. Obviously, this news was problematic, as it was without official approval. But what is to keep ALP groups from entering into similar arrangements?

Ben Anderson: There is nothing to keep ALP groups from entering into similar arrangements; I suspect most of them have similar arrangements. The Marines in Marjah admitted to me that many of the ALP they were singing up and putting on the payroll were probably Taliban, or former Taliban who were just attracted by the $90 to $160 a month salary. I suspect there are peace deals, probably short-term and probably fragile, in many provinces but there’s nothing to keep them from reaching similar arrangements.

There have even been some stories about ALP fighting alongside the Taliban against ANA or ANP or also Taliban, or various different mixes, but I think it comes down to local power sharing arrangements or local competitions for power, and the designations actually mean very little.

SS: Ok, I’m very confused about the something in the recent International Crisis Group report: We often hear that Taliban insurgents are villagers who fight at night and are farming during the day. The ICG report, at the outset, warns that disbanding the ALP would cause ex-fighters to turn to criminality or “lawlessness.” What confuses me is, aren’t they also villagers, who farm or have shops (or poppy fields)? In your film, we saw a 53-year-old woman who was an ALP commander, and her grandsons, who were 10, 12, and 14, were armed and fighting. It leads me to wonder: Who does make up ALP forces? If the Taliban are local, and the militias are local, what are the factors that prevent them from coming to some sort of agreement?

BA: Yeah, I mean it’s slightly misleading to say disbanding the ALP would cause X fighters to turn to criminality or lawlessness, I suspect most of them have always done whatever they do. That didn’t change when they became ALP and it won’t change if they stop being ALP. I think the point they’re [ICG report] trying to make is, without income they might rely more on criminal activities, which I think is true.

I think the best way to describe the ALP is: They are just the local tough guys. They are the toughest people, with the most weapons, and the most men willing to fight for them. They might be pro-government, or anti-government, they might be pro-Taliban, they might anti-Taliban, they might be beacons of virtue, they might be horrible human rights abusers and opium traffickers, it really makes no difference; they’re just the local tough guys.

Commander Baz Gul, who’s actually the son-in-law of the 53-year-old woman in my film, we went to his house and poppy fields surrounded it. And he set up an interview with two poppy farmers. The counter-narcotics commander for the entire province drove us there! It was his job to destroy as much opium as possible, but clearly the opium near that ALP post, and in that town (because they’re all controlled by the ALP), was never going to get touched. I went back to the bazaar in Marjah, with Commander Baz Gul, and I remember going into that bazaar five months after the U.S. Marines first invaded, and most of them said “Look, who are the Taliban? The Taliban are the sons of this land, not infidel foreigners like these guys. We like the Taliban.” And the line between the Taliban, so-called, and ALP is very blurred. I suspect in Marjah, the “Taliban” are just opium traffickers who were opposed to foreign troops in their backyard, and that’s all it was. I don’t’ think they were taking orders from Mullah Omar.

SS: Can you give a little bit of background on the woman commander? She said that she was responsible for 5,000 people. Was she a widow, and what was her husband’s role in this village?

BA: The female commander — incredible to see that in Afghanistan, her husband is still alive and still lives with her and their family in a set of three or four large compounds. He was originally the overall leader of the ALP in that area, but apparently was not a good, strong, decisive leader. She just got fed up with seeing him make mistakes, and just took over, with the support of her sons. He seems to have acquiesced completely, and I didn’t hear of any resistance to her being the commander, just because she was so strong and decisive. Her husband carried a weapon just like the other guys; he was a fighter just the same as her sons and her grandsons, with no particular powers. This would be almost unheard of anywhere else in the country, but seemed absolutely normal there, because she happened to be the strongest member of the family. And that family was having to defend itself against Taliban attacks. ANSF were nowhere to be seen, apart from a few convoys and decrepit patrol bases. Bear in mind, this was Sistani part of Marjah, scene of the biggest operation since the war began (and my film, “Battle for Marjah,”) when so much was invested and promised, and pretty much none of it has materialized. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to read that Marjah has fallen to Taliban fairly soon.

SS: Can you speak about why supplying ANSF is now in such a dire state? I know, of course, the obvious answer, but how much do corruption, incompetence, and poor oversight cause the lack of weapons that the ANP commander (Hekmatullah) spoke of? It seems very strange, that knowing that the Taliban have heavy machine guns, Dushkas, etc., that are very well suited for the type of fighting they are doing, that US trainers and advisors failed to seriously respond. What sort of outcome could they possibly have expected?

BA: Yeah, corruption, incompetence, and poor oversight play a massive role. I think logistics is where the ANSF are weakest; they haven’t been trained to repair the vehicles they’ve got. If you haven’t got the vehicles, you can’t resupply by road. The last I checked it was four helicopters for Helmand Province: two transport helicopters and two attack helicopters. If you’ve got five or six districts that are in dire straits, Sangin, Gereshk, Musa Qala, Lashkar Gah, and now Marjah then obviously two transport helicopters are nowhere near enough to be able to resupply your men. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve heard many stories of commanders from the police and army selling weapons and fuel, destroying vehicles on purpose, and trying to get the money to have them replaced and repaired. In one case, the U.S. Marines actually had video of them dragging some motorbikes into a compound and setting fire to them, and then later claiming that the Americans had destroyed them with an airstrike. So yes, corruption and poor oversight are absolutely the problem, and I was amazed by how little they had. There was one Humvee for all of the areas I visited, a bunch of very old AK47s, no air support whatsoever. It wasn’t a point that was made very clearly in the film, but we had to drive around, except for one drive in a Humvee that had been turned into a troop transporter, we had to drive around in Toyota Corollas. If you had said to a British soldier, or a U.S. Marine, drive anywhere in Helmand, let alone Marjah or Sangin or Gereshk in a Toyota Corolla, they would have said “you are insane,” but that’s all the Afghan police and army have got. We did see some convoys of ANA with Humvees, but it’s worth bearing in mind that in 2010 or 2011 the UK and U.S. banned all of their soldiers from using Humvees anywhere but on the four operating bases. So even Humvees have got nowhere near enough armor for the kind of IEDS that you find in Helmand. In terms of MRAPS — the bomb-proof trucks that the UK and U.S. troops relied on — I didn’t see any functioning MRAPS, my entire time in Helmand.

It does seem very strange that trainers and advisors failed to seriously respond to these pitfalls that were so obvious, from the early days of the mentoring mission, as far back as 2007. But you know, the actual trainers and advisers aren’t the people with any power at the top, and they can’t change policy. Mostly, they were normal marines, or normal British soldiers of pretty low rank, who had been assigned to train the ANA or ANP. In 2007, 2008, you saw them take to that job with real zeal; they really believed it could work. And they lived with the Afghan soldiers and policemen, and they built up great relationships. Fast forward to 2011, 2012 and I didn’t see many Afghan Army or Police going out on patrols and operations with American and British forces, and the training was mostly done on the base ― with just one or two marines assigned to the ANA and ALP because of the massive rise in green on blues. So, these weren’t people really motivated to do the best job possible, or to prepare the Afghans for what would happen after we left. Most of the guys I knew over the last few trips hated their jobs, and had an extremely low opinion of the ANSF and their chances to provide security on their own. I think your question should be directed to generals and people above them, but they’re not the ones I had access to, or filmed with.

SS: You know, here in the U.S., we seem to like binaries, good vs. evil, etc. The reality is that this conflict has further entrenched a narco-economy, there are multiple actors who are motivated by their own specific interests, serious human rights abuses are committed by all sides, and to say that corruption is now deeply ingrained doesn’t even come close to the reality. From your most recent visit, did you get a sense that the conditions for civil war might be in place? What actions would have to be taken to reduce that possible outcome?

BA: Um yeah, it feels absolutely right for civil war. Casualties are nearly 90 a week, if Taliban casualties are anything like that, then I don’t know what civil war is; if that many ANSF plus that many Taliban plus that many civilians, I don’t know how high it has to be before you call it civil war. It certainly felt to me that there was a strong chance that several districts in several provinces would be taken by the Taliban this summer. And you know, you look at Kunar, and Badahkshan, and some of the problems they’ve had there over the last few months, areas where the Taliban really had no history, then you can imagine how bad the situation is in the South and the East, where they really do have long running connections and there are very long standing grievances against the Afghan government and the ANSF.

Allegedly, the peace talks that have just been going on, that the representatives are there with the Taliban’s blessing. But I’ve always been confused by the peace talks: Are the Haqqani Network represented? I don’t think so. Are the many, many different Taliban groups that we call Taliban represented? I don’t think so. Are the Taliban groups who have pledged allegiance to ISIL represented? I don’t think so. What about former Northern Alliance fighters, who might be so against any deal with the Taliban that they could be a source of trouble as well if a deal was reached? Several senior Northern Alliance people have raised the prospect of a coup or an uprising if a peace deal was done because they find the idea so offensive. I suspect the only things that could be done to reduce the chance of the civil war, that the various groups are given the areas that it makes sense for them to have based on their links to the local population. So, something like the situation like we saw before, just a series of fiefdoms, but that was far from what was promised. As the IRCG report recommends, if those local power brokers happen to have hideous track records, there ought to be a way of fazing them out. But, with the withdrawal and probable financial crisis in the not so distant future, donors won’t keep writing blank checks forever. So, I see the problematic power brokers becoming more powerful, not less.

It’s strange. There are lots of things that we would consider crimes, where the perpetrators should not be in positions of power. I don’t get the sense that most Afghans would agree, and if an agreement brought some serious chance of rebuilding, I don’t think most of the Afghans I’ve spoken to would particularly care. I mean look at Dostum, he’s the perfect example: Was there really that much resistance within Afghanistan to him becoming vice president? The educated elites, who we do often speak to, are such a tiny minority that I think a quick fix dirty solution is actually far more likely to work than a long-term perfect solution, which doesn’t involve people accused of crimes. If you were investigating everyone, on all sides, in terms of the combatants, there wouldn’t be many people left who could form any kind of a government, which is the sad reality. I’ve been told essentially the same thing many times by villagers in the South: Whoever provides security and justice is my king, I don’t care who it is. So corruption, violence, and certainly opium production just don’t seem to be priorities yet.

To talk about what could have been done differently, I would go all the way back to 2001 or 2002, and there was a brief moment there where we could have sent out a very clear message saying that warlords and criminals with all sorts of blood on their hands don’t get a say in how the future of Afghanistan is going to turn out. But in rushing to Iraq, we put former warlords back into power, former warlords whose behavior led to the Taliban in the first place. From what I’ve read, most Afghans knew that serious mistakes had been made under the Taliban, and the Taliban regime, and especially their relationship with Al Qaeda. (Although I think that was just a minority of the Taliban leadership, it wasn’t the Taliban as a whole.) But most knew that mistakes had been made and it was time for a fresh new start. I think when we denied them that fresh new start and just reinstated the warlords from the previous era, the moment was lost. Anand Gopal shows what happened next, in his brilliant book, No Good Men Among the Living. People who had given up, put down their weapons, and tried to start new lives, but they were essentially persuaded, or bullied and persecuted, back onto the battlefield. They had no other option. I think when we denied them that fresh new start, and just went back to the brutal years of the mujahedeen and civil war, and then the moment was lost. Had there been anything like the money and resources that have been thrown at Afghanistan, that’s been thrown at Afghanistan since 2009, 2010, when reconstruction and development was taken seriously. Rumsfeld had given a speech saying the Taliban are done, they’re defeated, and they will have no role in the future of Afghanistan. Had they had at least been invited to those first few conferences, then maybe a deal could have been hashed out, but I think things would look very different from how they look today.

SS: Mullah Omar’s death is now confirmed and reports of splits within the Taliban are reported daily. Ayman al Zawahiri had pledged allegiance to the new Emir, Mullah Mansoor, and there seems to be some considerable effort to present a united front against ISIS. We saw massive attacks last week, and UNAMA has reported record high casualty levels. How does all this fit in with your observations of the very local nature of this conflict?

BA: The only impact I saw in Helmand was startling, and reinforces what has felt like a conspiracy theory to me. The best Afghan army officer I have ever met, who has been barely hanging on in Sangin for the last three years, was redeployed from Helmand to Badakshan where his mission is to go after the so-called ISIS fighters there, although also a fast growing Taliban presence. This officer is one of the most able, dedicated, tireless, and brave Afghan fighters I’ve ever met, on any side. Things had been getting much worse in Sangin, so the decision to send him north feels like an acceptance that the South is a lost cause — but the North could still be won. The conspiracy theory has always been that Northern Alliance officers never saw the South as a priority, and may have even sent those they don’t trust or those they saw as expendable there, while making sure their region is protected. It certainly feels like some of the northern and eastern provinces are getting far more resources than the South is getting since the withdrawal. They may be necessary, with all that’s happening with ISIL, Dostum, the uptick in Taliban attacks, and the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death, but I think it all bodes very badly for Helmand. If Now Zad and Musa Qala are pretty much lost, it would not be a surprise to see places like Sangin and Marjah fall too.

 

Suzanne Schroeder is an independent analyst in Rochester, NY. She has BA from Smith College, and an MA from the University of Rochester. She is currently working on a collaborative project on school poisonings in Afghanistan, with Alex Strick van Linschoten. Previous pieces can be read at The Afghanistan Analyst and The Military Spouse Book Review.

 

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