Afghanistan, Helmand province, 2011: I walked out of a British base toward a beaten-up taxi on the corner. A sentry gave me a quizzical look. The sound of my boots crunching on gravel seemed louder than usual. I was painfully aware that what I was doing was incredibly, stupidly risky. Right on cue, the huge metal gate set into the high wall of the base clanged shut behind me.
I was going to meet a member of the Taliban who had agreed to an interview. I’d sat down with the Taliban twice before, but in Kabul, where I had people to watch the building in which the meeting took place, in case the interview turned into a kidnapping. Here, I had only the word of my Afghan fixer, someone whose judgment I had trusted over many years, but still…
The taxi drove along a deserted road, dropping me and the fixer by a half-built house. We were to meet the man inside. After a few minutes that seemed like hours, he arrived. As promised, he had come alone. He was taking a risk with the meeting too, wondering if he was going to be arrested. Both of us glanced nervously outside while we spoke. He told me that when it was announced that British troops were coming to Helmand in 2006, the men of his village gathered in the mosque. They voted unanimously to join the Taliban and to fight the British until they left. ‘No one argued. We all thought the same.’
This wasn’t surprising: ‘Son of a Brit’ has been a vicious insult in southern Afghanistan ever since the British Army was last there, in the second Anglo-Afghan war of 1878-80. In 2006, several thousand British soldiers arrived to replace a few dozen Americans who’d been sensibly holed up at a base in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah, rarely going outside the gates. Before 2006, you could jump in your car and drive almost anywhere in Helmand. After the Brits arrived, westerners could go out only in armored convoys. The British brought the war to Helmand.
The Americans came back in force in 2010, sending 20,000 Marines. But by then, the Taliban had fused with tribal groups growing and smuggling opium. Western forces had made the fatal mistake of trying to take on opium and the Taliban at the same time. This made victory all but impossible: there was too much money in the drugs business, and it was everywhere. The first ambush of British troops in 2006 was reported as a Taliban attack. It wasn’t. The soldiers had been on their way to an Afghan police station, and the police thought that the sacks of opium in the cells there would be discovered. So they fired rocket-propelled grenades at the British convoy to delay it.
The opium trade in southern Afghanistan was rumored to be under the control of the then-president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, or AWK, governor of the southern province of Kandahar. I went to his majlis, or council, in 2006, to ask him if this was true. The room fell into a shocked silence and there was a long pause before AWK answered. Shooting a venomous look toward my poor translator, he forced a smile and said that these were, of course, lies put about by his enemies. A complaint duly came down to the BBC — my employer at the time — through the British embassy in Kabul. Despite his denials, a US diplomatic cable later published by WikiLeaks said AWK was ‘widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker’. It also said: ‘Given AWK’s reputation for shady dealings, his recommendations for large, costly infrastructure projects should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.’
Perhaps this was unfair on AWK, perhaps not. But like opium, corruption was everywhere in Afghanistan. It was probably the most corrupt country in the world. A former official in President Hamid Karzai’s office told me about a room they had, stacked floor to ceiling with bricks of US dollar bills, the money to be used for payoffs. The corruption was so open that people forgot to pretend it wasn’t happening. At the end of a Karzai news conference I was astonished when an Afghan journalist stood up to say he had been promised an apartment during the election campaign in return for helpful coverage — and was upset that he was still waiting for it.
Billions of dollars of aid money poured into the country, yet the main roads in Kabul remained broken and potholed. The money poured out of the country just as quickly. An Afghan vice president was stopped by customs in Dubai with $52 million of cash in his suitcases (that figure is not a typographical error). As the great Vietnam journalist Neil Sheehan wrote, ‘one cannot build upon the quicksand of corruption a sound government and army that will stand up to its opponent’. It is also hard to justify asking young American and British soldiers to die to keep a bunch of thieves and crooks in power.
Since 2014, Afghanistan’s president has been Ashraf Ghani, a former professor at Johns Hopkins. In my one meeting with him, he seemed an honest but unworldly academic, anxious to discuss the latest books on microeconomics piled up on his desk. He has tried to fight corruption, with a few, limited successes. The fundamentals of the conflict remain unchanged — including, most importantly, the unreliability of the Afghan police and army. In each of the 19 years of the war, with numbing regularity, Washington has announced that there will be a new push to ‘train and equip’ the Afghan security forces. Yet the Taliban continued to take more towns and villages.
The main British base in Helmand, Camp Bastion — which cost more than $1.5 billion to build — was overrun by the Taliban after it was handed to the Afghan army. The Afghan security forces got it back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Taliban eventually get control of the base and all of Helmand along with it. Camp Bastion is surrounded by the Dasht-e-Margo, the desert of death. This was regularly enveloped in dust storms that locals said consisted mainly of dried excrement. That seemed to me to sum up the British, and American, experience in Afghanistan. The current withdrawal is recognition of defeat.
Back in 2011, the Taliban member I met told me he’d lost more than 30 friends and relatives fighting the Americans and their British allies. But he was not full of the usual rhetoric about killing infidels. Instead, he was tired and wanted to put down his Kalashnikov. This immense war-weariness is the best chance for the peace talks that will take place among Afghans, now the foreigners are leaving. But Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. The most likely outcome of the American withdrawal is that the country will remain divided: the Taliban in the south, a weak central government controlling Kabul, and warlords squabbling over the rest. The foreign troops were fighting history as much as the Taliban and history will reassert itself. This is not, yet, peace in Afghanistan.