Published: June 19th 2010June 19th 2010
Winning hearts and minds
Despite the pessimistic text, some of us DO get out and try our best to win hearts and minds. This is Eddie Vernon talking to farmers near Kandahar
Forty years ago I was a fit young soldier in the British Army, backed up with the full force of weaponry and, not least by any means, the lads in the squadron. Not much happened apart from the beginning of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and one scramble when we thought the Soviets would attack (they did in 1968, but stopped in Prague, ending the so-called Prague Spring).
Scroll forwards to June 2010: I'm a civilian, an old(er) man, no weapons (at least, not that I can carry personally), some limited back up from our really excellent force security provided by the Global company, and I'm right in the middle of the "Battle of Kandahar"
. The irony is pretty funny when you think about it.
Our compound is right in the middle of Kandahar City
, currently one of the most dangerous places on the planet. I briefed some military officers the other day and one asked where we were located; "down-town KC", I replied. There was a silence. Food for thought.
What's our perspective from here? I can't comment on the work for obvious reasons, but the weird thing is the silence. For the most part the days are very quiet except for the occasional flight of helicopters or an F-16 going over. Yesterday we saw a Predator (unmanned aerial vehicle loaded with Hellfire missiles) float overhead, glinting in the evening sun. If you want to understand the technical power of the forces here, the sight of one of these things moving slowly through the sky "looking" for a target is really Star Wars.
At night things can change. This is when the Taliban come out to play. And when the military push back, so there is an occasional bang. One night a petrol tanker exploded near our compound and we watched it burn. But still, this isn't a battle of opposing armies, but a battle for the minds of the local people. And that's so difficult to win, when you understand that Kandahar is the heart of "Pashtunistan", where almost universally the local people simply do not want foreigners, least of all non-Muslims, in their town. And when these infidel foreigners dominate the skies and drive their streets in massive armoured vehicles you can imagine what is going through the local people's minds.
Can we win this battle? I honestly don't know. I don't know how we can so long as we are frightened to get out of our protective barriers and let the people see that, by and large, we mean well and if we could only work freely we could bring some genuine and beneficial economic changes to their lives. But our employers are too nervous to take the risk and for the most part the foreign folks here (with some notable and impressive exceptions) are here for the "danger money" but not for the danger itself. So we huddle behind our walls and in our armoured cars, safely isolated from the dreaded locals who we have come to save.
Save from what would, of course, be a good question. This is where the Taliban started
. It did so out of frustration with the corruption of warlords and the weakness of government - exactly what we have brought back. I doubt whether the good, conservative people of Kandahar offer any threat whatsoever to western civilization. They want, I am sure, to be left alone. Sure, they offered hospitality to OBL.... But that is in the nature of their code. When a stranger asks for succour, Pashtuns give it and woe betide anyone who comes after their guests.
We've stirred up a hornet's nest that all the military and civil power in the world will find hard to get rid of; and I doubt that by "being nice" and giving away some tractors, us good guys really convince the locals that we are indeed good.
From my perspective, the Battle for Kandahar has been lost before its been properly started because the powers that be just haven't got a clue about how to tackle this place. This is NOT Baghdad where a force surge could protect the people from attacks from local militias those of other religious persuasion; Kandahar is a united city of Pashtuns who despise
us just for being here. No one is attacking them except
us. There is no one they need protection from except
We can win Kandahar by going away
But I could be wrong, I hope so. The next few months will tell.