The glass is half full, only don’t count the ‘buts’
|It’s now seven days since my ignominious return to Kabul and if a week is a long time in politics this particular one seemed to go on forever. Winter goes so slowly here and even though I’ve arrived at the arse end of it, spring can’t come soon enough. The streets are a relentless tide of light brown effluent rich muddy ooze but in Willy Wonka World it would be a glass and a half of Cadbury’s Milk Chocolate ooze and, for one of the few remaining Westerners who still sloshes, ankle deep, obliviously around the streets of Kabul, that’s my positive way of looking at it.
Spring means lighter nights and warmer weather and a definite uplifting in the mood of the expats who’ve done the full four-month winter stretch here but as the snow melts and the roads become clearer the resurgent Taliban are also awakening from their winter break and for the first time in a long time everyone here agrees upon something: this will be Afghanistan’s toughest year since 2002. After the recent co-coordinated suicide attacks on various government ministries last month everyone is again paranoid and the underlying climate of fear so prevalent last November has been reignited. It’s an election year and the surge is about to begin. The mainstream media’s narrative is ratcheting up. It seems like they want this to be the new Iraq. The Russians are warning of history repeating itself and Obama has just volunteered 17,000 new US troops for the new Muslim Jihadi meat grinder .
But I am also a volunteer. This week I applied to be embed with the US forces as a photographer in Wardak – one of the key strategic areas that borders Kabul. The process is simple and quick but unlike the British Army who have some monthly board meeting in Whitehall to discuss your suitability, with the Yanks it’s a two-page A4 questionnaire, you give ‘em your blood group and one email later you’re the next Robert Capa .
Wardak province, if you believe the doom merchants (and we’re not short of them out here), is now virtually controlled by the Taliban. It’s totally impossible to travel there individually without a death wish or some serious close protection. That includes locals who do business in Kabul, or work with NGOs. Any Westerners who venture out to what can only be described as Cheyenne country , would be kidnapped upon arrival (they have spotters on the roads out of Kabul looking for scalps). Only there’s nowhere really to go out there. So why would you?
Well… funny you should mention it but last weekend I visited the Governor of Wardak for a ‘party’. This was my second visit. I first went there back in November and was amazed at the contradictory attitude of the governor who did his utmost to convince me that Wardak was on the up (‘up in flames’?). But I went along with his upbeat attitude, visited a Women Against Violence Conference and did a grip and grin tour of rebuilding projects in the downtown area. We had you might call ‘close support’ during the visit and I was never more than two yards away from an AK. The Governor is a high profile target and his assassination would be a real coup for the Taliban. That same night we visited an army outpost about half a mile from his home. But this was as far as his Kingdom stretched. His Green Zone if you will. The rest of the 9,000sq km of Wardak province? Well, someone else currently governed that. I think we can guess whom.
So three months on, with the surge about to begin, and at the personal invitation of the Governor, I traveled back to Wardak. The short trip out there, tucked into the back of a police truck was stunning. As we gunned through this winter wonderland the thought of a waiting IED in this South Asian Lapland was as far away from mind as possible.
Tonight was a night for singing and dancing with a special performance by the world famous AH Kandahari and his four-piece combo. To set the scene, the venue is a small room at the Governors house, there are around 30 men and one woman all sat on toshaks on the floor drinking tea. Beards are de rigueur and the only one not sporting facial hair is the Governor and I (oh and the girl). Guests are mix of local Mullahs, ex-Mujhadeen, businessmen and some “special” American guests. Conversational topics are the same as Kabul; the upcoming elections, Karzai’s failure to curb corruption, the surge and the latest wheeze of re-arming the locals in the form of Personal Protection Forces .
It may have worked in Iraq but the old Mujahdeen sat next to me has first hand knowledge (albeit with three missing fingers) of the Russians’ abysmal failure using the same old divide and rule strategies. Despite his wish for peace and his declaration that, ‘war is not the answer’ he talks fondly of his own personal history and how the Russians lost a whole division in one year between here and Logar. This man is a living history book and I could listen to him all night. Especially the story of one wounded Mujahdeen they buried in the snow inside a sleeping bag to keep him alive!
But tonight is not about Afghanistan’s Descent into Chaos its about life and music. Abdul Hameed Kandahari is a famous singer from Kandahar and for the next three hours he serenades the crowd with poetry and song, some of it uplifting, some more soulful. The crowd loves it. Only I have no idea what’s going on – oblivious to Pashto, Hindi and Dari, as well they know. That is until his final curtain closer; “I am a truck driver”. A song for some strange reason that has an English chorus accompanied with charade-style impressions of a lorry driver. It brought the house down and three days later I am still humming it. For an encore he does a quick stand-up comedy routine with Mr Kandahari camping it up telling an obviously sexually-based joke about someone from his hometown. Afghans love to poke fun at Kandahar’s famously ambiguous sexuality . Wardak maybe the new Fallujah but everyone goes to their beds happy.
The next day it’s back to Kabul. Cut to me walking round the small shops in the Taimini district where I live in search of dog food for my three-month old Afghan puppy Eidie (I found in a rubbish tip on Eid). My Dari is limited. I know the word for dog – ‘sag’. I’m gesturing like I need to eat and I am barking at shopkeepers. Life here is far from normal but that’s got fuck all to do with Al Queada. Long may this version of insanity continue.