“Welcome Mr David, please come in. We have great news. The Taliban have surrendered. Let me introduce you to them.”
Not quite the announcement I was expecting when we are ushered into the cavernous office of the Wardak police commissioner where a Loya Jirga, or tribal meeting, was just concluding. The room is packed with around 50 tribal leaders and assorted dignitaries from the province. At the top of the table, sat alongside the governor are two mean-looking Talibs. The older one is a two-eyed version of the group’s maimed leader Mullah Omar and the younger is an Afghani mash up of Charles Manson and Che Guevara complete with gold Ray Bans and flowing black locks. If a Hollywood-casting agency had been asked to produce an archetypal evil, yet handsome, bad guy, this is he.
“They have decided they no longer want to fight and they have brought in weapons and 70 men under their control”. Governor Halim Fidai beamed as he spoke. “This is great news for Wardak and Afghanistan.” And for us – we seem to be the only foreign journalists in town.
Afghanistan’s second-ever presidential democratic elections are taking place this week and Kabul is overflowing with foreign invaders. The international media darlings are here in force – NBC, CBS, CNN, AP, AFP. All the bureaus, bars and hotels are chock full of war junkies tripping over each other to make sure every small incident in Kabul gets maximum exposure. Every rooftop vantage point has been bought and paid for. The BBC has even dug out John Simpson from his cryogenic chamber, and by the look of it, still wearing the same crumpled suit he wore for the invasion in 2002.
Hence our ‘executive’ freelance decision to head out of town. Most of the roads south are too dangerous to travel alone so we have secured an embed with the enigmatic Governor of Wardak, Halim Fidai, nicknamed the ‘rock star’ by one US Colonel stationed here. Our home for the next two days, is Maidan Shah, the provincial capital of one of the most dangerous provinces in the country, only 30 minutes drive from Kabul.
If you believe the doom merchants (and we’re not short of them out here), Wardak is now almost totally controlled by the Taliban. Some security advisors say it’s impossible to travel there individually without a death wish or some serious close protection. That threat includes Afghans who do business in Kabul, or work with NGOs. In fact many westerners who venture out, to what can only be described as Cheyenne country, are more than likely to encounter a Taliban checkpoint. The main Kabul to Kandahar highway now has the infamous superlative of most dangerous road in Afghanistan. Last month the Taliban were freely carrying out summary executions in villages in Wardak. In one reported incident an Afghan soldier was hanged and his body left swinging for three days. When I say reported, I should add that I actually witnessed it on a mobile phone, courtesy of my local shopkeeper in Kabul who took great pride in showing me the footage, complete with a Taliban pop soundtrack, after I casually mentioned I’d recently visited Wardak. Why? This is Afghanistan. This sort of horror actually passes for entertainment. You can find an assortment of compilation DVDs in the bazaars of Kabul; ‘Now that’s what I call Jihad – Volumes 1 to 40’, ’Mujahadeen Gone Wild’, ‘Monster MRAPs & IEDs’ (some of the titles may have got lost in translation). There’s no accounting for taste – bootlegs of ‘Ross Kemp in Afghanistan’ is one of this years biggest sellers.
So here we are in the badlands of Wardak with some genuine ‘evil-doers’ in the house. They have been introduced to me as Wazir Gul and Gul Wazir. The palindrome pair, who come from the extremely hostile Chark District, respond to my questions with an icy indifference but they are polite and courteous. The governor is steering their replies, but the overall rationale behind their decision to come in from the cold is that burning schools and blowing up their own infrastructure isn’t really what they signed up for. They say that the influence of foreign fighters is to blame, “the Pakistanis and Arabs are not true Muslims”.
What does one do with two Taliban commanders who’ve turned themselves in? Well I suppose that depends on whom you ask. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of official protocol as to how they surrender. The word ‘reconciliation’ is used frequently but these two badass looking ‘terrorists’ certainly don’t seem to be under any form of arrest. The governor says they are ‘under observation’ but we talked to a US colonel about procedure and he confirmed that the Afghan government are struggling to find a way to deal with what are loosely termed as ‘Armed Opposition Groups’. The Americans prefer the more emotive ‘Enemies of Afghanistan’ and I think they would like a special word with some of this lot.
But for now the Governor is more concerned with getting good PR out of the event, declaring that 95 per cent of the public in Wardak now support the government. We are uneasy that with election hype now at fever pitch, someone might be spinning the facts and our apprehension that this could all be a stage-managed stunt worsens when we ask to interview them personally but are told they have gone back to their village and that the arms cache they handed in is no longer here for us to photograph. An aide gives us some photos of the weapons, which we pour over suspiciously as we wait for the election to arrive.
They say a week is a long time in politics. In Afghanistan seven days is an eternity. Around 5AM, just 12 hours after Governor Fidai declares ‘peace in our time’, the first rockets scream over our compound. It is a rude awakening. The Governor’s assistants claim the missiles and mortars are outgoing from the US army base up the hill, but no one is buying it. By breakfast time the Taliban seem to have got a handle on our location as a huge blast rattles the windows. The rictus grins all-round confirm this is no exercise. We are under attack.
Only there’s not a lot anyone can do about it. The Governor’s entourage doesn’t bat an eyelid. Instead they drink chai and eat nan with sweet jam. This is a massive contrast to my previous experience of ‘kinetic activity’ (a US term for shooting and other exploding things). Back in March I was embedded at Camp Airborne, a massive base less than half a mile away from the Governors house. After just one RPG was fired close to the camp over 1000 soldiers spent the next two hours in makeshift blast-bunkers. In the parallel Afghan War World metres away there are no bunkers or flak jackets, no helmets or sirens. There is no ‘procedure’ to follow when the shells start raining down, just a strangely contagious, collective fatalism summed up by the Arabic ‘Inshallah’.
However the Governor himself seems a little more nervous. Not surprising really, since these rockets are aimed at him. The Governor is a high profile member of the Karzai administration and his assassination would be a real coup for the Taliban. He’s been targeted in his armoured SUV by roadside bombs three times since I first met him last year. I think he’s starting to develop a twitch. Despite all this, he is still determined to walk the half-mile across a dusty no-mans-land to the polling station.
Within minutes of leaving the compound another shell comes screaming in. There’s not a lot you can do when this happens. Most people instinctively duck. Halim’s bodyguards have been here before, they don’t even flinch. We have all of this on video and when I say ‘they don’t flinch’ I mean it’s like they never even heard it. Thirty years of war will do that to you.
The long march to the poling station begins. Halim leads from the front in his white shalwer kameez and red prayer beads in hand. He is flanked by tribal elders and ex- mujahadeen fighters all wearing their Sunday best. They spread out across the road like a sort of Pashto Reservoir Dogs. To the far left, the far right, to the front and the rear are our close protection teams. It’s the Afghan National Army’s finest. It’s a fighting fashion parade; dress code is Delta Force meets Rambo 4. Weapons range from heavy to enormous. Bullets this season are worn off the shoulder.
The European commission has spent upwards of 13 million euros on an election that sometimes seems like a glorified tribal bun-fight. At the Maidan Shah polling centre it is hard to tell where the money went. It looks like it cost around $25 to kit-out inclusive of the razor wire entrance path. It’s held in what can only be described as an abandoned building either that or a Taliban rocket had a direct hit on this dump earlier this morning. Security there is farcical. It took me a week to get my ‘IEC media pass’ to get access to polling stations. Today the only requirements necessary for entrance are sharp elbows and a heavy Nikon camera. It’s an absolute scrum. Once inside it’s organised chaos. The ‘voting booth’ is an old cardboard TV box with one side cut out for access. Two crosses, one inky finger and a round of applause later, we leave. The governor’s not risking a return journey by foot so we all bundle into his SUV and charge back to the relative safety of his Green Zone.
The international media are waiting for him in the shape of a tall blonde woman from Fox News, which seems to brighten Halim’s mood. The governor switches on the charm and starts waxing lyrical about the earlier reconciliation and how he hopes peace and love will now spread across the province. Unfortunately, mid-interview, his flow is interrupted – he’s the first person in the garden to hear the whistle of an incoming rocket and dives for the cover of the nearest wall. It’s the closest so far. Mild hysteria has set in and he’s laughing like a drain. This is clearly starting to affect him. His freedom and democracy shtick is so hollow there’s almost an echo. Recollections spring to mind of the Iraqi Information Minister back in 2003; “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” as US tanks rolled into town.
Bomb-chasing journalism has never been my scene. The circus that gathers around suicide and rocket attacks is grotesque, from the morbid crowds that come to stop and stare to the officials responsible for collecting scattered body parts, to the ghoulish cameramen trying to capture the bloody gore for the ever thirsty 24-hour news channels.
But hanging round the governor’s green zone waiting to play a bit-part role on Al Jazeera’s nine o’clock news round up seems like a pretty bad idea. So we head out to check where all these badly aimed missiles are landing. First stop, the mosque. The Taliban have just hit the mullah’s house, missing the minaret by feet. The phrase ‘shooting yourself in the foot’ springs to mind given the Taliban’s religious credentials, but this is no ordinary imam. He’s earned the nickname ‘Super Mullah’ for his active pro-government activities, setting up local militias to protect the town from Taliban threats and intimidation. The previous month he tackled one of the ‘bad guys’ trying to plant an improvised bomb in the mosque, and is convinced that this time it has been deliberately targeted. Seems like everyone’s calling everyone anti-Islamic. Luckily the mullah has been out voting and miraculously no one has been hurt.
By mid afternoon the voting station closes and the missiles stop. Election observers in Afghanistan have since said there was widespread voting fraud and intimidation during the presidential election and also reports of stuffed ballot boxes and illiterate voters being told who to vote for. In the south the problem was turnout, with less than 10 per cent in some regions. In the north, the majority of violence was recorded in Wardak and Logar, the worst incidents were in the district of Chark where five polling centres were burnt down and 28 rockets fired at others, severely hampering efforts to vote. This is where the Taliban who ‘reconciled’ the previous day came from. Doesn’t seem like they got word back in time or maybe they did, maybe they had had ulterior motives for wandering around the governor’s house. So that’s why they were pacing up and down and counting.
The Afghan Hound