US, Brits Over-stayed in Afghanistan

When the HG Wells classic War of the Worlds was turned into a movie for the silver screen in 1953 the West was in the grip of the Cold War. The film adaptation of the alien invasion was designed to send out a subliminal warning message to those who viewed communism as something exotic which jointly aroused…

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When the HG Wells classic War of the Worlds was turned into a movie for the silver screen in 1953 the West was in the grip of the Cold War. The film adaptation of the alien invasion was designed to send out a subliminal warning message to those who viewed communism as something exotic which jointly aroused curiosity and excitement.

As both the novel and the film plots develop it becomes clear the Martians aren’t looking for friends and allies, they simply want to take over the planet, destroying great city after city, crushing civilisations underfoot. Substitute Martians for Russians and what the cinema viewing public got in 1953 was a lecture from Hollywood reflecting the US government’s hysterical Cold War attitudes.

So why am I raking over events of the past? Well, my recent trip to Afghanistan triggered this trip down Memory Lane when I found a dog-eared copy of the HG Wells novel in my bedside cabinet.

But it wasn’t the thought of a new Russian threat, or even the spectre of the old Red Peril which occupied my mind; it was the all pervading presence of the US military.

From the heavily-armed, loud-mouthed US grunt who I witnessed swearing and shouting at bewildered Afghans as they entered their own country at Torkham border, to the remedial and intransigent mouthpiece for the dark US military site of Bagram, scene of at least two murders and countless tortures, it was clear to me that Afghanistan is in the grip of aliens.

The Americans, it seems, are about as welcome as the parasitic terminators in War of the Worlds. Long gone is the heady rush excitement experienced by Afghans after the fall of the Taliban when Bush and Blair ushered in their troops with promises to liberate and educate. Far from re-building Afghanistan the military forces, especially the Americans, are now viewed with a deep hatred and revulsion.

And how have I reached this conclusion? Well, not by talking to politicians camped inside Kabul although even Afghan leader Hamid Karzai is more vocal in his criticism these days about the US presence in his country.

I simply went out and spoke to ordinary people … Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks, both men and women and the youth, especially the youth.

Unlike most journalists who embed with the military, (and this is no criticism of my colleagues who are often dictated to my insurance companies and security firms) I actually travelled around Afghanistan unescorted venturing into some of the most dangerous, volatile spots to sit down and engage with ordinary people.

I even got caught up in the middle of a firefight between Afghan police and Taliban fighters on the road to Ghazni – narrowly escaping a hail of bullets (the film-maker I was with, captured the whole terrifying episode so you can make your own judgment about my ordeal when our documentary is broadcast on Press TV in 2009).

We managed to move around Afghanistan, largely undetected by those who would do us harm, by avoiding driving in convoy with a crew of armed guards and four-wheel-drive vehicles. In fact our bright yellow saloon with boy racer modifications and go-faster flame red stripes attracted little attention.

But, with the exception of less than a handful of people, I can tell you with great authority that the Afghan people detest the presence of the Americans in their country – and for a whole raft of different reasons.

The first is their arrogance and refusal to even try and embrace or understand the codes, cultures and expected behaviour of those living in Afghanistan. Like any guest, you try and keep to the house rules of your host and this is something the Americans have failed to do. In truth, they haven’t even made an effort.

Several Afghans I spoke to (all Tajiks) showed me evidence of their damaged cars and told how US convoys will simply plough through traffic jams to create their own fast lanes, bumper bars crushing and shunting to the side any vehicles trapped in their path.

When they take to the open road, they drive so slowly as to cause huge jams in their wake, but if you attempt to overtake their convoys you will be shot at. They do exactly the same in Iraq. At one point we were kept to 20 mph on an open stretch of road on the outskirts of Kabul where we could have expected a clear run.

A local traffic cop told me he was so sick of these actions but it seems that the American military, and those tagging on in their wake – the ubiquitous Blackwater and other private security firms – are impervious to the wanton destruction and hatred they cause.

“They are above the law and I am powerless,” he told me.

A young man from Kandahar revealed how anyone who publicly criticises the Americans is likely to get a ‘visit’ from the US military. He says he was jumped on, knocked out with a liquid cosh – a hypodermic in his shoulder – and woke up in a cell to loud rock music. He was released 18 hours later with various threats ringing in his ear about “adjusting his attitude”.

The American bully boys also seem happy to settle old scores between warring communities, rival families and warlords by calling in US Airstrikes … and on the subject of airstrikes just how many innocent men, women and children have been massacred in the indiscriminate actions of the cowardly Top Guns who never have to account for the slaughter of the innocents?

And then there are the prisons, secret and otherwise, in the control of the US. One day I sat down with a government official from the Peace and Reconciliation movement set up by Hamid Karzai to try and heal old wounds … how do you pacify a family when their 86-year-old relative has been carted away, shaved, shackled and abused before being released may be a year later?

I sat and looked through all the mugshots he showed me of the ex-Bagram detainees. Young boys who should be in school, grandfathers and great grandfathers with long, white, flowing beards. How can the Americans just arrest these people and keep them in dark sites for months and years on end without explanation or justification?

And then I had my intelligence insulted by the Bagram media people who are either simple or without morals or really have no idea what is happening in their own backyard. Even though, armed with proof including names and prison reference numbers and personal details, I was told categorically: “There are no women or children in Bagram”.

And then there are the Afghan women, those amazingly strong, resilient females who have been horribly betrayed by George W Bush and Tony Blair who continue to justify the invasion of Afghanistan “to liberate the women”.

I can tell you, with the exception of a few, there are no career women emerging from the rubble in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan.

One told me: “I hated the Taliban. They killed two of my uncles. The Americans have now murdered 16 of my cousins, now ask me who I hate more. I wish the Taliban were back.”

That is not something you expect a woman from the Shamali Plains to say.

And of course, I will never forget Sawara Khan from Bermil who lives just three miles away from a US base near the Pakistan border at Shkin in Paktika whose entire family of nine children from a babe in arms to her teenage daughter were slaughtered in their sleep by a rogue missile strike.

“We did a wrong and we mis-targeted,” a media spokesman told me at the time – of course now they don’t even say sorry and come out with lukewarm promises of investigations.

I visited Kabul University – where in February 2002 more girls than boys passed the entrance exam; strange when you consider the Bush-Blair propaganda that the Taliban did not allow girls to be educated – to deliver a lecture.

When I was asked more closely about my views of the American occupation (their words, not mine) I was a little hesitant not wanting to stir up a hornet’s nest, but I spoke truthfully saying it was clear to me the US and the Brits had over-stayed their welcome.

There was not one voice of dissent but instead I was greeted with universal agreement. I admit I was taken aback.

These are the people Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister should be talking to and engaging before he talks about sending in more troops to Afghanistan. These youth represent the future of Afghanistan and at the moment very few see a bright future for their country until the US leaves.

And by the way, Mr Brown should really take note of this – few in Afghanistan can differentiate between the Brits and the Americans which I know is a constant frustration for the British military.

Now you won’t read this sort of report in mainstream media for several different reasons. First, as I said before most journalists when visiting Afghanistan go embedded and therefore only see what the military wants them to see.

And trust me, having tried to engage with the media machine in Afghanistan and experienced at first hand their long distance relationship with the truth, they know even less than their Pentagon briefers in Washington.

Secondly most mainstream media do not want to incur the wrath of the Bush Administration or the faceless mandarins in Whitehall and Downing Street who are trying to bully editors to put a gloss or spin on Afghanistan.

Thirdly, some elements of the media pay vast sums of money to security firms as part of an insurance requirement. These security officers usually go for the safest option of telling journalists not to venture outside of Kabul.

Finally, it really isn’t safe to travel around Afghanistan. While I was in the region two Brits were killed – a charity worker and security guard while several other westerners had been kidnapped and later released by criminal gangs.

And when I said I spoke to all sorts of Afghans I suppose you could also say I did speak with some members of the Taliban who are rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of more US and British soldiers pouring into their country.

“It makes for a bigger target,” I was told.

It also might be worth considering, that because of misplaced arrogance, military incompetence and adopting a position which puts them all beyond the reach of the law, the US military has now become the Taliban’s finest recruiting officers.

I’m not sure how anyone is going to get the message through that the American military are now the chief problem in Afghanistan and no longer the solution.

But it might be worth sending Barack Obama’s Afghanistan adviser a copy of the HG Wells classic to read before he gets the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And write a simple message on the inside cover: “Substitute Americans for Martians.”

[The writer is a journalist and author working as a presenter on The Agenda at Press TV]