The Times March 04, 2006
Is history about to repeat itself as the Great Game starts again?
By Richard Beeston in Nadali
Britain's biggest mission in the country since the loss of 1,000 soldiers in 1880 is a gamble
IN A mud-brick fort bristling with modern weaponry, the latest chapter in Britain’s long and painful relationship with Afghanistan was being played out this week in a scene that could have been taken straight from a Kipling novel.
In halting Pashtun, Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Worsley, a lean and tanned British Army officer, was trying to charm a daunting group of tribal elders, who treated with polite but ill-disguised suspicion the prospect of 3,000 British troops moving into their province.
Had it been the Great Game — the deadly 19th-century power struggle for the control of Afghanistan between the competing British and Russian empires — Colonel Worsley’s address would probably have started with a message from the great Queen across the seas and ended with a warning of what to expect if her wishes were not obeyed. He instead tried to overcome the piercing stares of his turbanned audience with promises that today’s British soldier was interested only in their safety and welfare, not in occupying their lands.
“The British soldiers coming here respect your culture,” he assured the clerics, farmers and officials. “You’ll see a very compassionate, caring soldier in Helmand province,” he said, using a description not often made of the Paras, who will spearhead the force that starts arriving in the coming weeks.
If there is one issue that all sides agree on it is that the three-year British deployment, the largest in Afghanistan for more than a century, is a hugely ambitious operation fraught with dangers and with no guarantees of success.
In interviews with aid workers, soldiers, diplomats and dozens of local Afghans, the consensus is that the largest British military expedition since the invasion of Iraq is a risky and ill-defined mission.
The British, working beside a newly formed Afghan army brigade, are trying to reimpose law and order on a remote and deeply conservative Islamic community, occupying a province the size of Wales that has been cut off from the outside world for much of the past three decades of conflict.
They will come up against some powerful vested interests, including the remnants of the militant Taleban movement, ousted from power five years ago, and the hugely powerful drug barons, who stand to lose most from the presence of a rival power.
Helmand is the largest province in Afghanistan with rugged mountains in the north, a fertile river plain in the centre and flat desert in the south stretching to the Pakistani border. Currently 1,000 police are responsible for its security, but most locals rely on their own private arsenals for protection. The terrain is ideal guerrilla country, as the Russians learnt to their cost during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
Contacted by mobile telephone, a local Taleban leader said that preparations were under way for the arrival of the British. “We are prepared to meet them,” he declared. “We are waiting for his excellency Mullah Omar (the fugitive Taleban leader) to start the jihad. We will fight any foreign force that comes to our country, whether British or Dutch or any other infidels. We are just waiting for the order to go.”
The threat cannot be taken lightly. The Taleban is more active than at any time since it was ousted from power by US-led forces five years ago and appears to be copying the tactics of Iraq’s bloody insurgency.
Helmand is one of the provinces where its fighters have stepped up their operations. The recently appointed governor narrowly escaped a suicide bomb attack and the small contingent of British forces to have arrived regard the roadside bomb as their biggest threat.
For the local authorities the dangers are much greater. Several police officers, teachers and other officials representing central government have been killed. Local security sources said that arms and ammunition, normally widely available on the black market, had been bought up by local fighters. “The word on the street is that they are preparing for the British,” a security source in the regional capital, Lashkar Gar, said.
Certainly in the town’s main market there was clear evidence of Taleban support. One music shop openly played songs praising Mullah Omar, who paradoxically banned music during his short and eccentric ultra-conservative Islamic rule over Afghanistan.
“We will not tolerate foreigners on our land. We will fight them. We are Muslims,” Sayed Jumma Agaha, a Taleban activist wearing the movement’s trademark black turban, said.
He pointedly recalled what happened the last time the British came in numbers to the area, in June 1880.
A force under the command of Brigadier George Burrows was defeated by Ayub Khan in the battle of Maiwand, about 40 miles (64km) north of Laskhar Gar. Locals say that the bones of the more than 1,000 British soldiers killed still turn up in the fields and irrigation canals. “We do not want British guns here. They should remember what happened the last time they came to Maiwand,” Mr Agaha said with a grin. But ancient rivalries are less of a threat to the British mission than the modern curse of drugs, and Afghanistan’s dominant position as the main supplier of heroin to the streets of British cities.
Opium accounts for more than half of Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product, with exports worth nearly $3 billion (£1.7 billion).
Helmand province, now regarded as tribal and backward, was once the main supplier of agricultural produce to the rest of Afghanistan. Today it has the dubious distinction of having the largest poppy harvest, which accounts for a quarter of all the country’s opium production.
Last year the province recorded a bumper crop. This year the expectation is that it will break new records with double the area being cultivated for poppy plants. The scale of the problem is obvious. Just 15 minutes from Lashkar Gar the first green tufts of the next crop, at this stage resembling lettuce leaves, are planted by the road.
There is hardly a farmer who has not devoted some of his land to poppy cultivation. Mirza Mohammad, 50, who was weeding his field with his two sons, said that he knew that growing poppies was bad but he had no choice.
“The plant contains poison and destroys lives,” he admitted. “It is against Islamic law. But I have to feed my children. The poppy is the only crop that brings me enough money.”
Next week 1,500 Afghan troops and special police are due to start eradicating poppy fields across Helmand province in a military operation likely to be resisted by the heavily armed local population, who have been offered Taleban protection.
British forces insist that they will not become directly involved in the eradication process this year. It is an open secret, however, that the deployment of such a large British force by the summer is intended to give the Afghan security forces the muscle to crack down hard on poppy growers next year and to take on the drug dealers who transport the opium across the open southern border with Pakistan.
The danger for British forces will be that their arrival will further cement the fledgeling alliance between the Taleban and the drug barons. As Colonel Worsley prepared to leave his meeting with the village elders and return to his base, protected by a large convoy of heavily armed British troops, locals predicted that little good would come of the latest British foray into this hot and dusty corner of Central Asia.
“We are very suspicious about the arrival of more foreign troops on our land,” Haji Abdul Qadr, a village elder, said. “We are suspicious because for 30 years Afghanistan has been a chess game for outsiders like the Russians, the Pakistanis, the Arabs and the Americans. We are afraid. When people talk about things as black and white we do not see good and evil. We see the head of a cobra.”
# This year, 3,300 British troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade will be sent to Helmand as part of Nato's expansion into the south of the country
# 1,000 troops will go to Kabul to form the headquarters for Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), commanded by a British Lieutenant-General
# A further 300 will train the Afghan Army and 1,000 engineers will build camps.
# As well as attempting to bring stability, it is hoped troops can help to tackle the opium trade
# Troops will stay for three years at a cost of £1 billion
HISTORY OF VIOLENCE
# Even in pre-Islamic days, Afghanistan was overrun by numerous invaders, who were met with violent revolts. King Darius the Great of Persia extended his empire into Afghanistan in 500BC and was supplanted by Alexander the Great
# In the 7th century it was invaded by Arabs, who introduced Islam, which eventually became the dominant religion
# In the 13th century the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, invaded on their way towards Europe. Much of the population was slaughtered. After Genghis’s death, the country was rocked by a series of petty revolts and violent power struggles in the 14th and 15th centuries
# The Moghuls became a dominant force in the 16th century, taking control of Kabul in 1504 and eventually much of Afghanistan. Hinduism was introduced, triggering more revolts
# In the so-called “Great Game” of the 19th century, the British and Russian empires competing with each other for influence, leading to the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838-42), which resulted ultimately in British withdrawal. The final peace treaty that ended the Afghan Wars brought the country independence
# Became a focal point of the Cold War after the Soviet invasion in 1979 in support of a communist regime. Soon after, the Mujahidin gained support from the USA and UK. The Soviet army withdrew in 1988. The Mujahidin took over Kabul in 1992, only to be ousted by the Taleban