Surviving Critical Times Hard To Deal With

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A New "Great Game" In Afghanistan?

Will Afghanistan Continue To Live Up To Its Reputaion As The Graveyard Of Empires?
Is history about to repeat itself as the Great Game starts again?

Britain's biggest mission in the country since the loss of 1,000 soldiers in 1880 is a gamble

By Richard Beeston in Nadali

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.


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