Archive for May 2012
By Miles Amoore and Christina Lamb
THE two men should be sworn enemies. One is a Taliban commander waging what he says is a holy war against foreign soldiers in Afghanistan. The other is an Afghan army officer trained and paid by Nato to fight the Taliban.
Yet rather than do battle, the two men have forged a secret alliance. In the area of Ghazni province where both are based, just an hour’s drive south of Kabul, they collaborate to loot Nato supply convoys, dividing up the proceeds. They even share intelligence about military operations.
“We lost seven men in an ambush when I first arrived at the base,” explained Afghan army lieutenant Mohammad Wali, who commands 18 men. “So I thought, why risk my life when there’s another way?”
These are the security forces on which Nato strategy depends as world leaders gather in Chicago today to set in motion an end to the alliance’s biggest military operation — if not an end to the war itself.
The drawdown — officials avoid the word withdrawal — is based on handing over security to an Afghan army able to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into civil war when most of the 130,000-strong Nato-led force pulls out in 2014.
Last week, the alliance announced the transfer of another chunk of territory to Afghan control and soon three-quarters of the Afghan population will come under the protection of the Afghan security forces (ANSF).
In its latest report to the US Congress, the Pentagon claims 40% of operations are already led by Afghans. But Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution, who visited Afghanistan last week, said almost all were simple operations.
Revelations of secret ceasefire agreements between Taliban insurgents and Nato-trained Afghan soldiers appear to undermine Nato’s confidence that the latter can hold the line.
Nato handed over control of Ghazni city, the provincial capital, to Afghan security forces at the end of last year. Last month the Taliban closed down 100 schools in the province.
Wali said he had been approached by the local Taliban commander six months ago. Meeting in a bazaar, the pair agreed a ceasefire and a plan to ambush Nato supply convoys on the Kabul-Kandahar highway, which passes through the province.
“The plan is simple,” said Wali. “When the Taliban attack the convoys we stay in our bases. If the Taliban capture something valuable then they share it with us later.” Read the rest of this entry »
For the grey-bearded Afghan opium farmer, the sight of a large, red-headed white man running through his poppy field in traditional Afghan clothes was one of the strangest things he’d seen. For James Brett, a British entrepreneur with a penchant for adventure and an obsession with pomegranates, running into a field of opium in one of Afghanistan’s most lawless provinces felt completely natural.
“My translator kept telling me I’d get shot,” says Brett, his burly frame rocking with laughter. “It irritated me. I didn’t have time to worry about silly things like that. Bless the farmer: he looked more shocked than me.”
By the end of the bizarre encounter, Brett had persuaded the farmer to grow pomegranates instead of opium. He pulled out a white cardboard sign, scrawled the words “Pomegranate is the answer” on it in blue marker, and took a few photographs of himself and the bewildered farmer. He promised to return.
Those five minutes in the poppy field changed his life irreversibly, he says. If the eccentric Brit from Swindon has it his way, they will also change Afghanistan.
“It was a massive eye-opener,” Brett says, as he recalls the experience. “I realised that the people growing opium are oblivious to what it can do in our society. In the back of beyond of Afghanistan, people don’t have a clue.”
In 2007, Brett, a father of three, took the first step towards helping Afghan farmers plant pomegranate trees instead of opium. He launched the initiative Plant for Peace, originally calling it POM354, after his car numberplate, but changing the name soon afterwards. Out of that has grown a wildly ambitious scheme that aims to revive Afghanistan’s entire horticultural sector and, in the process, foster the peace and security that has so far eluded western powers fighting the Taliban since 2001. It’s an almighty task for one man to accomplish. But since its inception five years ago, Plant for Peace has won powerful backing: supporters include Lady Caroline Richards, the wife of the chief of the defence staff, General Sir David Richards, and the Marquess of Reading.
To raise cash for his plan and to encourage the food industry to buy Afghan products, Brett will produce a fruit bar made entirely from ingredients grown in Afghanistan, including pomegranates and mulberries (plus raisins and almonds). Working initially with a factory in Sunderland, he expects to launch the bar later this year.
Brett hopes the bar’s production will prove to other British companies that importing Afghan ingredients and investing in Afghanistan’s food sector is worthwhile, and that this will, in turn, lead to a future in which Afghanistan will once again export juice, fruit and nuts to a global market.
I met Brett on a sunny day at my house in Kabul. Read the rest of this entry »