Bideford Brook

It’s turned out to be a long road, hasn’t it? I have to confess that last spring I never imagined we would be battling the virus 12 months on. Yesterday my wife showed me a social media post from an Irish citizen; let’s call him James. He has just heard from Dublin that lockdown in his country might continue into May.  For the first time in his life, and clearly a matter of some shame to him, this month James has been unable to pay his mortgage. His small business has failed with no prospect of recovery and there is not much immediate prospect of an alternative job. He has received just 700 euros of support from his government over the last year. He has an 11 year old daughter, a talented gymnast, who is deeply depressed because her 5 nights a week training sessions came to an end many months ago. He has a 14 year old son who doesn’t want to get out of bed in the mornings. What is there to get up for, his son wants to know? Better to sleep. And all this, James writes bitterly, because of a disease with a 98% survival rate and whose average victim is 82 years old. I mention all this not to express an opinion on the health policy of either the Irish government or our own, but just as a reminder, if any is needed, of stresses which ordinary decent people are having to put up with.

This latest lockdown has been harder to deal with than the first one, which was eased considerably by the beautiful spring weather of 2020. I normally expect February to be the coldest month of the winter and for a while it was, even with snow for some of us. More notably it was wet, with rivers in flood for most of the time. The Towy was particularly boisterous, breached its barriers and invaded Carmarthen city on the 20th. The scene at Llangadog Bridge upstream, a place I can normally wade across, was quite frightening. Otherwise, waiting under lock-down routine, one February Groundhog Day seemed much like another to me with far too much time indoors: wake up; go and spend a couple of hours fishing the same muddy pond for the same rainbows; back home to answer emails and tie a few flies; watch an old movie; cook dinner; go to bed; repeat. I’m beginning to understand why those following such enclosed and solitary professions as light-house keepers went mad so often.

Given the high rivers and the lockdown restrictions, I’m afraid I have no fishing reports for you, beyond my own dabbling for rainbows in our local Forest Pool – when it wasn’t frozen over and when it was not too thick with mud. My only advice about this, if you have no alternative but to fish in such coloured water, is to use a black fly with a strong silhouette. Trout can see better in such circumstances than you imagine. Looking on the positive side, by the time we reach March overwintered triploid rainbows are very powerful creatures. If the water is clear, once hooked they go tearing off like rockets! And now, as March is about to begin, everything in nature is waiting and the signs of coming spring are easy to find, from snow drops and primroses, to the rooks already on their nests and stronger sunlight. You can hear it in the morning birdsong. I found myself thinking the other day, that after all this high water, if there are any spring salmon in the Wye, they could be well upstream. And I was certain, too, that large dark olives and March browns will be about to hatch on the Usk. Only the anglers are missing. If only the river levels would drop and if only the anglers might be restored to freedom of movement and allowed out to play!

February 22nd was the announcement day we had all been waiting for and the PM’s planned road map for easing restrictions in England was much as had been expected.  According to a generally agreed priority, English schools should be back on 8th March. Freedom of movement and the opening of open air sports facilities such as golf and tennis clubs were envisaged for 29th March. This should include shooting grounds, commercial fisheries and of course full access to English rivers for anglers. Halleluja! It had been a long wait, but at least we now had a planned date, even if it was a further month away. 1st April is when they normally start fishing in Hampshire. But now we had to wait for Wales to decide which way it would jump and when. Accordingly the WUF was still waiting to open its on-line booking office at the time of writing. If only, if only, this supposedly United Kingdom could manage to move together on these matters.

Rainbow from the muddy waters
Overwintered rainbow
Spring around the corner

Following on from last month’s piece about animal behaviour, I have a story for you involving high-flying birds. It is also, strangely enough, a story involving two separate 20th anniversaries. Later on this year I dare say we will hear a lot more about the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon which quickly became known by the abbreviated title of 9/11. I will come to that later. You might have forgotten it is also two decades now since the foot and mouth outbreak in the UK. This began during my home leave and was in some ways a little like what we are experiencing now during lockdown. If you work overseas, you treasure the idea of a holiday at home in the British countryside; even in winter it’s good to take a walk in the woods and stop off at a country pub. It was lovely as always to be back with my family, but Gloucestershire that early spring was a sad disappointment as we found ourselves cut off from the land around us. There was no fishing to be had. As the epidemic progressed, the infection having been blown by winds across the estuary, soldiers arrived in the Forest of Dean with the unpleasant task of executing our 6,000 free-range sheep. Day after day black smoke was rising from a great pyre built in the pretty village of Blakeney to burn the corpses of cattle and, as a result, many of the traditional Severn-side milking herds were never rebuilt.

When my leave finished at Easter, I went off to spend 6 months of 2001 and later as it turned out the first part of 2002 in a place called Shahrak Bazaar, which is in Ghor Province, Central Afghanistan. The purpose of my planned trip was a food for work drought relief programme working with Afghan partners. You won’t have heard of Shahrak and you definitely haven’t missed much. By any standards is not much of a place: a desert mountain village at around 7,000 feet above sea-level, which ensures it has what must be one of the worse climates in the world. I was living with Afghan colleagues in an old Soviet-built weather station and according to legend the post had on occasions recorded 50 degrees in summer and 50 below in winter. Having experienced it now during both seasons, I wouldn’t recommend it in either. Apart from a single street of one-storey mud-brick houses looking rather like the setting for a spaghetti western, the nearest building of any size, a couple of hundred yards away from our compound, was the district fort and local headquarters of the then-ruling Taliban. This was also made of crumbling mud-brick, the only building material available in this remote province.

One night in April, just after I had arrived in Shahrak, local Northern Alliance commanders from the surrounding mountains attacked and captured the fort, killing six Taliban before retreating at dawn. We spent that night sitting amongst potato sacks and drums of paraffin in our semi-basement store-room. This was more or less according to the security plan which I had coincidentally written and filed to headquarters via the satphone the day before. The attack on our neighbours had been quite predictable after all and heaven knows you must always have a security plan! Occasionally we peeked out to look at the pretty lights flying across the sky, listening to the racket of automatic fire, rocket grenades and shouting, while telling each other jokes to keep our spirits up until morning. At that point we evacuated in our vehicles and took everything of value with us to a lower valley under Northern Alliance control. We went back to Shahrak a couple of days later.

Ghor or Ghoristan is mostly an ethnic Tajik area, so the Taliban, who are almost all Pashtun, knew they were not amongst friends. In a sense one could feel sorry for them and their sheer lack of competence to administer these undeveloped provinces. In those days they depended on the international aid operation for almost everything the population needed or wanted, and they knew it. Our usefulness was our protection, made visible by a white vehicle and a neutral blue flag. Once I had some complaint about the local Taliban commander, my neighbour in Shahrak Fort, so I went a day’s journey to see the provincial Governor in Chagcheran. Incidentally this not much of a place either, two long days drive west to Herat and three days travel east to Kabul, all of it on dirt mountain roads. Inside the smoke blackened walls of Chagcheran’s gloomy palace, we waited for the governor and his body-guard to finish afternoon prayers while a dust storm blew in from the high desert through unglazed windows. When prayers were done, in came the Taliban governor, a young man not out of his 20s, surrounded by his cheerful and equally young body-guards, all in black turbans and toting their Kalashnikovs. Smiles all around and we sat down in a circle on the carpet for tea. In the Afghan way, the body-guards chipped in on the conversation as they saw fit and my own driver/interpreter Muktar did the same. I began to realise from his nervousness and slight bewilderment that the governor had never met a foreigner before. I asked him where he was from and he told me he had spent most of his young life in a refugee camp in Pakistan, where he had been studying religious texts in a medrese. I told him I came from a place called Gloucestershire in England. After a bit I said while keeping a very straight face: “What crimes have you and I committed so that as a punishment we have been banished to this place behind God’s back?”  I was looking at him closely while that was interpreted and I saw him and the rest of the company breaking into chuckles and any remaining ice was broken.

Back in Shahrak following the attack, the replacement Taliban garrison was now understandably nervous. The Northern Alliance had retreated a few hours after taking the fort because they feared an airstrike in retaliation. The Taliban then had some old 1960s MIGs at Shindand which would just about fly, although without full aerobatic performance as their pilots had no G suits. But the ground attack could be repeated. Every time I drove out to inspect the programme in one of the other district centres, Taiwara, Passaband or Tulak, I would pass an advance patrol of three or four Taliban soldiers about half a mile out from the fort, armed usually with rocket propelled grenade launchers and straining their eyes into the sun to watch the desert and the hills. Half an hour later, gaining the summit of the first pass away from Shahrak valley, we would come across a single horseman sitting watching the track, his rifle balanced across the pommel of his saddle. This was the Northern Alliance outpost and the sentry would invariably fish for information despite our white vehicle and fluttering blue flag: “Are there any Taliban down there?” To that we couldn’t reply without compromising our neutrality, as he well knew. Muktar would have replied if I had let him.

Afghans, in my experience, do not have much of a sense of security when it comes to sensitive information and Taliban and Northern Alliance commanders could be heard talking to each other all the time on the radio. They should have been aware that we used the same channels and could listen in. Effectively they were trying to make deals with each other rather than resolve differences by fighting - a tendency which I had to applaud. Meanwhile, as some kind of insurance against a repetition of the attack, the Taliban had mounted one of the Russian-made twin barrelled anti-aircraft guns on the flat roof of the fort. You see these artillery pieces everywhere in low technology conflicts around the world, usually mounted on the back of a truck. They fire solid rounds of 23 mm fed from two belts and make an extraordinary racket with gouts of flame about a metre long from each muzzle. Every couple of days one or two of the Taliban soldiers would climb up onto the roof and fire some rounds off, just to impress the neighbourhood. Apart from the flame, the vibration would set your teeth jarring. Once, when some horsemen were observed crossing a mountain saddle some miles distant, they let off a whole belt in their general direction. I have no idea if they hit anybody.

By the beginning of September I was looking forward to winding up the programme for the winter, after which I was due for home leave. Earlier that year there had been some talk with Afghan friends about making an end of season trip to Mazar i Sherif on the Oxus, to visit autumn wedding parties where there would be a horseback game of buzkashi. I had already learned that among Afghans there are some remarkable horsemen, often superbly mounted on long-legged ponies. Towards the end of the summer’s fighting in Ghor a Taliban offensive was developed against Pay Hasar valley about 20 miles away. I was rather hoping this assault would fail, because I liked the Pay Hasar commander, an impressive looking fellow with a distinct resemblance to the actor Sean Connery in one of his later roles. He told me he would have liked humanitarian programmes for his dozen villages, but not those involving road-building, for the obvious strategic reason that the Taliban would use roads to invade his mountain domain with artillery. In the event, the Taliban brought up more than 100 cavalry from Helmand to Shahrak for the attack. They were with us until Pay Hasar fell and by then all the fodder in the neighbourhood was used up. Even in this 21st century, nobody should under-estimate the usefulness of a man on horse-back with a rifle. The horse will be used for war as long as guerrillas fight. Shahrak was busy for a few days with the Russian-built helicopters landing to bring in ammunition and ferry out the Taliban wounded. A couple of military advisors from Pakistan were pointed out to me. On the subject of strangers, ordinary Afghans at this time were certainly aware that the Taliban also had Arab guests, but generally they were regarded with fear and abhorrence. Nor would they be found in this remote countryside. I saw only on one occasion a convoy of foreigners moving in jeeps near an army base outside Herat city.

On quieter summer nights at Shahrak the young Taliban cavalrymen from Kandahar and Helmand would dance round campfires with tambourines or stroll through the village hand in hand. “They are singing of love” my Tajik colleagues told me about the Pashtun boys from Kandahar, with a knowing and scornful air. As autumn approached the buzkashi idea seemed like a piece of foolish tourist nonsense, because there were more than a few worries about the end of this particular programme, including an outbreak of cholera among the thousands of beneficiaries working on the road and living in tented camps. Pushing an extension of the valley road past the ancient Minaret of Jam was proving really difficult for our Moscow-trained engineers; believe it or not the Taliban Minister of Culture was expressing concern about the minaret from Kabul. The same official had remained completely silent when ancient Buddhist statues were deliberately vandalised in Bamyan. Everything in the project had to be done by hand, without explosives or any heavy machinery. Meanwhile, I was appreciating fresher nights and slightly cooler days as summer ended and the hot winds subsided. There was even a slight frost one morning.

In Afghanistan they have something called the chowk news. A chowk is the junction where any two desert tracks cross. There might or might not be a village associated, but in any case people tend to gather at a crossroads and talk. So it’s a source of gossip and, like the neighbourhood well in rural Bosnia, quite a good source of intelligence. The crossroads in Shahrak was just outside the gate of our compound. “What’s the chowk news?” I would ask my Afghan colleagues every day and somebody would be sent out to get it. On this morning I was loitering for some reason by our compound gate when everybody at the chowk began to point up at the sky and talk excitedly. I looked up too and saw outlined against a clear blue sky, a v-shaped skein of what looked like storks flying very high. They were heading south and so I supposed they were engaged on some sort of seasonal migration from Central Asia towards the plains of Pakistan or India. It was a cheering sight, and although the great birds were very high I could distinctly see their trailing legs. Out of the corner of my eye I then spotted a teen-aged Taliban in his black turban, running and hopping to the ladder which led onto the roof of the fort. Suddenly I was seized with a dreadful realisation of what he planned to do. A moment later he was in the seat of the gun and spinning the wheel of the hydraulic control which raised the muzzles to a near vertical position, then the barrels were juddering and flame was spitting as he sent lead flying into the sky.

In fact, I don’t think he hit anything, but that wasn’t really the point. What shocked me was the callous disregard for a thing of natural beauty, a thing and a sight quite rare in the interior of that harsh land. Odd, you might say, that this pointless shooting at birds should shock me somewhat more than his shooting at people. Why is that? I don’t understand it either. Come to think of it, I have been shot at myself on occasions, but at least you know where you stand with such people – behind a thick wall, ideally. The Taliban’s record for brutality to humans is well-documented enough without me adding to it. About this time they hung a young captured Northern Alliance commander from a lamp-post outside the office of the main human rights organisation in Herat. The point they were making to the international community seemed fairly obvious. However, brutality in this civil war was hardly confined to the Taliban. The Uzbek commander Dostum used to strap his victims to the treads of tanks. Prisoners were packed into freight containers to cook in the sun. Human life altogether seemed depressingly cheap in this part of the world.  One day, several children from Shahrak were killed by the explosion of some Russian cluster bomblets which they had picked up by the road outside the village. When I heard about this, I insisted on driving out with colleagues to look at the spot. There, beside the track in the desert, lay quite a number of the bright aluminium capsules, untarnished by the dry climate since the war with the Russians more than twenty years before, but likely ready to kill anyone who touched them. We had no demining or UXO resource and my Afghan friends saw no reason to take any action. “Look, we have to put a warning sign up here. At least we can do that,” I said to them. They pointed out, reasonably enough, that nobody in the village could read. “Well then, find a piece of wood, paint a skull and cross-bones on it and put that up,” I insisted. They grumbled that it would be a waste of time, but the sign was made and erected. It was gone by the next morning, taken for fire-wood by the same villagers whose children it was intended to protect.

At that time the average life expectancy of an Afghan man was 42; for a woman it was rather less. Particularly so for the women of the Kuchi nomads, those armed wanderers who move seasonally across these mountains between Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The men travel in advance with the flocks and the women follow on with the shaggy Bactrian camels freighted with black goat-hair tents and baskets holding the smaller children. For these women, who live their lives entirely out of doors and many of whom carry tuberculosis, 30 was a good age. I found the Kuchi very different from most Afghans and very interesting. In Europe, we still have a few examples of seasonal transhumance between summer and winter pastures with associated upper and lower villages, but very few nomad herders continually on the move. Until recently, Central Asia’s Kuchis were almost able to ignore international frontiers. They seem to have a liberal interpretation of Islam; their women don’t veil and will talk to strangers – something you will never experience in Afghan towns. The flocks are guarded by sheep dogs so large and fierce that almost nobody dares approach them. When near cities, the Kuchi sometimes make money by staging dog-fights and taking bets. On the move, as the Kuchi usually were, it was difficult to work out any way to help them and indeed to know whether they needed it. There are certainly thousands of Kuchi and millions of sheep. Nomad wealth, where it exists, is all in sheep or cash and difficult to count. Their black tents look like those of Arabia and after the tribe had moved on you would see in the ground the holes the women had dug for baking the flat Afghan bread. One of the younger Kuchi leaders came in to see me; we touched on aid and our programme, but it was more of a social visit. He sat drinking tea and smiling, his eyes rimmed with black kohl and an ancient but well-kept Martini rifle which might once have been his grandfather’s propped against the wall behind him. “The problem with helping the Kuchi,” said an Afghan colleague afterwards, “is that it would be like passing a lighted cigarette between two cars driving on the road.”

My Afghan friends were reluctant to criticise the Kuchi, who for generations had passed through these settled Tajik lands while maintaining relatively good relations. However the Kuchi were Pashtuns like the Taliban and these were difficult times. Using old Russian military maps, which were by far the best you could get in Afghanistan at that time, I came to the conclusion from what I was seeing on my travels that the Taliban probably were using the bands of armed nomads as a blocking mechanism that summer. The Kuchi tents and flocks were too often spread across strategic passes and valleys to be a coincidence. (Later I heard that the Kuchi have suffered for that action and that some of their traditional pastures and migration routes are now being denied to them in turn). Perhaps the strangest thing I ever saw, one day while driving down the valley of the Farah river, was one of the Soviet-made helicopters on the ground near a spread of the black tents. “It’s the Taliban Air-Commander from Shindand,” I was told. “He’s a Kuchi and he’s visiting his family.” Another time there was news of a fire-fight between some of the nomads and Northern Alliance soldiers. It was difficult to tell whether this was part of the long-running civil war or merely an incident of sheep-rustling. But in the confusion, some of the Kuchi’s camels broke away and they were not recovered for three days. By that time the little children in the baskets were dead from exposure to the burning sun.

The domestic people of Ghor rely on rain-fed winter wheat for a living – the only obvious modern alternative is opium poppy and there is a whole separate story to be told on that subject. In a drought season of bad harvest, which used to occur about every 25 years, but now more frequently, a significant proportion of the very old and very young would die in the last months of the winter. So, in the past without humanitarian intervention, the population numbers would stabilise due to starvation. What had changed now was a possibility for drought-stricken villagers to hitch a ride for their families on one of the slow-moving trader’s trucks, the big Russian six wheel drive Kamaz which are almost the only civilian vehicles which pass over the dirt tracks of Central Afghanistan, and to settle in the great Maslakh camp just outside Herat. At that time, Maslakh (the word means “slaughterhouse”) was said to be the largest IDP camp in the world with more than 300,000 beneficiaries registered for a monthly ration of wheat from the World Food Programme. The death of a dozen people one winter night had just caused an outcry from the world’s media – particularly the UK liberal press. Maslakh was being described as a disaster of huge proportions, a failure of the aid agencies and an international scandal. There was a need for more food, more aid and above all more money!  I visited it when I first arrived in Afghanistan and it was a quite a sight: a confused mass of humanity, mud huts and improvised tents sprawled across miles of desert. I talked to a crowd and found that most of them came from Ghor and its neighbouring provinces. I also took note of what looked like a wheat market on the outskirts of camp, with trucks coming and going. We had the idea, at that time, that provision of food aid in a central hub was actually causing displacement, drawing people from their homes. Our programme was designed to support them at home, in their own villages.

The 9/11 attack on the United States came a few days after the incident with the storks. We knew nothing about it on that fateful 11th September, because for some reason I didn’t tune into the BBC World Service that evening. But early next morning, as per routine, I raised the dish, established a connection with the satellite and downloaded a couple of emails to my lap-top. The first came from Captain Jed Welder, a friend in the US Army, who wrote simply: “Oliver, you will be relieved to hear that Colonel Baggot was in the Pentagon, but he’s definitely OK.” I was mystified: Chris Baggot and his team had been the staunchest of allies in Bosnia, but what on earth was this about…? The second message from my wife in England explained more: a terrible attack had occurred in the US and jihadi organisations hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan were being blamed. An armed response from the US and allies seemed imminent. Now the world seemed to speed up. Shortly afterwards I agreed over the satphone with the London office, already awake, that national staff would be sent home, operations close down for now and I would move to Herat. During the rest of that day I think I broke the record for driving the 300 km trip on dirt roads downhill in an old Toyota Hiluxe. Taliban were moving everywhere, sometimes in areas I had thought to be under Northern Alliance control. One of their convoys included a white pick-up belonging to one of our local partner organisations. A black-bearded Talib draped with machine gun ammunition belts was standing grinning in the load bed, bracing his legs as the truck swayed. It didn’t seem the time to be making a fuss about neutrality infringements or claiming the vehicle back.

Herat’s aid community met in the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross that evening and here we heard that the Taliban government had formally withdrawn their offer of hospitality to internationals. This was very Afghan. We had been protected guests and as such we could leave, but we wouldn’t be welcome back. ICRC was considered the senior agency at that time and among many other things they ran the main transport operation for internationals between Peshawar in Pakistan and the various Afghan airfields, using South African bush pilots and twin turbo-prop Beechcraft. The ICRC head of delegation, a Frenchman and a friend of mine, announced that two aircraft which should hold everybody had been organised for the next day’s evacuation. This seemed like welcome news, but then we heard: “There is a certain amount of doubt. In the case that only one flight makes it here, we think that female internationals should be sent out first. Can I have a show of hands from guys who are prepared to stay in those circumstances?” The thought of only one aircraft showing up was less welcome, but it did strike me that my gallant French friend’s “life boats on the Titanic” suggestion was politically incorrect by modern standards. I looked round expecting an impassioned feminist objection from one of the Red Cross nurses or other female international staff. Interestingly, there was silence. Nobody in that mixed company said a word about equality of the sexes on that occasion.

Well, two Red Cross aircraft did show up at Herat airport the next day. Some young Taliban soldiers by the runway were jeering, but nobody tried to detain us or even check our papers. I was slightly surprised, despite what I knew about pashtunwali and respect for the principle of hospitality; almost any other people in the same circumstances would have held us as hostages. Meanwhile we were all thinking about our Afghan friends and the storm which we knew was coming to the country. The flight to Pakistan was not without incident and ended with flying blind down the Khyber Pass in thick cloud, thunder and lightning, relying on radar. On emerging to the tarmac, I felt on my face the very first drops of rain which had fallen on me since March. It seemed like heaven! 

The mood in Peshawar, which is pretty much an Afghan town, was sizzling hot; Pakistani military security was moving everywhere and the Christian minority was distinctly frightened. Only then, watching television in hotel rooms, did we see what had happened to the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. The world had already been watching this for nearly three days now, but films of the collapsing towers were being run again and again by the international news channels and we stared in appalled silence. One particular scene gripped me and still does: firemen checking each other’s breathing apparatus before beginning to climb the stairs. 

Across the world air traffic had been disrupted and a few days were needed to get flights out, firstly to the UK to face the media and for a short leave, to Dublin to brief donors, and then back to Mashad in Eastern Iran to prepare for what came next. In the event there followed long weeks of waiting as Coalition air strikes on Afghanistan went forward. In Western Afghanistan the Taliban behaved as you might expect and dispersed their tanks for protection among the civilian population of Maslakh camp. They also visited aid agency offices in Herat and threatened local staff with death if they should use the satellite phones. But they did not seal the equipment and our own staff used their instrument several times to ask us to intercede with the Iranian government in order to permit the evacuation of themselves and their extended families. More than 100 people were involved and we knew perfectly well there was absolutely no chance of the Iranian government agreeing – we had very little pull in that quarter. Iran, which already had a large illegal Afghan population, was determined to keep refugees at the border (in defiance of the 1951 Refugee Convention) but would provide assistance there. It was not pleasant to deliver the message, but our staff were advised to stay home and keep their heads down.

One morning in the Mashad hotel I was amazed to hear a familiar language over breakfast. It was a group of Serbian drivers who had just convoyed World Food Programme trucks overland from Yugoslavia ready for use in Afghanistan with local drivers. Meanwhile, to my surprise and relief, de-confliction liaison with Coalition air forces to allow convoys of Afghan traders’ trucks to deliver the wheat earned in our summer programmes worked almost perfectly. We fulfilled our contracts, wheat was delivered into the mountains before the snows came and there were no terrible collateral damage accidents with air strikes on the roads. Quite suddenly, or so it seemed, the Taliban were losing territory as the victorious Northern Alliance appeared to sweep across Afghanistan on a rolling front. At least that is how it may have appeared from the outside. In reality what happened is that those local commanders, always making deals on the radio, now saw which way the wind was blowing with American military power intervening, and chose this moment to change sides and declare for the Northern Alliance. And so it was, in the depths of winter, that at last I came back to Herat from Iran via the Tayabad border crossing.

Now with international appeals running we had a much larger aid operation being set up in Herat, new organisations were arriving every day, and together with World Food Programme there was much careful liaison about the distribution of food to different districts. I honestly think we did a reasonably good job to make sure what the real needs were and that nobody was left out. We even air-dropped food packages at one point, although it was not strictly necessary. I went back up to Ghor in the snow and temperatures so cold that vehicle chassis components changed their crystalline structure and cracked, while engines had to be kept idling overnight in an attempt to combat diesel waxing. With a pick and shovel I dug up the computer hard drive from where I had buried it in the compound before I left back in September. Opposition leader Ismail Khan had arrived from his haven in Iran to take over in Herat – he called himself the new “Emir of Western Afghanistan” and there was doubt, for a time, whether he would prove loyal to Kabul. Rory Stewart, then on leave from the Foreign Office, showed up in Herat asking for advice about the road to Ghor, having already walked across Iran and looking now to walk across the centre of Afghanistan to Kabul. For what it was worth, he had a letter of safe conduct from Ismail Khan. “I think that is marvellous; the Great Game goes on,” I teased him. He was very determined and wouldn’t buy a ride on a trader’s truck. Meanwhile the Afghan future was still uncertain and irredentist neighbours were certainly looking to take advantage. There were rumours (never to be realised) of a new asphalt road to be built from the Iranian border to Herat, with accompanying mains electricity to be supplied to the city for the first time in many years. Iran’s road into historic Khorasan would go right on through Ghor to the Shia population in Central Afghanistan. The story that this was to be called the Ayatollah Khomenei Highway may not have been entirely a joke! These were certainly interesting times.

One thing which Ismail Khan did manage to achieve was an accurate count of the beneficiaries in the Maslakh camp, an operation which had always been resisted before by the camp’s inhabitants. Two soldiers were killed during the count, but the final number was 110,000. This was around a third of the originally accepted total, as so many beneficiaries had managed to register themselves for food aid multiple times. So a new registration was undertaken, WFP reduced deliveries accordingly, and later that spring people started to go home to their farms. The wheat market on the edge of camp dried up.  Some, particularly younger ones who had found some type of work around town, inevitably stayed and Maslakh today has become a sort of satellite of Herat city. This is the eventual fate of most refugee camps around the world. For me, the Maslakh story serves as a reminder of how the international aid community can get things so very badly wrong and how the liberal media almost always gets it completely wrong.

Something else was changing, something subtle, but important. Inevitably the enlarged international presence, particularly the international military presence, was having its effect on the population. It wasn’t just the Taliban; most Afghans are uncomfortable with foreign soldiers on their soil. Even the Northern Alliance were working on the assumption that the military occupation would be short. The aid community was not immune from local resentment, and I imagine we had become more visible and were behaving with more self-confidence. I realised that I myself for some reason had taken to wearing European clothes around Herat, where there now seemed to be one international co-ordination meeting after another.  Meanwhile US and other Coalition forces had adopted some of the characteristics of the humanitarian community and were engaged in similar activities, sometimes in plain clothes and of course armed. It was a deliberate policy intended to win hearts and minds, based I think on conclusions drawn from the Americans’ recent peace-keeping experience in the Balkans, and working on the optimistic assumption that they would be applicable everywhere. Secretary of State Colin Powell when addressing a military audience about this time disappointed me by describing NGOs as “the best force multipliers you can have.” One of the US Provincial Reconstruction Teams including officers who had known me in Bosnia arrived in Herat and invited me to lunch. I had to tell them that this situation was different to post-war Bosnia and I didn’t think it would be possible to have close co-operation between the military and humanitarian communities in this case. Where there was co-operation, it should not be visible. In fact I was happier when PRTs, rather than undertaking humanitarian projects, worked on more obviously military matters such as disarmament. The problem was that Afghans were becoming confused about who was a soldier and who was a civilian and both were becoming regarded as valid targets. Without freedom of movement and a level of acceptance by the local population, we couldn’t do our work and we didn’t want a situation where we had to be escorted everywhere. A few days later, the vehicles of the same PRT were fired upon while travelling on the road to Shindand and they responded by calling in a B52 air strike with a smart bomb. This they had every right to do and it certainly solved their problem that afternoon, but it’s hardly possible to subsequently claim neutrality. Nor would it have been an option for us. Within a few months we had a mounting tally of attacks on white vehicles and I had to conclude that the aid operation actually had less freedom of movement than before the international military intervention. Exactly the same problem arose a few years later in Iraq.                 

Afghanistan in my time was commonly described as a failed state, and the harbouring of Al-Qaida and the 9/11 events seen as proof of the threat to the rest of the world which a failed state can be. I saw it as something like England must have been during the Wars of the Roses: a land of king-makers and local power holders, anything but unified. The world knows the history of what has happened in Afghanistan during two decades since. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan with the ornate stamp which so adorned the visa page of my passport may be over, but the civil war rumbles on. Meanwhile international troops and aid workers with some Afghan patriots somehow hold the situation together while trying to establish a democracy. Local war lords still call the shots in the countryside and the Taliban still have effective control of large swathes of territory. As it turned out, I was to carry on with the Afghanistan emergency relief programmes until a new situation arose in Iraq during the spring of 2003.

Going back to my storks in 2001, and considering the existential circumstances for humans I have just described, I suppose it is unreasonable to expect the average Afghan countryman to be very concerned about the preservation of wild-life. I was told of old men who could remember the presence of leopards in the hills of Ghor – I assumed that rather than the snow leopard, which definitely still exists further east in the Hindu Kush, this would have been the Iranian or Caspian leopard. I was shown cairns of stones in mountain passes marking where winter travellers on foot had reportedly been pulled down by wolves – an animal which I never saw there myself. Visitors from Pakistan were in the province during the summer, some of them with a military purpose working on the Taliban’s behalf, but also a couple of men who were pointed out to me as bird trappers. They had come up here in the middle of a civil war in order to trap passage hawks, which they would then sell for a high sum in the Gulf States. Ground game was pretty rare, until one drove close to the border with Turkmenistan where apparently game protection laws had lingered on from the Soviet era. Here we commonly saw a kind of burrowing rodent like a ground-squirrel near the track and (something remarkable in a country almost devoid of trees) a natural forest of pistachios. The crop was valuable, but now the unprotected trees were being cut down for firewood.  The one river which flows out of Ghor province is the Hari Rud, which runs down 300 kilometres to irrigate the gardens of Herat, and then on across the border into Iran, before turning north and finally losing itself in the sands of the Kara Kum, the Black Desert of Turkmenistan. The Hari Rud is a snow-melt river, powerful in the mountains during the strong suns of spring, but no more than a chain of stagnant pools by the end of the summer. It is a river which, unlike the great Oxus further north, never manages to reach any sea, neither the Caspian nor the Aral. I had no tackle with me, but I spent a few free hours with Afghan friends one spring day, using cotton hand-lines and pieces of bread to catch some fish like large gudgeon or tiny barbel, which later were fried for dinner. I noticed there were also some fresh-water crabs in the river, which of course no Muslim would eat. Parts of the lower Hari Rud valley were within historical memory grown with forests and reed-beds and it was once a refuge of the huge Caspian tiger, several specimens of which were shot by British and Russian sportsmen in the Persian section during the 19th century. It appears to have been hunted to extinction everywhere in Asia by the 1970s. Trout? Reportedly there are a few in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, which must be close to the limit of the European brown trout’s range.

I wonder if I could have explained to that young Taliban soldier my feelings about the storks he was shooting at. Storks, you know, are very special birds. They are reputed to mate for life and you see them on the nests in pairs, like elderly couples pottering around at home. They eat lizards and frogs in a reflective sort of way. They are very particular about how and where they live and how they relate to humans. For example, they nest in certain parts of Spain, Holland and Germany, but not in others. They never cross the sea to Britain, which is a matter of regret, although there is a current attempt to establish them in Sussex. In southern Portugal they occupy every spire, every factory chimney. In an old Spanish town near Avila with the wonderful Castilian name of Madrigal de Las Altas Torres (Song of the High Towers), there are great nests on almost every roof. Luckily for the storks, their human neighbours below usually consider them to be lucky and value their company. I used to feel the same way about an old house we had in Surrey where martins used to come every year and nest under the eaves. They made an awful mess, but it was a privilege to have them. I doubt, on reflection, that I could have accomplished much with my young Talib on the subject of the storks, unless perchance I could have found a passage in the Quran to support my case. Given the subsequent events of that 2001 autumn, within a few weeks he might have had the brief opportunity to fire the same gun against Coalition aircraft, in which case he is very likely no longer alive. To be fair to the young Talib, this was certainly not the only case of military action against migrating birds. Certain routes between continents have long been known for migration routes: the Straits of Gibraltar between Africa and Europe, and of course the Dardanelles between Europe and Asia. According to Alan Moorhead’s Gallipoli, at one point in 1916 the two opposing armies on the peninsula had reached a stalemate. Gallipoli today is a rather lonely and haunted place with a few quiet farms, except when busloads of visitors come to look at the cemeteries. Even in 1916, it seems, the firing had died away for lack of fresh initiatives until a day when quite suddenly huge numbers of migrating geese and ducks began to cross the skies. Every Turkish, British, Australian and New Zealand soldier let loose at them with every weapon to hand and it was said that the birds avoided the route across the Dardanelles straits for many years after.

Storks in Poland

I spent a few years of my life engaged in the international “nation-building” system – and it is a system – supposedly in the hope of creating some practical version of democracy in various parts of the world. I am not sure we achieved very much. I’m a believer in emergency relief provided it is well targeted and strictly time-limited, but I’m not so keen on development aid programmes which go on for decades. Nor do I see the value of allocating a fixed percentage of the GDP to international aid work which the responsible government department has difficulty in spending wisely – in fact I welcomed the recent reduction. As a by-product of the work, I gained a kind of insight into the workings and internal politics of the United Nations, the European Union, international humanitarian organisations and other NGOs, the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox churches, plus a few other strange quangos with political or diplomatic labels.  People like to imagine that such organisations are driven by a shared sense of altruism and responsibility for others. Well, there certainly were a few examples of honest and intelligent altruism, but in my experience ruthless careerism was more often on show and in some cases there was serious corruption. There’s a movie with Ben Kingsley, Back-stabbing for Beginners, which draws the picture quite well and it is not a work of fiction. I concluded a long time ago that if I want to find examples of decent, honourable and intelligent behaviour, the armed forces (of many different countries, not just my own) and the world of business also would be more fruitful places to search. In summary, I was usually more comfortable with soldiers.  

Today the military and civilian spheres are becoming steadily more blurred in sometimes problematic but sometimes interesting ways; every commanding general has a civilian policy adviser and if international forces are present where you are operating, that person is very much worth cultivating. If possible, try to get beyond CIMIC, the civil-military co-operation mechanism usually offered. It’s also very useful to gain the confidence of the officers running the tactical operations centre round the clock along with the J5 planning group. The J2 intelligence people will probably come looking for you. Visibly neutral and impartial as humanitarian organisations should be, such contacts may well need to be private. More difficult, but essential in times of factional armed conflict, you will need avenues of communication with all the local players. Neutrality is a difficult path to tread, but your programmes and beneficiaries, your own people and, last but not least, you yourself will be safer for having those connections.     

Rather naively I just mentioned altruism, but more useful attributes for those planning to work in failed states are a healthy dose of scepticism and a street-wise attitude. Field officers become accustomed to hearing an awful lot of lies from the authorities they are negotiating with and will certainly need to work hard to keep their projects honest. When the local mafia thugs are in charge, as is usually the case in times of war, aid money tends to be the only money in town. You can frequently find yourself in some kind of Mexican stand-off, and in one of those “who blinks first” situations the threat to withdraw the programme and take the money elsewhere is the one effective sanction. Remember that even the mafia would rather have an honest programme than no programme at all. These are situations which international, rather than national, staff of humanitarian organisations find easier to deal with. You won’t have to live in that place for the rest of your life. Again on the subject of altruism, I used to think that humanitarian organisations were getting an unreasonably easy ride when it came to public opinion at home – there was this assumption that everything we were doing must be wonderful. Along with other humanitarian representatives, on a number of occasions I gave evidence about the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq to parliamentary select committees and it was oddly disconcerting to note that MPs seemed to hang on our every word rather than question with any rigour what we had to tell them. Politicians and particularly government ministers would get much rougher cross-examination treatment when giving evidence to committees. All that changed when the sexual misconduct of some staff of one British NGO came to light a while ago – the higher the pedestal, the harder they fall! All we really found out then was that humanitarian organisations are staffed by human beings too.   

On a broader and even more pessimistic note, on a global scale what a mess the human species makes of almost everything we do, including relations amongst our own tribes and with almost every natural thing around us! Which is the worst aspect of it; the way we treat each other or the way we treat the environment? (Am I at risk of becoming one of what Tom McGuane called “the bleeding heart walking wounded of the ecology movement?” Or has it taken me 70 years to figure out what little Greta Thunberg already seems to know?) In more serious moments, I sometimes wonder how much of a success homo sapiens is going to be turn out to be, in the not too distant future at that. It’s difficult to deny that the world would be a much better place if the human population was, say, half of what it actually is today. Difficult to deny it, but slightly dangerous to say it unless you are David Attenborough. These are glum thoughts for a father and grandfather to be having, but it would not be so impossible to imagine a future in which we are no longer present. In which case, I think that it would be nice to imagine the storks will still migrate over the mountains of Central Asia and indeed salmon still migrate up European rivers. It would be something at least if we can manage to minimise our impact on other species while we are here - don’t get up gentlemen, we’re just passing through.

Well, that was a story for you of Afghanistan, land of the high flags. Old men like to tell stories; it’s our great fault. And lockdown, I’m afraid, gives us over-much time for retrospection and reflection.  

Stay safe!

Oliver Burch 

Wye Valley Fishing

Please note that the views within this report are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Wye & Usk Foundation.