Image: Stephen Dupont
They both apologised repeatedly. That’s what struck me. With the 2016 fighting season on again in the deadly Afghan conflict that has been a constant since 2001, they were busy. I had tried to get in touch with two former Afghan colleagues, both journalists and translators, I had worked with from 2005 until 2008. Both of them, Aleem and Bilal, had been more friends than employees for a foreign journalist. They had guided me through the intricacies of Afghan society. Sometimes it was who you had to bribe to get a visa extension, sometimes it was where not to go, sometimes it was as simple as “get down now” in the back of a clapped-out Toyota to avoid the Taliban watching the road. Both working journalists themselves, they had been busy this last week.
The Taliban had orchestrated a massive, co-ordinated attack in the centre of Kabul last week, leaving 64 dead and 347 wounded, including women and children, at last count. The headquarters of the Afghan intelligence service (NDS) had been targeted. It was the usual pattern: a massive bomb followed by an armed attack by gunmen determined to kill as many as they could before they themselves were killed. Imagine such staggering casualties in Sydney or Melbourne. Imagine the outrage. Not for Afghanistan, though. It is just another crap day at the office for these guys.
Aleem had called me excitedly back in 2008. He had finally secured permission for me to get into the NDS HQ and interview the prisoners who had been caught before they could explode themselves. One was a hardened militant who cried and fell to the floor rather than talking to my camera. The NDS officer in charge made a hitting gesture to him, and he cringed. The next prisoner was even sadder, a scared boy from Pakistan, bullied, tricked and cajoled into attempting to carry out a suicide bombing against an Afghan army post in the border province of Khowst. The bomb didn’t go off. He was caught and at the time of the interview just wanted to see his mother. He was 14 . He is probably still in jail, if he wasn’t killed in last week’s attack.
The reason I had got back in touch with Bilal and Aleem was to write a story about Uruzgan, about how Australia’s 15-year involvement in that war in that country had meant something. It was Anzac Day. That was the hook to write about this. What did it mean? Forty-one dead Australians, more than 280 wounded, mainly securing the province of Uruzgan, in Afghanistan’s south. I first went to that province in 2006 in a local taxi. The Australian military refused to have anything to do with me and were very angry when I showed up in the governor’s office in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital. I later learnt they reprimanded the Canadian forces I was supposed to be embedded with for letting me go. The governor’s compound and the Australian-US base at the other end of town were both surrounded and subject to heavy gunfire all night, every night.
Both Aleem and Bilal got back to me this week, telling me that now Uruzgan is almost fully back in Taliban control. The new highway that runs from Kandahar to Tarin Kowt is barely used. The US lieutenant colonel in charge of the army engineers that built the road back in 2004 and 2005 was famously quoted as saying he was constructing a black spear into the heart of the Taliban. The road would bring peace, democracy and freedom to the people of Uruzgan, facilitating trade and opening the beleaguered province to the rest of the country. It didn’t happen. The road is so dangerous it is rarely travelled. The only other journalist I know who has driven that road since I did in 2006 was The Australian’s Jeremy Kelly in 2009, who joined a convoy of more than 1000 Afghan troops to do so. No one goes there now the Australian troops have gone.
Meanwhile, back in Uruzgan, the war goes on. On Saturday, Afghan news service Khaama reported fighting:
“In a separate report, yesterday evening, Afghan National Police attacked Taliban’s sanctuaries in Nikroz village, Khas Uruzgan district of Uruzgan province, as a result four armed Taliban were killed and one was wounded.”
Two Afghan National Police officers were wounded during the operation. The same news agency, one of the few to cover Uruzgan, reported earlier in April that at least 30 militants had been killed in two separate operations conducted by the Afghan National Security Forces in southern Uruzgan province in co-ordination with the Afghan Air Force.
The Ministry of Defense (MoD) said the militants were targeted in the Dehrawood district of Uruzgan by the Afghan security force. At least 17 militants were also wounded during the raids.
Last month US-sponsored Radio Free Europe reported that government forces in Uruzgan Province had been worn down by combat losses and desertions.
Clearly the uneasy peace and stability Australian soldiers had enforced in Uruzgan has catastrophically failed after the withdrawal of Australian troops. The translator I tried to contact in Kandahar, who accompanied me on that dangerous drive down the “black spear” of a highway back in 2006, didn’t respond to calls or emails. I hope he is just too busy working to respond to my calls and messages. And I still can’t believe my other two translators apologised for getting back to me late. They had just finished counting the 64 dead and 347 wounded from the Kabul attack, their grim recording of the daily deaths a part of the daily reporting routine. Imagine that … and this year’s fighting season has only just begun.