Tag Archives: Taliban

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman

The Granai massacre: interview with Guy Smallman
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
August 2009

On 4 May 2009 the US bombed the village of Granai in Farah Province, Afghanistan killing 140 civilians according to the Afghanistan Government, including approximately 90 children. It was the single largest loss of life caused by US/NATO forces since the 2001 invasion. President Hamid Karzai denounced the air strikes as “unjustifiable and unacceptable”, hundreds of people demonstrated in Kabul, and in Farah City there was a riot outside the governor’s office and traders closed their shops in protest.

The US military initially claimed the civilians were killed by grenades hurled by Taliban fighters. These baseless assertions were shown to be false by eyewitness accounts, and quickly withdrawn. The US military has since published a 13-page report, estimating that 20-30 civilians died in the bombing along with 60-65 Taliban fighters. The investigation conceded errors had been made in the military operation, but did not call anybody to account or apportion blame, and, importantly, did not “recommend the curtailment of close air support.”

In contrast to the findings of the US military’s investigation is the testimony of British photojournalist Guy Smallman, the only western journalist to visit the site of the air strikes. Back in London after visiting Granai in late May, Smallman – an experienced journalist who has previously reported from Iraq, Lebanon and the social movements in Bolivia and the factory occupations in Argentina – spoke to me about the events of 4 May.

With Granai and the surrounding area in western Afghanistan “pretty much controlled by the Taliban” the 37-year old photographer explains that it was “very risky” for him to photograph the bomb sites. “I was taken there by a couple of local people at a certain time when they thought the Taliban were less likely to be around”, he says. “I was dressed as a local and my face was covered and I was wearing sunglasses. I was told to take the photos and keep my mouth shut. My translator did all the talking.”

By combining the evidence he gathered on his trip to the village (he photographed the bomb sites and cemetery and spoke to several locals) with an indepth interview with a village elder, media reports and the US military investigation, Smallman has built up a detailed picture of what happened in Granai on 4 May.

Most accounts of the bombing start with the battle between Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government forces that took place “about three kilometres from the village” along the main road all afternoon, Smallman says. Pinned down by the Taliban the Afghan government troops called for US assistance, and ground troops and close air support were dispatched. Early news accounts and the US military reported that fighting had taken place in Granai with the Taliban firing from civilian compounds. Smallman says this is “absolute bullshit” – the villagers he spoke to insisted the Taliban never entered the village. “We walked the length and breadth of that village… we never saw a single bullet hole or single shell casing anywhere.”

The bombing – carried out by a B-1B bomber – started at least an hour after the end of the fighting. “From the villagers’ point of view they didn’t have a clue what was going on”, says Smallman. “As far as they were concerned there was no reason for their village to be bombed.” He notes there were two concentrations of air strikes in Granai, the first outside a mosque where a crowd had gathered after evening prayers. “You could see that trees were snapped in two by the bombs, so you can only imagine what happened to the people there”, he says about photographing the bomb site.

Understandably this air strike produced “blind panic” among the villagers, with the elderly, women and children evacuated to a compound at the far end of the settlement. “A single 2000lb bomb was then dropped in to the middle of them”, reports Smallman. “That was where there was the biggest loss of life. That is why the number of children killed was so high. A 2000lb bomb vaporises literally everything at its epicentre”. During his visit to Granai, Smallman says he was saddened to see a mass grave in the cemetery with the remains of 54 people. “The reason they are buried together – which is very out of keeping with Muslim tradition – was because they were all in pieces, and it was impossible to tell who was who.”

Smallman is keen to highlight the absurdity of the US investigation’s claim that the civilians targeted were “moving in a tactical manner – definitively and rapidly in evenly spaced intervals across difficult terrain” in the dark. “This is bullshit – the Taliban are not renowned for their marching or drilling. They are guerrilla fighters.” He also argues the US estimate of the number of civilian dead is “way off the mark”. He agrees the exact number will never be known, but believes the best estimate to be 140 civilian deaths – a figure supported by the Afghan Government, the Red Cross and the villagers themselves. Smallman does not believe the US military deliberately targetted civilians in Granai – “they’ve got nothing to gain from this and everything to lose” – but he contends it should be investigated as a war crime. “What has happened so far is the US military has investigated itself, and found itself not guilty.”

Smallman points out the US/NATO occupation forces in Afghanistan are caught in a Catch-22. “If they take away the air support then they would immediately level the playing field between their troops and a very determined enemy fighting on their own turf. The NATO casualty rate would soar.” However, if they continue using air strikes he believes “civilian casualties are absolutely inevitable” and “every time an innocent dies it brings money and recruits to the Taliban.”

So what prospects does Smallman see for Afghanistan‘s future? “Would things be any better if the troops were pulled out?” he asks rhetorically. “It is hard to imagine that things could be any worse. Certainly the occupation is not working – it is a magnet for every jihadist headcase on the planet.”

By documenting the attacks on Granai on 4 May, Smallman has done a great service for those who wish to know the truth about the US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan. However, due to the danger to himself and his contacts in Afghanistan, he says he is unlikely to return to Afghanistan this year. “I don’t particularly want to push my luck – I‘ve been there three times already”, he says. “It is the maddest place I’ve ever been too, bar none.” The question of safety is hugely important because, as Smallman explains, if independent journalists can not gain access, then the US military is better able to control the information flowing from the battlefield. “How many more massacres have gone completely uninvestigated because the slaughter has been off-limits to the press?”

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Understanding the Taliban insurgency: interview with Dr Antonio Giustozzi
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
December 2009

In the introduction of his new book Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, Dr Antonio Giustozzi argues the public debate surrounding Afghanistan has been “dominated by superficial or plainly wrong assumptions.”

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of those violently resisting British and NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, I recently spoke with Giustozzi at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he works as a research fellow in the Crisis States Research Centre.

Since 2003 the 43-year old Italian academic has visited Afghanistan about three times a year every year, including twelve months working for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. This extensive fieldwork informed his 2007 book Koran, Kalashnikov and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan and his new study – two academic volumes that have made him the foremost expert on the Taliban working in the UK today.

Giustozzi uses the term “neo-Taliban” or “new-Taliban” to refer to the Taliban who has been operating in Afghanistan since the US/NATO invasion and occupation in October 2001. “It has the same leadership”, he notes, but it is now “an insurgent force – essentially an underground operation.”

In southern Afghanistan, an area dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, the Taliban and the insurgency are essentially synonymous, he says. From 2001 to 2006, he explains the Taliban largely consisted of small groups of young, hardcore fighters based in remote, rural areas. “By and large there was a certain correspondence between clerical influence and the spread of the Taliban, for the obvious reason that during the Taliban government they were in power”, he says. “The judiciary was totally clericalised. Education was largely clerical. All the governors and ministers were Mullahs.” In areas where state education has been traditionally weak, such as the south, Giustozzi notes “the Taliban and clergy have been proportionally stronger.”

He estimates that between 10-15 percent of Afghans are linked to the clergy directly. “On top of this there are the people who are not Mullahs themselves but are very religious and likely to be influenced by the clergy”, he adds.

From this core base, the Taliban were able to gain additional support from marginalised people dissatisfied with or opposed to the Government presence in their community, and through a gradual process of Talibanisation. “If the Taliban had been in a community a long time, the Taliban fighters would marry local girls, and the Taliban themselves would actively eliminate elders they didn’t trust”.

However, Giustozzi sees the large-scale NATO deployment to the south in 2006 (the British to Helmand, the Canadians to Kandahar and the Dutch and Australians to Oruzgan) as “a turning point” in the conflict.

“Up to 2006 Helmand was not a stronghold of the Taliban”, he notes. “They were not able to fight openly. Then from 2006 there was a major upsurge in resistance against the British.” This resistance “was crushed” by the British forces, with thousands of Taliban fighters dying. However, Giustozzi says if you look at the fighting from the Taliban’s perspective “it gave an impression, not only in Helmand but throughout the country, of popular mobilisation, a people’s war against the British. Whole communities rising up.” In addition the large number of Taliban casualties meant whole “communities got disrupted and destroyed and people – particularly young men – were on the loose. These people become recruitable by the Taliban as core fighters.”

Similarly Giustozzi believes what has become known as The Battle of Pashmul was another example of what he calls the ‘Tet Offensive effect’ – when a superior military force is successful on the battlefield, but loses the propaganda war. Engaging a large Taliban force in the vineyards just outside Kandahar in summer 2006, the newly-arrived Canadian troops inflicted a heavy defeat on the Taliban. But, as Giustozzi explains, “in terms of perceptions it showed the Taliban were able to fight against NATO with all its power on open ground near Kandahar, and showed they were no longer a marginal movement but a big force to be reckoned with.” Just like the British experience in Helmand, this propaganda success “started to have a big effect in terms of recruitment, and opened new constituencies to Taliban influence”, he says.

Regarding President Obama ordering of an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan, Giustozzi argues the “numbers don’t mean much.”

“It depends how they use the troops”, he says. “If the troops stay in the barracks it won’t have any effect.” However, if the US soldiers engage the Taliban – and the fighting is “indecisive, protracted and creates destruction” – he contends this is likely to have “a destabilising impact, certainly at the beginning. Also it produces extremists.”

Giustozzi’s description of growing support for the Taliban and his belief that between 60,000 and 70,000 Afghans are now actively involved in the insurgency jars uneasily with the dominant narrative in the West of the Taliban being very unpopular. In particular I ask him about the 2009 BBC/ABC opinion poll conducted in Afghanistan that puts support for the Taliban at around 9 percent and support for the Government at 65 percent.

“The 9 percent is an underestimate”, he replies. Having studied the methodology of previous BBC/ABC polls, he explains it is very unlikely the polling staff travelled to the rural areas in the south (“where the Taliban are”), instead focusing on the cities and provincial centres. “The sampling is very, very biased.. there are very few unemployed people, whereas even the Government says unemployment is 40 percent. In the poll 5 percent were police and army, whereas in Afghanistan the actual percentage of the population in the army and police is 0.2 percent. 14 percent were managers and directors. There were no Mullahs.” If the sampling was balanced, he estimates the Taliban would get around 15 percent support nationwide, and between 30-40 percent support in the south.

Interestingly, Giustozzi mentions that he has seen polls conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which use different methodologies and get very different results – much higher support for the Taliban and much lower support for the Government. “In ISAF polls in early 2009 support for [Afghan President] Karzai was 4 percent”, he reports. “They don’t release them, of course, because they show a completely different picture.”

After spending more than an hour speaking to Giustozzi, I certainly learned a lot, but couldn’t tell you what he personally thinks about the war in Afghanistan. Such is the nature of academic analysis, with its emphasis on objective and detached thinking, I suppose. Throughout the interview he continually highlights the contradictory nature of Afghanistan and the current war, and rarely provides blanket answers. Instead he chooses to highlight the importance of local factors, such as power struggles and individual self-interest, and bureaucratic explanations. Moreover, I am happy to concede this article has significantly simplified and shortened his often complex arguments.

However, there is no doubt Giustozzi’s careful and considered analysis – best encountered in his two academic books – is an essential stop for those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the continuing British involvement in Afghanistan.

Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field is published by C Hurst & Co, priced £16.99.

Book review: An Intimate War. An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict by Mike Martin

Book review: An Intimate War. An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict by Mike Martin
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
January 2015

Last year it was reported the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had tried to stop the publication of An Intimate War, written by British army officer Mike Martin. The MoD argued it was inappropriate for a serving officer (Martin has since resigned) to publish such a critical work about the British 2006-14 occupation of Helmand province in Afghanistan.

There is certainly much to embarrass the British military in Martin’s work – a reworking of his PhD thesis. Based on over 150 interviews with Helmandis, international forces and members of the Taliban, Martin maps out in painful detail the staggering level of ignorance and incompetence shown by the British and United States. This unawareness led to them being manipulated by local actors and often making things worse on the ground.

Reading Martin’s account of the history of Helmand from 1978 to the present day one has sympathy with the British forces – the politics of the province is a mind-bogglingly complex story of side-switching power politics. The mammoth 130 pages of appendices, including a glossary of terms and people, provide much needed context and assistance but the sheer volume of unavoidably confusing detail will likely stump many readers.

Martin, a fluent Pashto speaker, is no peace activist. His key concern seems to be efficiency and quality of the Helmand operation and future military occupations, rather than questioning them from a moral perspective. Accordingly, former Chief of Defence Staff General Sir David Richards provides a glowing endorsement, noting he wished he had read the book before he deployed to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, there is still much of interest to anti-war activists, including many eye-opening nuggets of information. For example, Martin spends considerable time demolishing what he calls the dominant “insurgency narrative”, which sees British and Government forces as advancing democracy and protecting women’s rights in the face of opposition from a unified, externally-sourced Taliban movement. In reality, he notes the Government was no better than the groups who made up the ‘Taliban’, which itself was largely made up of Helmandi men. Martin notes that in summer 2006 British forces dropped 18,000 pounds of explosive on the town of Now Zad alone, “flattening the bazaar” and killing civilians. This “injudicious use of firepower was reminiscent of Soviet military operations” and “made funding and recruitment non-issues” for the insurgency, he explains.

A colossal academic study that is unlikely to be bettered anytime soon, An Intimate War is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the British occupation of Afghanistan.

An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict is published by Hurst, priced £25.

‘Turning somersaults when there is no whip’: Challenging James Bloodworth’s Warmongering

‘Turning somersaults when there is no whip’: Challenging James Bloodworth’s Warmongering
by Ian Sinclair
Ceasefire Magazine
18 December 2013

Recently, I found myself engaged in a Twitter argument with James Bloodworth, the Editor of the Left Foot Forward blog, columnist at the Independent and up and coming BBC commentator. On the ‘About’ section of its website Left Foot Forward says it provides “evidence-based analysis on British politics, policy, and current affairs.”

The discussion in question concerned Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen because of her public support for girls’ education. What, asked another person involved in the conversation, should we in the West do to support the rights of schoolgirls in Pakistan? “Militarily defeating the people who shoot them, first off”, was Bloodworth’s response.

Twitter is, of course, a highly reductive and simplifying medium but Bloodworth’s position seems clear enough – he proposes military action by the US and UK in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education. While expressed through only a minor Twitter exchange, Bloodworth’s gung-ho approach to the ‘war on terror’ is representative of a vocal, largely media-based, minority. As such, his arguments are worth spending time refuting.

The first problem for Bloodworth is that Yousafzai herself – the person who embodies everything he claims he wants to protect – disagrees with him. Invited to the White House for a PR photo-op, she reportedly told President Obama that US drone strikes in Pakistan were “fueling terrorism.” I emailed this quote to Bloodworth. His reply? “They’ve also been incredibly effective at killing top members of the Taliban.” Sharp-eyed readers will notice this justification mirrors the US Government’s line, with the CIA Director arguing in 2009 that drone strikes had been “very effective” in targeting the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. As George Orwell once said “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip.”

In contrast, consider the testimony of David Kilcullun, a counter-insurgency specialist and top adviser to General David Petraeus: “The drone strikes are highly unpopular”, he told the US House Armed Services Committee in 2009. “And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around extremists and leads to spikes in extremism”. Robert Grenier, the CIA’s former station chief in Pakistan, agrees, explaining last year that the US “has gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield.”

Across the border in Afghanistan is former MP Malalai Joya, who has also survived attempts on her life. A vocal supporter of female education, earlier this year she argued that “The US is the main obstacle towards the development of… democratic forces” in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan also supports the withdrawal of US and UK troops, telling me in 2009 “Freedom, democracy and justice cannot be enforced at gunpoint by a foreign country; they are the values that can be achieved only by our people and democracy-loving forces through a hard, decisive and long struggle.”

Yousafzai further challenged Bloodworth’s militarism when she appeared on The Daily Show in the US. Asked by host Jon Stewart how she personally dealt with the death threats, she replied “You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.” I emailed this quote to Bloodworth. His considered response? “I’m not sure Churchill would agree.” The colonial bulldog may not have agreed but the British military leadership seems to be sympathetic. “There is a common perception that the issues in Afghanistan, and indeed elsewhere around the world, can be dealt with by military means”, said Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup in 2007. “That’s a false perception.” So, to be clear, Bloodworth, the editor of supposedly the ‘No. 1 left-wing blog’ in the UK, is a far bigger supporter of UK military aggression than the country’s most senior armed forces leader.

Despite the armchair warmongering of commentators like Bloodworth, in recent years peace talks have been going on with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, continued Western aggression has made a political settlement more, not less, difficult; according to Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former UK special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I’m sure some of them are more willing to parlay”, he said in 2011. “But equally, for every dead Pashtun warrior, there will be ten pledged to revenge.”

In short, if followed through, Bloodworth’s militaristic posturing in support of more US and UK military action would mean energising and increasing the number of extremists, prolonging the conflict and therefore bringing about more violence and more deaths. Fortunately, the British public is a little smarter; over the past few years a large majority has supported the withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan. Unfortunately for us on the Left, however, it is Bloodworth – seemingly impervious to evidence and elementary logic – who is published in the Independent and sought-after by the BBC.

Book review: Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War

Book review: Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War by Frank Ledwidge
by Ian Sinclair

Visiting Afghanistan in December last year David Cameron proclaimed “our troops can leave with their heads held high over a job very well done.”

A damning indictment of the British occupation of Afghanistan, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War shows up the Prime Minister’s statement for the propaganda it is. The book is all the more powerful for being written by Frank Ledwidge, a former Naval reserve military intelligence officer who served on the frontline in Iraq and as a civilian advisor in Helmand and Libya.

Systematically analysing the 13-year deployment, Ledwidge sets out the human casualties and financial costs to Britain. He conservatively estimates Britain has spent £37 billion on the war, which has led to 447 dead soldiers and more than 2,600 wounded.

“The army was fond of telling itself and the media that it was in Helmand to ‘protect the people’”, notes Ledwidge. “Yet at no point were any efforts made to enumerate the casualties that the British and other armies caused among the non-combatants.” Considering this callous disinterest, commendably Ledwidge tries to calculate the number of civilian deaths caused by the British. His figure of 542 dead Afghan non-combatants – likely a huge underestimate, he admits – is disturbing, although unsurprising when you consider the testimony from a journalist embedded with UK forces in 2007: “I saw at least a dozen compounds flattened and no one was checking for civilians before they dropped bombs.”

Frustratingly, Ledwidge makes no attempt to count the number of Taliban insurgents British forces have killed. This is not an unimportant point when one considers the scale of the slaughter likely undertaken when British forces ‘mow the lawn’ – clear areas occupied by the Taliban, only to find they would need to be cleared again a few months later. Ledwidge gives a simple explanation for this Sisyphean task: the Taliban that returned “were, in fact, local farmers and they had nowhere else to go; they were defending their homes against foreigners.”

The result of this war of attrition has been to destabilise most of Helmand province and increase the terror threat to the UK mainland, according to Ledwidge. He sardonically explains that the UK has stabilised three of fourteen districts in Helmand – just one of 34 provinces in Afghanistan. “In terms of overall political significance, this might be the equivalent of three large market towns in rural Lincolnshire.”

Disturbing facts abound: US forces spend $20 billion a year on air-conditioning alone in Afghanistan. A 2010 poll found just eight percent of Helmandis had heard of 9/11. Not one Al Qaeda operative capable of threatening the UK has been recorded as having been killed in Helmand.

A devastatingly important book, Investment in Blood puts the mainstream media, which has manifestly failed to inform the public what has been done in their name, to shame. With the political and military establishment increasingly concerned about their ability to sell an aggressive foreign policy, Ledwidge’s thorough analysis can only add to the general public’s growing opposition to overseas wars.

Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War by Frank Ledwidge is published by Yale University Press, priced £18.99.