Caught in the Crossfire: The Forgotten Casualties of War in Afghanistan
Some Afghans say foreign forces are as dangerous as Taliban
The stooped and withdrawn 18-year-old breathed painfully as he
relived the day last month when shrapnel from a missile ripped through
his lung and bowels.
It was 9am and he was out collecting fruit
from his family's trees in a village so small it is not included on
most maps of Helmand province.
Although it was the day of the
Afghan elections he, like everyone else in his neighbourhood, had no
interest in voting in an area too insecure for polling stations to
open. "I was just a few steps outside my front gate when about eight
rockets landed," he says, sitting in a hospital in the provincial
capital of Helmand, bandages around his chest. "I was hit and ran into
the house where women and children were yelling because a rocket had
also landed on one of the rooms."
He is convinced that it was a
rocket from "foreign forces" ‑ something that the hospital cannot
confirm, although they say the shrapnel was clearly from a rocket,
possibly delivered from a helicopter.
With his lung filling up
with blood and an equally potentially fatal wound to his lower abdomen
all the village "medical worker" could do was wrap him up and begin the
arduous business of moving him along roads littered with IEDs and
checkpoints to a place where his life could be saved. It took more than
a day for him to arrive at the Emergency Hospital in Lashkar Gah. The
immaculate surgical facility run by an Italian charity, with a policy
of not asking patients about how they received their injuries, does not
turn away anyone. "He certainly would have died if he had not come
here," says Mirco Barchetta, the hospital's head nurse, who is only
allowed to travel between his nearby secure compound and the hospital
in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous cities.
hospital has received a monthly average of 183 patients in the last
three months, half of them wounded from bullets, bombs, rockets and
The young man, who does not want his name or that of
his village revealed, said the fight during which he nearly died was
initiated by rebels but much of the damage was done by foreign
soldiers: "The Taliban fired rockets from behind our village towards the foreign forces base and they started firing back."
sense of hopelessness and being caught in the middle of someone else's
fight came up time and again from more than 25 Helmandis interviewed
last week. Civilians are being killed ‑ but just how many, and by whom,
is difficult to say.
At a very rough estimate, the UN believes
1,018 civilians across the country died as a result of the conflict in
the first six months of this year ‑ most of them killed by insurgents,
but 30% by pro-government foreign forces.
Last Friday the issue
came to the fore again when a Nato airstrike killed dozens of people,
including civilians, outside Kunduz city, in the north of the country.
incidents do little to encourage those caught in the crossfire that
their lives can be made better by a war that is causing mayhem.
find out exactly how people are coping in Helmand, the Guardian
travelled outside the usual embed arrangements laid on for visiting
journalists by the Foreign Office and military.
of the interviewees had travelled into the relative safety of Lashkar
Gah from the triangle of land north of the provincial capital which was
the target of intense British activity during June and July, in an
operation known as Panchai Palang or Panther's Claw.
The plan was
to push the Taliban out from an area where some 80,000 people are
thought to live and which had been under the control of the Taliban,
and then to keep the guerrillas out of a "gated community" where
non-existent government structures could start to be established.
hearts and minds was the UK military's top priority, avoiding wherever
possible indiscriminate air strikes, and trying to prove their presence
is improving the lives of Afghans.
But that is not the way
ordinary Helmandis see it. Haji Torjan, a tribal elder who looks after
the affairs of 500 families in the village of Sawaki Gharbai near the
Shamalan canal, which saw fierce fighting for the Welsh Guards, said
foreign forces do not understand the dynamics of village life, which
are too often viewed from overhead aircraft.
"We had a man in our
village called Kamjan. He was an old man like me with a white beard,
chosen by the village to be in charge of water distribution from the
canals to our crops.
"He is an innocent man who has nothing to do
with the Taliban or the government. But 11 days ago he was on his
motorbike and had covered his body with his shawl, and a helicopter
flying above him slowed down and started shooting and killed him."
also said that people have been shot at for using torches at night
whilst irrigating their fields or lighting lamps to prepare for the
pre-dawn Ramadan meal. It's a claim made by three other people from
separate villages, but is robustly denied by British officials who say
that, on the contrary, they encourage people to use lights at night for
their own safety.
The British also say that despite widespread
claims by villagers of aerial bombardments, during the whole five-week
operation, which ended in late July, they dropped fewer than 10 bombs
from aircraft and the use of helicopter armaments was just over 10.
Jon Baxter, a senior official at the British provincial reconstruction
team in Lashkar Gah, said: "We are the only people out there fighting
by Queensberry rules. When people come to us they are absolutely
adamant that we are responsible because they saw an Apache helicopter
go overhead when they heard a Taliban mortar or IED go off. When we ask
for collaborative evidence we often don't get it."
Not everyone feels able to take compensation money offered by the British.
Salam, a landowner who spends most of his time in Lashkar Gah since
fighting broke out, recently returned to a property which he said had
been temporarily occupied as a British base. "Twenty days ago the
British left my fort in Spin Masjid. All the windows and doors were
broken but the Taliban are still in the area and they told me they
would kill me if I take the money."
And there is resentment at
the small annoyances of life in a counter-insurgency. "Foreign forces
cannot give us security because they are too frightened about their own
security for that," says Malik Shahzada, a tribal elder from Babaji.
"When we go near their base they shout at us to pull our shirts up over
our heads to show that we don't have suicide bombs on us."
matter how restrained the use of force may have been, the fighting has
still prompted thousands of people to flee their homes.
women, wearing the all-encompassing burka, sit in the shade of the
trees by Lashkar Gah's main roads, begging for money. Nearly all of
them are refugees of one sort or the other who either arrived recently,
or up to three years previously when British troops first deployed to a
province which rapidly became a byword for pitched battles between
foreign soldiers and battle-hardened Talibs.
Another man and
woman had been reduced to waiting for handouts from the local office of
the ministry of rural rehabilitation and development. They had been
there for a month from Khushal, their village in Nad Ali. "We are
caught in the middle between the firing of the Taliban and the
Americans. I had a big, eight-room house but it was destroyed by
rockets from both sides. My plan is to go back, but just yesterday
there was more fighting."
As with everyone else interviewed he
appeared to dislike the Taliban at least as much as the "foreign
forces", as the British are mostly known (although occasionally they
are called the "Red English", apparently in part because of the
resemblance of their complexion to pomegranates and partly because of
memories of the Soviet Red Army in the 1980s).
"The fighters come
to our village and demand to be fed. The whole village has to supply a
few pieces of bread each, which is very hard on poor people like me."
Thursday afternoon, across the road from the Emergency Hospital, the
father of a six-year-old called Shafiq took his boy to sit on the
manicured lawns of a park built with US money after being discharged
from hospital. Surgeons were unable to save his eye, ripped out by the
explosion of an IED he and seven other friends were playing with almost
two weeks ago. Three were killed instantly, while the other five were
"The foreign forces don't come there much but
recently there had been an operation in the area between foreign forces
and the Taliban and it was left over from that," says the father, whose
other son also lost an eye in the incident. "It looked like a ball and
they were throwing stones at it."
Even a heroic group of taxi
drivers who risk their lives daily operating a rag-tag ambulance
service for the Red Crescent are not immune from Taliban threats. When
they try to get into an area they leave their identity cards and phones
behind so there is no risk of the guerrillas discovering they work for
a humanitarian organisation.
"Under the Taliban, the Red Crescent
was treated with respect but now they say you are paid by the
foreigners, you have lost your faith," says Mohamad Qazi, a driver from
Lashkar Gah with basic first aid training. "It can take so long to get
anywhere that the patient often dies in the car."
They say that
the run from Lashkar Gah to the town of Babaji is impossible because of
landmines and checkpoints on the main bridge which the British insist
is open to traffic.
"Patients have to be brought on donkey to the
river where we use a car tyre tube to float people across the river to
where our drivers can pick them up," says Sultan Mohamad, a Red
Mohamad, a resident of Babaji who also drives
taxis, says it has become harder to work out where the mines are
buried: "Previously they left secret signs so we would know where the
mine was. But that was found out by the foreign forces. Now nobody can
tell where they are. Sometimes the Taliban just tell us to stay off the
roads, but don't show us where they are." Another man, Mohamad Iqbal,
also from the Babaji area, says some Talibs respect the pleas of
villagers not to move on and not to cause trouble. But others say: "I
am prepared to die, you can die too. I'm fighting and am not afraid of
death and you shouldn't be either."
Panther's Claw was presented
as a classic counter-insurgency operation: by clearing towns of
insurgents and criminals and establishing some semblance of competent
and honest local government the villagers and farmers of the agrarian
communities of Babaji would firmly reject the Taliban. But if
counter-insurgency theory seems obvious to foreign soldiers and western
policymakers, most Afghans appear to only see yet more violence and
By his own description, Haji Torjan's village has been
comprehensively protected by the British effort: "The Taliban are not
in our village. We are surrounded by foreign forces' bases and
checkpoints. The Taliban are far away. But we don't call this
protection ‑ we are being killed and injured," says Haji Torjan, who
also has a son and a nephew recovering in hospital from shrapnel wounds.
It is not clear how comfortably the west's new counter-narcotics strategy is sitting with the hearts and minds strategy.
part of the push to win hearts and minds in Helmand the poppy field
eradication campaigns of the Bush administration, which often ended up
targeting poor opium farmers or share croppers, have been abandoned in
favour of increased assistance to help farmers grow legal crops. But
the attacks on drug traffickers are just as unwelcome to the
population, says Haji Torjan.
"When they do an operation against
drug dealers they surround the village and an aircraft that just flies
overhead. After that two or three other big aircraft land on the ground
and surround the house. Then they start climbing over the walls and
roofs and start killing and shooting." The British admit lives have
been disrupted during Panther's Claw but they say life has begun to
return to normal and that they have moved on to the second stage of
operations ‑ attempting to establish the writ of the state in areas
that were almost entirely under the thumb of the Taliban.
to Gulab Mangal, the dynamic governor of Helmand who has won much
praise during his year and a half in the job, there are 150 policemen
and 100 Afghan soldiers in the area.
But he admits there is a problem with the behaviour of police stealing from locals and generally harassing communities.
urges patience, saying the success of the operation will be clear in
the long-term: "In the fullness of time they will start to see the
dividend of this. It's a slow burner and a tremendous amount of good
work has been done."
Hopefully it will come right in time for the
boy in the Emergency Hospital with shrapnel wounds in his chest. As the
Guardian concluded a 40-minute interview with him last Wednesday, the
already withdrawn and nervous teenager began to panic about what would
happen if any discovered he had been talking to a British journalist.
"The Taliban are going to kill me," he mumbled to himself repeatedly.
Nothing the Italian nurse could say could convince him otherwise.