Helmand province is a dangerous place to travel if you don’t have a helicopter at your service. The few roads and bridges that do exist are favoured targets of the Taliban. Helicopters of varying age and size are the preferred mode of transport for British troops. There are not enough helicopters, however, and hardly any at all when the weather closes in.
January 2008 saw the most rain in Helmand for many winters and so to ensure I made it to Musa Qala – a frontier town I was anxious to see – it was suggested I join a supply convoy that was heading north from Camp Bastion, the British military base. The distance was only about sixty miles but it took two days as our long stream of lorries pitched across the open desert, battling across endless wadis, or valleys, and churning through drifts of mud.
The desert was a landscape of undulating gravel and distant grey-pink mountains. Nearing the end of the journey we passed through rural communities of peasant farms: flat-roofed houses of mud and straw, one much the same as another. I saw no obvious concessions to modern living. In fact, I was reminded of a picture book of ancient Persia I had as a boy. I suspect the scene would not have appeared unfamiliar to Alexander the Great, who passed through here in 329 BC.
My first sight of Musa Qala was of a grey, sprawling mass the far side of a 200-yard-wide wadi. It was raining, the skies were leaden and the concrete and mud-built buildings appeared monochrome and sombre. There was no bridge across the river ahead, just as there were no metalled roads. A man, up to his waist in water, pushed a battered moped through the icy water; nearby, a mule struggled to carry his master and his master’s cart across.
From the cab of the lorry, I looked at the Afghans silently watching the convoy. It was hard to gauge their mood. We were supposed to be their saviours, the people with the money and weapons to put right centuries of poverty, fighting and brutality. But here we were, helmets on our heads, body armour strapped against us. Between the driver and me stood another soldier, his head and shoulders exposed through the roof of the cab, manning a machine gun.
The lorry plunged into the water, ground its way slowly across the wadi and lumbered up the other side, past a pile of contorted, burnt-out scrap metal and a crowd of Afghans. When we reached the compound, Afghan National Army sentries lifted the barrier and we rolled in, heavy wheels grinding new channels through the mud. Double-stacked walls of HESCO – giant hessian and wire sacks filled with earth and stone and topped with razor wire – protected us from the outside world. From hastily built watchtowers, guards looked out over the banks of the wadi and the river beyond. On the compound building itself, more watchtowers of wood and sandbags had been built on the flat, half-finished roof, between columns of concrete and rusting construction wires pointing haphazardly skywards.
Our lorry circled the yard and came to a halt. Military vehicles of various kinds and nationalities filled the place. British and American soldiers trudged past, their boots caked in mud. Clambering down from the cab, I found Lew Snook, the warrant officer who had accompanied me, and together we headed toward the main building. Between sodden sandbags we found the entrance. Apparently, the building had been a hotel, but while there were signs of an old electrical system and grime-encrusted fans bolted into the ceiling, there was no evidence it had ever been painted. The floor, the walls, the ceiling – all were bare concrete covered in mud and dust. The lighting was dim, with lines of wiring taped to the walls. A permanent fug filled the air, clogging my throat. Carpenters had been busy, erecting rough walls and tables.
The place was bustling. Soldiers, some tired and unshaven, others surprisingly sprightly, hurried in and out. Helmets and body armour lined the base of the walls in the main operations room. There was a makeshift, impermanent air to the place. Maps and notices had been taped on the walls. There were graffiti, too – some in Pashtun, some in English. On one wall of the Military Stabilization Team room – a dark, dusty cubbyhole – someone had scrawled, I SMILED TODAY.
There was no running water, which means it was hard to ever get clean. After three days, I poured some boiled water into a mess tin and went for a wash in the latrines, a series of wooden seats above a deep pit, covered by a tin roof and surrounded by hessian. Food came in the form of twenty-four-hour ration packs, which included savoury and sweet meals that were boiled in a vat of water heated by slabs of what looked like firelighters. Nobody went hungry but the rations were monotonous.
I was given a dark, dusty room in the main building but every evening I had my supper with Lew, Craig and Renny, three soldiers who lived in a garage across the mud-slicked yard. Save for a plastic sheet, their digs were open-fronted, lit by candles stuck in inverted and spliced water bottles. It was freezing in the garage and our rations were nibbled by mice. Even so, it was remarkable how quickly this evening ritual became a highpoint of the day.
Down on the banks of the wadi, townspeople were chopping down willow trees. A short way to their right, behind a perimeter wall of yet more HESCO, stood the new helicopter landing site. Those guarding this patch of earth, which is situated beside the military compound, need a clean line of fire, and so the thirty-year-old trees had to go.
Salim Mohammed, the owner of the willows, was not happy with the enforced felling. I asked him what life had been like in Musa Qala before the Afghan and NATO forces had taken the town back in December. ‘We had security,’ he said matter-of-factly, ‘and no corruption.’
As I discovered, many Afghans still believe that the Taliban offers that security. The Taliban may operate an extremely harsh sharia-based rule of law, heavily dependent on intimidation and violence, but a significant number of citizens feel that is the best they can hope for. Under the Taliban, a person could leave his wallet on a wall in Musa Qala and find it there two days later. The Taliban also provided jobs. There were around 200 heroin-processing plants in the area, all of which are now shut.
In contrast, the Afghan government is perceived to be weak. Although President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, most of the government are from northern tribes, of which Helmand Pashtuns are suspicious, to say the least. For most here, the public face of the government is the Afghan National Police, who are seen as corrupt and ineffective. The people of Helmand hope NATO will bring about great changes and improved governance but there is scepticism about how long they will stay here. I asked Salim Mohammed whether life had been better under the Taliban. ‘Not better,’ he replied, and then said again, ‘but there was security.’ Was he optimistic for the future? ‘As long as the British stay.’
That remains the plan, although what a sentence it is for British troops, most of whom have plenty of stoicism and fortitude but little comprehension of the pashtunwali code. No doubt conditions at Musa Qala will improve but in the meantime it remains an astonishingly tough and menacing place in which to operate. I spent five days in Musa Qala and it seemed an eternity. Rarely have I felt more relieved than when the helicopter arrived to take me from that miserable town.
The rain and cold will eventually give way to summer, the mud will turn to dust and the troops will fry in the debilitating heat. The fighting will probably intensify once more. But for now, from the comparative sophistication of a base in Kandahar, I can think only of Musa Qala, and of the troops continuing their task of rebuilding Helmand: heading out of the gates on patrol to oversee reconstruction projects and retrain local police, escorting Mulla Salam, the new district governor, a former Taliban leader come in from the cold, as he speaks with tribal leaders in outlying villages, cajoling and persuading them to turn away from the Taliban and to support the NATO-backed national government instead. And back at base, once darkness falls, cold soldiers will huddle round the tiny cooker, waiting for their rations to cook and the water to boil for tea.
Photograph by Mark Stroud