A Broken StateA Visit to the Epicentre of the War in Afghanistan
Francesca Borri reports from Sangin, a place scarred by the events of the past 20 years, and considers what the American legacy is for a country now in chaos
The road has a sandy yellow haze that continues for hours, punctuated only by spots of grey – where a mine exploded or a bomb detonated. Then, suddenly, Google Maps blinks to show a place in the sea of dust: Sangin.
Sangin has a population of 20,000, on paper, and is located in Helmand – the heartland of the Taliban and the epicentre of opium. In 20 years of war, it has been the bloodiest battlefield: it is here that Americans and Britons who rotated on the frontline had their highest death toll. In total, NATO lost 3,605 men, a fifth in Sangin. For each of them is a name, a picture, and a story. Of Afghan victims, there is not even a number. In 20 years, they were never counted.
The road from Kabul to Kandahar – the country’s two main cities – which continues to Sangin, speaks volumes about the country. Built by the Soviets, and rebuilt for $300 million, the road was praised as a symbol of a new era of development: it is 300 miles long and barely two-lanes wide. For Afghans, it is ‘the highway of death’, and not only because of car crashes: every few meters, it turns into gravel, where the concrete has been shattered by an improvised explosive device (IED). The road also bypasses ruins – houses with nothing left but wall stubs.
In Sangin, our guide points to a tree. “That’s my home, that’s where I grew up,” he says. Aside from the tree, there is nothing left.
Amenullah is 18 years old and has been fighting for the past five – wearing beaten-up sandals and carryinga Kalashnikov rifle. On his firearms licence, the job title entry reads: Talib. He is an ambush specialist.
“We prepared explosives with potassium and iron scraps,” he says. “In a pan – I mean, a frying pan.” To avoid civilian casualties, they cordoned roads off or dug tunnels. “Usually, it was easy,” he says. “Because, before coming, the Americans sent reconnaissance teams: we had simply to follow them, and put down mines. They wanted to be sure of their route.”
He looks at me. “Winning is about brains,” he says. “Not about might.”
Sangin suffered widespread damage, even in non-military areas.
“The [Americans] seemed not to want any Afghan around,” a man says, while drinking tea on a carved stone. “Not only the Taliban. They were scared of us all. One day, they told us to go outside and they destroyed all the buildings, leaving us on the streets.” He rolls up his sleeve and reveals a skewed elbow, its bones knocked out of place by an untreated fracture. No one is unharmed here.
The few walls still standing have scars, just like the bodies of their inhabitants. Everyone has a scar, a crutch, a missing limb. I meet a boy who looks like he has been sawn in half and stitched up with needle and thread. “If you had anything with you, a hoe, a shovel, a screwdriver, they believed it to be a gun,” his father says. “And they opened fire. And, if you had nothing, they opened fire anyway. Because they thought you were about to blow up.”
Many here have no idea where the United States is.
Two girls stare blankly at the ground, holding hands, in a house of mud and straw where their mother climbed up to fix their roof and was gunned down by a marine. Like many here, it is a house with no water, no electricity, and little food – only stale bread. I ask a man what hopes he holds for his children. He says only: “That they won’t be killed.”
Countless human tragedies can be found in Sangin. Those accidentally hit, mistaken for Taliban or for Americans; those who never received any compensation; those who lost all of their family members.
Haji Agha Ahmad is 21 years old, or perhaps 22 – he doesn’t know exactly. His family was wiped out when he was seven, and he was raised by the Taliban. Now, he leads a 60-fighter unit. “I lost everything overnight,” he says. “And no one, neither the Americans nor the Government ever asked me how I was doing. How I was getting along, alone, at seven years old.”
The war here began on 7 October 2001 as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan, but only because he had been expelled from Sudan. In the end, he was killed in Pakistan, for an attack carried out by nationals of Saudi Arabia – two countries that are top allies of the United States.
“But do you truly think you could win?” Haji asks, “by fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country? And now, do you truly not understand why it went this way?”
America spent $2.3 trillion on the war in Afghanistan, chaotically withdrawing from the country last August. It still has no answer to the turmoil now experienced by Afghans. With its embassy in Kabul closed, the US has next to no information on the country – although that isn’t a radical divergence from the past. “I have no clue who the bad guys are,” said then US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2003.
The result is that, around the lake of Sangin, few people managed to survive. On this shore, there were four families of farmers. Over three years, 50 family members died, half of them children. One family has been totally erased.
“We didn’t get any support whatsoever, either from the Americans, nor from the Government, nor from the Taliban,” says Abdul Ghajoor, one of three survivors.
“They didn’t just drop bombs, they rigged this place with mines, so that we couldn’t return,” he adds, laying his 15-year-old son down on a step. His son survived, but only partially – with spinal and brain injuries. He has never been visited by a doctor, his father claims.
“You are the first foreigners we have talked to,” he says. “Actually, the first strangers.”
In Kabul, the return of the Taliban is the return of fear. But in Sangin, many see it as the return of peace.
“We have nothing, we have always been poor here,” says Sher Mohammed, another of the three, pulling me away from a landmine hidden in the tall grass. “Had they built a hospital, a road, anything, the Americans would have been welcomed. Instead, they took from us even the little we had.”
In Sangin, and throughout Helmand, women do not walk under a burqa: they do not walk at all. They stay home. Afghans here stick to tradition so deeply that, in their cars, the rear-view mirror is covered to prevent the driver from peeking at the women in the back seat. “From the new Government, I expect security – but above all, food and shelter,” says Zakira Haq, who is 51 but looks 70, and lives in a jute tent.
For the reconstruction of Afghanistan, the US spent $143 billion – more than the Marshall Plan after the Second World War. But local people say the money was wasted and that it certainly wasn’t distributed to the country’s hinterlands.
In the books, the only certain numbers are the bribes paid – usually 18% to the Taliban, and 15% to the Government.
Ultimately, the United States had no strategy.
In 2001, Kabul was conquered in six weeks. The Americans planned to stay for such a short time that in Bagram, which became one of the main American bases overseas, there wasn’t even a shower. Their washing was sent by helicopter to the nearest laundry service in Uzbekistan.
But the Taliban does not now seem to have a strategy either. Unlike other Islamist movements, it never set up a shadow state, or had a military or civilian wing. It is not like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas or Hezbollah. They are just fighters.
A man prepares a field for sowing. “What are you going to plant?” I ask. “Poppies,” he says. “I have no choice”. Afghanistan produces 80% of world’s opium.
Meanwhile, a man on a bike stops by to talk with Amenullah, our guide. He has three yellow jerricans each with a red cap, tied together with a white cable – which is actually a fuse. They are bombs, originally intended for the Americans. He is a blasting expert for the Taliban and is now planting mines to kill ISIS jihadists. For now, that’s the priority.
And that’s the dream of any Talib: a suicide attack against ISIS. “But there are too many hopefuls,” says Amenullah. “You are selected only if you are well-connected”. He is on the waiting list.
America tried to ‘clean up’ Afghanistan, but the chaos now facing the country seems beyond comprehension. American policies, and American bombs, created a vacuum in the country; one which is quickly being filled with more violence – stoked by desperation and poverty.
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