In search of change for peace

By David Larsen

James Fergusson tells David Larsen that he is less a risk taker than someone who follows stories where they lead.

The Western strategy in Afghanistan seems based on the assumption that mistakes are simply the cost of doing business, says James Fergusson. Photo / Supplied
The Western strategy in Afghanistan seems based on the assumption that mistakes are simply the cost of doing business, says James Fergusson. Photo / Supplied

You're at your daughter's wedding. The bride and groom are on their way to the car and everyone's getting ready to throw rice, when a passing plane drops a bomb. Ninety people die.

You track down the culprit and demand his arrest. He explains to the authorities that it was an honest mistake; he mistook the wedding for a terrorist attack. No arrests are made. Pop quiz: would you class this as a public relations catastrophe for the bomber's employers, a major human rights violation, or a radicalising experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life?

It will be a good day for the West's relationship with Afghanistan, British journalist James Fergusson suggests, when the American military figures out that the correct answer is, "all of the above". The wedding bombing incident happened in 2008, in the west Afghanistan city of Herat. As Fergusson explains in his book A Million Bullets, "Guests at Afghan weddings traditionally celebrate by firing weapons into the air. It is not difficult to imagine how a passing pilot might mistake such a tradition for aggression."

But, he argues, the Western strategy in Afghanistan seems based on the assumption that mistakes like this are simply the cost of doing business. "Before General McCrystal was removed from command for shooting his mouth off about Barack Obama, he used to go on and on and on about how important it is to remember that we're guests in their country, and how desperately important it is to avoid civilian casualties. If those public statements had ever been translated into action, we wouldn't be in the mess we're in. But unfortunately the American military machine depends primarily on air power in Afghanistan, and that means dropping bombs."

The consequences? One of the many Afghans Fergusson quotes in his latest book, Taliban: The True Story of the World's Most Feared Guerrilla Fighters, expresses it very simply. "If they kill 50 people, they create 500 Taliban."

Fergusson is not anti-military. A Million Bullets is a sympathetic and sophisticated in-depth study of the British peacekeeping mission to Afghanistan's Helmand province; it was the British Army's military book of the year for 2009. It was while researching and writing that book that Fergusson came to believe the war against the Taliban would never be won militarily: there had been a chance for that, and it had been lost. The only question remaining was how many people would die before Western leaders - which primarily means America's leaders ("In the end this is an American war, and that's certainly how the Taliban see it") - sat down to negotiate peace.

"I've done three Afghan books, for three slightly different audiences, but Taliban was written very much as an intervention in the debate on policy. I wrote it very quickly, because I considered it to be urgent. I sent it to everybody I could think of. I've taken part in numerous conferences with Whitehall Warrior-type people, and testified at two House of Commons select committees, and made the case for a negotiated settlement as hard as I possibly can."

Fergusson devotes the first half of the book to a history of the Taliban movement, something he's in a good position to do, having been following them with fascination for much of his career. He never set out to become any kind of authority on Afghanistan; he never set out to visit the country at all.

"I originally went to Pakistan in 1996 - not even looking for a story. I had a friend teaching at a school in the north of the country, and I was due for a holiday, so I went to see her."

This was just at the time that the Taliban were coming into power. Fergusson, whose father and grandfather were both journalists, remembers being enthralled by the stories of the Mujahideen struggle against the Russians throughout the 80s, when he was a student. "It was an intensely romantic conflict, so much so that it ended up being used in one of the James Bond films."

And now here were these stories of strange Afghans putting television sets on spikes and locking up women. "It was the first globally infamous Islamic radicalism we'd seen. Even then it was clear to me that it was being sensationalised in the media. And from where I was in Pakistan, it was just over the border ... I decided I just had to get over there and see what was really going on."

This was not the safest thing in the world to do. In his books he describes several occasions from his many subsequent visits to Afghanistan where he could easily have been killed, at one point explaining his failure to press a certain line of questioning by mentioning that previous interviewers of this particular Afghan warlord had been known to turn up dead. He seems embarrassed when I ask about his appetite for risk. It's mostly just a function of following stories where they take you, he says.

"The risks are always calculated, and there has to be a genuine reason to do it. It's not tourism. One time in Afghanistan I had an opportunity to visit a front line there, and I met some journalists who were just coming back. They were all hyped up and going on about how exciting it had been. And it turned out that when these Western journalists had got to this front line, the commander there had said, 'ah, good, journalists!' - and started shooting at the other side, who then woke up and started shooting back, and someone got killed. Those particular journos didn't need to be there at all and I wasn't sure that anything I was going to write was going to make any difference to anything either. So I didn't go up there. You've got to be terribly careful about cause and effect."

If there's a single thing America could do to improve its standing in Afghanistan, Fergusson says, it would be to close Guantanamo Bay.

"I am baffled that that place is still open. Whatever the case is for not shutting it, the symbolic value for Obama of keeping his promise and shutting it must outweigh the dangers of releasing terrorists.

At the moment the Taliban just do not trust the Americans. You can't negotiate in that climate."

The original Taliban leadership from the 90s, he points out, are middle aged now, in a country where the average age is very young. Middle aged men are much more likely to talk peace than teenagers with guns. And yet America is still pursuing a decapitation policy with the Taliban, attempting to destabilise them by killing their leaders.

"They're doing that because it worked in Iraq. It's not working in Afghanistan. Every time you kill a middle aged Taliban leader he gets replaced by a younger, more radical militant, who has very probably spent time in Guantanamo, and been outraged and radicalised by the experience of having his Koran flushed down the toilet. Which does indeed happen. It's incredibly short-sighted."

What is the long-range prospect for Afghanistan if the Taliban do come back to power? Fergusson thinks it will not be as bad as last time.

He also thinks that last time was not as bad as the Western media painted it. Even the women of Afghanistan welcomed the Taliban in the 90s, because they brought an end to a period of warlords, anarchy, and widespead murder and rape.

"I believe the Taliban learned a lot from their mistakes when they were in power. And they did make a lot of mistakes, and they acknowledge them. They would, I think, be less harsh this time around."

They certainly would not allow Al Qaeda to operate in the country again. "The Americans constantly repeat that we are in Afghanistan to ensure Al Qaeda never use it as a base to attack the West again. It's a red herring. The Taliban will do that for us.

They don't like Al Qaeda; they didn't like them very much even back in the late 90s. I mean they took their money, and that was the devil's relationship, but ideologically there's very little in common between the two."

It is, he concedes, not an easy thing for a male journalist to tell women they should be willing to accept an Afghanistan under Sharia law.

"I don't take this lightly. But how many Western soldiers do you want to die for women's rights in Afghanistan? There are many regimes we disapprove of morally around the globe, but that doesn't mean you intervene militarily. Imagine Afghan soldiers marching around London a few hundred years ago, shaking their guns and saying you have to let women vote. Would that have worked?

The change has to come from within the society that needs the change. There's a very healthy women's movement in Afghanistan. Change will come more slowly than we want it to come. But it will come."

Taliban (Bantam Press $49.99) is out now; the paperback edition is released on May 6.

James Fergusson will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival at the Aotea Centre, May 11-15.

- NZ Herald

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