Saturday, 28 September, 2002 |
Doubts set in on Afghan mission
By Rupert Wingfield Hayes
BBC correspondent, Afghanistan
I was heading back to Bagram reluctantly. It's not my favourite place. The last time there I'd got heatstroke.
At 6,000 feet up, sitting on an arid wind blown plateau, Bagram is scorched in the summer, and frozen in the winter. The worst thing is the dust as fine as talcum powder that gets into everything.
In the months since I'd first been there, stories had begun circulating that the US operation in Afghanistan was descending into farce.
They had come to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda gang. But months of combing the mountains had turned up little.
Mistakes had begun to be made - some of them bad ones.
In the worst, in July, a US air strike killed more than 40 Afghans at a wedding party. The guests had been firing their guns into the air - a common way to celebrate in Afghanistan.
There had been no US apology.
As our jeep bumped over the dusty plain a pair of US helicopter gunships scudded across the horizon returning from another mission. Then came the first surprise - the gate.
Order out of chaos
Six months before, the entrance to Bagram had been a ramshackle affair, a rickety guard house and a few rolls of barbed wire.
Now I was confronted by huge fortified walls and sand-bagged watch towers bristling with machine guns.
A young soldier strode up, a small arsenal strapped to his body.
"Step out of the vehicle please, sir," he ordered.
For the next half hour our car was emptied and searched, probed and sniffed, then our bags, then ourselves.
Inside, the base was abuzz with activity. New roads being laid, old barrack blocks repaired, and everywhere more and more fortifications.
These people look very nervous, I thought to myself, and they look like they're here to stay. I was taken to meet a group of clean cut young soldiers fresh off the plane from the States.
"How do you feel about being here?" I asked a young corporal from Florida.
"I'm proud to be serving my country, sir," he said. "We have a job to do and I'm glad to be part of it".
Every soldier I spoke to was the same, proud, committed, raring to go. But a few minutes later I was wandering towards a long line of plastic portable toilets.
I was hailed by two young soldiers lounging in one of those huge American Humvee jeeps.
Clearly these two were not part of the guided tour.
"Excuse me sir," they asked. "But do we really have to say this baloney?"
The actual word they used was a little more colourful.
"What baloney?" I asked. They handed me a small laminated card.
On it were instructions on how to deal with journalists. Every soldier had been given one.
These were not just general ground rules. It actually listed suggested answers:
"How do you feel about what you're doing in Afghanistan"?
Answer: "We're united in our purpose and committed to achieving our goals."
"How long do you think that will take?" Answer: "We will stay here as long as it takes to get the job done - sir!"
Call me naive, but I was amazed. What could they be afraid of? Perhaps of a bit too much honesty. The two young soldiers were far from delighted to be in Afghanistan.
In five-and-a-half months at Bagram, they had been allowed off the base just once. One day inside was enough for me. Five-and-a-half months sounded like a prison sentence.
But what of the actual military operations? The hunt for al-Qaeda?
I went to meet a colonel in the 82nd Airborne.
"It's all going extremely well," he told me. But when it came to specifics he was rather more equivocal.
"We have recently detained a number of important suspects."
"Who?" I asked. He couldn't say.
Where did he think the main body of Al Qaeda fighters now were? Again he couldn't say.
Then I asked him about the reports of growing resentment at the large US military presence in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Of the road blocks and house-to-house searches, and the growing list of accidental killings.
"Absolutely not," he insisted. "We are only here because the Afghan people want us to be here."
As I left Bagram, dusk was descending like a giant curtain across the Hindu Kush. I felt uneasy, and not just about the long dark drive back to Kabul.
When I'd first arrived in Afghanistan a year before, the Americans were seen as liberators, allies, in the fight to rid Afghanistan of the hated Taleban and their foreign, trouble making, friend Osama Bin Laden.
The Americans too had had a clear purpose - to get the "bad guys". But a year on that goal has faded.
The bad guys have disappeared, melted away in to the mountains and heaving streets of Kandahar and Karachi.
Among the Americans frustration is growing.
To the local Afghans, they are starting to look increasingly like occupiers.