The dark, misty eyes of the village elder in Garmsir said it all: the disappointment, cumulative fatigue and the worry that you only see in civilians caught up in a long-term combat zone. His gnarled fingers spun his worn beads relentlessly; the dry rivulets engrained on his weatherbeaten face belied his relative youth.
He had just spent an hour or more telling me in pained terms about the predicament of the 500 or so villagers – including the elderly, women and children – who had exiled themselves to the desert outside Garmsir, the southern gateway into central Helmand. For the past few weeks, the Taliban had been slowly suffocating the village with increasingly confident probing attacks against the poorly manned and equipped force of Afghan police garrisoned there. The elder explained that the villagers were left with no option but to flee to the sanctuary of the sand dunes, as they no longer felt safe sleeping in their own beds at night.
What really troubled me about this conversation was that, once again, the expectations of the ordinary Afghans that we had ostensibly come to help had been dashed. After years of terror under the Taliban regime, the Helmandis had genuinely thought that we were going to make a difference to their almost medieval way of life.
In this case, the elders of Garmsir wanted no more than £25,000 to rebuild and re-equip the horticultural business that had once been a thriving entity in what was the breadbasket of Afghanistan. Their contention, which I had immediately grasped as the commander of British forces in southern Afghanistan in that long, hot summer of 2006, was that if we could provide jobs and an economic platform for their people, then they would keep the Taliban at bay: they would look after their own security, put food in their own mouths, engage their young men in a sustainable livelihood and, most importantly, persuade the sceptical villagers that life was better under coalition forces than under the Taliban.
Could I persuade the Foreign Office or Department for International Development to take a business-based, rather than aid-based approach, to reconstruction and development? Building a sustainable economic platform, creating jobs and a free market, was and remains the best and most cost-efficient way of transforming a failed state into a more prosperous and safer community. Well over $100 million a year has been spent in aid in Afghanistan since 2001 – to what demonstrable end?
Read it all here.