Afghanistan: 'This terrible war could have ended in a month'


Oct 8, 2009
Afghanistan: 'This terrible war could have ended in a month’ - Telegraph

As his new book about the Taliban is released, former newsreader Sandy Gall on why it has all gone wrong in Afghanistan.

Even at the age of 84, Sandy Gall is a newsman. While most of the world sleeps, he is catching up on events, waking at 5am to listen to the BBC World Service. His home, a converted oast-house in deepest Kent, is crammed with books on recent and not-so-recent history. His mind, too, is crammed, with the results of a varied life in journalism, memories he shares in that clipped, slightly nasal voice, tinged with the merest hint of Scots; the one we knew so well, sandwiched between the bongs of ITN's News at Ten.

"I started doing the 6 o'clock bulletin, I think," he says. "It was 1968, and I'd been with ITN since 1963. I wasn't very good, certainly in the early days – there was criticism of me doing it from within the network. My editor, who was a personal friend, said to somebody, 'Don't make up your mind just yet, give him six months.'"‰" They gave him rather longer than that in the end – 27 years, it turned out – until 1990.

Gall, though, was always more than a presenter. An experienced foreign correspondent – he spent a decade with Reuters before joining ITN in 1963 – the tea planter's son never lost his hunger for adventure. During the Eighties, he made repeated visits to Afghanistan, trekking through mountainous territory to reach the mujahideen guerillas fighting against Soviet occupation.

The place has never left him. He has been returning ever since to chronicle the woes of a country that staggers from war to war; oppressed from within by the fundamentalism of the Taliban and the corruption of the Kabul elite, and from without by foreign powers who, as ever, use it as an arena for their rivalries.

Gall's new book, War Against the Taliban, is an account of the latest phase in Afghanistan's tortured recent history, starting with the eviction of the Taliban regime by the United States and its allies in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the botched hunt for Osama bin Laden that followed, and the subsequent counter-insurgency campaign waged by Nato against a resurgent Taliban from the middle of the decade onwards.

"I saw all these coffins going through Wootton Bassett and thought, 'How did we get into this mess?' After 9/11, we started with the highest hopes for Afghanistan. Here was a chance to rebuild after what had been a terrible time for its people."

There is plenty of criticism for those foolish enough to underestimate the perils of involvement in a country that has, over the centuries, eaten invading armies for breakfast. Not least the British, who in Helmand province rediscovered the kind of desperate frontier fighting (remember those lonely little "platoon houses"?) not witnessed since the early days of Empire.

Now, despite a vast expenditure of blood and treasure, the war is drawing to a predictably messy conclusion. The Obama administration is engaged in an unseemly race with the government of Hamid Karzai to conclude a peace settlement with the Taliban, and the British, always hanging on to American coat-tails, must get out as best they can. What went wrong?

"I think it was because Iraq took all the resources," says Gall. "It was a complete disaster as far as Afghanistan went. There was also a lack of knowledge. Countries said they would do different things: Blair put his hands up for narcotics, the Germans put their hands up for policing – it was all very hotch-potch.

"The aim was reconstruction and development but nobody really had any idea just how tricky it would be, partly because they didn't realise there had been this return of the Taliban. The other reason was the Karzai government: if there had been a really good leader, maybe it would have been different."

There is another factor: the politics of the Indian sub-continent. The war in Afghanistan, says Gall, has to be seen in the context of Pakistan's search for security in the face of its vastly more powerful antagonist, India. Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has been playing a double game for years, posing as an ally of Western intelligence agencies

while providing succour to the Taliban. The aim: a friendly client state on Pakistan's western border, free of Indian influence.

"The Taliban wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes without Pakistan," says Gall. "If they didn't have safe havens in Pakistan, where would they go with their wounded? Where would their families go? One (Pakistani) MP recently said to the head of the ISI, 'You could end this war in a month if you wanted to'. I'm sure that is true. Pakistan kept this war going."

A Nato report leaked this week confirms Pakistani complicity in aiding the Taliban. The Americans, says Gall, are now finally aware of the full extent of their supposed ally's duplicity.

"It all came from the fact that bin Laden had been hiding in Abbottabad. That was a big shock to us and a big shock to a lot of Americans, because obviously the Pakistanis must have known. There are no two ways about it. Kayani (head of the Pakistani army) must have known, and the ISI must have known. My view is that the Americans now have to be very tough with the Pakistanis and say, 'This is just not good enough, we're not going to accept this.'"

But time is on the side of Pakistan, isn't it? The Taliban are biding their time, aren't they? "They may say, 'Yes, we're going to be much more moderate' and so on, but in practice – we'll see. The Taliban have been assassinating a lot of people for months now. I suppose this is really the ISI. They are preparing the ground. That's quite clear to most Afghans.

"In the north they will not acquiesce in a Taliban takeover, so there may well be civil war and partition. Kabul is part of the north, really. The population is Persian speaking, not Pashtun, and they will not welcome anything that looks like a Taliban government. Civil war is the worst possible thing you could have."

So more war then? What then was the value of a conflict that has claimed the lives of almost 400 British soldiers?

"There have been good things. Girls' education has started up again, and education on the whole has been pretty successful. Kabul has been prosperous. OK, there's a lot of poor people around, but Afghanistan today is a much more successful country than it was when the Taliban were driven out. The Taliban did nothing. But I think they have learnt a lot, too. They now realise that brutality has its own disadvantages."

Gall believes journalists should avoid becoming too entangled personally in stories but he allowed himself that luxury in Afghanistan. In 1983, he created Sandy Gall's Afghanistan Appeal to provide help for those maimed by war. His whole family help out, and two of his daughters have worked in Afganistan, one as a journalist. Gall travels to the country almost every year, and will be there again this year. Why does it draw him back?

"It's going back in time; it's like a medieval country in some ways. You walk past farmers threshing on the side of the road and they say, 'Oh! You must come and have a cup of tea'. So they down tools and take you into their home. The hospitality is amazing. It's a culture of hospitality."

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