Back in 1960 the travel writer James Morris went to Afghanistan. He watched American and Soviet diplomats jockeying for influence, both convinced they could persuade the Afghans to support them in the Cold War.

But, wrote Morris, the world the diplomats entered was a strange one:

While the Afghan climate is clear, brisk and extreme, the political atmosphere is blurred, inconstant and soggy.

Afghanistan is like the fairy wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and many a confident diplomat, striding briskly into its groves has come out with a donkey's head.

'Don't be alarmed my dear fellow', the Afghans will tell you, 'we know just what we are doing'.

Fifty years later nothing has changed.

This is the very odd story of the events that led to a horrific mass killing of Afghan civilians by coalition forces in August 2008.

At the time there was outrage. Hamid Karzai publicly attacked the Americans for the deaths.

It was also taken up by the anti-war movement in the west as evidence of the Americans' gross disregard of innocent people in their pursuit of the Taliban.

But the truth is far stranger.

It doesn't let the Americans off the hook. But far from being a simple piece of incompetence, the events that led to the killings are exactly what James Morris described in 1960.

It is the story of the Americans and the British striding into the fairy wood only to find themselves spun around so much by the Afghans that they do not know who is the enemy and who is a friend any longer.

And they come out with a donkey's head. But on the way they kill 90 innocent people.

Shindand is a town in the west of Afghanistan near the border with Iran. Outside of the town was an old Soviet airfield they had built in the 1980s.

In May 2007 the Americans started to revive it as an airfield. But they discovered that many of the locals hated them because of a previous killing of civilians.

The Americans had been pursuing a Taliban leader and had bombed a village near Shindand and killed around 50 people.

Here are some unedited rushes of the near riot in Shindand that resulted.

I think watching it as rushes gives a much better sense of the mood in the area than any news report. The middle section, filmed inside a house being looted also has an intense quality that you never see in news reports.

And this is from rushes of Hamid Karzai coming four weeks later to meet with the local elders to try and deal with their anger. I have put up a very interesting section of his speech.

He is incredibly direct and open to the elders. The American troops are like a powerful drug, he says, that cures a disease. It had bad side effects. But we can't get rid of them - because of all the money they are pouring into our country.

The last thing the Americans needed was another mass killing of civilians. But it is difficult not to do what you don't want to do in Afghanistan.

The new airbase needed protection, so the Americans went to a private security company called ArmorGroup. They are a British company who sent out managers from Britain to run the contract.

ArmorGroup turned to two local "warlords" to recruit the necessary men. The ArmorGroup management always referred to them in their emails and official corrspondence as Mr Pink and Mr White.

Their real names were Nadir Khan and Timor Shah. But in the imaginations of the ArmorGroup managers the "warlords" were fitted into a western category. They were characters from Reservoir Dogs. The modern western fantasy of nihilistic gangsters who acted only for their own benefit.

Mr Pink was recommended by the US military Team Leader as "a person we felt comfortable with". No-one remembers who recommended Mr White.

ArmorGroup has said that everyone hired by them would always undergo "extensive training"

Here is a picture of an Afghan undergoing his extensive training with an ArmorGroup trainer in Kabul. And also a picture of an ArmorGroup weapons room for their Afghan operatives

Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

Everything was fine until July 29th 2007 when suddenly a fight broke out between Mr Pink's men and Mr White's men at the gate to the base.

Mr White came out to the base and things calmed down. But as he drove back to town Mr White was ambushed and shot at. He was injured but he survived.

ArmorGroup said that it was probably the Taliban. And things quietened down.

But then on December 12th 2007 Mr White came under attack again while driving near the base.

And a complicated series of events began that would lead to disaster.

As a result of what happened the US Senate later ordered an inquiry into the events. It was published this month.


The report is fascinating, but it too adopts the terms Mr Pink and Mr White and the western vision of Afghan warlords and their motives. So it becomes a surreal story of American style gangsters fighting it out against the backdrop of distant Afghanistan.

In the declassified sections of the American report the ArmorGroup Team Leader is referred to as

Nigel realised that it was Mr Pink who was trying to kill Mr White. It was a gangster thing.

But that afternoon it got worse. The local elders called a meeting in Shindand bazaar to sort things out. But as Mr Pink arrived he shot Mr White in the head.

Mr White was taken to the hospital at the base. But he died.

Immediately Mr White's men on the base got together to seek revenge. But Nigel bravely managed to disarm them.

Mr Pink then disappeared.

The managers were terrified that there was going to be an all out war on the base between Mr Pink's men and the deceased Mr White's group.

But then Mr White's brother turned up.

He told Nigel that he could manage things and take over running the security. He also promised that he wouldn't take revenge for his brother's death. Instead he be good and follow legal procedures. He would take Mr Pink to court.

The ArmorGroup managers decided to hire him. He was called Reza Khan, but ArmorGroup managers immediately began referring to him as Mr White II in all their emails and security reports.

who was the project manager for ECC, the company building the airbase, was sort of convinced:

Then - at the end of January 2008 - ArmorGroup began to get rid of Mr Pink's men. They had been told by some of the guards on the base that Mr Pink was actually a member of the Taliban - and the Taliban had made him a Mullah for killing Mr White.

They were worried his men inside the base were sending him military information.

Nigel thought he knew why Mr Pink had joined the Taliban. It was because he had lost his income from the base.

But Rick the project manager decided that there was a wider truth about the world around them. That the idea of "The Taliban" as a distinct force had disappeared. It had been replaced by something else - a world of gangsters fighting only for their own interests.

Which meant they had been right all along to call them Mr Pink and Mr White.

As a result of all this Mr White II's men took over many of the jobs previously done by Mr Pink's men. They also got jobs as security on mine-clearing operations being run by ArmorGroup.

Mr White II was now becoming powerful. And Mr Pink was furious at being excluded

In June 2008 ArmorGroup sent out

To assess the situation. He said that there was a danger that Mr Pink was going to attack the base to kill Mr White II.


Tony said that they should bring in independent guards from Kabul. But another manager pointed out that they would be killed either by Mr Pink or Mr White II. So that wouldn't work.

Bit by bit the ArmorGroup managers were finding themselves trapped by people they had employed.

And then the American military got involved

They were told that Mr White II was also a member of the Taliban.

An army sergeant on the base knew two locals who he called "Romeo" and "Juliet". They told him that Mr White II was using the money he earned to bribe government officials in Herat. They said his aim was to insert a Taliban leader, Mullah Sadeq, into a government position.

Then - on August 21 2008 - Romeo and Juliet came to the sergeant and told him that there was going to be a meeting that night at Mr White II's home with Mullah Sadeq and other Taliban commanders and fighters.

Mr White II's home was in a village called Azizabad. So the Americans decided they would attack it that night to capture or kill the Taliban commander.

The soldiers crept up on the village.

What followed was - according to the Marine commander - incredibly fierce. Or as he put it - "The most kinetic engagement I have ever been involved in". They were shot at from every side.

So the Americans called for help. An AC-130 gunship poured fire from the air into the village. Then an unmanned aerial vehicle dropped a 500lb precision bomb onto the houses.

Here are some shots of the village taken the next day.

When the US troops went into the village and examined the bodies they found Mr White II dead and around him were seven of his fighters. They turned out to be employees of ArmorGroup.

Which led to the awful conclusion that both Mr Pink and Mr White had been associates of the Taliban - and Taliban-linked fighters had actually been guarding the American base while they indulged in murder, revenge attacks, bribery, and general anti-coalition activities.

The Americans announced they had killed between 30 to 35 Taliban. They said that only 5 to 7 civilians had died.

But then the United Nations investigated and a week after the attack they said 90 civilians had been killed - the majority of them women and children.

The US military responded by saying the villagers were fabricating the evidence. They were spreading Taliban propaganda.

Here is the BBC news report about the growing row. It is the News at Ten on the 8th of September 2008.

But the US military insisted that most of those killed "were associated with the insurgency"

Here is the reference in the report that proves this

The US military said that their finds were corroborated by an "independent journalist" who was embedded with the US force that had attacked Azizabad.

He was Oliver North - famous for the Iran-Contra scandal - and now working for Fox News.

So in November a BBC journalist went out to Azizabad to talk to the villagers. Here are some sections from the rushes.

At the time the story was whether there had been a massacre of civilians or not. But in the section of the tape where the cameraman is recording GVs and cutaways the villagers are trying to explain something much more complicated.

It is confusing. The main speaker is Mr White II's brother - called Gul Ahmed. He and the others are showing the camera colour photocopies of ArmorGroup ID cards from the airbase.

They refer to them as "spies". What they seem to be saying is that these are some of Mr Pink's men on the base who persuaded the Americans to bomb Azizabad.

Then they say that Nigel has been persuaded by the US Special Forces to sack all the security men. But they insist this is not fair because they are not Taliban.

And what's more they insist there were no Taliban in the village that night. The meeting was in reality a memorial for someone who had died.

There are glimmerings of a terrible truth in what the villagers are saying. The Americans might have been tricked into the bombing by Mr Pink.

And then it turned out that what the villagers said was true. There had been no Taliban in Azizabad at all.

The Taliban commander, Mullah Sadeq, the Americans said they had definitely killed turned up alive. He had never been at the meeting.

And it was discovered that the "meeting" at Azizabad that night had really been a memorial for the late original Mr White (who had, of course, been killed by Mr Pink)

The Americans did seem to have been tricked into the attack by Mr Pink.

"Romeo" and "Juliet" had been sent by Mr Pink to persuade the Americans that Mr White II was meeting with the Taliban. Mr Pink knew that this would probably lead the Americans to go and kill Mr White II.

It was revenge for getting forced off the lucrative security contract at the airbase.

The investigator from ArmorGroup couldn't help but express his admiration for Mr Pink the Reservoir Dog.

In the wake of the civilian deaths there was outrage not just in Afghanistan but in Britain and America. The American forces were portrayed as disastrously incompetent.

But the truth behind the massacre reveals something completely different.

The American forces are not incompetent. They are being used as weapons in a war that they don't understand.

The investigation makes it clear that the US forces are not simply blundering around in a society they don't comprehend - as many in the anti-war movement argue. The reality is far more complicated.

The western military and their powerful bombs are being ruthlessly manipulated by different groups in Afghanistan. All the Afghans have to do is go to the Americans and describe someone as "Taliban" and they will be annihilated.

There is growing evidence that the raid on Azizabad was not a one-off. That a number of the terrible civilian massacres where villages have been bombed are the direct result of the Americans being told that there are "Taliban" meeting there. It then turns out that their informants were simply using the Americans to wipe out a rival.

Which raises the question - who are we really fighting in Afghanistan? Do we, and our leaders really know?

But there is a further point. Tony from ArmorGroup may be right that the "Taliban" no longer exist. But he, and the investigation into the massacre, have simply substituted another western fantasy. The Reservoir Dogs fantasy.

This says that really we are dealing with nihilistic gangsters who are just out for their own power and personal interests.

But this may be far too simplistic as well. The truth is that Mr Pink and Mr White may not fit into either category. One western fantasy - that of the "religious fanatic" - has simply been replaced by another western category of the ruthless gangster.

Neither category may be true. And we really are lost in the forest with a donkey's head.

Mr Pink was put on trial for providing false information that led to the raid on Azizabad. In February 2009 he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

But the verdict was later overruled. The report does not explain why.

And the White family weren't finished either. Mr White II's brother - Gul Ahmed - turned up at the base and said he would take over the security contract for the mine-clearing. And ArmorGroup agreed.

They decided to call him Mr White III

And Mr White III replaced all the guards who had been killed in Azizabad with their brothers.

Nigel sent out an email with the good news to his colleagues.

Marty - Nigel's junior - wrote back:

"Great news. Strange how business goes on."

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  • Comment number 43. Posted by LeBossu

    on 15 Jun 2011 17:35

    Describing one of the so-called gangsters as "pretty shrewd" is ridiculous when all they are doing is telling the Americans or the coalition what they want to hear.

    I'd turn that round and say coalition forces are easy to manipulate, and if that's the case it's certainly true that they need shrewd leadership.

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  • Comment number 42. Posted by TrueHypatia

    on 14 Jun 2011 03:13

    Mr. Curtis, I just need to tell you that your work has changed my life. You broke my heart already a thousand times and I'll never be the same. I still want to change things, but I have long since lost my naivete. I'm so glad that your work is being broadcast so widely. The whole world needs to stop doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    What is "Man"?

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  • Comment number 41. Posted by Moor Larkin

    on 12 Feb 2011 21:26

    By Hamid Karzai's figures, he says that $2.5B a year is going directly into the Afghan wages economy. That's your taxes ladies and gentlemen and this is only the tip of the calamatious iceberg that Western economies are scraping the bows of their ships of state along. I recall that in an earlier blog Adam's material pointed up that the US had spent more money building roads for it's military to run their vehicles up and down, in these countires, than the US had spent on actually *fighting* anyone.

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  • Comment number 40. Posted by dawghead

    on 31 Oct 2010 19:27

    These aforementioned opinions are just my own, not any one else's.

    In a way we are all just guessing here, because the reality is so complex and changing in turbulent ways.

    I think the work of Adam Curtis has the recurring theme of elites who discover a trick of how to shape the destiny of masses, and the unexpected consequences that result.

    And the rest we may just be projecting ourselves. Maybe Adam's not figured it out yet, the forces at play that led to this war. Whereas, he did make it clear what he thought about the 2003 War in Iraq in "Power of Nightmares."

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  • Comment number 39. Posted by dawghead

    on 31 Oct 2010 13:15

    Sorry to be taking things away from Adam Curtis's work a little in continuing this argument, but it seems a conversation worth having. My close relation has advised all US administrations since the Clintons on this from inside and outside the US government, so I can speak of some of the motivations of the US on this. He's even been on the BBC so maybe he'll find his way to Adam's blog one day.

    "I wasn't aware that the Taliban were behind the 9-11 attacks..."

    No, it was Al-Qaeda, who were under the protection of the Taliban. Al Q killed Ahmed Shah Masoud the day before the attacks, and this is widely understood as Al Q doing the Taliban's business - a quid pro quo. The two were more than cozy. Anyway, the Taliban refused to give them up, and that's when the US went in. Now mind you, the US knew about Bin Laden and the leadership of Al Q being in Afghanistan for years, and they had been gunning for him for longer than that. Despite all the heinous things that the Taliban had done, and that they weren't really a government (despite some law and order that the Taliban brought, harsh justice though it was, Afghanistan only fed itself through foreign aid and drugs traffic), they had not yet been pushed into an attack with American soldiers until a major attack had occurred on the US.

    I regret saying it was ignorant to think that the US could have done otherwise than go in and attack the Taliban, that's not true. But it wasn't the first attack by Al Qaeda on US soil, just the first devastating one. We knew where they were being sheltered and had training camps. And Afghanistan/Pakistan was a hell of a problem with its wars an instability, and an ongoing humanitarian disaster. We went in and got the Taliban out of the country since they wouldn't give up Al Q. It's just too bad there wasn't the will from the Bush administration to actually try to make it work for Afghanistan, the whole project was criminally neglected when they went to war in Iraq. But it Pakistan and Afghanistan have been a nexus of frightful instability for decades, and our policies since the collapse of the Soviet Union caused mostly blowback as the situation deteriorated.

    Anyway your whole thing about the US being obsessed with democracy had nothing to do with why we went in or why we are there now. Even if some hope for some kind of democracy, or at least some kind of functional representational form of government, that's never been enough by itself for the US to start a war. Think of the cold war period -- it was not because the US wanted to spread democracy that it supported dictators -- it in fact engineered coups to overthrow democratically elected governments in places like Latin America, because of the cold war fear of their sympathies with the Soviet enemy. (No I'm not supporting the US policies by those actions of the past.)

    Yes I'm conflicted about it, the war has gone horribly. And I was conflicted when we first went in, not because I didn't think it was legitimate but because the history of Afghanistan is littered with the corpses of foreign invaders. But not all interventions are wrong, the world works in a messier way than pacifism would allow. Was it wrong that the US and Europe intervened when Yugoslavia was disintegrating? Sometimes military action is required by a group of nations to prevent instability from spreading.

    "(could they not have undertaken precision military strikes - they might have worked better...)"
    They work better when you have actual intelligence on the ground, otherwise you kill more innocents than otherwise. But yes, when the US leaves it will continue those operations no doubt, with worse results than before.

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  • Comment number 38. Posted by Phiiip Pilkington

    on 30 Oct 2010 19:29

    @ dawghead

    Incidentally, I did a piece on the ideology of US interventionism the other. This should clarify what my position is:

    I also did a piece on Obama, now that you mention him - weakest US president since Carter, really:

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  • Comment number 37. Posted by Phiiip Pilkington

    on 30 Oct 2010 18:59

    "Too many can only see cynical motives for this war. Others (on the right) are genuinely blinded by a kind of idealism or idea of what American military power can achieve."

    Well, that's exactly what I'm saying...

    "But I think its just ignorant to think the US could have done otherwise than go in there to get the Taliban out after the 9-11 attack."

    I wasn't aware that the Taliban were behind the 9-11 attacks...

    Anyway, America's response to a terrorist attack by a small band of radicals by invading a country is without historical precedent. By that rationale shouldn't Scotland have invaded Libya (or Iran, perhaps) after Lockerbie. Should the UK have invaded the Irish Republic after the terror-campaign in the 1970s and 80s by the IRA - after all, these attacks were continuous.

    The very fact that someone from the US that is opposed to the wars thinks that it's 'ignorant' to suggest that the US could have done otherwise than invade a country (could they not have undertaken precision military strikes - they might have worked better...) shows just how deep your country is in crisis.

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by Alby

    on 29 Oct 2010 23:47

    I think the whole thing is reminiscent of Catch 22. Mr Pink and Mr white are the Milos.

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by dawghead

    on 27 Oct 2010 14:39

    What Woodward wrote about Obama came straight from the source -- and note that he could never have gotten him and others in the government to speak without their wanting to get the message out. The truths is that as a politician you cannot come out and say what you really think under ordinary circumstances. Why? Because the reality is too complicated for anyone but those truly interested (like those that would read the book). But it's also extremely dicey whenever they are communicating about this, what gets to the Pakistani public. You can't be a statesman and actually tell all of what's going on. However Obama has done more in this regard than any American President probably ever has.

    And yes, they are trying to get government running along democratic lines in Afghanistan, and perhaps they are deluded in thinking that could ever work. I don't know if you consider that Wilsonian Idealism or not, but if you are framing it that broadly, sure. Most Americans believe in democracy and think people everywhere would be happier under it. I myself feel it's the best system for a person to live under in our modern world, but that even in many places where it's established, it can go away when economics go south or other forces upset the checks and balances necessary for its preservation(like in the US right now).

    Too many can only see cynical motives for this war. Others (on the right) are genuinely blinded by a kind of idealism or idea of what American military power can achieve. But I think its just ignorant to think the US could have done otherwise than go in there to get the Taliban out after the 9-11 attack. But in so doing, they removed a bandaid on what is a festering wound in the center of the world body politic. If they just left, it would get worse, but they don't have a clean bandage. Allright, that's about as far as I want to extend that metaphor.

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Phiiip Pilkington

    on 27 Oct 2010 09:49


    I think your mistake is to underestimate the power of illusions and ideologies. There's no doubt that the Obama administration is disillusioned with the war - but it's the fact that they keep SAYING that it's about democracy that's interesting. What they say and do is far more important - in my opinion - than what they actually think. Plenty of regimes think things very different from what they say - the Nazis, for example, rarely believed in the propaganda they spouted (and just to be clear, I am not equating the US with the Nazis, it's just a convenient illustration), but they still acted AS IF they did - and this had massive historical consequences.

    Similarly, while the US - being a deeply cynical power in decline - may not believe their Wilsonian idealism (for, the explicit argument for staying in Afghanistan - democracy, or whatever - does stem from Wilsonian idealism, whether it's believed or not), they still act AS IF they believe it. And that's what counts.

    All this talk of 'insider' stuff - trying to read Obama's mind - blaming Republicans for rhetoric - all this is so much nonsense, intellectualizing in order to try and rationalise a conflict that is fundamentally irrational. The fact is this: the discourse of Wilsonian idealism - latched onto and infected with cynicism by the Neo-Conservatives - is still dominant in the US. This discourse continues to frame the debate about the war. You may not like this - Obama may not like this - Woodward may not like this - but this is the reality of the situation. And mark my words, this is how history will be recorded!

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