Kabul: City Number One - Part 10

Thursday 8 July 2010, 18:33

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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TERABYTES AFGHANISTAN

I have just got my hands on something wonderful and precious. It is five computer drives containing the unedited rushes of everything shot by the BBC in Afghanistan over the last thirty years.

It fills 18 terabytes of space.

It has been put together by Phil Goodwin who has worked for 14 years as a cameraman for the BBC in Afghanistan.

What Phil Goodwin has done is incredibly important. I cannot praise him or thank him enough. He has rescued moments of experience - both grand and intimate, sometimes intense or odd, or sometimes where nothing happens at all.

But they are all extraordinary because they are part of something that has happened in Afghanistan since the early 1970s that has had a profound effect on the world.

Yet it is increasingly clear that we in the west have no real idea of what that thing was. Or is.

Since 2001 we have been repeatedly told, by both politicians and journalists, that our troops are there to prevent further terrorist attacks on the west, and to bring modern democracy to a backward country.

But that is now changing. William Dalrymple wrote a really good piece in the Guardian last week arguing that by installing members of the Northern Alliance as the rulers of Afghanistan in December 2001, the Americans and NATO were unwittingly taking sides in a civil war that had been going on since the early 1970s.

They installed a Tajik-Uzbek-Hazara regime that has little interest in democracy. And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority.

He also argues that the fighting has become part of the proxy wars fought between India and Pakistan for the last 45 years. This is the argument too of the Economist. It had a fascinating piece last week about how Pakistan's support for the insurgents, like the Haqqani network, is driven by its fear of the growing Indian presence in Afghanistan.

If this is true it means that we in the west have become like foolish bit-players blundering around in a complex regional war that we do not understand.

It means that soon we will start to look back at everything that has happened in Afghanistan since the 1970s and reconfigure what it all meant. And when that happens all the footage that Phil Goodwin has saved will become extraordinarily valuable.

I find watching the uncut rushes fascinating. Long, held shots that you never see in the cut news stories. I want to start by putting up some of the unedited recordings - without any cuts, or added noise or music. All I have done is shortened them in a few places, but nothing is out of sequence.

Each one will have a simple explanation of what you are watching, and when, and where. That is all.

It is just stuff recorded. It doesn't make any sense. But it doesn't make any less sense than the way Afghanistan is reported by newspapers and television.

The first is a moment in the Beauty Spa at Bagram airbase in September 2004

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Here is the attempted assassination of Hamid Karzai. It happened in September 2002 as he was leaving the Governor's mansion in Kandahar. The assassin was from Helmand and had apparently been promised two Corolla cars if he managed to kill Karzai.

The footage contains some scenes that are possibly disturbing. And because the footage is not edited the camera holds longer on dead bodies than is normal in cut news reports.

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Lots of westerners came out to Afghanistan to help the Afghans become a modern democracy. Here is an art expert who has come to teach them about Conceptual Art. It starts with a group of young Afghan artists watching film of an installation in a western gallery, then she shows them Marcel Duchamp's 1917 urinal.

She is very keen to get them to say that if anyone did what Duchamp did in today's Afghanistan then they would be put in prison. It is interesting that the Afghans in the room, though they are polite, seem to disagree.

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This is a moment in the early evening somewhere in east Afghanistan on the 28th August 2002.

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In October 1995 the national government in Kabul was under assault from the Taliban. Here are some of the government troops trying to work out how to fire a big gun. I like the bit when they go and get what seems to be the manual.

Be careful if you are listening on headphones - there are sudden very loud noises that you may not expect.

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In July 2004 Afghan security forces raided a house in Kabul and found a private prison allegedly run by an American called Jack Idema. It had eight Afghan prisoners, some hanging by their legs from the ceiling. They claimed they had been tortured.

Idema turned out to be a strange fantasist - who had conned a lot of people in Kabul for 3 years. He claimed he was working directly to Donald Rumsfeld, running a super-secret force called Task Force Sabre 7. Their job was to hunt down the most wanted terrorists.

He claimed he had worked in "black ops" all over the world - including hunting down terrorists with nuclear weapons in their rucksacks in Lithuania. He also said he carried the genetic material of a dog called Sarge who had parachuted out of planes with him and sniffed out bombs. He said he was going to clone Sarge.

Idema was put on trial in Kabul. Here are the opening moments - including him talking to the press in the court room. With him on trial is an independent film-maker called Edward Caraballo from the Bronx who was making a documentary about Idema's black-ops. He is on the left of frame next to Idema.

The Afghans standing on the other side of the court room are the men who claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured by Idema

Idema's story is fascinating. Lots of very senior people believed his extraordinary stories. But we are now beginning to realise that many of the same people have believed a lot of other strange fantasies about Afghanistan over the past 9 years.

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    Comment number 1.

    "And what are called the Taliban insurgents are in reality a rebellion by the Pashtun majority in the country against that elite. And thus might represent the will of the majority."

    While the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, they contribute roughly 40% of the population. Which is not the majority. The Tadik-Uzbek-Hazara coalition is larger, between 45% and 50%.

    Congrats with acquiring the BBC's motherlode of Afghan reporting.

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    Comment number 2.

    Oops. I meant Tajik, not Tadik.

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    Comment number 3.

    I look forward to your new film about Afghanistan, and I'll just assume that it will be as excellent as your previous film essays.

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    Comment number 4.

    Fantastic as always, thanks Adam.

    Is that the project then? Will there be a history of Afghanistan in a series of films like The Trap etc? If so that is pretty damn exciting, can't wait.

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    Comment number 5.

    I don't think the gunner is reading the manual for how to operate the gun; I believe that 'howitzers' which fire at targets out of sight of the gunner, need to be fired at a map reference or some other vector, maybe radio link to the forward spotter. This means constant referencing to a chart which gives the gunner windage and elevation values for adjusting targetting; hence the looking at chart, then looking through the sight, then winding the lever to the new position.

 

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