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Adam Curtis | 19:52 UK time, Thursday, 14 October 2010

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."


  • Comment number 1.

    A terrible shame. I'd have to see evidence that this had happened elsewhere to agree that it is widespread. The event itself is bad enough on its own of course.
    It's all very well saying the Americans are stumbling asses but as the article displays, it's pretty hard to work out who to trust. Work closer with the government like the soviets did? The government are surely as susceptible to false information. It could also result in more red tape & delays. I think the blog emphasises that pulling out of the country would just take out the middleman and the tribal warfare would continue.

  • Comment number 2.

    An incredible and tragic story. Thanks Adam.

  • Comment number 3.

    I saw this recently and wonder what other people think.


  • Comment number 4.

    I actually think the Americans are incompetent, and out of their depth. What were they doing making two bosses? Of course there would be rivalry. It makes me wonder if they're deliberately making excuses to fight an enemy, even subconsciously.

    Americans are corrupted by their idealism and by money and power. The Afghans are realists, and so can easily manipulate the Americans. Meanwhile, the culture of power is fostered among the Afgans so nothing changes. Rather, a different civilised world should be part of the reconstruction or reform.

    It is a tragedy because as Adam Curtis has pointed out, this is the folly of positive liberty. You can't impose freedom on people, especially if you're fostering the rule of power and might. You can only take their weapons away and after a generation create civility, like they did with the Japanese.

    But I suspect that corruption, money and corporate interests are more important than the future stability of Afghanistan.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear Mr. Curtis,
    are there any plans for your back-catalogue of documentary series' to be released on DVD?
    I first discovered your work through the original broadcast of the Century of the Self which I thought superb. I have watched all your successive documentaries but not seen anything made prior to the Century of the Self (BBC; WHY have you not reshown these earlier documentaries in recent years on BBC2 & BBC4? They would be hugely welcome in place of the endless stream of identi-kit 'science' documentaries currently beig produced.

    Many thanks for any reply & please keep up the great work.

  • Comment number 6.


    Maybe it is the US government's intention to have both sides fight each other? Maybe they want both sides to lose and are helping to foster it? If so, that is more realist than idealist.

  • Comment number 7.

    ccL1, that might be true. However, going by Mr Curtis's documentaries and by our general experience of American foreign policy, it would be rather unlikely. Americans really are pretty green and fresh when it comes to wars and gathering intelligence, and protecting their own nation from attacks. I'm not anti-American, but they really don't have a moral authority over the rest of the world, only the authority of being a super power with lots of nukes. That's a pretty scary world, and it's getting scarier.

  • Comment number 8.

    egbert, I definitely agree with you. I am just trying to see this from different angles. And don't worry, I don't think you're anti-American.

    It's just that from what I studied about American approach to warfare is that they seem to always have instances of "when in doubt, kill everyone". It's like a better-safe-than-sorry attitude. During the Korean War, instead of viewing the fleeing South Korean refugees, who were running away from the North Korean military advance, as something innocent, the US military viewed these civilians with suspicion. The thought that they could truly be innocent occasionally went through their thoughts, but for a lot of the time, the US military felt that communist spies were among these civilians. That's why many thousands of South Korean civilians were fire-bombed and machine-gunned down.

    The same happened in the Vietnam War, with thousands of innocent civilians massacred because of the suspicion that they were Viet Cong members or the fact that a couple of Viet Cong were hiding among them. It's a very crude form of warfare.

    I see the same thing in Afghanistan. Instead of filtering out who the real enemy is -- probably due to impatience, laziness, indifference, or just plain maliciousness -- they seem to be employing that same policy again. Kill now, explain later. But unlike in other wars, this kind of policy can totally backfire in Afghanistan. This war is quite delicate; i.e., killing one civilian can possibly turn that civilian's uncles, brothers, father, grandfather, friends, and cousins against the US very easily.

  • Comment number 9.


    The Internet Archive (www.archive.org) hosts films and clips that are out of copyright or have - I hope - had permission for use. Some of Adam's films are on there, including short films that were shows withing the series Newswipe.

    There’s also a digital archive that contains tens of thousands of culturally important films and video clips, many of which, a fantastic snapshots of how society was at the times they were created.

    They often have a “Hi, I’m Troy McClure…” quality to them, but they are the actual films that The Simpsons have been spoofing for years. Among the archives are old U.S. Office of War Information propaganda films, including Our Enemy: The Japanese. The film informs the American public about the "primitive, murderous and fanatical” enemy that the country is currently facing. Some would argue that while the delivery has become more subtle, the enemy changed and the medium switched to news channels rather than films, the same thing is being disseminated today with the likes of Fox News commentary.

    Likewise, hysterical anti-drug films seem hilariously dated, with deadpan delivery of lines such as "They both smoked pot — that's jive talk for marijuana" and claims that “Reds” are promoting dope traffic in the United States to undermine national morale. The thing is, the same films are being made today with updated language and austere warnings that drugs fund international terrorism. It seems that in many cases, the medium has been updated but the message stays constant.

    Others are just wonderfully dated, including How to Use the Dial Phone (1927), in which the viewer is guided through the process of using the new fangled telephones, rather than the operator system. Also present is Duck and Cover, the famous Civil Defence film for children from 1951 in which Bert the Turtle shows what to do in case of atomic attack, including useful advice such as "an Atomic Explosion can knock you down". Yes, yes it can Bert.

    Fans of the series Mad Men might like to see some of the actual adverts from the era that the series has been dramatising. The old cigarette ads are especially noteworthy, with Virginia Slims piggybacking on the woman’s liberation movement and being marketed as empowering (“You’ve come a long way, baby. You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby.”) as well as a somewhat disturbing advert with The Flintstones shilling for the tobacco brand Winston.

  • Comment number 10.

    It's very easy to paint the picture that America is some evil imperialistic nation intent on fostering onto people a bleak existence of consumerism supported by a police state.

    The truth is, America really does live in both a dreamworld and a nightmare. The dreamworld part is the fantasy of freedom, religion and consumerism, the white picket fences, while the nightmare part is the real world of selfish hostility, both within from 'criminals' and without from Communists, and now Islamists and those who hate freedom and America.

    But those same enemies of America also live in a dreamworld and nightmare, mistakenly thinking that America is an imperialistic conquering idealogy.

    America is not the enemy but Idealism is. Idealism is the escape from reality, because--to the idealist--reality is a nightmare of hostility, selfishness, violence and chaos.

    When Americans go off and fight into hostile nations, they face reality and it's evil and foreign and other. And the enemies of America think exactly the same thing about America.

    But here in Europe, we've had the bitter realities of two wars and suffer a pragmatic and humanitarian type of politics where evil is perceived to be selfless nationalism, lack of freedom and most important of all 'tolerance'. Europe does not have such an idealistic optimistic vision of the future, but increasingly faces the nightmare of reality in the form of intolerance and ever increasing loss of freedom in it's fight against intolerance.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.


    Egbert, Do you tolerate other peoples choice for their religion?

    Or would you implement: "...civilised world should be part of the reconstruction or reform."?

  • Comment number 13.

    "It's just that from what I studied about American approach to warfare is that they seem to always have instances of "when in doubt, kill everyone"."

    It's more than this - it's the paranoid style in American warfare. Americans (sorry, guys) don't, in my opinion, have the same grasp of reality as other cultures. They (as a nation - lots of individuals aren't like this) see things mediated through images far more than other cultures. They have a strange black-and-white manner of viewing the world.

    So when they see a contagion - be it Communist or Islamist - they totally freak out. The US (again, as a nation) can't understand nuance. There is no grey area from them. This tendency - a tendency to view the world in terms of good and evil, which is ultimately traceable to Puritanism - makes them a violent nation.

  • Comment number 14.

    Phiiip Pilkington, that's an interesting point of view and something that I have noticed as well. A false dichotomy is often set up in terms of cultures in America, not only on a macro-level but on a micro-level as well.

    Personally, I'm not too versed on early American history (e.g. pre-Revolutionary War era), but it seems like the settler-mentality is quite strong in the US -- i.e. to each unto his/her own, be self-reliant, and treat people who don't belong on your land as a potential threat instead of a welcomed guest. It's this fear of outsiders that causes culture clashes, and there are numerous instances of this in US history. And it's this fear that can manifest into the conspiracies and violence, as you stated in your final paragraph.

    This is not healthy at all, especially when America is supposed to be the champion of democracy and operates in many countries around the globe, militarily and non-militarily. They take this baggage with them wherever they go; thus, it is not surprising that you have civilian massacres, friendly-fire incidents, and mistrust sown among America's allies.

  • Comment number 15.

    9. At 09:35am on 16 Oct 2010, fletch_in_Dubai

    Thank you Sir!

    That is superbly helpful & insightful - seems like an absolute treasure trove of a site.

    I do hope though, that one day Mr. Curtis' films are given a mainstream commercial release (if infact he even wishes it) and that they can garner wider recognition for their unflinching insights.

    All the best.

  • Comment number 16.

    @ Phiiip Pilkington

    I agree about the detach from reality, and as I said, I think it is because of idealism. Adam Curtis does a wonderful job of identifying the idealists hope for a better rational future, and then live trapped in this rational future in their head, detached from reality.

    @ StenkaRazin

    "Do you tolerate other people's choice for their religion"

    Firstly, I don't think the majority of people choose their religion. Religion is part of the culture they grow up in. Their parents often instill their religion into their children.

    Secondly, If a person goes and does some research for why they feel spiritual and look into what works for them, then of course I respect that. But if that person then tells everyone they have found the 'truth' then I'll conflict with them.

    As for reconstruction and reform, if you are going to invade a hostile country and make it a friendly country, then you're going to have to disarm its citizens and educate them into being friendly. Giving them weapons and allowing corruption and organized crime to rule is of course not helping.

  • Comment number 17.

    A terrible tale with a fitting conclusion, if the evidence put forth is correct. Of course this is impossible to know so we can only go by what we see with our own eyes. That on the night in question a huge fire fight broke out, resulting in the deaths of so many Afghans does lead me to wonder who stood to gain the most. The coalition were apparently, stuck in a political quagmire, the two local security forces seemed to be locked in a dual for power. Egbert, above, asks a good question - why was it deemed necessary to have two leaders? I'd ask also why was it necessary to provide them with monikers of Hollywood gangsters, who all die by the end of the story?

    The Afghan people managed to recover from the Russian invasion before and will, I'd expect and hope, recover from this one. Hopefully 'Romeo' and 'Juliet', plus the 28 million or so other Afghans will soon be allowed to resume their normal lives.

  • Comment number 18.

    @ egbert

    I don't think it's about idealism at all. Lots of other cultures have strains of idealism, but they're somehow different from that found in the US. Sure, there's an element of Wilsonian idealism present every time the Yanks try to deliver some backward, third-world country from undemocratic evil - but that's not what accounts for their bizarre tendency to hide in images and view the world in black and white.

    I think this comes down to a certain grasp of irony - or lack thereof. In other countries we have ideals - be they national, military, religious or whatever - but we also possess a certain distance from these ideals. Most people - especially those in politics - know that reality isn't a zero-sum game. You can see this, for example, in Soviet posturing during the Cold War. Sure, Khrushchev would talk big - he'd even bang out a shoe from time to time - but he didn't mean it. He knew it was all a rather flamboyant act.

    In the US things are different. They don't have any distance to their fantasies - they immediately believe in them wholly and completely (in an individual this would be a sign of psychosis, incidentally). You often hear this from stories of foreign diplomats meeting US officials in back rooms. They describe how some of them are creepy pseudo-men who seem to be a sort of weird embodiment of an abstract principle. I suppose it was all there in Kubrick's Strangeglove...

    Anyway, as far as Curtis' piece goes, I think this knowledge is becoming fairly widespread these days. We're becoming increasingly aware of just how false this war is:


    ..[The] press releases uncritically repeated by the press after a bombing always brag about "senior al-Qa'ida commanders" killed – but some people within the CIA admit how arbitrary their choice of targets is. One of their senior figures told The New Yorker: "Sometimes you're dealing with tribal chiefs. Often they say an enemy of theirs is al-Qa'ida because they want to get rid of somebody, or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable so they could make money."

  • Comment number 19.

    I think many of you are confusing the motives of America's getting into a war, with some ideas of what idealism of 'America' or 'Americans'. There are no great resources in Afghanistan -- the US was attacked, the attackers were being sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and so they went in to get them. After that it turned bad, not all at once, but mostly it seems owing to some incredible neglect by the Bush Administration, the main protagonists of whom were anxious to start a new war in Iraq (which really was born of a Utopian neo-conservative mindset, that toppling a regime would suddenly result in a Democracy -- see John N. Gray's 'Black Mass'.)

    The reasons why we stayed there when things continued go sour, and why we are there now (I'm American) have to do with the incredibly dangerous situation in Pakistan. This is not idealism. Call it Kissinger-style Realpolitik, maybe that's not totally wrong, but it's not Neo-Con Utopianism of Democracy sprouting out of nothing. Nor is that the outlook of Britain or the other coalition partners.

  • Comment number 20.

    Also for Egbert and some others who would just blame the American military for the deaths caused by bombs, it has also been non-US coaltion partners who have been responsible for calling in some bombing raids that have resulted in civilian deaths. It's a dangerous and confusing situation there. Without a doubt there has been a lot of bungling, and the people who wage the war are often ignorant of the culture and customs and out of their depth.

    Assuming the US does pull out without achieving its goal of achieving stability in Afghanistan without having a Taliban hostile to the US take over the country again, I can tell you that the result is not going to be less bombing, but more, and with less intelligence on the ground which means more mistakes. And with no protection for much of the Afghan populace as a whole who if they had a choice would not wish to be under Taliban rule (especially non-Pashtun). It's easy for Europeans to take the high ground, because the Americans are there in force, and so you can say that it's all a bad idea and its the fault of the US for waging and continuing what looks like a hopeless war. However your governments have the same goals there as the US. And the main goal is really to keep Pakistan's government from imploding.

  • Comment number 21.


    "It's easy for Europeans to take the high ground, because the Americans are there in force, and so you can say that it's all a bad idea and its the fault of the US for waging and continuing what looks like a hopeless war. However your governments have the same goals there as the US. And the main goal is really to keep Pakistan's government from imploding."

    I certainly don't think I (or Europe) have any moral high ground. This isn't about morality, because it is about unfriendly states. What do we do with them?

    The agenda seems to be: let's introduce them to our culture of liberal democracy and that will grant them freedoms from which they will purge extremism from their country.

    But Afghans are not interested in liberal democracy, they have a state religion: Islam, and that is incompatible with liberal democracy and secularism. That country will never become a stable friendly country as a theocracy. It can only descend into power politics and further down the spiral to violence and war (as it always has).

    So that wonderful agenda is a complete waste of time. The only real genuine change is a secular state with the rule of civilised laws. That would end instability and make it 'friendly' to the west. But of course, the Afghans don't want that.

  • Comment number 22.

    If liberal democracy was in the minds of the Neo Cons of the last administration in Afghanistan the way it was in Iraq, it's still not why they got into Afghanistan, and clearly their priority was not there as they left it neglected and under resourced (and horribly mismanaged) while they rushed into Iraq. It is not truly the thoughts of the current administration nor of its allies to achieve a liberal democracy, whatever this or that person might have said (and they are pretty quiet about it nowadays), rather they wish to simply hold it together, and achieving the rule of civilized laws, but not a secular state. They are all Sunnis, pretty much so that's not the issue.

    Avoiding anarchy is the first goal of Afghans as a whole, and it's the goal of the US and its allies too, except we also don't want the extreme elements of the Taliban to take charge. This latter goal is where Afghans will disagree. But you should know -- the current Administration don't want to be there, they just feel like they have to be. And that may change, but it's not because of some kind of idealism.

  • Comment number 23.

    Actually I take that back, they are not all Sunnis, there are significant populations of Shias there too. They are quite a patchwork of ethnicities. Poor Afghanistan, what a raw deal history has dealt them.

  • Comment number 24.

    Just to add, if you look up Afghanistan on Wikipedia you'll see;

    "The nation's natural resources include gold, silver, copper, zinc, and iron ore in the Southeast; precious and semi-precious stones (such as lapis, emerald, and azure) in the Northeast; and potentially significant petroleum and natural gas reserves in the North. The country also has uranium, coal, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, and salt.[37][38][39][40] However, these significant mineral and energy resources remain largely untapped due to the wars. In 2010, U.S. Pentagon and American geologists have revealed the discovery of about $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits across Afghanistan[41] although the Afghan government insists that they are worth at least $3 trillion."

    Ideology, Rogue States Harbouring Terrorists, Natural Resources, Avoiding Anarchy? You'll know what most people's view of what the Iraq War was all about .. certainly not WMDs.

    You described most of the countries in the Middle East (and Vatican City, for that matter) when you said because the people of Afghanistan follow Islam (i.e. a theocratic state) it'll never be a friendly country. Do you think they view people like you as friendly?

  • Comment number 25.

    I'm afraid picking up a fact from Wikipedia does not make you an expert on Afghanistan. It is quite simplistic to think that all wars are about resources. Or even if they were, you don't go spending over a trillion dollars on a war trying to get a (purely theoretical) trillion dollars in minerals from one of the most unstable countries on earth.

  • Comment number 26.

    "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."

    Rushing to action on the account of random hearsay sounds like blundering incompetence to me.

  • Comment number 27.


    Interesting that you bring up Vatican City. I don't see the Vatican as a friendly state either. It only exists because of Mussolini, and has no legitimacy in my mind. It would be like Obama granting Salt Lake City as a sovereign state with a Mormon king and then as the national religion of America.

    And no, people like me or people like you are not viewed as friendly, because under Islam, the penalty for apostasy is death. You can't change your religion under Islam. That's why the populations of Muslims in such countries are so ridiculously high.

  • Comment number 28.


    One or two things. First of all, the reasons why the US went into Afghanistan are no longer relevant - we're discussing why they're still there. Time and again they say that they're there to spread democracy. This isn't rocket science - it's all there, straight from the horses mouth.

    Secondly, you don't seem to fully grasp my argument - or Curtis', for that matter.

    Let's take an example well known to historians. The US entered WWI - why? Well, this is a complex and thorny issue - it had a lot to do with informal alliances with certain European countries; then there was the Zimmerman telegram from the Germans urging the Mexicans to attack the US. However, there was also - as is widely agreed by historians - a definite tendency present in the American political system at the time toward what is now known as 'Wilsonian idealism'. The US really did want Europe to embrace the ideals of the American revolution.

    So, you can't simply equate the drive to war with the Zimmerman telegram - just like you can't simply equate the Afghanistan war with the 9/11 attacks. To do this shows crass historical understanding - a key characteristic of the Yankee mindset, let it be said. History is more complicated. It is not a series of isolated events. If you don't understand this, you won't understand mine or Curtis' argument.

  • Comment number 29.

    I've never heard such a revealing account of events in this war - thank you.

  • Comment number 30.

    Good point, well taken. I see websites quoting differing figures for the Afghan War with Reuters quoting Congress as having approved $345 billion so far, and a further $708 billion for Iraq. This gives your $1 trillion figure but for both countries (including 143.1 billion barrels of proven reserves of oil in Iraq, worth roughly $11,440,000,000,000 at 80 per, and the United States Department of Energy estimates up to 90% of the country remains unexplored). Also the $1 trillion of resources in Afghanistan is an estimate and the Afghans reckon there's more like $3 trillion worth there.

    Interesting point about the Vatican City.
    You put every muslim country in a file marked 'dangerous' when this is so obviously not the case. You said "It [Afghanistan] can only descend into power politics and further down the spiral to violence and war". You surely can't be putting muslim countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, The UAE, Jordan and Albania in the same basket? I've been to several muslim countries and the people seem wary of foreigners which you see everywhere, Islamic or not. There absolutely are differences between those and secular populations but most of the populations are peaceful and warming to other peoples. Yes, some would rather kill a person who leaves Islam (often on behalf of a local Imam or the family) but the Quran itself says there's no compulsion in religion. You can convert in some of the less extreme environments - ie in some cities in an Islamic country but not all.

  • Comment number 31.

    hi hi hi

    I liked this one Adam.

    Nothing surprising here. Everyone is wily, including the contractors. I do find it curious, how people react. Since it reveals the distance from what's actually happening, and value judgment.

    I don't believe you actually expresses any judgment at all, other than "fantasy after fantasy". This may be why some readers call your work Art.


    Dear Adam, a colleague of mine has pointed out to me that some Russian felloew, Leontieff, has created a multi-series on the Great Game. Its supposedly recent, and all about the rivalries between the great powers. It might be based on Hopkirk's the Great Game. I haven't seen or read either work, but something tells me it could provide depth. For here is my question:

    WHAT are the fantasies of the AFGHANS? What are the fantasies of Afghanistan's neighbors?

    What are the fantasies of Afghanistan's women?


  • Comment number 32.

    @Phiiip Pilkington (should that be Philip?)
    I think you are wrong to condense all foreign entanglements of the US government to Wilsonian Idealism. And I don't think Adam Curtis has a simple way of looking at things or is lumping all US actions into this category, either. Yes that's been a powerful force behind US actions historically. Yet I am quite certain that is not what is motivating the US to stay there now. I know this not only because I am well read in the history of this conflict but also because a close relative of mine worked in the State Department and continues to be actively involved with this situation, so I have some inside knowledge on this. But if you read about what's in Bob Woodward's latest book on the conflict, it is also clear that Obama is desperately looking for a good way out, as are other in the administration. The goals of the military are in some respects in conflict with his -- generals always want to win. It is indeed a very complicated reality but Wilsonian optimism just doesn't figure into it in any significant degree at this stage.

    A more pertinent line of inquiry is whether by staying in Afghanistan, are we helping or hurting the cause of keeping Pakistan stable and also not allowing the extreme elements of the Taliban to take control of Afghanistan/Northwest Pakistan. They are a destabilizing force, but our presence there is also destabilizing. I don't think there's an easy answer to this either. And again, whatever you hear about democracy in Afghanistan from certain people in government, where the US interests are not supported and we are expending lives and huge amounts of cash, that cause is really not worth our staying there and our presence hurts the administration politically at home.

  • Comment number 33.

    I'll just add to my comment that the reasons for being in a war/'nation-building' venture can be hard nosed and practical, even as the way it is conducted is prey to all sorts of illusory conceptions. The Afghan war continues to be waged for mostly strategic reasons, not because of a dream of democracy. In that way, at least, it might be considered a kind of step forward from Vietnam or Iraq. I guess.

    Let it at least be noted that the policy that General McChrystal began and which is continued by Petraeus is more based in reality than that pursued previously - though things by then had been so badly bungled it may be too late to succeed, if it ever had a chance to before.

    If it wasn't for the US military's huge dependence on private military contractors, perhaps we'd have a chance at a positive use of the military (like after world war 2, creating stability and economic repair for the defeated countries). As it is, it's probably only good for smashing things, not holding things together or building a country back up again.

  • Comment number 34.


    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!

  • Comment number 35.

    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.

  • Comment number 36.

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

  • Comment number 37.

    "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.

  • Comment number 38.

    @ 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:


  • Comment number 39.

    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.

  • Comment number 40.

    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."

  • Comment number 41.

    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.

  • Comment number 42.

    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"?

  • Comment number 43.

    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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