BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for July 2010

A meeting in Kandahar with a former general turned MP

Mark Urban | 18:48 UK time, Thursday, 29 July 2010

KANDAHAR: The last time I saw Nur ul-Haq Ulumi was on a street in Kabul 18 years ago wearing a general's uniform.

He was going to hand over power to the mujahideen, who had set out from Pakistan in a huge motorcade of pick-up trucks following the fall of the Soviet backed Afghan regime.

As the convoy arrived and he told the mujahideen's acting president he was in charge, the street erupted in the most astounding barrage of celebratory gunfire I have ever witnessed.

Today, Mr Ulumi was holding court in more modest surroundings at a house on the outskirts of this troubled southern city. It is bedecked with national flags and campaign posters.

He is a member of Afghanistan's parliament and is running for re-election in polls expected in mid-September. The trajectory of mister, formerly general, Ulumi's life tells one a great deal about this society, where it has come from, and the state it is in now.

In the first place some might find it surprising that a leading member of the leftist regime is not only alive and well but engaging in politics. He is not the only member of that class, denounced at the time by the mujahideen as 'puppets' and 'collaborators' who have carried on living here and involved in public life.

Do not forget that they and their Soviet allies devastated great tracts of this country.

So while their last leader, Najibullah, was lynched by the Taliban, many of the old regime's ministers and generals have found a place in their society now. Today Mr Ulumi is at no more risk of being attacked than any other member of parliament, although one has to concede that risk is considerable.

The first lesson then is that while Afghanistan is a country often known for great savagery or revenge it is also a place where there can be forgiveness.

Talking to him today, the former party boss of this part of the country reflected that the insurgency has got so bad in the south because, "today there is no address, nowhere for people to take their problems to be dealt with honestly".

Mr Ulumi argues that while his and Najibullah's People's Democratic Party was in charge people knew they could come to the government and get redress in a way that was not coloured with tribal politics or corruption.

His is a rose tinted view of an era that was without doubt also filled with strife, but his remarks about the lack of justice today or the corrupt nature of the government ring true with what other Kandaharis have said to me during recent days here.

It is also true that many people in this country are today nostalgic for the Najibullah period - particularly that time between 1989 and 1992 when for three years after the departure of the Soviet Army, he held power.

The socialists who formed the People's Democratic Party (whose numbers were estimated to range between 20,000 and 200,000) formed a cadre of dedicated supporters who, for the most part were prepared to act in a non-sectarian and non-tribal way.

So this then is another lesson that Mr Ulumi is all too keen to ram home.

"When the Russians came here", he argues, "they came to back a government. When the Americans came here there was nothing".

Once again, his argument might contain a healthy dose of hyperbole, but the key point, that the Soviet backed Afghan leaders had a solid corps of ideologically-committed people behind them is undoubtedly true.

Bereft of a party of his own, President Hamid Karzai had been forced to fall back on tribal solidarity and financial incentives. In this city, the activities of the president's brother have, for this reason, been deeply divisive.

The other area that I wanted to discuss with Mr Ulumi was how he (as a former commander of the army's Kandahar Corps) and his Russian backers had secured this southern city.

What did he think Nato and the modern Afghan army were doing wrong?

There was plenty of fighting around Kandahar and other southern cities back then, but it is also true to say that the mujahideen never stood a chance of taking these places, even after their Russian backers had left.

Back in 1989 I came into Kandahar province with a mujahideen group that promised to take me into the city but could not deliver - after a couple of days we had to return to Pakistan. Gen Ulumi and his subordinates undoubtedly ran a tight ship.

The Najibullah regime held out for three years after its foreign backers left and finally fell not to the western backed mujahideen but to military coup by one of the regime's generals. The west's clients had been incapable of taking power, but once the regime buckled, they soon exploited the vacuum, producing that last meeting between Gen Ulumi and myself back in 1992.

It was in the last question, that of security, that what he had to say most surprised me.

Today Mr Ulumi insists that the Soviet Army simply supported the Afghan party and in a real sense took orders from them about securing the country. The ranking Soviet officer was called the Chief Military Adviser whereas Nato, he argues, "insists that they are in command".

There is much that is objectionable in this - not least that the Russians murdered one Afghan party leader they didn't like (in 1979) and staged a constitutional coup against another (Najibullah's predecessor, pushed out in 1985).

He is right, however, in one detail at least - the title given to the senior Soviet general in the country was that of 'adviser' not commander.

In a broader sense, it is also true that the Soviets did rely extensively on Afghan political knowledge and intelligence in order to shape their operations here.

However, the deeper issue remains: that President Karzai was installed by US military action and has struggled to become his own man ever since.

Today, Nato generals are all too well aware of the need to produce better 'governance' here. They know about the widespread belief in corruption and the problems caused by the absence of a party system.

Very few Afghans would like to see the return of the type of party led by Mr Ulumi and others back in the 1980s.

Today his National United Party of Afghanistan can expect to receive only a slim percentage of the votes. But he is well worth listening to both in order to understand some of the successes that were achieved by the Najibullah government but which westerners, convinced they 'won', often refuse to recognise, and to appreciate some of the inherent weaknesses of the government edifice Nato is now trying to shore up.

Why the British are Leaving Sangin

Mark Urban | 18:05 UK time, Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The decision to withdraw British troops will leave Sangin, the most violent district in Helmand (and probably all of Afghanistan), shows how many parties share in the decision making as well as how hard it is to leave these places without adverse comment.

Essentially the decision was taken by Nato in Afghanistan, with input from the British government. The number two in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) set up is a British general, but the main impetus for change came from the Americans.

There are now 18,000 US troops in Helmand (mostly from the US marine Corps) - twice as many as the British have. Increasingly they have taken over sections of the province to the north and south of Britain's Task Force Helmand.

The northern US brigade, Regimental Combat Team 2, has already taken over formerly British districts in Musa Qaleh, Now Zad and Kajaki. It has also taken the British battle group in Sangin under its control.

Announcing today's decision Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, the American who commands ISAF's fighting troops day to day, emphasized that the change was about tidying the boundaries between different commands in southern Afghanistan. As this happens a US Marine battalion will be freed up to the west, and will be able to replace the British in Sangin.

While the creation of orderly boundaries and coherent command structures is of course important to the military mind, it would be foolish to think that this decision had been made without the involvement of the British government. Indeed, announcing the change today defence secretary Liam Fox stressed that it had been, "closely consulted by ISAF".


In deciding what to do with Sangin, there was an emotional subtext as well as a military or political one. For some of the US Marine commanders, the idea that their northern brigade would sub-contract the toughest challenge in Afghanistan to the British sat uneasily with their self image as warriors. They relish the challenge ahead.

For the British military, Sangin aroused even more powerful feelings. The battle group that returned in April, 3 Rifles, lost 30 men killed and had more than 100 wounded - almost half of the entire casualties suffered by Britain's Task Force Helmand over a six month period.

Some British soldiers will be delighted to see the back of the place - with all the myriad dangers it contains. But many of them, particularly the more senior ones, wanted to be able to demonstrate that they had turned the situation around before handing Sangin over to the Americans. There are some indicators of progress, for example in the number of shops open or children at school. However there is an argument locally that the Taliban have colluded in this by letting these places function.

The real problem however is that the security indicators - of attacks on Nato or Afghan forces, and casualties - show no sign of improvement. Indeed, 3 Rifles lost seven more men than the previous battle group.

Security arguments

Some MoD spokesmen have today characterized the hand over of Sangin as being just the same as that of other districts such as Musa Qaleh. But there is a crucial difference. In Musa Qaleh, where Taliban resistance was so strong in 2006 that British troops were actually forced out, the town was re-captured and there has been a dramatic improvement in security. When British troops handed over a few months ago they could therefore say, 'job done'. This is not the case in Sangin, despite their heavy sacrifice.

Some talk about that place as an irredeemable nest of drug traffickers, bomb makers, and jihadists. It may be that the Americans cannot improve the security situation either under the tight timescales demanded by their political masters.

All we can say for the moment is that leaving Sangin ought to lead to a significant reduction in British casualties and that may make it possible for the UK to soldier on in Afghanistan for longer than might otherwise have been the case. Those who hoped to hand the place on to the US or Afghans with much greater security are unlikely to achieve this by October, when the changeover will occur. So the arguments are bound to swirl about whether the British have done a 'Basra 2' and left the Americans to finish the job. People will also ask whether both the US military and the government in London ultimately ran out of the patience required to let them do that.

Hague's blueprint for British foreign policy

Mark Urban | 18:02 UK time, Thursday, 1 July 2010

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William Hague has set out his blueprint for British foreign policy. He says that from now on it, "unashamedly pursues our enlightened national interest".

It is not easy for civil servants to swallow this kind of message, implying as it does that they have been failing to do so prior to the new government sweeping to power.

But Lord Renwick, formerly ambassador to Washington, reckons the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are more relieved to have a man of Hague's stature than they are worried by some of the political exigencies of today's speech.

He believes that Downing Street became too strong in formulating international policy under Labour, and that a "heavyweight like William Hague can restore the Foreign Office to its rightful position".

There is a good deal of code in a speech like today's. Does the emphasis on building new relationships or on the multi-polar nature of today's world mean a relative diminution of our ties with the USA? Or is Mr Hague, by emphasising how much of modern diplomacy is done by phone, e-mail, or even Twitter, implying that expensive embassies could be cut back in many parts of the world?

Both of those questions could probably be answered 'yes' given the widespread sense that power is becoming more diffuse in the world and that the prospect of 25% cuts across Whitehall means plenty of misery for Mr Hague's department. But he cannot say those things explicitly.

Speeches like today allow the secretary of state to talk about new challenges or priorities - but he or she cannot say they are giving up on certain things or dispense with the lists of worthy policy priorities prepared by their staff. No wonder former diplomat and MP George Walden describes the writing of addresses such as Mr Hague's as being, "like sculpting air".

The other thing about diplomacy is that it consists of partnerships that will only work if the other side finds them beneficial. This is particularly true of Britain's relations with Europe.

Mr Hague famously campaigned to keep the pound, and is widely regarded within the Conservative party as a Euro-sceptic. Yet today he paid due attention to improving relations with Europe and to regaining influence by reversing a recent trend downwards in the posting of UK civil servants to EU institutions.

Many people suspect that the new foreign secretary is emphasising bilateral relations with countries precisely because he suspects that multi-lateral forums like the EU, with 27 members, are hopelessly unwieldy.


If he manages to develop good ties with the likes of Germany, France or Italy, Mr Hague will manage to square the circle of maintaining influence in Europe while checking the growth of its institutions and removing various matters from their competence.

But the key really will be whether those countries think Britain is a worthwhile partner or whether by contrast it is too awkward, and indeed too poor, to be worth it.

Similar considerations will inform the reception given to Mr Hague and his fellow FCO ministers in New Delhi or Brasilia or the other places where they seek to build influence.

The descent of a British delegation is one thing, but ultimately the success or failure of the whole enterprise will depend on perceptions of how strong the UK is; culturally, militarily, in its intelligence services, the quality of its diplomacy and, above all, economically.

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