Photographing Afghanistan: ‘I was looking at a dead man’

A photojournalist recalls the Afghans he photographed, including the leader of a local police unit left to fight the Taliban alone when American soldiers left. A few days later, the police commander was dead.

Abdul Jalil, an Afghan local police commander, third from left, is seen alongside other fighters during a short lull in a five-hour firefight with the Taliban in Pay-E Moluk village, Panjwayi district, Kandahar, on April 30, 2013. Jalil was killed fighting the Taliban days after this photo was taken [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

The Afghan villagers were told to stand in a line.

This photo was taken in Panjwayi district, Kandahar, on April 28, 2006. The joint Canadian/Afghan National Army (ANA) group I was with had surrounded the area while the ANA focused on pushing through to engage the Taliban fighters.

The villagers were having to leave the area as there had already been fighting, and it was expected to continue.

The ANA soldiers called them forward one by one, patted them down, looked through their pockets, and in some cases insisted that the villagers remove their turbans. They all complied but the contempt on their faces was hard to miss; it was there in the way they held their heads, and the way they looked the soldiers up and down.

Soldiers from the Afghan National Army search people at a security checkpoint in the Panjwayi district of southern Kandahar province, on April 28, 2006, during an Afghan-led operation to arrest suspected Taliban, supported by Coalition forces. Three Afghan police were killed, while security forces shot dead two Taliban rebels in separate incidents on April 29, in southern Helmand province, officials said [File: John D McHugh/AFP]

The Canadian troops told me it was important that the Afghans were searched by their own, to make them feel like it was an Afghan-led mission, albeit with NATO support.

This was the first major military operation in Afghanistan I accompanied as a photojournalist. It was Spring 2006 and Canadian soldiers had been deployed to Kandahar, just as British troops were taking over from the Americans in the adjoining province of Helmand.

The ‘locals despised them all’

Before I ever set foot in Afghanistan, I had read widely on the history of the country and its previous wars. I thought I understood the different tribal and ethnic divisions, and how these were at the heart of so many of Afghanistan’s problems. I had learned many Afghans did not consider themselves “Afghan” but self-identified as Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, etc.

As I took this photograph, these ethnic divisions played out right in front of me.

Although the ANA was officially committed to maintaining an ethnic balance, in reality, that only seemed to be enforced for the recruitment of officers, not the enlisted soldiers.

This particular ANA unit was from the north of the country, so was almost entirely Tajik. They looked different and spoke a different language. It was plain to see that the Pashto-speaking Pashtun villagers from the south of the country felt angry at being searched by these Dari-speaking northerners.

Afghans watch as a joint US and Afghan Army force search a village near Seray combat outpost in Chowkay district, Kunar province, on October 12, 2008, just after dawn. Seray sits high in the mountains and was attacked almost daily by Taliban fighters using heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and 107mm rockets [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

I did not really understand it at the time, but over the next eight years I would come to learn that to these residents of Panjwayi district, the ANA soldiers were as much an invading force as the Canadian, American and British troops.

The locals despised them all. They often saw Afghans working with the United States-led coalition as “infidels”.

Meanwhile, the Afghans like these villagers and the Taliban fighters were often described as “stupid” by the Western soldiers, mistaking their lack of education for a lack of intellect. This endless underestimating of the abilities of Afghan partners and the Taliban was, I believe, a large factor in the ultimate outcome.

Afghanistan’s ‘other great division’

As I covered the war, I spent a lot of time embedded with military units. This gave me an up-close and personal view of the soldiers’ lives but I had much less contact with Afghan civilians.

My main exposure to the Afghan people was limited to coming across curious kids and scowling men on the streets; women were rarely seen, and when they were, it was impossible to see their expressions behind the burqas they wore.

I had learned little Pashto beyond awkward greetings, so even when local Afghans did try to engage with me, I was reliant on a military translator and gained little insight into the civilians’ view of the war.

Then in May 2006, a Canadian journalist introduced me to an Afghan who used to run a private taxi service for Western visitors to Kandahar. He spoke excellent English (I cannot name him for safety reasons).

He had been a successful professional but chose to set up his own business so he could earn more money.

Over the course of a few days, while we drove in and around Kandahar city, I learned more from him than I had in the previous month walking through the streets and fields of Kandahar.

A young boy aims his slingshot at US soldiers as they patrol through the orchards on the outskirts of Kandahar city, on April 20, 2011 [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

He did not believe the Americans would stay long enough for the Afghan government to really take control of the country properly. He also helped me understand the other great division in Afghanistan, the one that exists between the rich and the poor, between the educated elite in the cities and the illiterate farmers in the villages.

He explained that while educated English speakers like him could make a lot of money from all the contracts and projects on offer from NATO forces, the Afghans who could not were excluded from these opportunities.

Having to rely on others to fill out the paperwork in English meant that they either completely missed out on these contracts or were hired for a fraction of the value of the project, with a major share of it going to those who were “helping” them. This led to huge amounts of resentment, and it was not uncommon for the wealthy contractors to hire security to protect them from their own workforce.

People did not know how long the flow of American money would last, so they were determined to get as much as they could, while they could.

Skateboarders from the Skateistan organisation are seen at Bibi Maru Hill in Kabul, on August  23, 2012. The hill has beautiful, tiled walkways, installed for the many picnicking families who visit for the 360-degree views of Kabul, and this flat surface is popular with skateboarders [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

‘They all dreaded the return of the Taliban’

Over the following years, I covered the war extensively, making 14 trips to Afghanistan, each lasting between six weeks and three months.

I saw the inexorable rise in Taliban attacks and influence throughout the country, and I also saw the widening gap between the American troops and the people whose hearts and minds they were supposedly trying to win.

It did not matter to regular Afghans whether the casualties were caused by coalition military blunders or Taliban “human shield” tactics; all they saw was a rising body count of their family, friends and neighbours, and no sign of peace.

Despite the war, I did manage to report on aspects of daily life in Afghanistan. I photographed skateboarders in Kabul, graffiti artists in Mazar-i Sharif, I rode in a ferris wheel in Herat, and I watched jugglers and acrobats perform in Jalalabad. The common theme in all these interactions was educated youth – everywhere I met these young people, they all dreaded the return of the Taliban.

My last foot patrol

In 2013, I walked my last foot patrol in Afghanistan. I knew it would be my last embed because the US troops were in full drawdown mode. The then-US President Barack Obama had stated they were to cease all involvement in combat operations before 2014 and transition to an observer-mentor role, which was why I had arranged to get back to where it all started for me – a return to Panjwayi district in Kandahar.

This was where I had been shot at for the very first time in Afghanistan in 2006. Over the years I came under fire many times, even getting shot through the chest, an injury that almost ended my life as well as my coverage of Afghanistan. On this last patrol, too, I almost got shot, an extremely close call on what ended up being a brutally long day.

It was April 30, 2013. I accompanied a US platoon of approximately 25 men as they met with an Afghan local police unit to conduct a joint patrol. These Afghans were not really police, just a group of boys and men – some as young as 15, the oldest about 30.

They had been tasked with defending their local area from Taliban fighters, a job they were doing with no uniforms, body armour or medical supplies. And they carried minimal ammunition, so would have stood little chance of defending their own building, let alone the surrounding fields and orchards.

A member of a local militia group prepares to go on patrol in Panjwayi, Kandahar, on April 30, 2013 [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

Their leader, Abdul Jalil, was keen to use the might of the US military machine against the Taliban.

Within minutes of our meeting, we were ambushed by Taliban fighters. There was gunfire from a treeline to pin us down, and then potshots from the opposite direction cracked close to our heads. Shouts rang out to watch for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). It had been a favoured Taliban tactic to shoot at troops to force them to run for cover to a location that they would have already set up with a booby trap.

However, this time we did not have to dodge any, and helicopters were overhead, searching for the Taliban fighters. But the gunfight still lasted on and off for the rest of the day. No US or Afghan troops were injured or killed, which is quite astonishing, given how intense the initial fight had been.

Later in the day, a Taliban fighter popped up from behind a wall, about 10 feet from where I was, and opened fire. I was facing the other way but an American soldier shot him. The patrol did not even look over the wall to see if he was dead as they were rushing to get out of there. It was very typical of the fast-moving and confusing nature of an ambush.

I was physically exhausted by the time we walked back inside the base. I realised I had been doing this for too long. Most of the soldiers were almost half my age, and even the US captain was over a decade younger than me.

‘Looking at a dead man’

At the end of that day, the US platoon decided to head back to base. As they did, I saw a look of resignation in Jalil’s eyes. The Americans were finished with the fighting, and now the local villagers were on their own.

It was clear that Jalil and his men did not stand a chance against the Taliban without the Americans. I was literally looking at a dead man as we left, and I knew it. It was awful. A few days later, I heard Jalil had been killed in a gunfight with the Taliban.

Young boys practise their juggling skills at the Mobile Mini Circus for Children, Jalalabad  on October 1 2013 [John D McHugh/Al Jazeera]

Over the last few weeks, watching the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban from afar, I have been struck again and again by the jarring incongruousness of it all.

I have been overcome with emotion many times. I’ve even cried, which is indeed a rare thing for me. I can’t stop thinking about all the people I met over the years, people who told me their stories, shared their food, advised me, protected me, and were kind to me.

The men in Shahr-e Naw Park in Kabul who huddled around me to hide me when they saw someone they thought was a Taliban scout. The local official in Paktika province who gave me shalwar kameez as a gift so I could wear it to travel with him to a local Shura without the protection of the US soldiers. The ANA deserters who met me at great personal risk to share their stories of ill-treatment. All the Afghan interpreters who helped me interview residents in remote parts of the country where few journalists went. And the elders who spoke the hard truth to me about their feelings towards the coalition soldiers, under the gaze of those very same soldiers.

But most of all, I think about all the young people who believed in the West, who studied and worked hard and grew up in what was, however dysfunctional, a fledgling democracy. I cannot stop thinking about all the money, all the effort, all the lives lost. All that blood and treasure, wasted. All those promises, broken. All those dreams, crushed.

My heart is broken for Afghanistan, for the Afghan people.

Source: Al Jazeera