Behind Enemy Lines: Afghanistan
Source: Channel 4 News Blog
On a pinboard in the Pentagon in the summer of 2004, as insurgency in Iraq took a turn for the worse, they put up a flier advertising a special screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic film “The Battle of Algiers”.
It depicts the ruthless tactics employed by French colonial paratroopers and nationalist guerrillas in the Kasbah of Algiers – the Fallujah of its day. The film was promoted as a “watch and learn” experience for all would-be counter-insurgency strategy strategists.
Now Nato in Afghanistan has a rather more up-to-date “watch and learn” experience coming soon.
On Monday night, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme will be screening “Behind Enemy Lines” in which award-winning Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi spends ten days with a group of fanatical jihadi fighters – some of them Talibs, others belonging to the Hezb-i-Islami faction, others foreigners belonging to al-Qaida.
Naji, as he’s known, films openly as an Uzbek bomb maker assembles an improvised explosive device – an IED – and then accompanies the ambush team as they head off on a mission to blow up an American convoy. Half the coalition deaths are caused by IEDs.
“I was really scared,” Naji has just told me over the phone. “Really, really scared,” he said.
“They called me a spy. That was why I had to take be big risks, to prove that I am an honest reporter. On the ninth day two top al-Qaida bosses came – one Arab, one from Pakistan. When they saw me, saw my camera, and they took the leader aside I suspected the subject was me. They said he should behead me.”
Fortunately for Naji, even cut-throat Afghan jihadis are men of honour. The group’s leader had invited him to join them, so came to him and said: “You are my guest. I will protect you. But you must go now and not come back. Forget about us.”
Naji did as ordered, climbed aboard a minibus and did not look back.
“I was very lucky; really, really lucky,” he said. To make his escape, he had to cross five freezing cold fast-flowing rivers in dead of night. And he came back with a film that is more revealing about what’s actually going on in Afghanistan than a thousand London conferences would be. Because for all the televisual tension, it is also truly revelatory.
“So, Naji,” I asked, “what about Karzai’s plan, backed by Brown and Clinton, to offer the hand of peace to those who renounce violence? Will it work?”
“Not at all,” Naji, who, from his latest exploits has surely earned himself a honourary degree in Talib psychology. “Their options are clear. As long as there are foreign troops in Afghanistan, there will be no deal with Karzai. No deal,” he repeats.
“They might take the government money, but only to buy more guns. And feed the people. They want the foreigners out and for that they are prepared to die.”
Naji changes tone. As an Afghan who moved to the UK in 2002 he’s got some serious opinions about British foreign policy too. “They’ve spent eight years in Afghanistan,” he says, “but they know nothing. Nothing. They cannot bribe them. They cannot buy them. That is not what they want.”
But don’t go just by what Naji says. The film adds substance to such judgements, revealing the blissful ignorance of the Afghan National Army and Police and showing the ruthless singlemindedness of the fighters, as they strategise and train and wash and eat and pray and lay their lethal IEDs.
Except that, fortunately, we aren’t subjected to watching a successful ambush; their fog-bound attack goes wrong, leaving the jihadi insurgents looking like Keystone Kops, mixing up their remote control detonators and missing their target with their RPG.
Naji’s camera records the dialogue of recrimination as everyone blames the bomb maker.
“What kind of a blast was that? If anyone trusts you to make a mine, they’re a fool,” his fellow fighters yell. In this, the jihadi fighters appear all-too-human and their war-mongering haphazard.
But whatever this film does to humanise “the enemy”, it reinforces, in equal measure, the deadly intentions of the Taliban and their assorted Islamist allies – and their joint determination to drive out the “infidel invaders”.
One of the Afghan fighters tells Naji: “We split Russia in 25 pieces, America is here now and, inshallah, we’ll split them into 54 pieces.”
Maybe maths wasn’t Arif’s strongpoint. But what this veteran of the mujahiddin said next gives pause for thought.
“Who do you think is stronger, Russia or America,” Naji asks him.
“Russia was stronger,” Arif replies without hesitation.