Then There's That Other War
They say that if you're in Afghanistan for a day, you can write a book; stay here for a week, and you'll never write a thing again. The country isn't just confusing, it's downright surreal. Everyone you speak to, from military commanders and provincial governors to Foreign Office officials and development workers, have different ideas about why the British are here and what the problems are. Even the enemy is a contentious point.
Lt.Gen Richards, commander of the Nato forces, told me earlier this week that the Taliban (and friends) involved numbered a few thousand at most, with virtually no foreign fighters. Last night, Mohammad Daud, the new governor of Helmand, said that the Taliban number 800 in his province, most of whom are foreigners, and mainly Arabs, Pakistanis, and Iranians.
The Americans, for their part, claim to have killed 600 in the past few months: either half of the Taliban are now dead, the Taliban is bigger than people think, it wasn't Taliban that they killed, or the whole idea of an organised insurgency is nonsense, or indeed, most likely, all of those. Maybe, as William Goldman said of Hollywood, nobody knows anything.
It seems to me that, for many of the people fighting here, on all the sides, Afghanistan is less of a country and more of romantic ideal: a tabula rasa on which to apply your own conceptions. The aid workers see one thing here, the tribal leaders another, the Taliban a third, and foreign jihadists a fourth.
The American soldiers queueing at the Burger King at the Kandahar base in the picture above are here for their romantic ideals as much as the stubbly English journalists, gazing down the Jalalabad Road looking for their own Great Game. It's the curse of Afghanistan to be a draw for such likeminded men.