STRATEGIC HAMLETS IN HELMAND
Remember Strategic Hamlets? It was the policy whereby the US took Vietnamese citizens away from the Communist influence of their villages and relocated them to new villages where they could become new model citizens and resist the Vietcong.
It backfired in Vietnam, but now apparently it’s back in Afghanistan. As NATO plans an assault on a Taliban-controlled town in Helmand Province, tens of thousands of residents are being told to move out before the attack begins. Indeed, they don’t have much choice – leaflets handed out by NATO forces warning of the attack told people “to leave the area or be killed”.
The policy to win hearts and minds will fail in Afghanistan too, because hearts and minds have already been lost. Residents of Marjah are alienated from the war that goes on around them. “There are Taliban all over the place and foreign troops around Marjah,” one says. “So I was scared that we might get hurt.” “Everybody is worried that they’ll get caught in the middle when this operation starts,” says another. People are caught in the crossfire of a war between two sides which don’t represent them. During the last six months, nearly 100 civilians have been killed in US air strikes for every two so-called insurgents killed (the US claims to have killed 25,000 insurgents in total).
No serious survey of Afghan civilian casualties has been carried out since the summer of 2002, when it was estimated that 10,000 civilians had been killed. That was nine months into the fighting; one can only guess how many have been killed after eight and a half years of occupation. And this distinction between civilians and insurgents is a false one, at least for the occupying forces: since they don’t really know who is an insurgent and who is not, the whole Afghan population has become the enemy.
At the end of 2008, British forces managed to transport a turbine through 180km of road from Kandahar to the Kajaki dam in Helmand Province. It was hoped that this would triple electricity production, but almost immediately NATO admitted that it might never be used, since Taliban domination of the area meant they could not guarantee the delivery of a second turbine. The obsessive – and, in a sense, rather heroic – British mission had enabled the Taliban to bed down in many towns along the Helmand River – towns like Marjah, in fact.
As Adam Curtis has described in his excellent series of blog posts on Afghanistan, the Kajaki Dam project has a surreal and ill-fated history. It began soon after the Second World War, when King Zahir Shah was looking for ways to re-invest the profits of the burgeoning Afghan fur trade. He hired Morrison Knutsen (the engineers who had built the Hoover Dam) to build a hydroelectric dam in Helmand which would irrigate the region and make agricultural more profitable.
In 1952, with aid from the US, the Helmand Valley Authority was set up along the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority of the 1930s. Dams and canals were built, but they waterlogged the area and made the water cooler, which made the land unsuitable for viticulture and orchards. Helmand was forced to grow grain instead.
But the Afghan and US governments were undeterred. Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud oversaw the resettlement of Pashtun tribes into the area (the city of Lashkar Gah was built as a headquarters for the HVA in this period).
But the problems caused by the dam grew. Hard rock below the earth’s surface compounded the waterlogging, and when deep holes were bored into the earth to drain the water away, 10% of the land was removed from cultivation. When crop yields were found to be falling, Americans tried to revolutionise agriculture, which meant the Pashtun settlers had to be uprooted. They refused to go.
In 1969 there was a drought; the Helmand river and the new reservoir created by the dam dried up and wheat yields were the lowest in the world. The ensuing food crisis destabilised the king, and in 1973 Daoud ousted his cousin the King from power. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the Helmand Valley Project ended, and the abandoned land was used to grow poppies.
In the 1990s, the Taliban built a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to Kandahar. Finally, after 50 years in the making, the dam was completed. But in October 2001, the US bombed the dam’s powerhouse. Its future remains in question. The US, the USSR and various forms of Afghan government (including the Taliban) have, at different times, tried to use the dam as a way of regenerating or destroying Helmand Province, according to their own political goals. If the dam could speak, it would bear and ironic and despairing witness to Afghan politics over the last 60 years.