Working under the Taliban

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Andy Alston, Editor

It has been almost 11 years since British troops entered Afghanistan for the second time in their war on terror with a growing number of people questioning the reasoning behind military intervention in the Middle East.

It is a nation that has been plagued by political turmoil for more than three generations since the Saur Revolution in 1978 and in recent times with Hamid Karzai; currently serving his second term in office despite many Afghan’s calling for him to be removed.

Charlene Smith worked in Kabul for a private security firm dealing with a number of high-profile clients since the beginning of Karzai’s re-election in 2009. Her compound was just a 15 minute drive from the U.S. military base, Camp Eggers, and lived under the constant threat of the Taliban who were responsible for a number of kidnaps and murders in the area.

Living as a Westerner in a country with strict views on women and little in the way of human rights, Smith often had to mask herself in order to avoid being attacked. “The Afghan people do not like it when women show their neck because they see it as a sexual part of the body so you always had to wear a headscarf,” she explained. “Your ears always had to be covered and you were never allowed to show your ankles either. Women aren’t allowed in the street after half past five in the evening because they are classed as prostitutes so they must be at home or in a vehicle. When I arrived I was clearly told ‘Do not look at any Afghan man in the eye because you’re disrespecting him.’ You were also never allowed to start a conversation, you speak when you’re spoken to.”

The Taliban have a constant presence in the country.

Afghanistan is a nation where the government heavily censors and regulates its media output. Ranked as the 29th worst in the world for press freedom, Charlene was often kept in the dark about the issues that were affecting her in the country: “The media over there do report things but when you come back here and see what the British press are reporting, they hold so much back and you never get the full story. Although in the British news you don’t see half of what really goes on. It’s a country that is in need of a lot of upgrading. There’s terrible, terrible poverty as many of the children in the street don’t have shoes and don’t know where their next hot meal is coming from.”

Of course, one of the main issues within the country is the influence of the Taliban, who the United Nations has blamed for 80% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan last year. Charlene provides an interesting insight into their stronghold in the country, saying: “One of our security guards told me that Taliban pay more money than what the Afghan army do. So these people are struggling and they need money for their families so if they’re getting an offer of $500 a month from the Taliban instead of $200 for working six days a week then it’s a no-brainer. If you discard the Taliban in any way they tell you not to come back to your home village or you and your family will be killed.

“As much as you worked with these Afghans and you had to trust them to a certain extent, you couldn’t constantly be paranoid but you had to always remember not to fully trust them. A lot of the time they’d say to me ‘Charlene, we would like to take you to lunch,’ and I had to make up several excuses to avoid going because you don’t know if it’s a set up or not so my manager would never let me take a risk like that.”

There is a growing fear among politicians that the next generation of young people in Afghanistan will grow up with resentment towards the West due to the length of military intervention by the British and American forces. “I do think that the tension is going to continue,” she said. “The Afghans that I worked with told you that they wished the British and Americans would leave their country because they were causing more trouble and putting them at risk whereas they felt that they could resolve a lot of their issues without the army being there.

“I found a lot of hatred towards the Americans but not so much towards the British. Every time you drove near an armoured military vehicle you were at even bigger risk because they were a target for Taliban. Every time a car sped up next to you or passed you in the street, your heart was in your mouth. it’s the innocent Afghans walking about that are the ones that then get hurt.”

Afghanistan is a country troubled by social and economic difficulties.

Despite the odds being against young people in the country, there are groups trying to educate children and give them a chance to succeed in life. A woman’s football team has been mentioned as a possible method of letting youngsters express themselves although this has been met with strong opposition from the Taliban, who are well known for their extreme views on women. “They wouldn’t think twice about blowing them up,” adds Smith. “A lot of people were desperate to learn English and I did my best to help them when I was there. Every day they’d go by my office and shout ‘Hello!’ and I’d congratulate them. They were so proud that they had learned an English word because a lot of the Westerners wouldn’t take the time to teach them.”

Afghanistan is a country that is desperate to stand on its own two feet after decades of intervention from other countries. Their people dream of being free and being able to walk the street without the fear of kidnap and death but as long as the Taliban continue to have a stronghold on the country, many fear that Afghans are set for more years of sorrow and hardship.

“Would I go back there? I probably wouldn’t. I still don’t know how I did it in the first place.”

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