I have been cycling to the station most days this month. The route home takes me towards Salisbury Plain, which rises behind our village. Last week the moon was so bright I turned off my front light; I threw a neat shadow. On two consecutive nights a pale barn owl has tracked me before steering away. Last night a deer, frightened by the headlights of an oncoming car, clattered across the road just in front of me.
Army units preparing to do their rotation in Afghanistan have been exercising on the Plain, and most nights yellow and white flares arc above the plateau and drift down, leaving entrails of smoke. It is an eerie sight to cycle towards in the darkness; all is quiet, there are few houses and there is this bright source of light and energy which puffs up and blossoms and then gently falls, the line of light ripping open the night and below there must be animation and shouting and the grinding of gears on armoured cars and young officers sweating over maps and sections of men, spread out, moving quietly towards a target when another fucking flare lights everything up like daylight.
I fear the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, however much I’d like to see the lives of ordinary Afghanis transformed, and their country brought into prosperity and stability. But is NATO’s International Security Assistance Force rooting out terrorists, which was the original objective? Remember the 15,000 pound daisy cutters and the rest of the multi million dollar ordnance which was dropped on the mountains of Afghanistan after 9/11? What a gory, weirdly medieval siege that was, with a cavalry charge by the Northern Alliance and the routing of the hateful Taliban regime. But what in the TEN YEARS since? Failure to stamp out the Taliban’s forces and their presence in most of the country. Failure to create a stable political settlement. Failure to anticipate the scale or tactics of the enemy. All those fine soldiers killed. Once blood is spilt the military tend to stand by the politicians’ assertions that the struggle is essential and winnable. Better that than admit their own have died in vain, though it wouldn’t be for the first time – or the last. And it’s worth remembering that our armed forces are made up of volunteers; its men and women have decided to wear uniform and put themselves on the firing line; most would rather be tested in Afghanistan than fill their military careers with guard duty outside royal palaces and participating in simulated war games in Wiltshire.
But it is very difficult, and essentially we are stuck, which is why Cameron and Obama are so keen to leave promptly. Bringing the troops home safely has a good ring to it – we have been at war now for a long time. Let us hope NATO does leave behind it a society that is less dominated by men and dogma and fairer to its women and children. And that future governments in Kabul remain enemies of extremism and fear.
Here is a poem I wrote last winter, prompted by an earlier Apache raid:
Night exercise on the Plain
It’s dark like the Palace Cinema at Devizes,
and as cold.
Arable miles to the east
a gunship pads across Pewsey Vale in Dolby sound,
the inconstant whine getting closer all the time.
A light meter winks on and off,
warning crimson to this craning villager
who feels no pain
but thinking himself lucky
goes inside to kiss his boys.
There are more coming to help it.
higher the companionship of a Chinook
truck sized, double-headed
its black belly crammed with men.
Together, constantly communicating
the gunships climb to the Plain,
towards a scenario someone else has planned,
towards a grid reference where flares wait
to comfort and guide.
There is mathematics in this storming of wilderness,
a general’s need to cheat,
the impatience of western ministries,
where the politician’s clock is set.
There is logic here too:practice practice practice!
The bad guys in beards
haven’t read the manual;
afraid of nothing they are spontaneous,
and they are swatted by a drone.
There is a rhythm here,
another cycle well understood
by the people of the plains.
Armed men arrive in droves
great noise is generated, the ground is left littered with metal.
It is before dawn and rain drips
off the sides of the machines,
rain shines the bags of soldiers on the ground.
Rain is still falling as I leave my village
To catch the early train.