Battlefield Tourism


Written by Travis Beard
26 Tuesday 26th August 2008

On 13 June at 10pm the Taliban executed what most would consider their most audacious covert operation since the war with the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) started in 2001. The renegade fighters drove a truck bomb into the main gate of the Kandahar prison. As the door was blown off its hinges, 30 motorcycle-borne Taliban fighters stormed the entrance and disabled the guards with rocket-propelled grenades and two suicide bombers.the naked truth

Mixed reports suggested that up to 1000 inmates escaped and within that there were 400 Taliban members. According to residents, within days there were close to 600 fighters gathered 30 Km north of Kandahar in Arghandab. The ANA (Afghan National Army), ANP (Afghan National Police) and ISAF responded quickly by sending in troops to clear the area. The battle was over within two days and resulted in significant casualties.




The Taliban Spokesman Qari Yusuf insisted that the quick departure was a deliberate ploy rather than a sign of defeat. "Our appearing in Arghandab was a tactic," he said. "So was our departure. First, we showed the world that we can go wherever we want; that we can have a presence wherever we want. Second, we distracted the attention of the authorities from the escapees. We got them out of prison, but we needed to get them safe passage out of the area, and the foreigners were patrolling with their planes. They had the city surrounded, and we just wanted to focus their attention on Arghandab."

On 22 June I received a call from the Afghani MOD (Ministry of Defense) inviting me to join them on a tour of the ANA victory field at Arghandab. How could I refuse such an offer? At five am the next morning, I joined 25 of the press corp of Kabul on a C130 down to Kandahar Air Field (KAF). After an uncomfortable flight down, we sat in the stifling heat at KAF and waited for our connecting Chinook helicopter flight.


It can seem strange how war lives side-by-side with the largely unseen press

The MOD wanted to show that, for the first time in its seven year history, it had executed a mission with no assistance from the ISAF. They were pulling out all the stops to impress us - an ANA-operated flight to Kandahar, a chopper to Arghandab and light beverages while we waited. Eventually we were bungled onto two choppers and flown to the battlefield by pilots that were clearly under orders to impress the passengers. We circled over the peaks of Arghandab and then swooped down steeply to land on a farmer's field just outside the town. Canadian troops in APCs (Armoured Personal Carriers) greeted us and took us into town where we met the full contingent - more than 50 French Canadian soldiers, another 50 odd ANA soldiers and at least 100 ANP… all this for our press corp?

Members of the New Afghan ArmyWe were directed up a steep embankment to a hotel built next to the Baba Sahyet Shrine. Inside we were surrounded by more ANA soldiers who showed us up onto an uncovered roof where under the blistering sun we listened to the Kandahar Governor Assadullah Khaled tell us how government forces had achieved a resounding victory across the district. "There were more than 100 Taliban killed in each village," he proclaimed. "We captured 12 villages, so the number of fighters killed is in the hundreds!"

The questions that streamed from the press mob were, "When can we see the villages and talk to the people of Arghandab?" In response, he led us down to the dining hall where platters of varying 'afghan delights' had been laid. The increasingly frustrated press gang asked again to be taken to the villages where the battles had allegedly been fought and 'won'. Finally we were packed into the back of four ANP pickups and along with numerous ISAF APCs we headed off down the dusty roads to the village of Naga Khan. We drove past bridges that had been blown up by the Taliban and then stopped at a path following a stream that feeds the local vineyards. There was not a soul in sight - no farmers, no children, no families, only what we presume were the tattered clothes of slain Taliban fighters hanging on a nearby bush.

Children remain profoundly affected by their environments.

We asked our escorts where the locals were. They told us they were too scared to return, that the Taliban could still be in the area and that landmines had been laid all over their lands. The MOD had flown 26 reporters down here to see that their successful mission had created a ghost town. Our battlefield tour was almost over and 100 percent of the press corp knew they would have to go back to their bosses that night empty handed… or maybe not. Back at KAF, as we huddled under the shaded canopy of KAF walkways, the Media officer from the MOD told us that there were no flights available to take us back to Kabul that day.


The unstated mission of this MOD tour of nothing was to show the press corp that they were not only capable of winning a battle against the mighty Taliban, but also capable of organising a well executed press tour without any help from their international friends (ISAF). Yet with all the logistics they have at their fingertips they could not find a single aircraft in KAF that could transport 26 people back to Kabul. If the Afghan Forces (ANA and ANP) are to ever take over the role that ISAF provides - protecting and administrating control over this volatile country - they are not only going to need to learn how to defeat the Taliban, but also how to run a decent press tour.

Stunning images are strangely commonplace in such a surreal setting

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