Bun fight in the badlands: democracy Afghanistan style
David Gill braves Taliban attacks goes to the polls with Halim Fidai, governor of the lawless province of Wardak
Welcome Mr David, please come in. We have great news. The Taliban have surrendered. Let me introduce you to them." It was not quite the announcement we had been expecting when a colleague and I were ushered into the cavernous office of the Wardak police commissioner where a loya jirga, or tribal meeting, was just concluding.
The room was packed with around 50 tribal leaders and assorted dignitaries from this northern Afghan province. At the top of the table, sat alongside the Governor of Wardak, Halim Fidai (centre in the photograph above), were two mean-looking Talibs. The older one was a two-eyed version of the group's maimed leader Mullah Omar and the younger an Afghani mash-up of Charles Manson and Che Guevara complete with gold Ray-Bans and flowing black locks. If a Hollywood-casting agency had been asked to produce an archetypal evil-yet-handsome bad guy, this was him.
"They have decided they no longer want to fight and they have brought in weapons and 70 men under their control," said Governor Fidai, beaming. "This is great news for Wardak and Afghanistan." And for us... we seemed to be the only foreign journalists in town.
It was the eve of Afghanistan's second-ever democratic presidential election and Kabul was overflowing with international media. Every rooftop vantage point had been bought and paid for. The BBC had even dug out John Simpson from his cryogenic chamber, and by the look of it, still wearing the same crumpled suit he wore for the invasion in 2002.
Security advisors say only people with a death wish travel to Wardak alone
Hence our decision to head out of town and escape the media scrum. Most of the roads south are too dangerous to travel alone so we secured an 'embed' with the enigmatic Halim Fidai, nicknamed the 'rock star' by one US colonel stationed here. Our home for two days would be Maidan Shah, the provincial capital of Wardak one of the most dangerous provinces in the country, only 30 minutes drive from Kabul.
If you believe the doom merchants - and we're not short of them out here - Wardak is now almost totally controlled by the Taliban. Some security advisors say it's impossible to travel there individually without a death wish or some serious close protection.
In July the Taliban were freely carrying out summary executions in villages in Wardak. In one reported instance an Afghan soldier was hanged and his body left swinging for three days. When I say reported, I should add that I actually witnessed it on a mobile phone, courtesy of my local shopkeeper in Kabul who took great pride in showing me the footage, complete with a Taliban pop soundtrack, after I casually mentioned I'd visited Wardak.
Here we were in the badlands, with some genuine ‘evil-doers’ in the house
Why? This is Afghanistan. This sort of horror actually passes for entertainment. You can find an assortment of compilation DVDs in the bazaars of Kabul; Now that's what I call Jihad - Volumes 1 to 40, Mujahadeen Gone Wild, Monster MRAPs & IEDs (some of the titles may have got lost in translation). There's no accounting for taste... bootlegs of Ross Kemp in Afghanistan are one of this year's biggest sellers.
So, here we were in the badlands of Wardak with some genuine 'evil-doers' in the house. The two Taliban were introduced to me as Wazir Gul and Gul Wazir. The palindrome pair, who come from the extremely hostile Chark district, responded to my questions with an icy indifference but were polite and courteous.
Governor Fidai steered their replies, but the overall rationale behind their decision to come in from the cold was that burning schools and blowing up their own infrastructure wasn't really what they had signed up for. They said the influence of foreign fighters was to blame - "the Pakistanis and Arabs are not true Muslims".
As for the Governor, he seemed most concerned with getting good PR out of the event, declaring that 95 per cent of the public in Wardak now supported the government. We were uneasy that with election hype now at fever pitch, someone might be spinning the facts and our apprehension that this could all be a stage-managed stunt was not helped when we asked later to interview the two Taliban personally, only to be told they had gone back to their village and that the arms cache they had handed in was no longer here for us to photograph.
Around 5am on election day, just 12 hours after Governor Fidai had declared 'peace in our time', the first rockets screamed over the compound. It was a rude awakening. The Governor's assistants claimed the missiles and mortars were outgoing from the US army base up the hill, but no one was buying it. By breakfast time the Taliban seemed to have got a handle on our location as a huge blast rattled the windows. This was no exercise - we were under attack.
Only there wasn't a lot anyone could do about it. The Governor's entourage didn't bat an eyelid. Instead they drank chai and ate nan with sweet jam. The Governor himself seemed a little more nervous - not surprisingly, since these rockets were aimed at him.
The Governor is a high-profile member of President Hamid Karzai's administration and his assassination would be a real coup for the Taliban. He'd been targeted in his armoured SUV by roadside bombs three times since I first met him last year and I felt he'd developed a twitch. Even so, he was still determined to walk the half-mile across a dusty no-man's-land to the polling station.
Within minutes of leaving the compound another shell came screaming in. There's not a lot you can do when this happens. Most people instinctively duck. Halim's bodyguards didn't even flinch. Literally. It was as though they never even heard the shell. Thirty years of war will do that to you.
The long march to the polling station began. Halim led from the front in his white shalwer kameez and red prayer beads in hand. He was flanked by tribal elders and ex-mujahadeen fighters all wearing their Sunday best. They spread out across the road like a sort of Pashto Reservoir Dogs. Surrounding them on all sides were members of the close protection team, the Afghan National Army's finest. The dress code was Delta Force meets Rambo 4. Weapons ranged from heavy to enormous.
The ‘voting booth’ was an old cardboard TV box with one side cut out for access The European commission spent upwards of €13 million financing this presidential election. But at the the Maidan Shah polling centre it was hard to tell where the money had gone. It looked as if had cost around $25 to kit out what appeared to be an abandoned building, including the razor wire entrance path. Security was farcical. It had taken me a week to get my 'IEC media pass' to gain access to polling stations, but on the day the only requirements necessary for entrance were sharp elbows and a heavy Nikon camera.
Once inside, it looked more like a glorified tribal bun fight. The 'voting booth' was an old cardboard TV box with one side cut out for access. Two crosses, one inky finger and a round of applause later, we left. The Governor decided not to risk a return journey by foot so we all bundled into his SUV and charged back to the relative safety of his green zone.
The international media were waiting for him in the shape of a tall blonde woman from Fox News, which seemed to brighten Governor Fidai's mood. He switched on the charm and started waxing lyrical about the earlier "reconciliation" and how he hoped peace and love would now spread across the province.
Unfortunately, mid-interview, his flow was interrupted. He was the first person in the garden to hear the whistle of an incoming rocket and dived for the cover of the nearest wall. It was a close call. Mild hysteria set in and he began laughing like a drain. This was clearly starting to affect him. His freedom and democracy shtick was so hollow there was almost an echo.