Interview: James Fergusson on Afghanistan

James Fergussons new book A Million Bullets.  The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan provides an accessible account of Herrick 4 – the initial British deployment to Helmand province between April and October 2006 – from the perspective of the British military.


As he sits sipping a pint in a west London club, Fergusson explains that although he has "great admiration" for the foot soldiers doing the fighting, he is "pretty pissed off because it is the ruination of that country.  And I also think we are going to lose, and I think we are losing."


His bleak assessment has been informed by travelling to Afghanistan several times since his first visit in 1997 and from interviewing serving veterans of the British campaign.  Fergusson – a freelance journalist who has also reported from Algeria, Cuba and Haiti – is no radical peacenik, though.  He points out he "believes in the necessity of" the British armed forces and, although he thinks it is a "completely bonkers plan", he accepts at face value the British Government’s rhetoric about attempting to institute "democratisation" in Afghanistan.  On top of this Fergusson notes in the Acknowledgments of his book that the project could not have gone ahead "without the approval of" Brigadier Ed Butler, the British commander in Afghanistan in 2006, and is also "indebted to" the Public Relations Directorate of the Ministry of Defence.


"My complaint about what happened in Afghanistan, and is still happening, is that we didnt test all the other options before leaping for our rifles and guns", he says. 


One consequence of this focus on a military solution is the increasing use of airpower by the US and UK forces.  "Its appalling", says Fergusson.  "The aim of the British deployment is to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans to support central government.  Its not good for hearts and minds if you keep bombing wedding parties, which keeps on happening."  In particular, Fergusson mentions the US attack on a wedding party in Herat in August that killed 90 people, including 60 children, which he believes will turn out to be "a My Lai type moment."


"Each one of those people is a recruiter for the Taliban – they all have fathers, and brothers and sisters.  How would you feel if it was happening in this country?  Youd be furious."


Fergusson is also critical of the British Special Forces strategy of decapitation – specifically targeting Taliban leaders and military commanders.  According to Fergusson, killing "the old guard", who tend to be more moderate and more willing to negotiate, is counterproductive because they are replaced by younger, more fanatical fighters. "Its like a hydra-headed monster – every time you cut off a head two more appear", he notes.   "Its turning in to a honey pot for global jihad.  Thats our fault.  By pursing this war, and by carrying it over the border in to Pakistan, it makes it more likely it will carry on snowballing.  We cant win the numbers game."


Perhaps the most interesting part of Fergussons book is the account of his meeting with Taliban commanders in Wardak province in February 2007.  Rather than the stereotype of an "illiterate band of ideologues bent on jihad" Fergusson sits down to a long discussion about the morality of the British occupation, with one Afghan pointedly asking him "supposing thousands of Afghans had invaded your country, and bombed your villages and killed your wives and children, what would you do?"


He laments that "there is an amazing tendency, still, to conflate the Taliban with Al-Qaeda". While "Al-Qaeda were a threat – they had a foreign policy, they were attacking the west" the Taliban "have never had a foreign policy. They are not a threat to us."  He also suggests the monolithic nature of the Taliban has been greatly exaggerated.  "Even when the Taliban were in charge it was always quite a loose organisation.  It was a revolution.  And like all revolutions they are in the process of making their minds up about lots of things.  They dont agree on everything.  They dont have a manifesto."


Regarding solutions to the fighting, Fergusson makes a number of – some may say contradictory – suggestions.  On the one hand he believes "we need the military there for sure – a strong central army if the country is going to work as a state.  That means training up the Afghan National Army.  You need to pour money in to military training  I think you also keep your Special Forces and you go after Al-Qaeda, because they are around, and maybe you do go over the border to Pakistan".


On the other hand he says "a conventional occupation in Afghanistans case will be a disaster.  Its part of the problem and not part of the solution."  He also argues the NATO forces need to "stop this taking on the Taliban" and that "airpower has got to go."  Most of all he is "absolutely convinced that more dialogue will lead to less violence."  Whereas only a few months ago this line of thought would have been dismissed as naïve, and even treacherous by some, Fergusson is keen to point out it has become mainstream thinking today, with the outgoing British commander in Afghanistan recently stating the only way forward was a political solution that included the Taliban.


Despite the huge amount of sympathy he so clearly holds for both the war-weary Afghan people and the British troops sent on a "fools errand", Fergusson is pessimistic about the future of the conflict.  As I take my leave he tells me, "Its all over.  Weve lost the consent of the people.  Its finished. Im very depressed about it."



A Million Bullets. The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan by James Fergusson is published by Bantam Press, priced £16.99. 


*An edited version of this interview recently appeared in the Morning Star.  [email protected].  


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