Richard North, 04/09/2021  

Of the reasons why I particularly dislike the BBC, high up in the ranking is its sloppy, superficial approach to important subjects, combined with a colossal institutional arrogance which leads many of its people to believe they are so knowledgeable and superior that they are entitled to instruct us lesser mortals in any manner of subjects.

Probably there is no better example of these characteristics than in a "news special originally produced in 2014 but currently republished on the BBC website as something for us to view and admire.

Headed "Helmand's Golden Age" and compiled by the BBC World Service's Monica Whitlock, it tells the story of a young American engineer, Glenn Foster, employed by the US engineering company, Morrison Knudsen, who arrived in Afghanistan in 1952 to find "a country rushing towards the future".

The country was then still a kingdom, and King Zahir, Whitlock tells us, "had hired foreign technicians - including American engineers and construction specialists - to help build the new post-war Afghanistan. Post-World War Two, that is".

Glenn Foster carried with him a 16mm camera, and in the seven years that he was to live and work in Afghanistan he shot hour upon hour of film - of Afghan life and landscapes, of engineering projects, of Christmas parties in the American community. And in those hours of film he captured the country in a hopeful moment of its history that is all but forgotten.

It is this "history" that Whitlock purports to tell – except that she doesn't. Morrison Knudsen was engaged on what was known as the Helmand Valley Project, some of the details of which I recounted in November 2009, returning to the theme more recently, highlighting the pivotal role of the project in losing the current battle for Afghanistan.

One doesn't necessary expect the BBC to be aware of this – although they have such huge resources and access to material of which I can only dream. But what is not acceptable is Whitlock's truncated version of history which ends up complexly distorting the reality.

Of the Helmand Valley Project, Whitlock writes that, in the early 1950s, "Some observers were uneasy that the project was too big - too ambitious and on a frail financial footing. She then cites Farouq Azam, an agricultural expert specialising in the Helmand area, who says: "Different factors joined hands to make the project difficult".

"The government had no experience running such a large project", we are told. "The Americans didn’t know the area. The investment was not thoroughly examined. The land - the soil - was not surveyed fully".

The story thus continues with settlers who were brought in to farm the land lacking agricultural experience, with "unease" turning to worry "when harvests, rather than increasing, began to fail".

As early as 1954, the water table had risen so much that a large area of land lay waterlogged. An impermeable layer of rock not far beneath the topsoil was preventing proper drainage and meant that salt rose to the surface, leaving fields frosted with white crystals.

Then we are told that, in July 1958, Saville R Davis, an American journalist based in Kabul for the Christian Science Monitor, estimated that the Kabul government was pouring one third of the national exchequer into diversion dams and bore holes to drain the land. As an inquiry team flew in from Washington, he wrote:
The frustrations which assailed this project shouldn’t happen to anyone - but they happened to Afghanistan and the United States. Fine dams were built by an American private contractor working for the Afghan government, but nearly everything seemed to go wrong with the use of the irrigated land.
However, all's well that ends well in the cosy little world of Monica Whitlock and the BBC. "The Afghan government, along with American engineers, made tremendous and costly efforts to reverse the early disappointments. In addition to the extra dams, bore holes and channels, scientists developed new seeds and cropping patterns. Educators held classes on new farming techniques".

Thus, "despite the setbacks, Helmand began to bloom. Residents and visitors alike remember the bright green of the settlements and orchards along the Helmand river. Farming increased, harvesting a surplus even at times of drought. Farmers grew and exported cotton for cash in thousands of tonnes. Few even recognised the flower of the opium poppy, according to Farouq Azam.

Glenn Foster then bows out of the story when he goes home in 1959 after the contract with Morrison Knudsen ended. In 1961, we are then told, John F Kennedy created the United States development agency USAID which took over from Morrison Knudsen in Helmand and, along with the Afghan government, and "oversaw the next phase of irrigation".

According to this narrative, agriculture, especially cotton and grain production, continued to expand until Helmand supplied a fifth of Afghanistan’s wheat harvest. USAID commissioned two 16.5 MW generating units in a powerhouse at the foot of the newly-built Kajaki dam. Electric power began to flow to Kandahar and Lashkar Gah through a series of substations, and everything was right with the Helmand project.

Away from this fluffy pastiche, my piece in 2009 paints a wholly different picture. Some of the links, though, have not survived, but I've recovered this one written in 2002 by Nick Cullather, professor of history at Indiana University. At a modest 36 pages, it worth the read, providing a political context to the Helmand Valley project which makes the BBC work sound like a fairy tale.

A longer, more technical paper, written by US Bureau of Reclamation experts in 1965 gives a contemporaneous view of some of the problems, noting that a number of farmers were reporting reduced yields. Reduced soil fertility compounded by a severe water table, salt and drainage problem, were cited, and a proliferation of weeds, especially camel thorn.

More recently, I have found this written by USAID officials in 1983, four years after the Soviet invasion, evaluating the Helmand Valley Project. Despite its 69 pages, any serious student of the Afghan conflict needs to read it.

To appreciate one of the gems, one needs to recall one of my more recent pieces in which I featured the "culturally sensitive" Baktash Ahadi who complains that almost all representatives of Western governments – military and civilian – were required to stay “inside the wire”, meaning they were confined at all times to Kabul’s fortified Green Zone and well-guarded military bases across the country. Now slip back to 1983, and one reads of the difficulties developed as a result of cultural differences:
To assist HVA (Helmand Valley Authority) in the major undertakings in the Valley, [US]AID had assigned technical personnel as advisers. As is so often true, language and cultural differences created barriers. American advisers neither worked in the same offices as their counterparts nor worked the same schedules as the Afghans.

The Americans lived and worked in separate, very American environments, keeping US office hours and observing US holidays. The English language ability of many of the Afghans was far more limited than had been anticipated, and few Americans spoke any of the local languages. In retrospect, the problems caused by communication difficulties are not surprising.
Back in 1960, Arnold Toynbee visited Lashkar Gah which he described as "a modern planned city known locally as the New York of Afghanistan". Then the headquarters of the Helmand Valley Authority, He reported that, "The domain of the Helmand Valley Authority has become a piece of America inserted into the Afghan landscape. …The new world they are conjuring up out of the desert at the Helmand River's expense is to be an America-in-Asia".

Fast forward to 1983 again and we see USAID officials writing of the prevailing ignorance of both Afghanistan's socioeconomic environment and its physical environment. The introduction of high-yielding varieties of wheat in 1967 is a telling example, they observed.
The local variety of wheat ripens in nine months, producing 12 pounds of wheat for each pound of seed. The high-yielding variety ripens in 4½ months and produces 20 to 30 pounds of wheat for each pound of seed. With wheat that ripens that quickly, two crops a year were possible. Unfortunately, the wheat matured at the same time that great flocks of birds were passing over the Helmand Valley on their annual migration. That year, the birds got fat and the farmers did not.
In detail, the officials go on to report how the failure of the management of the irrigation system led to over-watering which brought salts to the surface, reducing the fertility of the soils. By 1979, the problem was so widespread and acute that urgent remedial work was necessary. By then, it was too late. The Soviets had invaded, US citizens beat a hasty retreat and the project came to an abrupt halt.

At that point there were no opium poppies grown in Helmand Province, but under Soviet control, troops felled trees to smash the irrigation canals and extensively mined the fields and orchards, driving the population into refugee camps in Pakistan.

As Cullather remarks, the opium poppy grows well in dry climates and alkaline and saline soils, conditions created by the US-financed irrigation system. The proceeds provided the resistance with one of its chief sources of revenue, so extensive that, in 2000, the Helmand Valley produced 39 percent of the world's heroin.

Cullather says that the Taliban movement began in Helmand and, although the actual named movement started in the frontier provinces of Pakistan, in a sense he is right. Helmand was a stronghold of the Islamic Revolutionary Movement (IRMA), the second (some say the) most important of the jihadi groups fighting the Soviets. Founded by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, when the Taliban emerged, he dissolved the group and urged his followers to join it.

The majority did, giving the Taliban a huge boost, and lodging Helmand as a focus of the insurgency that was to confront the US-led coalition. Indeed, Mullah Omar, one of the Taliban leaders who was to lead the Taliban to victory in the civil war that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops, had himself been a commander of the IRMA.

To a considerable extent, therefore, the roots of the insurgency which has just run the US forces out of Kabul lie in the disastrous management of the Helmand Valley Project. Essentially – if unwittingly – the Americans are responsible for the conditions that have allowed the insurgency to thrive, creating the enemy which they then had to fight.

What is so remarkable about this, though, is the way the story has disappeared. Although it is there for those who seek it, to the likes of the BBC and others, it is invisible or misunderstood. Worse still, none of the military planners who sent in troops to quell the area seem to have had the first idea of what went before. Had they read their own histories, the new history might have been rather different.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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