x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

In the bleak midwinter

Magazine cover For insurgents and international soldiers alike, winter brings a welcome respite in the bitter battle for Afghanistan.

A wet winter means plenty of snow in the Hindu Kush mountains to the north, which will melt in warmer months.
A wet winter means plenty of snow in the Hindu Kush mountains to the north, which will melt in warmer months.

For insurgents and international soldiers alike, winter brings a welcome respite in the bitter battle for Afghanistan. The fighting slows as both sides take refuge from the rain, snow and endless mud. Graeme Smith reports. Winter brings stillness to the battlefields of Kandahar. The violence that has gripped southern Afghanistan in recent years, rising to new heights of tragedy with every summer fighting season, falls to a low ebb as the temperature drops. It's always a relief after months of baking heat, after days that reach 50 C and swirling dust storms that swallow the beige landscape. Winter means rain on the dry flatlands, and sweeping clouds in a sky that is mercilessly blank in the hot seasons. People take shelter from the brutal summers in Kandahar, and residents sleep through the unbearable midday heat, but during the winter, they can bask in the weak sunshine, with its welcome touch of warmth.

Temperatures rise in the daytime until it's pleasant enough for a T-shirt. In the evenings, deep chill freezes the puddles. The mercury rarely falls far below 0 C, but it can be a bitter season for people who live in mud-walled homes with no heating. I've spent three winters in Kandahar, and two of them brought weeks of torrential rain. One season the rain seemed to continue for an entire month, relentlessly shifting from drizzle to downpour and back again. Water does not soak easily into the hard clay, and the province has no stormdrains, so the gutters overflow and the city streets turn into foul brown canals.

In villages, dirt roads blend into the muddy fields and disappear in a crazy zigzag of rutted tracks. Flooding forces some people to seek shelter on higher ground, and the shelters themselves are not safe: people have died in their homes, crushed under walls that collapsed from the weight of water. Others hurt themselves trying to stay warm with primitive heat sources. Once I met an elderly man carrying an infant down a rutted laneway in the Panjwai valley, looking for medical help after the child stepped in a fire pit. The boy's foot was horribly blistered, purple and black, but his dark eyes showed no sign of tears. Kandahar is a tough land, and its people are stoical. On cool winter nights spent with Afghan friends round a rickety oil heater, I sometimes worried they were too stoical. I'd eye the heater nervously as we bedded down for the night, watching the flames dancing a few feet away from my bedding, and the regular dripping of oil from the antique brass valve into the small furnace. I hardly slept, worried I would burn to death, while my Afghan companions snored peacefully.

despite the hardships of winter, Afghan farmers welcome the rains that bring nearly all the moisture that will sustain their crops for the rest of the year. Agriculture is the most important economic activity in Kandahar, and heavy rains are praised as a gift for a province that has endured hard decades. A wet winter means plenty of snow in the Hindu Kush mountains to the north, which will melt in warmer months and feed the Arghandab River, keeping it flowing for most of the year.

This trickle of water is so vital in the dry months that designated local minders stay awake through the night to monitor their irrigation systems, a complex network of chutes and ditches that has changed very little in thousands of years. Some of the irrigation canals run underground, via subterranean tunnels called kareez, carrying water far into the desert. Boys sit around bonfires under the stars, and wait for the precise moment to switch the flow of precious water from one field to another, the timings having been the subject of hard negotiations by their elders. Generous winter rains make those discussions easier, as sharing becomes less of a hardship, and neighbours become less likely to fight over water. In the meantime, though, the winter rains slow down other parts of the economy. Stacks of slender poles, timber and other construction materials stand forlorn and unused in the markets on the south side of Kandahar city.

Any work that does continue becomes more laborious in winter; field hands carrying piles of hay for livestock move slowly with their sodden loads. Near the urban outskirts, sheep search for any remaining bits of grass. These flocks belong to Kuchi nomads who retreat every winter from the northern regions and spend winters in the mild south, where the mud is preferable to deep snows. Local drivers will slow their cars and crane their necks to catch glimpses of the Kuchi women, because their colourful dresses are immodest by local standards: unlike the blue burqas worn by Kandahar women, the Kuchi clothing usually does not cover their faces.

Perhaps the most important reason why the rain and cold of winter are welcome in Kandahar these days is the way the season slows the pace of war. Fighting continues in winter, but the frequency of violent incidents drops to less than half of summer's peak. Taliban fighters are usually equipped with rudimentary gear, carrying little except their Kalashnikov rifles and wearing only sandals and a thin cotton shalwar kameez.

The lightly equipped insurgents have an advantage in summer, when they stay cooler and run more quickly than the heavily encumbered foreign troops. But the muddy winter battlefield favours the international soldiers, who sleep in bunkers with electric heaters and wear the latest issues of warm clothing. The Taliban have trouble finding volunteers to camp in the wet fields, where dust with the consistency of talcum powder has turned into cold, silty muck. Some Taliban commanders reportedly sneak into Kandahar city to visit clothing merchants, begging for jackets and boots because their fighters are suffering from frostbite in the frozen fields and deep snows of mountain passes. When they manage to scrounge winter outfits, the insurgents often look suspiciously similar to Afghan police officers, who are notorious for selling their own equipment.

Other insurgents simply retire for the season, going home to Pakistan or, more commonly, to their homes in Kandahar. It's easy enough for a Taliban fighter to bury his weapon and stay at home with his family through the winter months, strongly resembling an ordinary farmer, because so many of the insurgents are, in fact, ordinary farmers. So the conflict settles into a bitter routine, with foreign troops slogging through the mud in search of opponents who rarely show themselves. Always hard to find, the winter turns the Taliban into ghosts.

Some of the phantoms still remain deadly, hiding bombs in the mucky roads, and this adds to the taste of danger on the soldiers' daily patrols. It makes the emptiness feel ominous, especially as the foreign troops try to seize the opportunities presented by the season. In winter, commanders of Nato usually decide to establish new outposts in parts of Kandahar where such advances would have sparked bloody battles in the warmer seasons.

Troops hike through mud into villages where they know they're not welcomed by the locals, and set up rudimentary fortifications. The sounds of hammers, chainsaws, and bulldozers echo across the still landscape, as soldiers dig into new positions. The troops lead stark lives behind their Hesco barriers, those canvas bags made of wire mesh that make earthen walls when filled with dirt, a common architectural element of modern war. The Hescos are heaved into place on a muddy hill, or a barren field, and that patch of nothingness becomes a crude sort of home for the young foreign troops whose real homes are somewhere on the other side of the world. The soldiers often share their forts with Afghan forces, sometimes enjoying an unspoken camaraderie with the local soldiers for whom the rough conditions are not unusual.

Sometimes that relationship is strained, however, as the Nato troops find it unsettling to live in close quarters with men who don't share the westerners' standards of cleanliness, and who cannot be entirely trusted with military secrets. Guns have allegedly been drawn during disputes between the foreign troops and their Afghan allies, although many Nato soldiers forge close bonds with the local forces. Either way, the foreign contingent - whose numbers will soon be swelled as the first of President Obama's 30,000 additional US troops and several thousands more from Nato are deployed - usually respect the bravery of Afghan soldiers. These people have been fighting wars far longer than some Nato countries have existed, and something from those ancient battles echoes in the calm eyes of the Afghan forces as they listen to the occasional pop or rattle of gunfire in the distant mist.

Noises that make Nato soldiers throw themselves to the ground often evoke a nonchalant response from the Afghans. They have seen a lot of war. They look calmly into the grey rain, waiting for the Taliban ghosts to appear.