Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Excellent documentary: "Dispatches" on Channel 4

Still from the show
In disconcertingly Western style, Afghan insurgents Hezb-e-Islami recently allowed their every waking move to be filmed by a journalist. The result is an excellent documentary, broadcast the other night on Channel 4. (You may not be able to watch in America without some stealthy Interweb tricks, but here's the link.)

It's striking to see in living color the everyday machinations of the sort of shadowy group you read about in the paper, a raggle-taggle set of mujahideen dedicated to setting off IEDs. What discomfits is the human face Hezb-e-Islami present--just a bunch of lads off on a mission. Replace the AK-47s with pickaxes and they could seem at first a bunch of miners off to get the job done, albeit miners who slap each other in the face for incorrectly reciting memorized Koran verses. There's no glassy murderous stare in their eyes or ranting and raving about swords of Islam and raining hellfire. They joke about their shoddy equipment, they say they want the Americans and Europeans out of their country, and they don't seem all that crazy...until one lieutenant non-chalantly mentions beheading prisoners who refused to recite certain prayers.

The terrorist/freedom-fighting group is headed by a millionaire former car importer and controls large swaths of northern Afghanistan. They've charged themselves with disrupting, through an extensive network of observation (
"Call covertly when they pass...") and amateur bombs, this north-south coalition shipping route:

(The highway has replaced the former main supply route coming in from Pakistan, made unserviceable by Taliban roadside bombs.) The Germans are officially in charge of the Kunduz and Baghlan provinces but don't patrol. The Afghan police are either clueless or dishonest, claiming that there's little insurgent activity in the area while standing yards from where Hezb-e-Islami was earlier filmed attempting to blow up American tanks and Afghan police trucks driving along the coalition thoroughfare. (They fail to when they confuse two remote controls.) Hezb-e-Islami themselves claim to be in control of all small towns and the countryside, and they've replaced civil services with their own, collecting taxes from the peasants and imposing sharia law. They are judge, jury and, literally, executioner. They're proud of their position and seem to share a good relationship with the locals. They're confident they'll prevail against the Americans as they did against the Russians because the Russians were stronger, says one lieutenant, not pausing to consider the irony of the Americans having armed the mujahideen in that conflict.

After nine days some insurgents grow suspicious of Najibullah Quraishi, the Afghan reporter, and challenge him: if you went to the front lines and we asked you to wage holy war alongside us, one asks, would you? "Didn't I go with you the other day [when you tried to bomb the American tank] ?" counters Quraishi. Pushed further, he professes: "My camera is my gun." Soon two important-looking men arrive from Pakistan, excoriate the leader of Hezb-e-Islami for allowing this shit, and Quraishi is sent packing and told never to return. But not before having filmed for a piece that took balls of steel to do. Well done, mate.

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