Barack Obama, the US president, has pledged to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by 2014, with other NATO nations set to pull out their troops before that date and overall responsibility for security gradually being handed to the Afghan National Army and police. Following the announcement last month from the Taliban that they are prepared to open a political office in Qatar – a step which may facilitate a move towards negotiations and a peaceful settlement – many people hope that the end of Afghanistan’s long and brutal war may just be in sight.
But there is a long way to go yet and many ways in which any deal could be upset by events. General John Allen, the senior American commander on the ground, has publicly expressed doubts that a full military withdrawal by 2014 is feasible and, as many experts point out, fighting in parts of Afghanistan is just as fierce as it has always been.
This is especially so in two strategically vital provinces, Kunar and Nuristan, which sit on Afghanistan’s mountainous north-eastern border with Pakistan. Since US troops arrived in the country 11 years ago, the area has seen sustained and intense violence. In 2009, with casualties rising, the Americans withdrew entirely from Nuristan. The following year northern Kunar was also handed over to Afghan control. But within a few months, the Taliban had retaken the area, infiltrating through vital border crossings and completely undermining attempts by Afghan forces to maintain security across the region.
So now US forces have returned to the area, this time to the frozen peaks as well as the valleys, determined to re-establish their military dominance and win over the local population before they go. The Taliban are just as keen to see them defeated and the result is an intermittent but occasionally ferocious clash for supremacy amid the mountain tops. Both sides know that what happens here may yet decide the success or failure of NATO’s war and indeed the future of Afghanistan itself.
Filmmaker John D McHugh went to the frontline of this remote but important struggle, to assess the willingness and capacity of the combatants to see it through to a definitive conclusion.
I shot these photographs at a tiny outpost called Checkpoint 2.5 while making a film, The Winter War, in Kunar in Nov/Dec 2011. The footage from this bunker didn’t make it into the film, but this audio slideshow, or photofilm, gives a sense of what it is like for the US soldiers of 2/27 Infantry to live in such a remote and vulnerable posting.
Filmmaker John D McHugh