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Q+A: Jon Boone interview transcript

Published: 11:36AM Sunday August 21, 2011 Source: Q+A

PAUL The country faces the prospect of another funeral, of course, after an as-yet unnamed SAS soldier was shot in the chest and he died of his wounds, killed in Kabul on Friday.  The New Zealand SAS was responding to a Taliban suicide raid on the British Council compound.  Now, in the first six months of this year, there has been a record 1462 casualties in Afghanistan.  The talk is of withdrawal, of course, in 2014, but the fighting remains intense.  We go live now to the Guardian newspaper's correspondent in Kabul, Jon Boone.  Very late at night in Afghanistan.  Thank you very much for staying up so late for us, Jon.

JON BOONE - Afghanistan Correspondent
My pleasure.  

PAUL Jon, what is the state of mind in Kabul at the moment after last week's attack? 

JON Well, the thing about the city is it's actually quite used to these sorts of attacks, and the place gets back to work remarkably quickly.  In fact, it continues to go about its business even as there's a devastating attack like the one of just the other day.  You know, you could be just a few streets away, shops will be open, and it's a sad sign of how used to this sort of violence Afghans have come, even in the capital city.

PAUL Do we know much about what happened in the compound when the Taliban attacked the other day?

JON We don't have blow by blow details yet.  I'm sure they will all be revealed in due course.  I mean, I think we can assume that, you know, what we do know is that there was a large private security guard force inside the compound at the time - a mixed force of Afghans and former- and Nepalese ex-Gurkhas employed by the very large British private security company G4S.  They engaged with the insurgents after the front two perimeter walls - there's actually a system of double walls around that compound that allowed we think probably about three or four gunmen to go inside and, you know, from standing outside on the pavement, we can assume that there were lengthy gun battles with the private guard force, who were then subsequently reinforced by all these other elements who arrived on the scene - Afghan commandoes, the New Zealand SAS, British troops forming an outer cordon.  You know, everyone was on the scene pretty quickly.

PAUL Yes, it's been described as a fierce firefight that began there.  Do we have the number of dead yet from the engagement?  
JON The figure is nine at the moment.  That figure seems to have stuck.  That's obviously the one New Zealand SAS member, plus everyone else who were either civilians who were caught in the crossfire in the course of the initial attack on the first security barriers and then this mixed force of Afghan and Nepalese and then Afghan security forces as well.

PAUL You've written, I think, that the New Zealand SAS did the 'heavy lifting'.  What did you mean by that? 

JON Well, I think that's certainly what it looked like from the outside, and that's certainly, you know, we know much more about the last previous, you know, major disaster to befall this city, which was the siege - very similar complex attack by heavily armed suicide fighters on the Intercontinental Hotel.  And from the stories that have emerged from that, the foreign elements - the foreign special forces, the New Zealanders - played a crucial role.  And I think that's just in the nature of this sort of operation which would be daunting for, you know, even the finest commando teams around the world, and this is a city now that seems to have to deal with them almost on a monthly basis.  There was another situation just a few weeks ago.  A 45-minute drive from where I'm sitting now, a very serious attack again following the same procedure as this multi-phased, multi-pronged suicide attack.

PAUL Well, that's right.  The New York Times is reporting that these attacks are a sign that the Taliban is moving to non-military targets, which, of course, is classic terror, isn't it?

JON Well, certainly, I mean, there are lots of people who think that the clobbering the insurgents have received, particularly in the south, over the last 18 months, and that's really because of the surge forces that President Obama ordered to Afghanistan.  They find it extremely hard to take on military targets, particularly international ones, so there's this- there's been an assassination campaign in the south - last year there was a 100% increase in assassinations, many of whom are, you know, they work for the government, but technically they are civilians.  And so most of those assassinations are, in fact, war crimes.  So whether or not it's classic terror or it's simply a response to the pressure they have in the more kind of conventional areas, but it's certainly, you know, to one degree or another, it's quite effective, particularly the assassination of senior political leaders, influential tribal chiefs.  It has, you know- It spreads fear and it makes the civilian population in the south think several times about whether or not they're going to throw their lot in with the government and its international backers or whether it would be safer to, you know, tacitly, if anything, support the insurgents.

PAUL Well, that's right.  These attacks, I mean, they give one the impression the Taliban haven't quite realised that they're beaten yet, you know, which is the Western military narrative, of course.  
JON  Well, yes, I think it's- you know, these instances in Kabul - I mean, Kabul is a city where, really, the insurgency has no purchase at all.  I mean, there is no discernable support for the Taliban on the streets.  It's not like some of the rural areas just, you know, maybe half an hour's drive from where I am now, where people would turn to the Taliban for basic services, particularly justice and quick dispute resolution.  So this kind of urban terror campaign that we've seen a lot of in the capital - big upsurge in these sorts of attacks from where we were last year - I think is, yes, it's about the propaganda war, it's about TV programmes like this where it will be discussed amongst the Western troop-contributing nations, and, you know, that's the effect they want.  It's more the psychological effect on Western publics rather than on the Afghan people or the citizens of Kabul.

PAUL Well, exactly so.  Just to finish, Jon, very quickly if you could, is pressure going to come on the Western contributing nations to keep the troops in longer? 

JON Well, you know, there is this deadline by the end of 2014 that all conventional combat troops should have either left or have retreated to a supportive role, basically sitting in large bases helping Afghans out with logistics and so forth.  Nonetheless, there is- I think everyone accepts that there's going to have to be an extremely long presence of foreign forces.  And I think what these raids in Kabul show, in a way it's a model of how transition may well work, which is that, you know, you'll have these Afghan commandoes who are really quite good and they're getting better, but they'll probably never be able to deal with a siege like this, and, you know, for the discernable future, long past 2014, I would have thought, you will need foreign special forces operating quick-reaction teams in Kabul as well as, you know, a sizeable foreign troop contribution, albeit one which is much less than the 130,000 NATO and other troops that we have at the moment.

PAUL Excellent, Jon.  Thank you very much, indeed, for your time.  Jon Boone from the Guardian live from Kabul.

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