Shooting Under Fire in Afghanistan’s Most Dangerous Province

When coalition troops pulled out, Saeed Taji Farouky stayed in Helmand.

For well over a decade, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA) fought side-by-side – “Shohna ba Shohna” – in a sustained and bloody effort to stabilize Afghanistan, a country chewed to the gristle by violence over the course of forty relentless years. Then, in 2014, NATO began pulling out. For NATO troops, the withdrawal marked the conclusion of the long and exhausting counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban. For the ANA, the withdrawal marked the beginning of another phase of a seemingly endless war, one in which the backing of a far superior military force would no longer be around to keep the enemy at a manageable distance.

The absence of ISAF has been felt most profoundly in the country’s hinterlands, where the multinational effort to uproot the Taliban was focused. Helmand, a rural province in the country’s south believed to be responsible for roughly 40 percent of the world’s opium production, saw some of the fiercest fighting during the 13-year NATO campaign. At the height of the 2011 surge, nearly 40,000 American and British troops were stationed in Helmand. More coalition soldiers died there than anywhere else in the country. Since the NATO withdrawal, fighting has been fiercer still.

Saeed Taji Farouky, an award-winning British documentary filmmaker, and his co-producer, an ex-British soldier named Michael McEvoy, have been on hand to witness the latest battles. The two men have been embedded with an Afghan heavy weapons company operating out of an austere outpost in the heart of Taliban country. Their new film “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year,” which is currently debuting at the 65th Berlin Film Festival, is an elegantly compressed summary of that experience.

Against a vast backdrop of opium fields and pomegranate orchards, Farouky and McEvoy capture the daily lives of Afghan soldiers fighting in the vanishing shadow of the NATO campaign. “Our foreign colleagues will be leaving Afghanistan,” an Afghan officer announces to his men soon after the film opens. “Pray that we may be capable of defending our nation, our land, our children, our orphans, innocents, our needy, our widows.”

Maxim spoke with Saeed Taji Farouky about his decision to document post-NATO Afghanistan, the Taliban and life on the new front lines. 

The title of the film, “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year,” comes from an old poem right?

Yes, from an Afghan poet named Khalili.

I assume, as the title of your film, it’s referring to the fact that spring is when fighting season in Afghanistan begins in earnest…

That’s part of it. I think it’s intentionally ambiguous. But also, during the spring in Afghanistan, they have a big festival to celebrate the New Year. So, for them, spring is the new calendar year. Really, I think the poem is more of a lamentation of the destruction going on. It was written under the Soviet era in Afghanistan. It’s lamenting the death and destruction that Afghanistan has to live with. So, in fact, I think the poet is saying we should be able to celebrate a new birth in the New ear but not this year. He’s sort of telling spring, “Look it’s not your time because there are too many people here dying.” That’s how I understood it.

Why did you want to do this documentary?

I like to look at what the main news stories are, what the big issues are that are happening in the world but I don’t really work very quickly. I’m not a news journalist so I can’t just say, “Okay, there’s a war in Iraq. I’m going to cover it now.” I like to stand back for a while and see what everyone else is doing and figure out what story isn’t being told. And, more importantly, I try to see what story I can tell better because I’ve tried news journalism and I was not very good at it. I don’t see why I should do what 10 million other people are doing, when I feel I have the pace of work and a style that I’m better suited to, which is long term – much more humanist, much more reflective. I’ve been trying to do something about Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001 and I never really figured out what the story was. And then Mike, who is the co-director, got in touch with me through another friend and said, “My friend recommended you as a filmmaker. I have this access and I want to make a documentary.” And it was very clear to me that was exactly what I wanted to do. As NATO’s war was ending, that to me was the rest of the story everyone was going to ignore so that’s the part of the story I preferred to focus on.

As far as Mike saying he had had access, did he have a line in with the Afghan National Army? How does a team of Western filmmakers embed with the ANA?

Mike had liaised with them for nine months with the British military.  While he was there, he started to think, “This would make a good film.” And he just started to work on the paperwork while he was still in Afghanistan. It’s very difficult actually to get access without a government minder or press contact. It’s pretty much impossible. As far as we know, we’re the only team that has been embedded for that long without a minder with complete freedom.

What was it like to be in Helmand after the NATO withdrawal?  Did you watch them go or did you get on the ground after they had actually withdrawn?

We were there actually during the withdrawal. The withdrawal was taking place in several stages and by the time we started filming they had already started to pull out. That was the idea: we would film during this process.  And it worked out perfectly because our last day of filming was when they officially closed Camp Bastion and handed it over to Afghan. The timing couldn’t have been better. None of that is featured in the film only because we didn’t want any NATO soldiers in the film but you see their helicopters flying over. Of course, the people in the film talk about them but they’re not in the film. That was a very deliberate omission. So what we saw was a base right next door to where we were filming and over the course of the year all the foreign soldiers disappeared from that base.

Did things feel more precarious as the withdrawal got underway?

Even from the start this unit that we were working with wasn’t accompanied by NATO anymore, so occasionally on some missions NATO might just fly overhead with their helicopters and if anything went horribly wrong they would step in. We were used to already just being on the ground with Afghans but the difference for me was they couldn’t evacuate us anymore if anything went wrong. If we had been hurt they wouldn’t really be able to help us that much on the frontline where we were. But at least in the beginning if the ANA guys were able to drive us back to their base, about 100 meters away there was a foreign base they could have helicoptered us to Kabul for example or Shorabak or whatever. But halfway through filming that wasn’t an option anymore because those helicopters just weren’t there. It was more of a kind of a logical concern than it was increasing fear as the year went on.

Did the Taliban attacks get more intense as the NATO presence decreased?

They did but to be honest we were more aware of that through watching the news. Mike might have a different perspective but just from my experience on the ground it was fairly consistent. But we do know from the news as NATO pulled out there were a series of really bold attacks by the Taliban. They attacked Camp Shorabak; they launched several attacks in Kabul. So they were obviously timed for the pull out. On the ground – because our area didn’t have a huge NATO presence anyway –  I didn’t personally notice the difference except that the helicopters weren’t there which sort of gave it a different sensation. Then you really felt like you were on your own.

Was the Afghan Army going out look for the Taliban or was the Taliban usually initiating contact first?

No they [the Afghan Army] would go out looking for them. I know the base we were at had in the past been attacked at least once but not while we were there. It was pretty good in terms of being able to secure it. Around the base is nothing but flat desert so it’s pretty hard to sneak up on it. But either our unit would initiate the patrol based on intelligence they had, if there was someone they needed to find or if there were Taliban planning something, or there would be a much bigger, say, brigade level operation where we were really going into clear and entire area. Whenever the Taliban engaged these guys would fire back. And that’s sort of the intention: you walk through an area in order to draw them out and you “clear” the area. But then, of course, as soon as you leave, the Taliban or whoever it is is still there. They either come out of hiding or they just run back. They’re not the most effective operations but that’s how they were working. So they would generally go out and look for people who had their operations planned. The IED’s were, of course, a threat all the time. We didn’t hit any but quite a few guys from the unit we were filming in were either killed or really badly injured by IED’s over the course of that year.

How did the ANA feel about the NATO withdrawal?

There were a lot of different views and that’s the reason we wanted to make the film because we didn’t want it to be a simple, black and white narrative of, “These guys are good and those guys are bad.” But in general I would say most of them were grateful the Taliban had been removed, so they were grateful for the initial invasion and the removal of the Taliban. They were grateful for the support and the sort of creation and sponsorship of the army but they felt like they’ve been short changed in terms of actual equipment. For some of them it would be hard to give you a real accurate number, but many of them felt like they wanted America and NATO to pull out eventually because they should have control of their own country but that was not the right time to do it. They were still in the middle of everything. In public they had to say that everything was going well but I think in private many of the Afghans felt like they weren’t ready to take over.

What were their opinions of the NATO soldiers on a personal level?

We didn’t ask them that question to be honest, but I didn’t feel like they were hostile towards them. Whenever we talked about foreign soldiers the Afghans – as far as I could tell – felt like they were all in it together in a way; they were doing the same thing as the foreign soldiers. They had a mixture of jealousy and bitterness about the equipment, so very often they would talk about how foreign troops would be in an MRAP or something similar like an APC when they were on patrol, but the Afghans just had to walk or they only had the shitty Humvees or Rangers that weren’t armored so they felt like they weren’t being treated equally.  But I never heard anyone – maybe they just didn’t want to tell me personally – say, “I hated them. They deserved to die! They’re all bastards!” Nothing like that.

Did you get the sense that they were more afraid of the Taliban?

I think, in general, the public, especially now, there’s not as much support for the Taliban as there used to be. I don’t feel in general if you go around town that people will wish the Taliban was back or think the Taliban are the right guys or the good guys. Public opinion has definitely changed in that way. But are they more afraid of them?  It seemed to me like it was almost equal. Both the army and the Taliban are guilty of killing civilians. They both say that it is by mistake, they both end up blowing up people’s houses. I think people are just afraid of trouble. So I don’t know, it’s very hard to say who they were more afraid of.

The Taliban have been out of power for almost 14 years, and you were saying that they’ve fallen out of favor with the general public. Do you think that there’s a realistic chance of them taking the country back?

This is all just speculation because I don’t have any background in the military; this is all honestly based on my own observation. But no I don’t think there’s a realistic chance of them taking the country back and that’s not because they’re not strong enough as fighters or whatever it might be; it’s not really strategic. It’s just that I think the roles have changed so they went being from a “guerilla resistance movement” to being a government, and now they’ve really gone back to being a “guerilla resistance movement” – and I’m just not sure they have the organization and public support to control the country anymore. There’s also a lot of fracture within the Taliban that make them a lot weaker and now they’re fighting a national army that didn’t exist when they first came to power. But what I do think will happen is there will be – the best case scenario – a low level insurgency for a long time to come because it’s an ideology and you’re not going to destroy the ideology by blowing people up.

What do you think about recent reports of the Islamic State trying to recruit in Helmand Province?

Again I can only go by what I’ve seen on the news, when we were there around the end of filming there was the first report surfaced saying that they had found IS fighters there. It’s a country of practicing Muslims like the countries I’ve lived and worked in, but there wasn’t a huge amount of love for that level of extremism amongst the people I saw. Now, of course, if you join the army, you’re not getting a good spread of opinions because if you’re a real radical extremist Muslim who is anti-state, you’re not going to join the army so it’s hard to [get all opinions on the matter] from a very selective group of people. That’s all I know the only other fact would be the same ones you read in the news. It’s very hard for me to speculate.

Can you describe the most visceral moment you experienced over the course of that year?

One of the real surprising things about the film is there were only two gun battles in the whole film. And that’s fine by me.  I actually at one point started doing the film without any fight scenes at all because in a way the other stuff is more interesting to me. I think once you’ve seen people shooting it sort of looks the same over and over again. In one of the fight scenes we were with these guys out on patrol and it was quite a large operation and we started coming under fire and we had to run into someone’s compound and just take cover. This was one of those cases where ordinary people are suddenly in the middle of this war that they have absolutely nothing to do with. So we took cover in this compound and we’re looking around at all the soldiers but we also see the family that lives there, the kids in the window looking out; a father and a couple of sons it looked like to me. And these guys are sort of half afraid and half just shrugging their shoulders like there’s nothing they can do. It was a very bizarre experience because you still can hear the traffic on the road outside. We heard a police siren at one point and we were sort of half in the normal world of these farmers and half in the middle of this real shithole. 

And where was the Taliban?

There were insurgents only a couple hundred meters from us and we were under siege, they were shooting at us through walls. The army sent a couple of guys out; a few teams to find people and come back. About a couple hours into this thing – I mean the whole thing probably lasted four hours that we were under siege in this compound – Mike said to me the longer we’re here the worse it gets because these guys are able to get closer and closer and eventually they’re going to be able to start rolling in underslung grenades. You know, like the ones that you launch from under your gun. So ,sure enough, within another half hour or so these grenades start landing in the compound and at one point we were walking around the edge of the compound and I was following one of the main characters in the film and he is the captain of his unit, and a grenade landed probably two and a half meters from me and exploded in a huge cloud of smoke and everything was confusing and people were running back and forth and everyone checked each other. At first it seemed like everything was fine and eventually I started looking at my clothing and there were all these holes in my trousers and my shirt. Then I started bleeding, and you don’t really feel the pain at first because it’s just a shock and the adrenaline is there. But luckily whatever the grenade had thrown up was hot enough to cauterize a lot of the cuts so I wasn’t bleeding very badly. But fast-forward to several months later in London and several x-rays and ultrasounds later and there’s now seven or eight pieces of some kind of debris in my body, up my back, in my elbow. It doesn’t look like metal but it’s probably gravel that was thrown up by this grenade. So that moment when I eventually started realizing that this thing had hit me and these fragments had flown and cut my skin, that was really a pretty shocking moment. I realized that is how people get themselves in trouble when they’re making these types of film. This is sort of the best of the worst that could have happened. It really spooked me for the rest of that operation we were on.

Were you able to eventually to shake it?

In a weird way I felt a little better because I felt like I understood what the risks were a little more after that. I don’t know, it was a very odd feeling; it was more like resignation when I realized that I could decide whether I wanted to do it or not based on [real experience] rather than just based on the concept of being under fire and being injured.

Do you plan on ever going back to Afghanistan?

I mean I wouldn’t go back to do a similar story but I’d definitely go back to do other films. But not right now.