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Page last updated at 11:56 GMT, Saturday, 29 March 2008

Afghan 'trust' in Arab troops

This week the BBC's Frank Gardner revealed that a contingent of Arab troops from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been secretly operating alongside the Americans in Afghanistan. But getting access to them took months and was fraught with hurdles, especially as our correspondent is in a wheelchair.

Frank Gardner
Safety concerns meant Frank Gardner stayed at the coalition base

Out on the tarmac at an Abu Dhabi airbase, in the slowly-building heat of the Gulf, my heart sank.

The UAE Airforce Hercules transport plane that was supposed to fly us up to Bagram base had its engines running, the pilot was in his cockpit, but I could not see how I was supposed to wheel myself up into it.

"No ramp!" shouted a crewman above the roar of the engines, "all full with cargo!"

So the crew had to lift me bodily out of my wheelchair and carry me through a tiny hatchway like a baby.

Four hours after take-off the first snow appeared, dusting the mountaintops and filling the north-facing ravines of Waziristan, home to those elusive pockets of Taleban and al-Qaeda insurgents.

"Thirty minutes to landing," shouted the airforce crew.

Hospitable reception

We flew low over the foothills of the Hindu Kush, then the green crops and dusty villages gave way to what looked like a purpose-built new town, a clean and tidy place where the buildings were all in neat lines.

Of course in an ideal world I would get out and see all this with my own eyes but safety concerns meant I had to stay behind on-base
It was Bagram airbase, home to 11,000 coalition troops.

A reception committee of beaming Emirati officers had driven out to greet us, led by the Taskforce Commander, a slight man from Sharjah with a quiet intelligence and a twinkle in his eye.

"Welcome back to Afghanistan, Mr Frank," he said, extending his hand.

To my embarrassment, the ever-hospitable Emiratis had insisted on allocating me the VIP hut, a sort of miniature villa with faux columns amid rows of sandbags.

They had even got their Afghan carpenters to construct a wooden ramp so I could wheel up to the raised doorway and I could see it had been freshly painted.

That evening the Emiratis gave us a presentation on the humanitarian projects they were undertaking: a mosque here, a school there, wells dug in this village, a clinic set up in that one.

It did not seem vastly different from what other countries were doing but we were soon to see for ourselves that as Muslims, the UAE soldiers were welcomed and trusted in places where the rest of the US-led coalition frankly was not.

Knowing how important Islam was to most Afghan villagers, the Emiratis would address their religious needs first, either by building them a small mosque or just by distributing freshly-printed Korans.

Only then, said the Emiratis, could they discuss other secular projects like building a school or a hospital.


Of course in an ideal world I would get out and see all this with my own eyes but safety concerns meant I had to stay behind on-base - "in the rear, with the gear, where there is no fear" - while our crew went off to film.

Afghan villagers with UAE troops
The army are using their Islamic credentials to gain trust
To say this was frustrating was an understatement.

In the village of Qalat Baland, my companions watched as boxes of sweet, sticky dates were handed out to grey-bearded elders, and children were given school notebooks while a tall, charismatic Emirati army officer sat cross-legged in a courtyard, listening as a young boy chanted verses from the Koran by memory.

From the pictures they brought back it all looked a vision of harmony, but then I could see it began to go wrong - word spread that there was not enough to go round

Suddenly the crowd surged, pushing and elbowing their way past the uniformed troops to get at the plastic-wrapped goodies.

The Afghan police, who had now turned up, weighed in with unrestrained brutality and it took all the Emiratis' diplomacy to restore calm before the scene descended into a riot.

Back in the Emiratis' camp I had not been completely idle.

Part of the plan was that they brought in a succession of prominent Afghans for me to interview, all people who had worked with these fellow Muslims from the Gulf on humanitarian projects.

In their smart grey business suits the Afghan officials looked quite out of place here in this dusty, sandbagged camp.

There was the chancellor of Khost University and a junior minister for orphans, widows and the disabled. There was also an elderly but energetic member of President Karzai's government who had some outspoken views about his fellow governors.

No respect

"They are drug runners," declared Meraj Uddin Patan flatly, as he reeled off a list of provincial governors he said were all up to their necks in the opium poppy trade.

"How can people respect our government when you have people like these in charge of them?" he said, swatting away a fly that had emerged into the early spring sunshine.

"When I took over as governor of Khost in 2004," he continued, "I started a campaign against the sort of thugs who intimidated the population and do you know how?"

"No I didn't," I said. By now he was in full flow and a small group of Emirati soldiers had gathered to listen.

"When we caught a Taleban insurgent," said governor Meraj, "we would shave his head and put him on a donkey facing backwards and parade him round the city. But now," he paused, a look of genuine sadness on his face, "now it has gone back to being a very bad situation".

I asked him why the Taleban had been so successful in making a comeback since they were defeated here in 2001.

"There are three reasons" replied Meraj "weak government, no unity among the police, national army and the coalition allies, and, the Taleban has unrestricted freedom of movement in their rear area in Waziristan. Solve these problems," he said "and Afghanistan has a bright future."

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 29 March, 2008 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Muslim troops help win Afghan minds
28 Mar 08 |  South Asia

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