In his latest blog, Lieutenant Colonel David Eastman looks back at a concert staged this week in Lashkar Gah – something unthinkable just a few years ago.
I saw something this week that I believe could never have happened when I was here last, a few short years ago. The Afghan Robbie Williams – as Sky News dubbed him – held a concert in the centre of Lashkar Gah. From a western perspective nothing unusual in that you might think, but the concert was held in the same stadium that the Taliban, vehement haters of music (or of anything fun for that matter), used to use to execute non-believers or transgressors of their distorted version of the Koran. The concert was attended by over 5,000 locals, including women, although we were at pains not to photograph the women in accordance with local custom which unfortunately generated some comment in the press that women had been excluded.
For me personally this was an astounding achievement, made even more impressive by the fact that it was entirely Afghan-organised, was publicised across the province well in advance, and the security was carried out almost entirely by the Afghan National Security Forces with a small amount of consultation and support from us. In terms of a prime target for the Taliban it could not get any better, yet the whole event occurred without any incident whatsoever. If ever there was a sight to reassure us that we are doing the right thing, it was the footage and photographs of 5,000 revellers laughing, smiling, singing and dancing seemingly without a care in the world.
Farhad Darya is a very famous Afghan singer who has held concerts in other, more secure, areas of Afghanistan attracting over 75,000 young people in two concerts alone. He sings of peace and hope and is feted by the youth of Afghanistan, exactly the audience that we need this message to get to. The concert was recorded by RTA, the Afghan television station, but we also put a few camera teams on the ground and in the air, albeit in a subtle way in order not to show an International Force presence, and managed to put together a package together with the RTA footage that was run on all of the major media stations. I was interviewed by the BBC News, Sky News and ITV News mainly trying to get me to comment on the outcome of the NATO summit in Lisbon, but I was able to use the concert as an excellent example of the progress that the Afghan Security Forces are making.
In fact, although this particular concert has raised the profile of well-supported public events in Lashkar Gah, this is actually the fourth large event that the local government has staged in the past few months without any interference from the insurgents. When we arrived, a large poetry festival with similar numbers to the concert was held in the same stadium – poetry is a national pastime in Afghanistan. The Police organised a football match which was also very well attended, and then more recently, 5,000 locals attended a religious event at the stadium to celebrate the start of Eid Al Adha. Remarkably, each of these events represents a significant threat to the insurgency and would have been a dream target for the Taliban, but each passed without incident.
All in all this has been a very successful week for the people of Helmand and one that I will cherish for a long time to come.