US adviser who predicted Iraq insurgency says Afghan army collapse looms if Nato pulls out helicopters

Toby Harnden, Washington

Sunday Times, 9th June 2013


WHEN US troops were sweeping triumphantly towards Baghdad in April 2003, Gary Anderson was the only American warning that “a protracted guerrilla war” would follow. He was derided by intelligence agencies and later berated by the US pro-consul in Iraq.

Now the former US marine colonel is speaking out again. This time he predicts that Afghan soldiers will mutiny or be massacred by the Taliban if they are left to fend for themselves without US helicopter support.

Anderson, a marine veteran of Somalia and Lebanon, has spent long spells as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently returned from a year in Bala Murghab, the only Pashtun-majority district in the northwestern Afghanistan province of Badghis. There he was part of a transition from Nato to Afghan control that he described as “a debacle”.

The Afghan battalion he was mentoring abandoned the fight as soon as American helicopter support was curtailed.

“We started getting indications that they were cutting a deal with local Taliban,” he told The Sunday Times. “One of the young Afghan sergeants sat down with me and laid it out. He said: ‘Without medevacs [medical evacuations], you try to force us out into the field [and] we’re going to roll a grenade into your tent.’

“To be honest, I can’t blame him given the fact that they were so dependent without roads up there. Minus helicopter support you were basically in deep doodoo. A minor wound can become a death sentence, followed by your body being desecrated horribly.”

Anderson said the retention of 100 American helicopters could stop the Afghan army collapsing in remote parts of provinces such as Helmand, where more than 400 British troops have been killed, as well as Kandahar and Paktia.

His warning came as General John Allen, Nato’s former commander in Afghanistan, and Michele Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official under President Barack Obama, said that a hasty withdrawal, due to be completed next year, could be disastrous.

They wrote in a think-tank paper that Nato “would risk snatching defeat from the jaws of something that could still resemble victory if, due to frustration with [Afghan] President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan or domestic budgetary pressures”, disengagement were accelerated or resources cut after 2014.

Anderson experienced the wrath of Paul Bremer, the American pro-consul in Iraq, in 2003 when he suggested that a new civil defence force could be based on the Popular Force in South Vietnam. 

“[He] said, ‘I don’t want to hear about Vietnam. Iraq isn’t Vietnam.’ I said, ‘Sir, not everything we did in Vietnam was wrong.’ He really lost his temper . . . he basically threw us out of his office.”
Anderson recalled saying to his colleague as they left: “This guy’s a f******ing idiot. We’re in big trouble.”

Success was eventually achieved in 2007 with the “Sons of Iraq” programme that in key respects drew on the South Vietnamese Popular Force. “That was a few years down the pike after some hard lessons learnt,” he said.

Anderson has similarly strong views on mismanagement of the war in Afghanistan. He said: “In Iraq at least our transition was capability-based. Once you decided they were ready to go, you took your hands off the throttle. But when you have a set timeline, which is what Obama set, then you have to meet the timeline.

“I think it comes from the very top in Washington. The mantra you kept hearing out there was: ‘It’s going to be up to them’; let’s wash our hands of this thing’.”

Anderson said he had lost his temper with a US army colonel who took this line in a briefing. “I actually used the word clown in response to a statement he made which I thought was frankly ridiculous. That’s not my style. I’m not usually personally abusive but I was very upset.”

In 2003, Anderson, a specialist in "red team" war games in which he would play the role of a Baathist commander, used the pages of the Washington Post to call for the US to "be prepared to react to an enemy game plan that may be different from our own".

This time, it was in the Wall Street Journal that he wrote that pulling out all US helicopters before the Afghan Air Force is developed, due in 2017, was "both militarily unsound and morally unconscionable" and could mean the US and its allies "will have wasted 12 years of blood and treasure". 

He explained: “For 10 years we’ve been concentrating on the Afghan army’s training and tactical capability. But we have not thought about the fact that we built an army that depended on helicopter support and then told them go back to mules.”

 

10th September 2011 

September 11: My life and the US changed forever

Like most Washingtonians, for me September 11th 2001 began like just another day.

 

Even as I stepped into the Telegraph's downtown office at 8.55 am and was told that a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers, I had little inkling that my life, like so many others, was about to take a different course.

 

That morning, one person I knew, still alive at that moment, would die. Another, who I did not yet know and who could well have been about to perish, was to survive and become my wife.

 

The events that were unfolding were to lead the United States - and me - into Afghanistan and Iraq. They were to change America profoundly. It was the first day in a war in which tens of thousands, including some friends, would be killed.

 

Within minutes of my walking into the office, it was clear that this was no wayward small plane whose pilot had somehow drifted off course into the midst of the Manhattan skyline.

 

Switching my television on at 9.03am, I was confronted with the surreal image of a second passenger jet gliding almost serenely into a second tower. The carnage was unimaginable. It was plain that America was under attack from terrorists.

 

A third plane hit the Pentagon. Washington as well as New York was a target. Our office was three blocks from the White House, surely a prime target. As our building was evacuated, we locked the door and carried on working.

 

For the next dozen hours, my mind operated along parallel tracks. I had a job to do and it was a daunting one - to gather the facts of what had happened, try to make some sense of them and report them to the world.

 

At the same time, I was already grappling with what this meant for the future of America and of Britain, which would surely be involved in this new war.

 

I had spent more than three years reporting on terrorism in Northern Ireland but these warriors of God were something different. They were suicide bombers who had turned passenger planes into missiles aimed at the most potent symbols of American power.

 

From my window, I could see thick black smoke rising from the Pentagon. A friend phoned to say she had been ordered out of the White House by Secret Service officers, who had ordered her to take off her shoes and “run for your life”.

 

I carried on writing, tears streaming down my face, as I watched people falling from the World Trade Center. Then the buildings collapsed. We learned that a fourth plane had crashed in fields in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, about 150 miles north-west of Washington. There were no more missiles in the sky.

 

By 9pm, the newspaper’s final edition had gone to the printers and I stumbled out of the office to a bar across the street. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and the events of the day still seemed somehow to belong to that bubble that was my office.

 

As I bit into a hamburger, the names of victims were beginning to flash up on the television above the bar. One of the first was someone I knew - Barbara Olson, a writer and wife of President George W Bush’s Solicitor General.

 

American heroes were already beginning to emerge. Barbara was one of them, calmly asking her husband what she should tell the captain to do.

 

Another was Todd Beamer, a passenger on Flight 93 who had uttered the words “let’s roll” as he and his band of brothers stormed the cockpit, bringing the plane down. He was a friend of my friend James, who worked on Capitol Hill. Flight 93 was probably heading for the Capitol. “Maybe Todd saved my life,” said James.

 

That night, I went gone home to see Humvees and National Guardsmen on street corners in Georgetown. The question in my mind was not whether but when there would be another attack - within days, or weeks? It was almost inconceivable that there would be no major al-Qaeda strike in the US over the next decade.

 

Who would have thought, too, that barely seven years after 9/11 Americans would have elected a man with a Muslim middle name and a surname that rhymed with Osama would be elected to the White House?

 

Much has been written about America losing its way since 9/11. Certainly, there is a crisis of national self-confidence right now, US economic hegemony is being ceded to China. But the country remains more resilient and unified than her detractors know.

 

Looking back on the decade since 9/11, it is extraordinary that there has been no large scale attack on the American mainland, despite many attempts.

 

For all the mistakes over Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Bush and President Barack Obama have succeeded in their primary responsibility of protecting the American homeland.

 

Despite their obvious differences, the two commanders-in-chief can in key respects be bracketed together. Mr Obama has essentially kept in place the post-9/11 Bush apparatus, including detentions without trial, military tribunals and Guantanamo Bay.

 

The 9/11 attacks shook America out of the complacency and self-indulgence of the Clinton era, when it often felt as if America insulated itself from the world.

 

They created a generation of Americans more engaged in countries and cultures beyond their own shores. The killing of Osama bin Laden showed how far American intelligence agencies and military forces had come since 9/11.

 

None of this, of course, has been without cost. My own friend Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe was killed by a Taliban bomb on a narrow track beside a canal in Helmand. Trooper Jack Sadler, who used to catch the school bus with my brother in Exmouth, also died in Afghanistan. Almost everyone has a similar tale.

 

In Iraq, I witnessed the carcasses of civilians being scooped up in blankets and heaved into trucks. I saw feral dogs gnawing corpses, soldiers vomiting out of fear, young children being buried. Colleagues were kidnapped in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. My Iraqi driver Hakim, a father of 10 and a man who almost certainly saved my life in 2005, was killed by a suicide bomb.

 

I can still see the tired, intent faces of Captain Sean Sims, Lieutenant Edward Iwan and Command Sergeant Major Steve Faulkenburg leaning over a briefing table in an American operations room outside Fallujah in 2004. Days later, all three men were dead.

 

As well as forcing Americans to confront the reality of death, 9/11 gave us some universal ways of dealing with tragedy. After the tsunami hit Thailand in 2005, I felt a sense of déjà vu as I saw walls of flyers pleading for news about loved ones who were surely dead.

 

Like many in the US, after 9/11 I subtly reassessed my own life. I tried to think a little more of others.

 

In Thailand, I connected one of those flyers with the contents of a wallet, found on a bloated corpse, that I had seen at Khao Lak and helped a woman locate the body of her brother, Barry Tims. I later went to Barry’s funeral in Chigwell.

 

After being so close to so many who had been snuffed out so abruptly, I no longer took my own life for granted. I made more effort to keep in touch with old friends and reconnected with some I had lost contact with. One of these was a Briton living in New York.

 

We exchanged emails about our experiences on 9/11 and met in Manhattan for a drink. His wife, it turned out, had a friend called Cheryl who was about to go to Baghdad. I too was bound there, to cover the Iraq war. He asked me: would I like to meet her?

 

Cheryl had been an American Airlines flight attendant on 9/11. She often flew from Boston to the West Coast, the route that two of the doomed planes were due to take. She knew John Ogonowski, pilot of the first plane to hit the World Trade Center.

 

The events of that day had prompted her to take a job with the US government; as an Arabic speaker, it was inevitable she would be sent to the Middle East.

 

On 9/11, both our lives had taken a different turn, putting us on paths that would soon converge. We married in 2006 and now have two children, little Americans who would not have been created had it not been for that terrible day. From death came life as things were shattered and rearranged.

 

America is not perfect. It never was. Certain aspects of life in the US are undoubtedly less enjoyable after 9/11. Passing though airport security is an utterly miserable experience, made all the more galling because of the mindlessness of many of the procedures passengers have to endure.

 

We can all point to foreign policy mistakes, even actions which at times betrayed American ideals. But the essence of America not only remains but has been strengthened.

 

Al-Qaeda is still in existence but is far from the threat it posed to the West immediately after 9/11. Bin Laden is dead. The dictators Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi have been toppled. In the battle of ideas, the West has prevailed over Islamism. The Arab Spring unleashed democratic forces more powerful than al-Qaeda.

 

After living in the Middle East and again in London, I returned to Washington. Two years ago, I raised my right hand and swore to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic”. A decade ago, it was not a step I had ever envisaged.

 

Just after 9/11, I wrote that “amidst the sadness and anger, a new sense of national resilience, pride and determination was already breaking through”.

 

Without the experience I shared with Americans that day, I doubt I would have become one.


23th April 2005 

 

Time stands still for the men condemned to Mugabe's prisons 

Two Sunday Telegraph journalists were freed last week after 10 days in a filthy Zimbabwean jail. But as Toby Harnden writes, the 103 men who shared his cell could wait years for a trial 


THERE ARE no clocks in Harare remand prison. Ask a prisoner the time and he glances through the barred window and hazards a guess from the angle of the sun. The sky turning cobalt blue to herald the approaching dawn is one point of reference. Another is the clunk of the jail gate signalling the change of the prison guard shift at 6am.

Moments later, what sounds like a spiritual starts up from cell B2. "Baba vedu uri kudenga... Zita renyu ngarikudzwe novutswene." It is the Lord's Prayer sung in Shona, Zimbabwe's main language. In B2, about two dozen of the 105 prisoners jump up and start praying. Another day has begun.

For many of the 2,500 prisoners in the remand jail, where I was held with my colleague Julian Simmonds for 10 days earlier this month, time stands still. Zimbabwe's justice system is corrupt and crumbling and inmates can wait for up to five years before a case comes to trial. 

Many are unable to find even paltry amounts to meet bail or to pay fines. On the prison bus one day, a youth called Lazarus, who has been convicted of stealing barbed wire, opts to serve three months in prison because he can't pay 40,000 Zimbabwean dollars -- about pounds 3.50. "We are crying," says Moses, who is accused of murder and who, with his friend Henry, has been appointed by the prisoners to look after the two strange white men in their midst. "We have nothing, not even hope. The best we can do is survive."

Like many inmates, Moses is accused of a terrible crime but has been forced to wait years to hear the case against him. Just 21, he has been on remand for almost two years. His mother, who like her son was suspected of axing to death the white couple they worked for, recently died in the neighbouring women's jail; she was 45.

Moses's angelic face is covered with bumps and the whites of his eyes are flecked with brown stains. Sores cluster around his knees and ankles where, he says, he was beaten by police and leg irons broke the skin.

Disease is rife in the prison, which is so overcrowded that prisoners are stacked against each other on the concrete floor as they sleep. At night the cell looks like a deck full of galley slaves shifting with the waves.

Yet a surprising order prevails. A small group of inmates organises life for the rest in a strange, self-imposed discipline. Each morning, the blankets are piled neatly so the cell can be swept. Every inmate is allocated a sleeping space -- new arrivals arranged head to toe in the centre, while those in for longer are given a little more room near the walls.

The day crawls by, tedium interrupted by roll call, queuing for food down the stairways to the courtyard, and reading. Moses solemnly pores over a tattered edition of Essentials, a South African women's magazine. For a few cigarettes we rent two books -- The Best of Betjeman and Anton Chekov's Plays and Stories. Below Betjeman's poem The Exile are scrawled an inmate's questions to his girlfriend. "Do you still love me? Are you ashamed of me? Do you believe I stole the car? Will you wait 10 years?"

Some have newspapers, though the prison censor cuts out articles judged unfit for inmates to read, including any criticism of President Robert Mugabe. Some opt for boxing. "Dance, boxer, dance" screams a man nicknamedGudu (Shona for "baboon"), who is built like Mike Tyson. "Let's go, boxer. Jab, jab, jab -- killer punch." His partner aims his blows at flip-flops on Gudu's fists.

After lock-down following 6pm roll call, a group from Matabeleland dances to songs in the minority language, Ndebele. Several card schools play with decks made artfully from cigarette packets.

Another favourite is chess. Earlier, in our police cell in Norton, a rural area south of Harare, Julian and I had constructed a crude set, drawing the grid on a sheet of paper, tearing out squares for pieces.

The prison sets are altogether more elaborate. Magnificent pieces have been painstakingly fashioned from sadza -- the maize substance that is Zimbabwe's staple diet -- and lavatory paper.

Embarrassingly, The Sunday Telegraph is humiliated by the Zimbabwean inmates. In my first game, my mentor Henry destroys me in three dozen moves while other inmates nod in approval, their Shona peppered with references to "the Kasparov move".

The next game is even more humiliating. A man accused of rape with "Crazy Sexy" tattoed on his forearm defeats me effortlessly in what is billed "Europe versus Africa". I forfeit a cigarette. At 9pm, the cell becomes quiet. It is story time. A big-time fraudster called Isaac paces up and down relating a tale in Shona. We assume it is a traditional Zimbabwean yarn until we hear phrases such as "black-tinted windows" and "agent of the FBI".

Isaac's tale is a rendition of the thriller, The Bourne Identity. His repertoire also includes Predator and The Matrix: Reloaded.

Our arrival offers business opportunities. Brian, one of the few political prisoners, accused of being an opposition activist, tries to barter a dead pigeon for a cigarette.

Others believe that they can curry favour with the guards by extracting information from us. We are quizzed about our case and whether we were working as journalists, the "crime" of which we are accused.

We are warned by Moses and Henry that Mugabe's feared Central Intelligence Office has spies in the jail. Questions from John, an army sergeant, are a little too pointed. Most suspicious of all is Shepherd, who seems to know we work for The Sunday Telegraph and is always trying to glean more.

Charles, a cheerful Ndebele and another opposition activist, tells us to be careful. A political prisoner died in the adjoining cell, here says, after he was poisoned. Such is the desperation of some prisoners, we could be murdered for a few packets of cigarettes.

Much to Julian's chagrin, Charles turns out to be a chronic masturbator. I go to sleep each night with Julian's breath on my shoulder. On his other side, Julian has to contend with an elbow nudging him rhythmically in the ribs.

Many inmates ask us to pay for legal advice or arrange UK visas. Barnabus, who revels in having tried to kill his wife, wants to go to Britain. "I shot her in the head joyously in front of the children," he said. "She was pleading with me not to do it but you know how it is when you are on a mission. You are gripped with it and you just keep going. She deserved it. Her name is Faith and I called my company Faith Cosmetics." He is confident of bribing the prosecutor to drop the case against him.

Darling, a young gang member, is facing six counts of armed robbery. His cocaine-fuelled crime bouts netted so many televisions and VCRs that he stole three bull terriers and installed them as guard dogs. One of his mistakes, he said, was to rob the Zimbabwean vice-president's house -- holding his wife at gunpoint.

There are a few celebrity prisoners. One is Christopher Kuruneri, Zimbabwe's finance minister, who has been held without trial for a year on charges of foreign currency fraud.

He has a few extra privileges, such as daily visits to the dispensary and an electric razor. "Hi, I'm Chris," he says, shaking my hand as I wander into his cell one morning to see if I can borrow his shaver. He is wearing a white vest and lying on the floor.

He is managing in jail, he explains, because he has to, just like anyone else. Moses nods. "Here we are all the same," he says. "We have nothing and we are nothing. Pray for us all."

16th April 2005

 
Goodbye, Mr Mugabe

Two Sunday Telegraph journalists, accused of flouting Zimbabwe's draconian media laws, were released last week after spending 10 days in a cockroach-infested jail. Toby Harnden, who feared he might be locked up for a year, describes their ordeal

THE IRON GATE swung open and we were prodded, shuffling in our leg-irons, into a darkened concrete yard.

Above us was the sound of more than 2,000 African prisoners crammed into their cells, shouting, singing and beating their feet. As the leg-irons were unlocked and we were pushed up the stairs, the stench of Harare's central remand jail hit me for the first time.

A mixture of sweat, excrement and rotting sadza - a white, doughy stodge made from maize - made me gag, the reflex colliding with the fear that seemed to be rising from my bowels and spreading upwards through my chest.

Our feet were bare, our toes squelching on the cold, damp steps. Dressed in regulation green canvas prison shorts and shirts, filthy and reeking of body odour, we had been assigned to category D - murderers, armed robbers, rapists, kidnappers, sodomites and political "offenders" such as ourselves.

There were more than a dozen prison officers surrounding us, cackling and cracking jokes about the two white men they were about to lock up. We reached the dank corridor outside Cell B1 on the first floor, the cacophony from its occupants almost drowning out the jibes of the officers.

The senior one pulled out a bunch of keys from the belt beneath his paunch and opened the door. "Meet the guys," he announced. Prisoners surged towards us and the door slammed shut.

I felt hands all over me, grabbing my arms, patting my back, even touching my hair. Some cried their names, others demanded cigarettes as we moved involuntarily towards the far end of the cell, some 75ft long and 25ft wide.

"Welcome to Zimbabwe," one prisoner shouted in my ear. "Welcome to hell on earth."

The evening roll-call had just confirmed that there were 105 inmates present in a cell designed to hold 25. Colin, a tautly muscular young man with "China Black" tattooed clumsily on his chest, came forward as we slumped on the concrete floor to tell us he was the prisoner "commanding" the cell. There was not much room, he said, telling us we had two blankets each to sleep in.

We lay down, our arms touching each other and the prisoners either side. This was where we were to rest, the lights on constantly and our every movement keenly watched. I looked up at the wall above me: inch-long cockroaches were scuttling along it. The blanket I clasped was infested with lice - inda in the local Shona language.

The youth who was stretched out to my right spoke out. "I'm in here on six counts of armed robbery. I've been here for 21 months without trial. Can you help me? I want to go to London.''

I turned to Julian and for a minute we looked at each other, neither daring to speak. For four days in a police cell, we had supported each other, sometimes laughing out loud at the situation we had found ourselves in. Already, we had formed a deep bond.

"It could be worse," we had said. We had not been kidnapped in Iraq, where being beheaded on video would be a probability. We were not being buggered or beaten. We would soon be released. Hot baths and cold beers awaited us. Now, however, there seemed nothing positive to say.

"We can survive this," I began uncertainly. "We may be here for a week, a month, or a year, but one day it will be over. We are both strong and one day we shall be free."

Three hours earlier, we had been bundled out of court in the rural town of Norton, some 30 miles outside Zimbabwe's capital, and loaded into a battered green Bedford prison bus.

As we drove north to Harare, a young prison officer - one of the "Green Bomber" recruits from youth militia and indoctrination camps - had recorded our details. I was now Prisoner 3190/05, he informed me.

"What is your tribe?" he asked us. "Who is your headman?" Julian and I conferred. Our tribe was English, we decided, and our headman and tribal chief was The Queen of England. Our details were solemnly noted down.

The reality of what was happening had still not hit us. We had just faced two charges in the Norton court: overstaying our visas and "practising journalism without accreditation" under Zimbabwe's notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

Although we had been awarded bail by the Norton magistrate, the state prosecutor had promptly invoked Section 122, a clause that meant Mugabe's government could appeal against the decision. We had to be held in jail for seven working days while papers were filed.

The culmination of our processing at the prison was an interview with the officer in charge there. A veteran of the war of independence, his reputation was one of callousness and slavish obedience to the state.

On occasions, it was said, he would refuse even to release the bodies of prisoners who died in his jail for their relatives to bury them. We were ordered to sit on the floor in front of a row of empty chairs. The bull-necked officer was sitting at a computer and kept his back to us, looking over the gold braid on his shoulder to speak.

We were to be allowed soap, a small towel and a toothbrush, he said, and were to address the guards as Mambo- Shona for "king". Any reading material we wanted had first to be examined by the prison censor, and we were forbidden a pen or paper.

"You are in here for committing journalism," he said. "If you have a pen, you might commit journalism again."

We had entered Zimbabwe knowing that we were taking a risk. Mugabe bitterly resents the criticism he has faced from the British press. We were there - officially - as tourists, nothing more.

But we both felt that this tourist status permitted us to take a lively interest in all things

Zimbabwean. And, as tourists, we clearly wanted to keep diaries and take photographs. Like every other awe-struck visitor, we would gaze at Victoria Falls and enjoy the sights of Matobo national park.

But, since our visit coincided with Zimbabwe's parliamentary elections, we would also take a good look at the queues outside the polling stations.

On election day itself, we headed south of Harare to the constituency of Manyame, where Hilda Mafudze, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, was being challenged by the Zanu-PF's Patrick Zhuawo, Mugabe's nephew.

We found that Zanu-PF was out in force, members of its youth wing positioned outside polling stations beating drums and telling voters that the way they had cast their ballots would be discovered. Our presence was glaring and, to Zanu-PF, unwelcome.

"Go back to Tony Blair," one youth spat at me when I asked what the election meant to him. "What are your kind doing here?" he asked, pointing to the pale skin on my forearm.

At Chiedza Primary School polling station in Norton, things started to go wrong. Max Makowe, a local Zanu-PF apparatchik, seized his chance to strike a blow for Mugabe and raised the alarm.

"You are intimidating voters and interfering with the election," he shouted. He was joined by another Zanu-PF loyalist, and a young female constable was beckoned over.

We protested that we had done nothing wrong and attempted to leave. But Makowe barked an order to the policewoman and, in an instant, a pair of handcuffs clicked shut around Julian's wrists. It was clear this was not something we could talk our way out of. Within an hour we were in Norton police station being interrogated.

Leading the questioning was a man we came to know as Detective Inspector Denford Dhilwayo. Chain-smoking Kingsgate cigarettes, he accused us of being spies.

"It is clear you work for MI6 or the CIA," he said. "I spent time in Russia so I know about these things. I worked with the KGB."

We had alerted the outside world to our plight by texting a message from the school saying we had been arrested, so we expected help to come eventually. In the meantime, we could only protest our innocence and state that we were tourists - a line we stuck to doggedly.

Diwayo, however, was having none of it. "You are on a mission and we need to find out what that mission is," he said. "Do you have revolvers? I was held at immigration at Gatwick once. They made me sleep in a drain for three days. This is what your country is about. Why are you here? There is no poverty and every crime is solved."

Our lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, arrived about two hours into an interrogation-turned-tirade that was all the more frightening because of its madness.

That night, we were marched off to the Norton police cell where we were to remain for four days, sleeping on urine-soaked blankets and unable to wash, read or exercise. The police cell, however, was nothing compared with the horrors of prison.

Our survival depended on items as mundane as cigarettes and toothpaste, vital lifelines brought to us by supporters in Harare. These items were traded for protection, provided by Henry, on remand for armed robbery, and Moses, charged with murdering a white couple he had worked for.

They stood guard as we took cold communal showers and crouched over the latrines.

Other inmates were not so lucky. Each morning they would shine the shoes of prison officers to get an extra cup of porridge. If their buffing was not good enough, they were kicked or beaten with a stick.

Every day, we were manacled and led to the prison bus bound for the Norton court. Others in the jail detained under AIPPA or the equally Orwellian Protection and Security Act were waiting months for a trial date, but at least, because we could afford an excellent lawyer, our case would be heard.

We remained in prison for 10 days before being handed over to the custody of the British consul, David Ashford, a constant support throughout our ordeal. On the eighth day, I was ordered to report to a prison officer by the usual hiss and a click of the fingers.

His boss, he said, wanted to see me. I was handcuffed and led into the outer courtyard, where a senior officer sat nonchalantly on a bench. I was ordered to sit at his feet while he lectured me about Zimbabwe. "There is no violence here," he informed me. " Zimbabwe is a democracy and people live freely here."

On the ninth day we were granted bail once again, but instead of being released we were taken back to the jail and told that "procedures" dictated we remain there. It took more than 20 prison officers to drag us back into our cell. The next day, it was over.

Mr Diza, the magistrate, showed that there are people of integrity in public positions in Zimbabwe. Despite knowing that we were journalists - we never denied our profession - he judged the case according to the law.

A prosecution of stunning ineptitude also helped deliver us, and we thanked God that evil could be so inefficient and Beatrice Mtetwa, our heroic defence lawyer, so incisively brilliant.

As we walked out of prison, I whispered to myself the words I had learnt in Shona, which I knew I would one day be able to utter in triumph. "Ndakasununguka," I said, as Julian and I hugged each other in relief. "I am free."

27th March 2005

In the week before Zimbabwe’s ‘fair’ election, the leader of the opposition plays cat and mouse with Mugabe spies

Having survived an assassination attempt, Morgan Tsvangerai remains constantly on the move. On a dusty road 60 miles from Harare, he grants a rare interview to Toby Harnden

EVEN in an election in which overt violence has been at a minimum, emboldening Zimbabwe’s opposition to campaign in Robert Mugabe’s rural strongholds, Morgan Tsvangirai is a very careful man.

The leader of the Movement for Democratic Change believes he is on the brink of ending Mr Mugabe’s 25-year grip on the country and predicts a “constitutional crisis” after Thursday’s parliamentary elections.

Having been branded a “tea boy” of colonialists by the ruling Zanu-PF party, being seen talking to a British journalist may not be politically advisable. Elaborate precautions must be taken.

After surviving at least one assassination attempt and defeating a recent treason charge, Mr Tsvangirai is loath to give Mr Mugabe, 81, and his ruling Zanu-PF any fresh opportunity to strike against him.

So it was on the side of the dusty road from Mubayira, 60 miles south of the capital Harare, that Zimbabwe’s main opposition leader granted “The Sunday Telegraph” a rare interview.

Mr Tsvangerai had earlier addressed a mass rally of MDC supporters, crammed into the shade of a group of msasa trees, before making a swift exit in his silver Pajero four-wheel-drive.

The rally was closely observed by police officers, Mugabe- appointed “election supervisors” and plain-clothed members of the feared Central Intelligence Office that is Zanu-PF’s eyes and ears.

A few miles on, the four-wheel-drive stopped for the MDC leader to relieve himself in the bushes. “It is not safe here,” said William Bango, his spokesman. “We will pull over a little further down the road and do it there.”

Five minutes later, Mr Tsvangirai, 53, stepped out to be interviewed in a lay-by. “We will win,” he said emphatically. “Our belief is we will get 65 per cent to 35 for Zanu-PF. “Even with a five per cent rigging opportunity for Mugabe, we will win.”

The MDC leader said that Mr Mugabe had made a serious miscalculation in assuming that his people were so cowed by years of brutality that many would vote for him out of fear of reprisals.

The ageing despot believed, he said, that voting by “dead” people – voter lists are believed to have been packed with the names of the deceased - bribing tribal chiefs and linking food distribution to Zanu-PF membership would ensure victory.

Zanu-PF’s gamble that they could minimise overt intimidation and thereby gain an international stamp of approval on the result would backfire, he said. “This government is desperate for legitimacy which means it is trying to put a portrayal of some semblance of a normal election.

“There is no visible violence this time and that has encouraged people to come out and express themselves. But that doesn’t mean there is not subtle violence. Old habits die hard.”

He said that Mr Mugabe’s government, which had promised open and fair” elections, would be paralysed by a hostile parliament. “We’ll have a constitutional crisis which will open the way for transitional negotiations.”

At the Mubayira election rally there had been a palpable sense of hope that the party’s six-year battle to oust Mr Mugabe was about to bear fruit.

More than 400 people were packed together beside a parched football pitch and a shack advertising “Coffin Sales”. Poverty in Mubayira, like most of Zimbabwe, is acute. “We have less than nothing,” said a man who gave his name as Shakespeare. “I have no shoes and no job.”

The beating of drums from a rival Zanu-PF rally just 300 yards away competed with ululating tribal dancers and chants in Shona of “change is coming” at the MDC rally. The open palms at the opposition gathering contrasted with the clenched fist Zanu-PF salutes.

Mr Tsvangirai was undeterred by the well-organised competing rally, set up without notice to disrupt the MDC event. “We have come a long way and now we are near the end of our struggle with Zanu-PF,” he roared. “This is the final push.”

Zimbabwe, which has 80 per cent unemployment, 130 per cent inflation and an average life expectancy of 33, had been bankrupted by Mr Mugabe and his cronies, he said. “Mugabe like a husband who has failed to make his wife pregnant in 25 years of marriage.

“Her parents come to take her away and he says, ‘No, give me just one more night so I can do it better’. He has destroyed our industry and our agriculture. Why should he get one more chance?”

The MDC needs to win a landslide 76 out of 120 seats to secure an outright majority because Mr Mugabe has the power to appoint 30 members of the 150-strong body.

This would be a dramatic improvement on the 2000 elections when it won 57 seats against a background of orchestrated violence and allegations of rigging by Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.

Mr Mugabe, however, has cast would-be successors into the political wilderness, weakening his control apparatus.

Many “war veterans” who fought alongside Mr Mugabe for Zimbabwe’s independence, plundered white farms at his behest and were mobilised in vast numbers for the 2002 presidential vote have deserted him.

“We were supporting him because of his historical background,” a senior member of the War Veterans’ Association told “The Sunday Telegraph”. “After the liberation struggle was successful in 1980, Mugabe was a hero but now there is discontent. Lots of us feel like this.”

The 51-year-old from Harare, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, spent three years in Zambia fighting with the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army against Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia.

He remains unrepentant about his part in mob attacks on white farms after 2000 in which many were slaughtered and their land seized. “When a revolution happens, there are bound to be these hassles. I could have been injured or killed. That’s the process.”

Now, however, he is disillusioned with Mr Mugabe. “He has changed. We have no pensions or benefits. Our land that we took back from the colonisers has not been given to the people.”

Mr Mugabe has been damaged by the economic crisis in the country and the sidelining of powerful figures like Emerson Mnangagwa and Jonathan Moyo.

“A lot of the brains behind the previous riggings have been kicked out,” said an MDC organiser in Matabeleland. “He’s going to be very stretched to do it over 120 seats this time. He’s old and tired and we are wiser.”

The few international poll observers allowed into Zimbabwe, however, caution that Mr Mugabe is still capable of perpetrating a massive electoral fraud. “There are plenty of ways to monkey the result,” said an American election monitor.

“Stuffing the ballot boxes is the sloppy way of doing it. The state of the art of election rigging is simply to tamper with the figures centrally.” Some MDC leaders caution privately that Thursday could see yet another false dawn.

Mr Mugabe has said he is fighting an “anti-Blair campaign”, branding Mr Tsvangirai a “tea boy” of the British government and vowing to “bury” Mr Blair and MDC on Thursday and write “here lies the latter-day neo-colonialist and the Union Jack never to rise again” on the grave.

Mr Tsvangirai, however, said Mr Mugabe’s bravado was a mask for a fear he might lose the elections. “He faces a real dilemma. How can he have an election that is seen as legitimate and yet also win?

“He cannot have it both ways. He has retreated from the democratic objectives the liberation struggle. He was a liberator and now he is an oppressor.

“Mugabe has privatised the country. He can do whatever he wants. He’s a demon. What can you expect from Africa and Mugabe? What a legacy he has created for himself.” With that, Mr Tsvangirai climbed back into the jeep and was gone.