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  • Robin Horsfall

Ali the Ice-cream man.

Ali the Ice-Cream Man.

Some time ago I had the good fortune to dine with senior officers from the Parachute Regiment aboard HMS Victory in Portsmouth. The dinner was a fine occasion with many senior non-commissioned officers and officers in mess dress. The rows of medals on their chests showed evidence of their years of active service. As the dinner progressed I commented on the costs to the Taleban of purchasing weapons, ammunition and explosives none of which are cheap and wondered who was actually funding them.

The Major sat beside me was in no doubt as to the answer to my question. “Why we are of course!” he exclaimed and then went on to tell me the story of Ali the ice cream man. While serving as a company commander in Helmand province in 2011 he was tasked to visit a US Army forward operating base (FOB) in a very dangerous area. No military vehicles could move on the roads because every road was mined. Everyone travelled on foot or by helicopter


As soon as an area was swept for improvised explosive devices (IED) they would be replaced by the Taleban. Young boys would sit all day and night one or two hundred metres from the roads at the end of the electrical wires with batteries waiting to prime or set off the explosives whenever a military vehicle came by. Sometimes they simply had to attach the batteries and leave. A pressure plate over the IED would do the rest as the vehicle drove over it. By controlling the batteries they could let the local vehicles through whenever they wished and reduce the risk to the local population.

An FOB in Afghanistan is a rude and uncomfortable place with rations that are very rudimentary often eaten cold and sometimes running out. The soldiers were on the front line wearing helmets and sleeping fully dressed. The priority was always given to ammunition and water the two items which are most vital to fighting a battle and surviving. When my friend arrived he was offered food and was stunned to discover that ice cream was on the menu. “How the hell did you get this?” he asked. The American commander told him that they simply waited for Ali the ice cream man to turn up with his refrigerated van with boxes of ice cream in the back. They would then buy his ice cream. It was more cost effective to buy rations from local tradesmen than it was to fly them in so ample cash funds were made available for local purchase. Ali would sell his ice cream to the soldiers and then drive off down the road unscathed.

He asked how Ali could drive up the road and didn’t they worry about the food being infected or poisoned? The reply was simple. Once he had been paid he would pay a commission or tax to the Taleban who would allow him to drive on their roads there was no return on ruining the food. Ali and the Taleban would lose their profit. Multiply this system across every military base in Afghanistan and you soon understand how the insurgents found the money to fuel their war. In fact the very presence of the UN and its money created a war economy. None of the tradesmen wanted the war to end because it would destroy their ability to earn good money. The Taleban didn’t want peace because the UN would go home and they wouldn’t get their taxes. Almost all of the Afghan economy relied on our money we pay them to fight us.

I thought that this was ridiculous and he laughed and agreed. 'War is mad' he said. Sadly he didn’t have a picture but I couldn’t get the image out of my head of Ali in a Mr Whippy ice cream van with a big plastic cone on the roof playing music as it drove down the road away from the American fort.

So who’s paying ISIS?

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