HELL IS ROUND THE CORNER

US EmbassyWhen one sees images of helicopters carrying the remaining American nationals from the US embassy to the airport in Kabul, it’s all-but impossible for anyone with any knowledge of past military follies to not see the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 all over again; the pictures of ignominious flight are all-but identical, despite the laughable denial of the White House. The skies above abandoned embassy compounds discoloured by smoke rising from the frantic burning of documents, and scenes of chaos as those who can get the hell out get the hell out are horribly familiar; one month short of 20 years since the event that embroiled America and its allies in Afghan affairs, any progress achieved in those tumultuous two decades was effectively wiped out in barely 24 hours as the capital of Afghanistan capitulated to the Taliban. The revitalised Islamic Mafiosi oozed such arrogance that they even paused to take in their triumph at the gates of Kabul as they encircled the city. They spoke of a peaceful transference of power, though promises of an amnesty for those who had worked for the deposed government have been greeted with valid scepticism, for it’s not as though the Taliban are an unknown quantity.

The sense of panic and dread on the streets for Afghan civilians in the nation’s capital as the Taliban approached the city with frightening speed has parallels not only with how it must have felt awaiting the arrival of the Vietnamese People’s Army in 1975 but the similarly tense anticipation of the incoming Khmer Rouge in neighbouring Cambodia that same year. How hard it is to put one’s self in those shoes when it’s so beyond the realm of lived experience on these islands. It’s something nobody in this country has come close to feeling since 1940 and it mercifully ended up not happening then after all. It’s sometimes difficult to relate to that feeling when no one has experienced it for real on British soil for almost a thousand years; it’s an utterly alien sensation, the kind one can only try to imagine with genuine horror. However, so commonplace is this sensation in many parts of the world, there must be an awful sense of déjà-vu for those old enough to remember the last time it happened in Afghanistan.

One of the main differences between the weekend’s events in Kabul and the ghosts it evokes is that, whereas the Communist North Vietnamese troops and Pol Pot’s forces were entering arenas they’d long craved but had never captured, the Taliban are the ambassadors of Afghanistan’s very own Groundhog Day. 20 years after US troops and the Northern Alliance chased them out of the capital, they’re back. A fragile political harmony in this precarious patchwork of a nation evaporated overnight as hundreds of Kabul’s citizens queued outside banks to withdraw their life savings; women who had got used to life without the burqa were desperately trying to get hold of one; the Afghan Army that Joe Biden confidently declared would hold back the Taliban once Western forces exited fell like the proverbial dominos; the country’s President Ashraf Ghani did a runner as his negotiations with warlords laid in tatters as one-by-one they too either fled or surrendered to the Taliban; and the roads out of Kabul were crammed with instant refugees to add to the hundreds already displaced by the Taliban’s race to the capital, refugees telling tales of Taliban atrocities as Afghan summertime is reset to 1996.

An important point, I guess, is that the Taliban don’t exist in a vacuum; without widespread support at home and in surrounding countries, they couldn’t have achieved what they’ve managed over the past couple of weeks. During their previous stint in charge, they banned music, dancing, cinema, painting and photography and relegated women to the status of infantilised property; and if some hadn’t missed living in this medieval theme park, the Taliban’s particular brand of ‘toxic masculinity’ wouldn’t be back in vogue. Then again, the Middle Eastern mindset tends to admire what it perceives as strength and despises what it perceives as weakness; there’d be no talk of an athlete’s ‘courage’ in running away in tears from the Olympics after a bad performance, vaguely citing mental health issues; that would be contemptuously viewed as the embodiment of weakness. The insular West busily undergoing a cultural crisis appears to have forgotten the rest of the world doesn’t think like we do, which is perhaps why the appeal of Putin to many Russians or that of the Taliban to many Muslims is so hard for many Westerners to get their heads around.

The leaders of Western nations who’d sacrificed hundreds of their countrymen’s lives to remake Afghanistan along democratic lines reacted to the situation with a series of spineless statements that barely disguised the dejection those nations feel when witnessing events in Kabul. Boris Johnson said, ‘It’s very important that the West collectively should work together to get over to that new government…nobody wants once again for Afghanistan to be a breeding ground for terror.’ And nobody in the West will be able to prevent it from becoming precisely that. But foreign investment in Afghanistan remains a vital component of its future – and the kind of foreign investment that has facilitated the current coup. For example, the Taliban has had a safe passage in and out of neighbouring Pakistan over the last 20 years – and without that it would arguably have been impossible for the organisation to regroup and rebuild to the point where they’ve been able to stage this admittedly stunning comeback in barely a fortnight.

One also shouldn’t overlook the support of Qatar either; indeed, this grotesque Absolute Monarchy was the location where the doomed Afghan government met with and tried to persuade the Taliban to stick their promises of an orderly transition of power, free from reprisals and ill-treatment of refugees. Now is probably an opportune moment to remember that this Arab autocracy and shining observer of human rights will be hosting the next World Cup. I wonder how many footballers quick to take the knee today will exhibit selective deafness on political issues as we approach 2022. Indeed, how many of them will echo the great Johan Cruyff’s principled refusal to play in the 1978 tournament because he opposed the Argentine military Junta? Nah, I’m not holding my breath either. Some are holding their breath and crossing their fingers right now, but I doubt if many women or girls in Afghanistan are; even those not born the last time the Taliban controlled the country will be aware that Sharia Law tends to single out the fairer sex for special treatment.

All those who were so eager to interpret the television adaptation of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ as some sort of parable for Trump’s America – even going so far as to don the distinctive Handmaid outfit at anti-Donald demonstrations – were in wilful denial that the one place on the planet where the fictional and brutal portrayal of female subjugation rang true was in a hardline Islamic state. The upcoming Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan will see Margaret Atwood’s story play out in real time once again, but of course the Western luxury of being able to pick and choose one’s heroes and villains will turn a blind eye to the plight of women under the oppressive restrictions of the Caliphate because that doesn’t fit the narrative. Women as ministers in government? Well, that can be consigned to history for starters, as can virtually every other progressive step forward for women’s rights in Afghanistan, which was one of the few genuinely positive gains to have emerged from the post-Taliban era. Going, going…gone. Just like the Western expedition into an often ideologically unfathomable alien landscape where one man’s sunset is another’s sunrise.

© The Editor

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DESERT STORMS

TalibanThe manner in which occupying superpowers exit foreign soil usually depends upon the circumstances surrounding their presence in the first place. European withdrawal from overseas territories in the post-war era was often prompted by the economically challenging strain of running Empires in the wake of global conflict; fighting for the mother country in WWII gave colonial subjects an extra bargaining chip in the clamour for self-determination, and most imperial overlords were too exhausted, broken and bankrupt to resist for much longer. Moreover, independence movements were rarely conducted in a non-violent fashion, and warring factions that placed the colonial masters in the unenviable role of permanent peacekeepers could lead to an ignominious flight from the colony in question. Palestine and India were not exactly dignified departures on the part of the British, and the less said about what happened in the Congo when the Belgians bolted the better. The painfully protracted battle for Algerian independence almost provoked civil war in France, with rebel French-Algerian generals pointing their warheads in the direction of Paris at the height of the crisis.

However, these distant examples were all the legacies of 19th century expansion by the European powers, staking a claim on land that was either taken by force, ceded from one power to another, or gradually occupied after the establishment of maritime trading posts. By the middle of the next century, attitudes were beginning to change and the first two or three decades following the end of the Second World War saw the previous century’s global conquerors in gradual retreat back to first-base. Military interventionism as we have come to know it is a different issue compared to Empire-building, but it can provoke the same indignation and aggression in the native population that characterised the final fractious years of colonialism. Of course, military intervention is never embarked upon without both an official motive and an ulterior one, even if the latter is something Western powers generally deny. But what’s really remarkable about many of the military interventions of the past 50-60 years is how they repeat the same mistakes that were often made in the very same countries before.

Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the USSR, was testament to Hitler’s misplaced belief that his war machine was capable of doing what Napoleonic France failed to achieve in 1812; indeed, one might argue Bonaparte’s Russian invasion was a success in comparison, for the Emperor and his army at least occupied Moscow, even if what they found when they got there was an empty shell of a city abandoned by the Tsar. Whilst the infamous French retreat from Moscow was already legendary by the time Nazi Germany suffered its own devastating defeat on cold Russian soil, the fact Adolph dismissed the lessons of history because he believed he was on the right side of it set a precedent that seems to have become the blueprint for military interventions ever since. The American adventure in Vietnam followed the French one, and the American expedition to Afghanistan followed the Soviet one. Neither previous example served as a warning or deterrent. It’s almost as though past disasters are never taken into account, as though the new army preparing to launch itself onto an old battlefield always believes it has the copyright on victory denied its predecessor.

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union was already living on borrowed time as a superpower, but the fact the Russians swiftly became embroiled in a conflict that spanned all-but 10 months of the next decade probably contributed in no small measure to the USSR’s collapse shortly thereafter. Stats for the number of casualties and losses on both sides in the war are (as is often the case) inconsistent, though it’s estimated over 14,000 Soviet troops lost their lives as well as 18,000 Afghan forces fighting alongside the Soviets; in total, around 80,000 Afghans are alleged to have been killed during the Soviet occupation, with the ‘lucky’ survivors reduced to refugees totalling 5 million. Bearing in mind just how prescient an example Afghanistan has become as a cautionary tale to superpowers contemplating intervening in another nation’s affairs, perhaps it’s no real surprise that Afghanistan is a country with something of a history when it comes to this.

The British had a go a couple of times when ensconced next-door in India – 1838 and 1878 – and neither could be classed as successful from a British perspective. A Russian presence in Afghanistan predates 1979 – indeed, the two British interventions in the 19th century were provoked by it; and the Russians returned in 1929 and 1930, when the Raj was still on the doorstep. The war that began in 1979 was the longest-running Russian intervention in Afghanistan, yet even the fact its disastrous legacy was well-documented didn’t prevent American troops touching down on Afghan soil just 12 years after the Soviet withdrawal.

Following 9/11 and confirmation that Osama Bin Laden and his gang were based in Afghanistan few were surprised when the US launched an inevitable invasion of the nation in October 2001, a military intervention backed by several NATO allies. There wasn’t much in the way of an alternative option when such a grotesque crime had been committed. That said, the Bush administration probably didn’t envisage it would take another decade (and another President) before 9/11 would be ‘avenged’ in the good ol’ fashioned American way by taking out Bin Laden; but by then America had become bogged down in another Middle Eastern conflict to which there seemed to be no end. Instigating one war in the region may be regarded as a misfortune; to instigate two looked like carelessness – and whichever way one studies events in Iraq, success is not a word that immediately springs to mind. When it came to Afghanistan, however, the first few months of the US presence saw a grateful population liberated from a gruesome regime that the world had barely paid attention to up to that point.

Post-Soviet, Afghanistan had fallen under the brutal rule of the hardcore fundamentalist Taliban, who first made an international name for themselves with their philistine approach to the antiquities of the Middle East, committing the cultural crime of destroying the ancient gigantic statues known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan early in 2001. As knowledge of their other activities became more widespread following the US invasion, the grim extent of their ‘Year Zero’ approach emerged; few who can recall seeing the joy on the faces of ordinary Afghans, dancing in the streets and gleefully shaving off their compulsory beards as Taliban strongholds swiftly collapsed, could dispute that – at least in the beginning – this military intervention had the look and feel of a necessary humanitarian mission. With the support of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, coalition forces swept the Taliban from power by the end of 2001 and there then followed attempts to establish a democratic political system.

Presidential elections took place in 2004, with Hamid Karzai elected President for the first of two five-year terms; but the Taliban hadn’t gone away. They were especially strong in Helmand province, where British troops were dispatched in 2006 – officially part of the reconstruction project, though quickly drawn into combat. Although the NATO involvement in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, the Taliban continued to wreak periodic havoc on the people, routinely staging the most unwelcome comebacks since Jedward; they are currently on the rise again – right at the very point when the remaining Western forces are winding up operations. President Biden last week announced the American military presence in Afghanistan will finally end next month, almost 20 years after US forces arrived. The body count in that time period is difficult to determine with accuracy, but some estimates reckon as many as 170,000 civilians alone have been killed. The one question it’s hard to avoid posing is was it worth it? Then again, has any intervention in Afghanistan ever made the country, the region or even the world as a whole a better, safer place? Anyone who has lived through the past couple of decades can only answer no.

© The Editor

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