When 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