Afghanistan - a country where there seems to be no direct translation for the English word "promise" into the local vernaculars - Every Picture Tells a Story [Don't it?] 29
Photo: Mujahideen poster protesting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan displayed in Peshawar, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, November 1980. Moscow ordered its military into the country during the (Western) Christmas holiday, 1979. This after a disastrous Moscow-backed coup in April 1978 removed the (Moscow-backed) President Daoud. There could be a pattern here somewhere.
Everyone, it seems, is writing about Afghanistan these days, and the catastrophe there in the wake of the US and Allied forces' withdrawal. Afghanistan is a long way from Budapest, and definitely off topic on this blog, and I had no plans for a piece like this.
That is until yesterday, when Amy, who I believer is a regular blog reader, sent me a link to a story by a man called Douglas London, the CIA's Counter-terrorism Chief for South and Southwest Asia until his retirement in 2019.
Reading Afghanistan, Not An Intelligence Failure — Something Much Worse, I realised London knew the country well. And I decided to write this piece to support, in my own modest way, at least the historical part of his thesis, which is here.
What experience, you may well ask, do I have to offer such support? Well, on paper, not much. But I have been in the country, three times in total, which includes a trip in 1976 when I hitched across the country from west to east.
Well, in truth, I drove a chunk of the way – my Pakistan-born driver (from Pear Tree Road, Derby, no less) was falling asleep at the wheel, so I volunteered to take over, even though at the time I had no driving licence. (Warning to travellers: you are safer driving in Afghanistan than invading the place, but not by much – especially around Kandahar after dark.)
I also ventured into the Kunar Valley, in the far east of the country, in November 1980, 11 months after the Soviet invasion. A mujahideen leader I'd met in Pakistan said he had "some thousand fighters" over the border under his command. Guided there by Abdul, a school teacher with a Lee Enfield rifle across his back, we* managed to meet exactly none in a three-day foray across the Durand Line.
(* I went in with Bernd, a 19-year old German traveller who came along for the adventure. After being hurriedly evacuated - “the Russians know you are here” we were told in whispers before dawn on the third morning - the commander suddenly demanded USD 100 each for the “work”. No such fee had been spoken of before the trip, and I didn't have the cash. Bernd paid for me. We met in Bremen 18 months later, when I returned the money.)
Photo: Soviet military flotsam and jetsam picked up by mujahideen in Afghanistan. These were placed on the office table of the "commander" of the "several thousand" fighters across the border - fighters who proved highly elusive when sought out by ourselves. Peshawar, November 1980.
Well, that's the briefest of summaries of my time in Afghanistan. But even in those three paragraphs you can catch a glimpse of the local 'realities'. The “some thousand fighters” were, at best, a realisation of a much-wished hope, at worst, an outright lie to lure me (and Bernd) into shelling out some cash. (USD 200 went a long way in rural, occupied Afghanistan at the time.)
But read some well-researched books of history, and it gets worse – much worse.
I can recommend Retreat from Kabul by Patrick Macrory, who recounts the story of how, in January 1842, under the promise of safe passage, some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians, including men, women, and children, began to withdraw from Kabul for Jalalabad, some 90 miles distant.
The long, straggling column had not even fully left the Afghan capital when they came under attack from local tribesmen.
During the next seven days, the vast majority were killed by a combination of Afghan attacks, starvation and intense cold. Just one European and a handful of Indian sepoys made it to the garrison in Jalalabad.
The cover of the 2002 edition of Mcrory's Retreat from Kabul
For a broader history of the emergence of Afghanistan from the late 18th century through the vicious 1800s to the final days of British India, you could do no better than Khyber, British India's north-west frontier: The story of an imperial migraine.
In 400 pages, Charles Miller details story after story of heroism, grit and determination (on all sides) interlaced with cowardice, indolence and indecision (mainly pertaining to Major-General William Elphinstone, the British Commander-in-Chief) and a never ending stream of broken promises, betrayals and unspeakable brutality on behalf of the Afghans.
I believe it is in this tome where Miller quotes a British colonial big shot (possibly the East India Company officer and later hero of the siege of Delhi, John Nicholson) as saying: "It's difficult governing a country where the peoples' basic philosophy is two eyes for an eye."
(Note this quote is from memory, and is not precise – but it contains the gist.)
But along with unlimited power of imagination morphing myth into truth, the one constant in Afghan political history is betrayal on a level incomprehensible to the European and certainly the Anglo-Saxon, mindset.
Khyber, by Charles Miller, published in 1977
I don't know if London, the former CIA chief, has read either book, but he certainly knows the territory. As he writes, some 180 years after the British retreat from Kabul:
"To an American it might be surprising, but it was nothing out of the ordinary for an Afghan military commander or police chief to be in regular contact even with those faced daily in combat … Switching sides for a better deal or to fight another day is a hallmark of Afghan history.”
Reports now say the Chinese are eagerly eyeing the mineral resources, especially the abundance of Lithium-rich ores that are present in Afghanistan.
Perhaps the publishers of the books mentioned here should quickly order Mandarin and Cantonese translations, they could be in for a windfall.
More likely, like those before them, the Chinese will learn the hard way.
Oh, and the Pakistani leadership should remember that – to the best of my knowledge – no Afghan leader has ever officially recognised the Durand Line, originally drawn up by Afghan Emir Abdur Rhahman Khan and the British in 1893, as the border Briths India and Afghanistan.
So if a future irredentist government in Kabul should ever move to expand influence in the tribal territories of today's western Pakistan, at least nobody can accuse the Afghans of breaking that promise, because they never made it, even if, de facto, they've (mostly) lived by it for 130 years.
UPDATE: Another reader has sent me this link. It is very perceptive, and rings true.