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Writing in the New Statesman, British historian William Dalrymple offers a disturbing take on the current prospects for the U.S.-led NATO operations in Afghanistan:
nearly ten years on from Nato’s invasion of Afghanistan, there are increasing signs that Britain’s fourth war in the country could end with as few political gains as the first three and, like them, terminate in an embarrassing withdrawal after a humiliating defeat, with Afghanistan yet again left in tribal chaos and quite possibly ruled by the same government that the war was launched to overthrow.
Certainly it is becoming clearer than ever that the once-hated Taliban, far from being swept away by General Stanley McChrystal’s surge, are instead regrouping, ready for the final act in the history of Hamid Karzai’s western-installed puppet government. The Taliban have now advanced out of their borderland safe havens to the very gates of Kabul and are surrounding the capital, much as the US-backed mujahedin once did to the Soviet-installed regime in the late 1980s. Like a rerun of an old movie, all journeys by non-Afghans out of the capital are once again confined largely to tanks, military convoys and helicopters. The Taliban already control more than 70 per cent of the country, where they collect taxes, enforce the sharia and dispense their usual rough justice. Every month, their sphere of influence increases. According to a recent Pentagon report, Karzai’s government has control of only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts.
The core of Dalrymple’s rather long and erudite ramble through the history of Western military operations in Afghanistan comes in his description of a meeting with local elders in Jalalabad, where a council, or jirga, had just been held:
As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never turned up. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered. They planted poppy, informing the local authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at nearby Jegdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and ten police hostages taken.
After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. “Last month,” he said, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.’”
What did he say to that? “He turned to his friend and said, ‘If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?’ In truth, all the Americans here know that their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.”
A few years ago I heard Dalrymple deliver a fascinating lecture on the siege of Delhi during the 1857 war—a conflict known to the English as the “Sepoy Rebellion” but to the Indians as the “Great Patriotic Uprising”–at the University of Edinburgh. With his mastery of new material in Farsi, Pushto, and Urdu, he brought the subject to life in a way that no other English-speaking historian of the epoch has done. His ability to clear the barrier between popular history and serious academic analysis is fueled by his extraordinary familiarity with local tongues and social ways of the subcontinent, with a focus on its perennially quarrelsome northwest quadrant. Dalrymple’s prognosis may yet be premature, but his voice is one that demands to be taken seriously, both by the generals and by politicians in denial.
More from Scott Horton:
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”