Thursday, 19 August 2021

Afghanistan - A few thoughts

 I've always taken a bit of an interest in Afghanistan. Back in 1979, I was planning a visit. One of my friends, Emil Brydon ran Budget Bus, an overland travel company which ran a coach service from Totteridge Station to New Delhi. Another friend was one of the drivers, Ernie Ferebee. They both fascinated me with tales of  their exploits on the overland trail, travelling passing through Afghanistan on the way. Both told me of villages in the middle of the nation, where all of the citizens were blond haired and blue eyed, a legacy of the conquest of Afghanistan by Alexander the Great. Emil's great uncle, William Brydon was the sole survivor of the British force of 12,000 massacred by the Afghans in 1842. As Emil had a familial interest, he studied the region and would take passengers on detours to check details. Ernie also developed an interest in the culture and history of the region. Ernie was in Kabul when the Soviets invaded. He told us stories of being told by the hotel staff to get his passengers out and head for the border as quickly as possible, being advised to pay whatever bribes were necessary to escape.

Emil and Ernie predicted that the Soviet Union would be vanquished. They said that history was not on the side of foreign powers intervening in the country. Soon the western papers were full of news of the brave Mujahadin. Emil and Ernie were both staunch supporters of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation. They would rub shoulders with the likes of Sandy Gall, the ITN newsman, at events for the resistance. The US backed the Mujahadin, with such figures as Osama Bin Laden being on the CIA payroll. After a long struggle, that decimated the country, the Soviets were forced out. The scenario unfolded exactly as Emil and Ernie predicted on their return from the region in 1980. Sadly for my plans, the Soviet invasion marked the end of the overland Hippy Trail and my plans to join the boys on a journey.

Both Emil and Ernie ended up working for me. Emil as a tour manager for a band I was managing and Ernie as my studio manager and partner in our retail business. I'd spend many hours discussing the world situation with both. Sadly Ernie passed away in 2001, before the current situation unfolded. Emil however took a keen interest. He soon flagged up the mistakes we were making.

I just had a quick catch up. His view? This moment was inevitable from the moment the first US and UK soldiers arrived on the ground. His question? Trillions have been spent by the USA on the country, what have they to show for that? His knowledge of Afghan traditions, clan ties etc, was that long before the US left, the deals were in place for when they left. As soon as the wages of govt soldiers stopped being paid by the US, they had no reason to support the government. The relatively orderly change in Kabul does not so far look like the victorious end of a bitter civil war. 

As to the other cities, each of these has it's own local power structure. None of these areas are particularly wealthy or desirable.  For many areas, the only real asset is the opium trade. Local warlords trade allegiance for the right to hold the local franchise to produce narcotics. Will the Taliban stop this when they have no tangible source of wealth in the nation? It seems unlikely to me. 

The biggest losers in all of this will be the educated, city dwelling middle classes, especially the females. But afghanistan is not just Kabul. There is a side that most of us never see, this is the side that Ernie and Emil were fascinated by. So what is this Afghanistan? Whilst not all Afghans are Taliban, apart from Kabul, most areas have a fairly fundamentalist population.  Generally, whilst they are welcoming of guests and visitors, this soon disappears when they start getting told how to live their life or interpret the Koran. The West often forgets that as in most major religions, there are different flavours of Islam and different varieties of fundamentalism. Having got rid of the western influence, many will want to juts get on with their lives. The trillions have had little impact on the lives of the ordinary people in outlying areas. Without a war to fight, many men will have to find something else to do. Only one thing is for certain, there will be far less cash flowing into the country and far fewer corrupt officials etc siphoning it off. If nothing else, we've comprehensively proven the Afghans right about what happens when foreign powers stick their nose into Afghan affairs. The argument has been made in some quarters that at least we've prevented Afghanistan being used as a terrorist hub for 20 years. The truth is that threat has long since evolved. When Bin Laden launched the 911 attacks, the internet as we know it did not exist. There was no Dark Web, Whatsapp, Facebook, etc.  Terrorists now understand that information is power in a way few understood when they were living in caves in Afghanistan. The Taliban in 2001 were a shadowy organisation. Now they hold live press conferences. The beast has evolved.

But what about us and the Americans? 456 British soldiers have died. If one of them was my child, I'd feel sick to the pit of my stomach. It will be very interesting in 25 years time, when the papers are released, to see the truth about what our government knew about the situation and what drove the decisions. I somehow suspect that in five years when the papers detailing the decisions to go in are due to be released, they will be withheld. Did we ever really have a plan? Did we learn any lessons from the Soviets? Was there ever a possibility that we'd succeed? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but if the answer is no, then we really need to take a long look at our foreign policy. One thing I do know is that the reason we lost hundreds of British soldiers is because they were not properly kitted out with the right equipment. It is bad enough embarking on doomed military adventures, but sending soldiers in without decent kit is criminal. But for some reason, no one is talking about that.

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