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Obsessed with Afghanistan


William Thatcher Dowell

Afghanistan is not just the “graveyard of empires.” It is also, as President Joe Biden has just discovered, a nearly perfect demonstration of what happens when brutal reality overtakes comforting delusions.

My first trip to Afghanistan was in 1973. I had just spent six years reporting on the war in Vietnam, and I thought that for once it might be interesting to travel around the world by land. After crossing India and Pakistan, I took a taxi on the winding road through the Khyber Pass.

The original British picket forts that still dotting the mountainside testified to the ingenuity of the attackers and the desperation of the defenders. My taxi was stopped by a group of about 40 men armed with rifles and an occasional flintlock. They laughed and said not to worry. They were after members of a different tribe. A daughter had been kidnapped and was in danger of being forced into marriage. They were going to resolve the problem at gunpoint.

When I reached Kabul, it still had aspects of a medieval city. Camel caravans camped in an open field in the city center. In the morning, I heard the shrieks of camels being slaughtered for fresh meat. Most of the foreigners were itinerant American hippies making their way around the world on a backpack junket. I talked with the owner of a popular hotel on the Hippie Trail, which ended abruptly with the Soviet invasion in the late 1979.

“I don’t think the hippies are going to come here forever,” he said. “I’m going to sell the hotel, go to New York, and I will buy myself two wives.” Americans, I decided, were not the only ones to have delusions.

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The Afghan fight against the Russians, and the conflict that involved Americans nearly two decades later, are two very different geopolitical proxy wars, but certain constants hold for both. Biden’s decision to surrender to Donald Trump’s agenda and finally terminate the 20-year war that started with the administration of George W. Bush may be just the latest catastrophe in an ongoing saga that has lasted more than a century.

While the mythos of Afghanistan as "the graveyard of empire" may be overblown, the Great Game's bloodier moments were memorialized by Rudyard Kipling, that bard of empire, in “The Ballad of East and West,” in his novel, Kim, as well as in the short story, “The Man Who Would Be King.”

He may have summed up the West's notions's best in his ballad “The Young British Soldier:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains

And the women come out to cut up what remains

Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Afghanistan has been an unceasing battleground since the days of the Great Game. Back then, 19th-century Britons saw the mountains of the Hindu Kush as an essential barrier protecting the East India Company’s holdings from the Russian czar’s temptation to interfere with Muslim India and the wealth that largely fueled Britain’s colonial empire.

In 1839, Britain occupied Kabul, only to be surrounded and brutally cut off by Afghan tribes. Major General William Elphinstone negotiated terms for a “safe” passage in 1842 with Wazir Akbar Khan, the leader of the insurrection. Believing Khan's word, Elphinstone naively led an assortment of 16,000 British troops and camp followers towards Jalalabad, 90 miles away. Only one European, the doctor, William Brydon, reached Jalalabad alive. The Afghans spared Brydon so that he could tell the British the extent of the disaster.

As the British learned, Afghanistan was never going to be safe, yet after subsequent invasions Britain managed to finalize a treaty that kept Afghanistan within its sphere of influence. After India’s independence in 1949, the Muslim parts of India were separated from the main part of India to create Pakistan. No longer useful, Afghanistan was left to fend for itself.

Likewise, the general reaction abroad to Biden’s sudden departure is that most Americans no longer care what happens to Afghanistan. They may be right. This is not the case, however, for anyone who knows and loves the country. Most Americans who have spent time in Afghanistan become obsessed with it.

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The Panjshir Valley (Valley of the Five Lions) is near the Hindu Kush.

The Kush is a 500-mile long mountain range that is the westernmost extension of the Himalayas.

My second trip to Afghanistan was in 1981. The Russians had invaded and taken over the government in Kabul. Thanks to the connections of a friend, Ed Girardet, we were able to join a caravan of mujahedeen loyal to a tribal leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, and we headed out on foot over the mountains from Tari Mangal to the Panjshir Valley about 150 miles to the north.

The first thing that I noticed about the caravan was that the Afghans walk at a measured pace, but the average Westerner has to run to keep up with them. Some of the mountains were 18,000 feet. The air was so thin that the slightest weight seemed too heavy to carry, yet the Afghans barely noticed. They were the closest to supermen that I had yet encountered.

Russian helicopters were an omnipresent threat, but each Afghan carried a multipurpose brown or beige blanket that could be used to shelter from the cold or as a makeshift pack to carry goods. When a helicopter flew overhead, the Afghan simply crouched down and covered himself with the blanket. From the air, he looked like just another rock.

Along the route, I found occasional abandoned snapshots of Russian soldiers. They looked disconcertingly like an average American. I began to feel almost sorry for the Russians. I had the impression that their commanders would drop them off by helicopter on a mountain top and then come back to pick up the bodies in the morning. The Afghans seemed impervious to it all.

Vendors selling various fruits and nuts are shown at an outdoor market in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 1961.

We trekked past the perimeter of Bagram, which was then the principal Russian airbase. “We broke into the base a week ago,” one of the Afghans said. “We got into the infirmary and we machine-gunned the Russians who were lying in bed.” I said that I thought most Westerners would not approve. “Why not?” he said. “It is easier to shoot someone when they are in bed.”

Although Massoud was extremely popular, each village that we crossed required a lengthy negotiation and discussion before we could enter. Afghanistan, I realized, was not so much a country as it was an open territory inhabited by a patchwork of different tribal groups, none of whom trusted their neighbors. I carried a map produced by the Pentagon, and for every village that we entered, I religiously checked off the name. Not one of the names on the map actually matched what the villagers told me.

At night, we slept in village mosques or in chaikhanas, traditional tea houses that were spaced a day’s walk from each other. When we crossed Afghanistan’s roaring river torrents, every member of the group linked arms. We formed a human chain. One end of the chain floated across the river and then anchored the chain while the other half crossed. There was a feeling of solidarity and fraternity that is hard to describe.

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When we finally reached the Panjshir, we looked down on the valley from a mountain top. A Russian offensive was underway. We covered ourselves with our blankets. I counted 60 helicopters that flew overhead. The height of the mountain meant that the helicopters were only able to fly a few hundred yards above us, yet none of them saw us. We were effectively invisible.

Afghanistan, I thought, was nothing like Vietnam. In contrast to the military tactics and weapons that I had seen in Vietnam, the mujahedeen seemed almost laughably inexperienced. Some of them still carried flintlock muskets.

Twenty years of fighting the Russians and each other, and then another 20 years fighting Americans, have changed that. Afghans today are anything but naive about weaponry or tactics.

The rise of the Taliban may be the single biggest change. The Taliban movement was launched by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. Pakistan’s concern was that India might try to exert its influence in Afghanistan and create a pincer movement squeezing Pakistan from either side. The Taliban — the word means “student” — were built around a core of Afghan youth who had studied in madrassas, or religious schools, and ultimately ended as refugees in Pakistan.

The movement, initially financed and fed by Pakistan, eventually invaded and overcame a country already weakened by bloody confrontations between warring tribal groups. The result was to assign all of Afghanistan to the less than tender mercies of religious fanatics. As their power increased, the Taliban began threatening the government in Pakistan as well. All that stopped when the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden following the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and George W. Bush sent in the US Army to set things straight.

The problem was that in the wake of 9/11, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld still didn’t care about what was taking place in Afghanistan. Their whole purpose was the destruction of al-Qaeda in the country. Afghanistan would not be allowed to serve as a rear base for terrorism. The Bush administration made it clear that, as far as Afghanistan was concerned, we were no longer concerned with the nation building that had characterized our efforts in Iraq and Vietnam. In short, once al-Qaeda was destroyed, we really didn’t care or think about what would come next.

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"Our Bastard" Abdul Rashid Dostom in his camo heyday. Now he wears a suit.

To clear out al-Qaeda, the administration turned to the Northern Alliance, a group formed of tribal commanders who were mostly ethnic Tajiks. This ignored the fact that the country’s largest ethnic group is Pushtun. It also overlooked the fact that a number of our initial allies had earned reputations as warlords and some as war criminals. Abdul Rashid Dostom, an Uzbek tribal leader who had once reportedly driven over live prisoners with a tank and then suffocated others in the back of a truck, was a prime example. These men might have been bastards, but they were “our bastards,” and the Bush administration hoped that they would get the job done.

While the US extended control over the Afghans, it had no idea of how to keep control, especially once US troops pulled out. The administration didn’t really care that the people we had placed in power believed neither in democracy nor in human rights. They also didn’t think about why the average Afghan should be attracted to what these men had to offer.

Bush had clearly seen Afghanistan as a temporary operation while he focused on Iraq. What he failed to see was that the US involvement in Afghan affairs was not only not going anywhere, it wasn’t ending either. After he was elected president, Barack Obama fatally listened to the Pentagon when they argued that a massive surge in US troop presence might make a difference. It didn’t. The U.S. sent in 40,000 troops. In Vietnam, it had deployed more than 500,000. The results were the same.

Faced with an openly corrupt government that had nothing to offer its citizens except empty rhetoric, most Afghans simply waited for the Americans to get tired and leave. When that finally happened, however, it still took even the Afghans by surprise.

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Biden may have had the most well-intentioned motives for following through on the agreement to withdraw from Afghanistan. His problem was in failing to foresee the consequences. Afghanistan was like a landmine. Step on it, and you are still OK until you move your foot away. Then all hell breaks loose.

When I was there, even after having seen the full power of American military might in Vietnam, I still felt that any foreign war in Afghanistan would be next to impossible to win. Like Kipling, I pitied the young soldier, Russian or American, who might be sent to fight there.

Aside from the terrain, Vietnam could not be won, in part, because the enemy had its rear base in North Vietnam and could easily cross into South Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia. We couldn’t attack the North directly without risking that China might be drawn into the war, making it even more costly.

In Afghanistan, the important rear base was Pakistan. We couldn’t attack Pakistan without risking an extension of the war beyond any bounds that might be acceptable. Besides, Pakistan was now a nuclear power, as was its chief rival, India. We were stuck.

Biden may have simply recognized the inevitable and continued a chain of events that had already been set in motion by Trump — ever an isolationist. Biden may have made a hash out of the evacuation, but so did his predecessors in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless series of wars. Whatever the rationale, looking at the scenes of chaos that resulted from the botched American evacuation, it is hard not to raise questions about America’s readiness to deal with security challenges in the future.

All we can do now is wait and see what the Taliban will do. A member of the now-defunct Afghan Parliament, looking out her window as the Taliban closed in, commented, “They may take over the country, but they won’t be able to run it.”

The question now is whether the fury that has engulfed Afghanistan will eventually spread back into the Pakistan that helped create it. If that happens, we may find ourselves facing a new crisis that is considerably more serious. The ancient Greeks had a mythological beast that neatly embodies the kind of threat that terrorism represents. They called it the Hydra. When you cut off one head, two more take its place.

William Thatcher Dowell was a foreign correspondent for Time magazine and NBC News, and an associate producer for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." As Time's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief, based in Hong Kong, and as a Paris bureau correspondent, he reported on Africa, the Middle East and India.

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