Putting SA into perspective

Jeremy Gordin writes on the Taliban's rapid takeover of a country run by a familiarly feckless govt

When I was in my 20s and troubled by floaters in my right eye, an optometrist said to me that I ought to “lift up my eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help”.

He was, as I’m sure you realise, referring to Psalm 121 and suggesting that I ought to move my eyes from computer screens or newspaper pages and help them to re-focus by resting them on something faraway.

Sometimes – I was thinking today – one should do the same with some of one’s primary interests; one should focus on something further away, thereby cleansing, so to speak, one’s neural pathways.

So today I shan’t write about the geniuses at the department of social development wanting Seffricans to contribute 12% of their earnings to a new government-backed fund – clearly the ANC is running short of money on which members can lay their grasping paws. Nor shall I discuss Cyril Ramaphosa’s moronic and insulting plan (read: deal) to have former defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula elected as the new speaker of the National Assembly – which in fact happened as I was writing this article.

Today I want to talk about Afghanistan – about yet another American client state biting the dust. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

One internet site I follow is called Five Books. On it “experts” recommend “the best” five books on particular subjects and, as might be expected, one recent subject was Afghanistan [i]. Obviously, however, it’s difficult to cover a vast and complex subject in only five books [ii] and, obviously too, though sometimes difficult to remember, there’s more to Afghanistan than politics and conflict [iii]. In short, there exists a plethora of books and articles on Afghanistan [iv].

But one book I have re-read during the last 24 hours is Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground (Portobello Books, 2011) by Jonathan Steele, my brother-in-law, formerly chief foreign correspondent of the Guardian; and the reason I returned to it has to do with more than family solidarity.

The thing about Steele [v], besides being lucid and to-the-point, is that he reported on Afghanistan for 30 years, starting in 1981 during the Soviet occupation, and covered the Taliban take-over of the Afghan capital in 1996 as well as their collapse in December 2001. Steele was also part of the team that got early access to the WikiLeaks cache on Afghanistan. Above all, Steele is one of those journalists who tries to be fair and honest [vi].

So, while the book is indeed a decade old, its age really only affects what we these days call the metrics – Afghanistan’s population, ethnic groups in percentage terms, its poverty rating, etc. – and these don’t matter that much. One can look up metrics, and also one generalization that it seems one can make about Afghanistan is that plus ça change plus c'est la meme chose, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anyway, you know the basic story, right? In 1973 a fellow called Mohammed Daoud Khan took power and proclaimed a republic and one-party state. In 1978 there was a coup by the People’s Democratic party of Afghanistan (PDPA), the Commies. In 1979, to shore up the PDPA, the Soviets arrived and installed one Babrak Karmal, replaced by Mohammed Najibullah in 1986.

But the anti-Soviet mujahedin (of which the Taliban was then but one faction) didn’t like the status quo, fought the Soviets, and when the Soviets left in 1989, the civil war intensified, and mujahedin forces entered Kabul in 1992. By September 1996, however, the Taliban had taken control in Kabul and a man called Osama bin Laden had moved to Kandahar. Then, in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks in US, the Taliban refused to hand over Bin-Laden to the US, and in October the US attacked, toppling the Taliban.

Nato allies had joined the US and a new Afghan government took over in 2004 (first Afghan president was Hamid Karzai, later Ashraf Ghani, who’s just fled the country). Taliban attacks continued, though President Barack Obama’s “troop surge” in 2009 helped push back the Taliban ....

By 2011 President Obama announced the withdrawal of 33 000 troops. In 2014, at the end of the bloodiest year since 2001, Nato’s international forces ended their combat mission, leaving “responsibility for security” to the American- and British-trained Afghan army and police. Peace talks between the US and the Taliban started tentatively, with the Afghan government pretty much uninvolved, and the agreement on a withdrawal came in February 2020 in Qatar (when Donald Trump was president).

The US and Nato allies agreed to withdraw all troops within 14 months if the Taliban upheld their side of the deal [vii]. US president Joe Biden announced that all US troops would leave Afghanistan by 11 September 2021.

But, whoops, in just more than a month, the Taliban swept across Afghanistan, taking control of towns and cities all over the country, including, just a few days ago, Kabul. Afghan security forces had clearly “collapsed” – leaving hundreds of American citizens and those who had helped or worked for them during the last 20 years high and dry.

There are doubtless numerous omissions in my truncated history, covering a multitude of sins, issues, and questions. But let’s nonetheless swing forward to this week – and to the questions that I (and I hope you) have right now after breathlessly watching three days of breathless TV reports on the BBC, CNN, and so on.

One of the first issues that had the mainstream media – and it seems the US and British governments – scrambling was this: what happened to the much-vaunted Afghan army and police force? Why did they apparently dissolve like dew once the sun comes up?

This one is relatively easy to answer. Despite what senior US officers were (or weren’t) telling government officials, the Afghan army and police were in many areas not getting their pay, in some places they had no food – a corrupt government with numerous officials grabbing the loot.

And despite the hoopla from some American officers about how they’d upgraded the Afghan army, many of the rank-and-file remain illiterate (if you can’t read maps, you can’t call in artillery or aircraft fire). There have also been startling rates of desertion and attrition, according to a forthcoming book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock of the Washington Post.

What’s more, it was obviously already known to Afghans that US and other forces had left and were leaving, and Taliban members were talking to their fellow countrymen and offering them nice dollars – not to mention no blood – if they simply laid down their arms and disappeared. Why die for a corrupt government and a bunch of foreigners?

This brings us to what has been dubbed the Taliban 2.0 – the so-called new Taliban. Well, Taliban leaders would have to be pretty stupid not to have realised in their discussions with the American peacemakers in Qatar that the Americans wanted to get out, and all they (the Taliban negotiators) had to do was agree with certain things and they’d be rid of the accursed foreigners. (Lesson: do not confuse ultra-conservative religious orthodoxy with stupidity.)

This brings us to some other questions. The Taliban have so far presented an apparently reasonable and relatively moderate face to the world, but is this – the Doha face – going to continue? If things go awry, there will be terrible times for women and girls and their families.

All the experts say we have to wait and see. There are already social media reports that groups of bearded men are going from house to house asking about women and journalists. Still, would the Taliban leadership take the chance of messing up what has become a “famous victory”?

Similarly, what about all those people trying to reach the Hamid Karzai International Airport (which the US controls), foreign citizens and those who worked for the foreigners during the last 20 years? It depends on how well the Taliban rank-and-file are getting the message from their leaders – especially as it seems obvious that the US military state department is talking to the Taliban leaders.

I’d guess that foreigners and those with visas and such paperwork will make it through the Taliban checkpoints outside the airport. But I fear that Afghans without documents, who have to “explain” their connection with the US or Brits or try to “rationalise” their need for leaving, are going to have a tough time.

Still, the Taliban leaders know the US and others are watching – and that the US and others are very touchy just now for a number of reasons.

A deeply corrupt, feckless government; countless factions; irresolute, weak, and leaderless “security” forces whose loyalties are not really known; broken promises of all kinds; the chaos of violence, including looting; sections of a country’s citizens apparently thrown to the wolves ...

And there I was, trying not to write about South Africa in any way.


[i] The books were recommended by “Afghanistan expert” Thomas Barfield, professor of anthropology at Boston University, director of the Institute for the Study of Muslim Societies & Civilization, etc.

[ii] Barfield’s choice is: The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History by Ibn Khaldun; Buzkashi: Game and Power in Afghanistan by G Whitney Azoy; A Political and Diplomatic History of Afghanistan, 1863-1901 by M Hassan Kakar; Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia by Ahmed Rashid; and The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre.

[iii] For example, one of Barfield’s book choices is, as we see, about “buzkashi,” which means, literally, goat-grabbing. As Barfield explains, “buzkashi is a very famous game played in North Afghanistan which is a bit like polo played with a dead goat, or rather a calf because the Afghans say a goat is too fragile and the game ends too fast! In this type of polo, a scrum of horsemen battles to grab the carcass and break free with it to win the round”.

[iv] Let’s also not forget that my Parkview neighbour, Greg Mills, head of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation, wrote From Africa to Afghanistan: With Richards and NATO to Kabul (Wits University Press, 2007) and various more recent (and excellent) articles, which readers can easily find.

[v] Steele won a Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in honour of his career contributions; was named International Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards in 1981 and again in 1991; won the London Press Club’s Scoop of the Year Award in 1991 for being the only English-language reporter to reach the villa in the Crimea where Mikhail Gorbachev was held captive and to interview the Soviet president during the brief coup in August that year; in 1998, won Amnesty International's foreign reporting award for his coverage of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo; and in 1998 also won the James Cameron Award.

[vi] Handily, too, Steele’s book starts with “Thirteen myths about Afghanistan,” each of which is explained more fully in the text.

[vii] The Taliban promised to prevent terrorism, to renounce al-Qaeda, and to prevent groups from using Afghan soil to plot attacks on the US or its allies.