I sit on the rooftop of the old Central Hotel – pharaonic-decorated elevator, unspeakable apple juice, sublime green tea, and armed Tajik guards at the front door – and look out across the smoky red of the Kabul evening. The Bala Hissar fort glows in the dusk, massive portals, the great keep to which the British army should have moved its men in 1841. Instead, they felt the king should live there and humbly built a cantonment on the undefended plain, thus leading to a “signal catastrophe”.
Like automated birds, the kites swoop over the rooftops. Yes, the kite-runners of Kabul, minus Hollywood. At night, the thump of American Sikorsky helicopters and the whisper of high-altitude F-18s invade my room. The United States of America is settling George Bush’s scores with the “terrorists” trying to overthrow Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government.
Now rewind almost 29 years, and I am on the balcony of the Intercontinental Hotel on the other side of this great, cold, fuggy city. Impeccable staff, frozen Polish beer in the bar, secret policemen in the front lobby, Russian troops parked in the forecourt. The Bala Hissar fort glimmers through the smoke. The kites – green seems a favourite colour – move beyond the trees. At night, the thump of Hind choppers and the whisper of high-altitude MiGs invade my room. The Soviet Union is settling Leonid Brezhnev’s scores with the “terrorists” trying to overthrow Barbrak Karmal’s corrupt government.
Thirty miles north, all those years ago, a Soviet general told us of the imminent victory over the “terrorists” in the mountains, imperialist “remnants” – the phrase Kabul communist radio always used – who were being supported by America and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Fast forward to 2001 – just seven years ago – and an American general told us of the imminent victory over the “terrorists” in the mountains, the all but conquered Taliban who were being supported by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The Russian was pontificating at the big Soviet airbase at Bagram. The American general was pontificating at the big US airbase at Bagram.
This is not déjà-vu. This is déjà double-vu. And it gets worse.
Almost 29 years ago, the Afghan “mujahedin” began a campaign to end the mixed schooling of boys and girls in the remote mountain passes, legislation pushed through by successive communist governments. Schools were burned down. Outside Jalalabad, I found a headmaster and his headmistress wife burned to death. Today, the Afghan Taliban are campaigning to end the mixed schooling of boys and girls – indeed the very education of young women – across the great deserts of Kandahar and Helmand. Schools have been burned down. Teachers have been executed.
As the Soviets began to suffer more and more casualties, their officers boasted of the increasing prowess of the Afghan National Army, the ANA. Infiltrated though they were by the “mujahedin”, Moscow gave them newer tanks and helped to train new battalions to take on the guerrillas outside the capital.
Fast forward to now. As the Americans and British suffer ever greater casualties, their officers boast of the increasing prowess of the ANA. Infiltrated though they are by the Taliban, America and other Nato states are providing them with newer equipment and training new battalions to take on the guerrillas outside the capital. Back in January of 1980, I could take a bus from Kabul to Kandahar. Seven years later, the broken highway was haunted by “mujahedin” fighters and bandits and the only safe way to travel to Kandahar was by air.
In the immediate aftermath of America’s arrival here in 2001, I could take a bus from Kabul to Kandahar. Now, seven years later, the highway – rebuilt on the express instructions of George W but already cracked and swamped with sand – is haunted by Taliban fighters and bandits and the only safe way to travel to Kandahar is by air.
Throughout the 1980s, the Soviets and the ANA held the towns but lost most of the country. Today, America and its allies and the ANA hold most of the towns but have lost the southern half of the country. The Soviets secretly sent another 9,000 troops to join their 115,000-strong occupation force to fight the “mujahedin”. Today, the Americans are publicly sending another 7,000 troops to join their 55,000-strong occupation force to fight the Taliban.
In 1980, I would sneak down to Chicken Street to buy old books in the dust-filled shops, cheap and illegal Pakistani reprints of the memoirs of British Empire officers while my driver watched anxiously lest I be mistaken for a Russian. Last week, I sneaked down to the Shar Book shop, which is filled with the very same illicit volumes, while my driver watched anxiously lest I be mistaken for an American (or, indeed, a Brit). I find Stephen Tanner’s Afghanistan: A Military History From Alexander The Great To The Fall Of The Taliban and drive back to my hotel through the streets of wood-smoked Kabul to read it in my ill-lit room.
In 1840, Tanner writes, Britain’s supply line from the Pakistani city of Karachi up through the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad to Kabul was being threatened by Afghan fighters, “British officers on the crucial supply line through Peshawar… insulted and attacked”. I fumble through my bag for a clipping from a recent copy of Le Monde. It marks Nato’s main supply route from the Pakistani city of Karachi up through the Khyber Pass and Jalalabad to Kabul, and illustrates the location of each Taliban attack on the convoys bringing fuel and food to America’s allies in Afghanistan.
Then I prowl through one of the Pakistani retread books I have found and discover General Roberts of Kandahar telling the British in 1880 that “we have nothing to fear from Afghanistan, and the best thing to do is to leave it as much as possible to itself… I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us”.
Memo to the Americans, the Brits, the Canadians and the rest of Humpty Dumpty’s men. Read Roberts. Read history.