Come to Taliban country - but mind all those snipers

'The strict rules about dress are not going to permit topless bathing in the fine lakes and rivers'
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The Independent Online

The Taliban may have to overcome a slight image problem if they are serious in their wish, recently expressed, to attract Western tourists to Afghanistan.

The Taliban may have to overcome a slight image problem if they are serious in their wish, recently expressed, to attract Western tourists to Afghanistan.

There are the landmines, of course, that pepper the country and may make a bracing hike in the beautiful Afghan mountains rather a reckless proposition. The strict rules about dress are not going to permit topless bathing in the fine lakes and rivers. Anyone proposing to go for a drive in the country may have to take into account the banditry and sharpshooting that are a part of Afghan life. And if anything goes wrong, you will be on your own; there is nothing in the way of UK representation in Afghanistan.

Kabul, which was once a famously beautiful city, has been blown to bits by years of war - apparently not even Curzon's celebrated embassy, built to be the most imposing mission in Asia, survives. A profoundly fascinating mixture of cultures has disappeared for ever.

What has survived has not always been treated with great respect by the Taliban, who are serious fellows with more important things on their minds than cultural treasures; it was not so long ago that they were proposing to destroy some important Buddhist monuments on the grounds of their impiety.

All in all, the Taliban may not seem to be putting forward a very inviting prospect for your summer holiday, and they may have damaged their wish to appear to be friendly towards Westerners by following up this invitation by a peremptory demand for the return of the great Mountain of Light, the Koh-i-noor diamond, which was long ago given to Runjeet Singh and by him, in an exchange of those lavish imperial gifts, to the British.

And yet, I have to confess, the idea of going on holiday to Afghanistan strikes me with almost passionate enthusiasm. Whatever one's feelings about the terrifying excesses of the Taliban's regime - and I have an iron rule that I won't go to any country that abuses human rights to the extent of maintaining the death penalty, America included - the fascination of Afghanistan's long history exerts an appalling pull. Partly it is the richness of a country that was at the crossroads of a dozen different cultures, which have all left their mark; partly it is the incomparable beauty of the country, the high pure light.

But mostly, for an Englishman, it is a matter of paying homage to one of the few moments when the Empire met its equal. The British showed an understandable early curiosity about this remote land; by the 1830s, it seemed to form a barrier between the lands of two more or less tractable rulers, and if the Afghan ruler Dost Mohammed could have been brought to heel, an overland route could have been established all the way from imperial India.

What followed was, according to your point of view, a catastrophe or one of the greatest military triumphs in history. Dost Mohammed proving unreliable, the British invaded and removed him to a couple of peaceful years of exile in India. The Afghans fought back, and within a couple of years of guerrilla warfare, brought the British to the point where they could only negotiate a rapid withdrawal.

The greatest of Dost Mohammed's sons orchestrated a massacre, and only one man, the famous Doctor Brydon, survived to return to Jelalabar and tell the tale. Dost Mohammed returned in triumph and ruled securely until his death, by which point even the British had come to regard him as one of the greatest rulers in world history; his biography, by Mohun Lal, was a favourite prize for 19th-century public schoolboys, and may be had today without too much difficulty.

There is a terrible irony about the military greatness of the Afghans, which all subsequent attempts to take over the country, up to that by the Russians in the 1980s, have revealed. Their ability to fight off the ambitions of imperialists have left them bereft of any of the incidental benefits of colonialism; if the British had triumphed in the First Afghan War, there might now be a tolerable infrastructure. And yet they would not have it any other way.

They have always been an appallingly violent people - there is a tale of a 19th-century prince who, wishing to save time, invited 40 of his relatives to dinner, and then excused himself from the table before lighting the hundred pounds of dynamite which was concealed underneath it. And their history reveals a wild alternation between religious laxness and bouts of vicious purity.

However, as everyone has always admitted, it is a culture for which is almost impossible not to bear some admiration. Their history is more tragic than can be imagined, and they need our support. I don't think I will be packing my bags just yet. But it is the most alluring prospect in the world.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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