Philip Hensher: History repeats itself in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

The war in Afghanistan has been surrounded by such evasions and rewritings that, you have to conclude, no one has any idea what the aim is any longer. I seem to be the only person to remember that when the troops went in, in 2001, the primary aim was not to topple the Taliban but to extract the leaders of al-Qa'ida. When that proved unsuccessful, the primary aim was declared always to have been to get rid of an oppressive regime.

Very quickly, the war was claimed to have been a great success. We were asked to believe that the entire country was now united after the liberation, the Taliban decisively defeated, when, in fact, it had mostly disappeared. The world's attention turned elsewhere, and Afghanistan, we were told, was now OK.

Newspapers started running articles about intrepid tourists venturing back to Kabul for the first time in years. A little knowledge of Afghan history would have revealed that the Taliban were simply following the same tactics Afghans had always followed when faced with a foreign invader. Having written a novel about the First Afghan War, The Mulberry Empire, this was perfectly obvious to me four years ago. Why, only now, as Taliban forces have started picking off Western soldiers in regions like Helmand, have people started thinking that a bit more attention to the country might be necessary?

This is how Afghans defend their country, whether against the British in the 1830s, the Russians in the 1980s, or now against the coalition forces. At the first strike, they abandon Kabul, and take to the mountains where no outside force stands any chance of finding them. They lay low for two or three years, allowing the outside forces to establish themselves in urban centres. Then guerilla action starts up in earnest, escalating from skirmishes to full-scale bloody encounters, the perpetrators melting away afterwards into the impenetrable landscape.

In the First Afghan War, this culminated in the mass slaughter of 16,000 over a week. That isn't likely to happen now, but it's not because we have any greater chance of rounding up our enemies in this wild country. It's largely because, when it comes to the point, we can evacuate in shame and dishonour.

What the West has underestimated is the degree to which our interventions look to many Afghans like history repeating itself. Another foreign invasion, and if, to us, Hamid Karzai looks like an admirable, free-spirited leader, it is easy for the Taliban to make him look like yet another puppet, of which Afghanistan has seen many. Another Najibullah under the Soviets; another Shah Shujah-ul-mulk under the British. It's not a matter of reality, and these comparisons are grotesque, but of perception.

Now the war is entering a new phase, and it's idiotic to suppose it will do anything but escalate, we have no choice. The eye left the ball in Afghanistan two or three years ago, and the Taliban have taken the advantage. There is no alternative to a substantial reinvestment of troops, and, more importantly, substantial investment in the substance of the country to show every Afghan the advantage of a non-Taliban future. Without that, we are steadily sliding towards the same horrific experience as the Soviets. We only have the advantage that we are not proposing to impose a similarly oppressive regime on the country. But that, to a substantial number of Afghans, may not prove a sufficiently powerful point. They know what they think of foreign-backed governments.

Two very different Saturdays

For once, we had glorious weather on Saturday for Gay Pride. I walked and partied with two dozen friends; we had a total ball, and kept bumping into old friends and making new ones. The whole thing ended with everyone dancing their socks off in Soho Square.

Going home, I'd more or less forgotten about the England game; it was startling, after all that good humour, to come up against an ugly crowd, throwing rubbish bins and yelling obscenities. One man had been hit by a bottle, and blood was pouring down his face and shirt.

Let's see. In the course of the day, we came across a group of Christians, bearing placards protesting in the most critical terms. What do you think they felt strongly against? The mindless infliction of violence because of a football result? Or a lot of people having a harmless time in the sun, celebrating their community in a way which couldn't possibly hurt anyone else? Yup, you got it in one.

* A very sad piece of research in the American Sociological Review reveals that most Americans have only two friends, and a quarter have no friends at all. It's not even a new phenomenon; even 20 years ago, the same research revealed that they only had three friends. Interestingly, this reveals most of American popular culture as the sheerest fantasy - The Simpsons, or Friends, where whole neighbourhoods hang out together. It not only explains why New Orleans fell apart so badly when the hurricane struck, but, in rather a sinister way, why US foreign policy looks the way it does. It isn't that they don't care that nobody likes them. It's that they think it's normal.

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