Butcher and Bolt, By David Loyn

Reviewed,Kim Sengupta
Friday 24 October 2008 00:00 BST

At a discussion in London's Frontline Club on David Loyn's book about Afghanistan, a member of the audience pointed out that Khaled Hosseini's best selling novel about the country, The Kite Runner, portrays the main Taliban character as half-German, with Nazi tendencies: a sadist and, for good measure, a paedophile. What possible chance, he asked , is there of understanding the protagonist in this prolonged conflict with such stigmatising by the West?

The questioner was a brave man called Alex Donnelly, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Navy. He lost his eyesight in a bombing in Basra in 2006, in which four of his comrades were killed. It is, of course, British servicemen and women, as well as thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, who have been injured and killed in Blair and Bush's war on terror.

This very useful book by the BBC correspondent, about "200 years of foreign engagement in Afghanistan", addresses Donnelly's point. The title is from an unofficial doctrine of the British Raj during its long and costly entanglement in Afghanistan. The country and people, it was decided after two bloody invasions, were too violent and rebellious to be occupied. Far less risky to keep Johnny Afghan in check with a quick incursion, a taste of cold steel, then a dash back to British India.

Loyn charts these previous conflicts and argues that mistakes are being repeated because of a woeful neglect in the study of history. The US and Britain have failed to understand that Afghanistan simply cannot be kept conquered. Attempts to do so come at a terrible price - as found out, among others, by Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Ottomans, and the Russians.

In tracing similarities between past adventures in the region and the current one, Loyn recounts how in the 1880s, during the second Afghan war, the diary of a British officer noted how a sergeant was knifed by an Afghan "whose dress showed himself to be a talib-ul-ulm". He also draws parallels between regime change imposed by Britain in the early 1800s and the current president Karzai.

The West, Loyn holds, has repeatedly failed to grasp opportunities which may have led to peace, not least by failing to negotiate with the Taliban. The only solution now is for talks to be held with the movement, without preconditions, to achieve a settlement.

Seven years after "liberation", I do not meet anyone in Kabul or the frontline areas who seriously disagrees that the war is going badly wrong, and that a purely military victory is not feasible. Loyn, a fine and experienced correspondent, has spent considerable time with the Taliban. He has been ahead of the great game in advocating talks while gung-ho American neo-cons and their fellow-travellers in Britain were proclaiming victory and, at the same time, opening the avenue for the Taliban to return by moving the war-on-terror circus on to Iraq.

There are, nevertheless, questions to be asked about his analysis and advocated solution. Shah Shujah was indeed imposed on the Afghan tribes when most of the country backed Dost Mohammed, the ruler whom the British deposed. Karzai, however, was voted in by the Afghan people. Furthermore, in my experience at least, the Afghans may be disillusioned with the Karzai government, but few want to return to the dark days of Taliban rule.

The war this time also has intrinsic differences from previous conflicts. It is no longer just an Afghan problem. The Taliban are sustained and reinforced by elements in the Pakistani military and secret police and the jihad is spreading through Pakistan. Any solution to the conflict will have to include that country as well – a dauntingly difficult task. There is one further point. Three years ago I interviewed five women in Kandahar and Kabul who had gone into public life with the vision of creating a new Afghanistan. Since then three of them have been killed by Islamists and a fourth, the MP for Kandahar, is in hiding.

Any negotiations with the Taliban will mean women, who have seen the rights they acquired in the last seven years clawed back, facing further subjugation. Would this be a price acceptable to the West? Perhaps. After all, as Loyn points out, Britain had been only too ready in the past to sacrifice Afghans in cynical exercises of realpolitik.

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