‘There is no light in the bazaar. The Americans brought the light when they came to build the great dam . . . but when they left the took the machine with them and now there is no more light.’ — Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
There really isn’t much that is amusing about Afghanistan. There never has been. But Eric Newby wrote a most amusing book about his trek through the Hindu Kush in the late 1950s. These days, when the Americans decamp from Afghanistan they leave behind tons — literally tons — of lights, not to mention munitions of various sizes and lethality, roads, buildings, communication devices of all sorts — you name it. A few days ago, we were told that the Afghan government might fall within 90 days to the newly resurgent Taliban. Over the weekend, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby assured the world that ‘Kabul does not face an imminent threat from the Taliban’. Whew. That gave the team at our Kabul embassy time to shred or otherwise render inoperative all the sensitive information they were sitting on — that stash of Pride flags, for example, which the new masters will not have much use for, unless it is to drape over the shoulders of the gays they execute by pushing them off roofs.
Well, it turns out the embassy workers did not have quite enough time. If we still used ink, the bit used to record Kirby’s words would not have been dry before his words were replaced by headlines that Kabul had fallen to the Taliban, who now occupied the presidential palace, the president himself having fled the country, and that the country as whole was in a state of crisis.
President Biden — or, as I like to denominate him these days, due to the deference shown him by all those eager-beaver members of the press, President Ice Cream — was hors de combat when this important news came over what counts as the wire these days. He had left the White House for Camp David. Monday, I think, is when Ben and Jerry’s makes its deliveries, and all we could glean was that he would be addressing the nation ‘in a few days’.
The outcry over that bit of impertinence was loud, sustained and widespread, even among the housebroken poodles of the Fourth Estate. So just a few hours before I sat down to write this, the President of the United States shuffled before the cameras, blinked and told us two things. One, he felt really badly about what just happened. Really, his heart goes out to the thousands Afghans who are about to be raped, mutilated or slaughtered. Two, it was all Donald Trump’s fault. Really. ‘I inherited a deal that President Trump negotiated with the Taliban.’ I’m the President and the ‘buck stops with me’, but still, it’s all Donald Trump’s fault.
Quick question: does anybody, anybody believe that if Donald Trump were still president, Afghanistan would have been consumed in this humiliating maelstrom?
To say that what just happened in Afghanistan caught the Biden administration by surprise would be the understatement of the year. Even Biden, even some of his senior advisers, admit as much. ‘Biden Team Surprised by Rapid Taliban Gains in Afghanistan‘ — that’s how the headlines read.
But why were they surprised? Joe Biden was elected — anyway, he campaigned — on the back of his vaunted ‘foreign policy experience’. After all, he had been in government for 120 years or whatever, so he had experience. Maj. Gen. William Elphinstone had a lot of experience, too. He was with Wellington at Waterloo and a few decades later, during the First Anglo-Afghan War, he found himself in charge of her majesty’s forces in Kabul: about 4500 European and Indian, troops and some 12,000 civilians, including families of the soldiers and camp followers.
Then came the fateful year of 1842 and the disastrous retreat of the entire garrison. The index of Peter Hopkirk’s magisterial The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, includes these items in the entry for Elphinstone: ‘his indecisiveness demoralizes his troops’, ‘ignores Pottinger’s [Eldred Pottinger, an able senior adviser] advice’, tries to ‘appease Akbar’ [Mohammed Akbar Khan, a treacherous Afghan leader], ‘agrees to Akbar’s new demand for hostages’, ‘taken hostage himself’, etc., etc, right up to ‘death in captivity’. He had, Hopkirk remarks, ‘been dragged down by gout and…had long before sunk into a torpor of indecision and despair’.
It was a horrible affair. Elphinstone, against the advice of his aides, left with the entire garrison, pregnant women and the ill being carried on litters. They had barely started when the Afghans began picking them off. Many lost fingers or toes from frostbite or froze to death. The majority were shot or hacked to death or sold into slavery by native tribesmen. Some 16,000 souls. After a couple of days, Elphinstone sat silently on his horse and refused to issue orders. Eventually, he and his second in command were lured by Akbar away from their charges, troops and civilians, into captivity. I think of the end of Kipling’s great poem ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’:
‘One sword-knot stolen from the camp
Will pay for all the school expenses
Of any Kurrum Valley scamp
Who knows no word of moods and tenses,
But, being blessed with perfect sight,
Picks off our messmates left and right.
With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem.
The troopships bring us one by one,
At vast expense of time and steam,
To slay Afridis where they run.
The “captives of our bow and spear”
Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.’
Eight days after the British forces set out from Kabul, a lone pony, badly wounded, was seen approaching the British garrison in Jalalabad, some 90 miles from Kabul. It bore assistant surgeon William Brydon, also badly wounded when a tribal swordsman hacked away part of his skull early in the march. Asked upon arrival what happened to the army, he answered ‘I am the army.’ Miraculously, Brydon survived, the only European to do so. The pony was not so lucky. ‘Directly it was put in a stable,’ Brydon recalled, it ‘lay down and never rose again’.
Someone told Joe Biden that Afghanistan is known as ‘the graveyard of empires’. I know this because he used the phrase in his brief remarks. It would be interesting to know what he thinks about the story of William Elphinstone. I suspect, when he absorbed the question, he would respond with a ‘C’mon, man’ or similar ejaculation. My son says he feels sorry for the lady who is always seen standing next to Biden trying to translate his vocables into sign language. I know what he means, though my chief emotion is not sorrow but rage. What is happening in Afghanistan is a horror story just beginning (or, rather, just resuming) for the Afghanis.
For the United States, it is not just a ‘foreign policy set-back’, as I’ve seen repeated in the quivering press. The State Department just told the world that it is calling on the Taliban to form an ‘inclusive and representative government’ with women in high positions. Really. You can’t make it up.
What just happened in Afghanistan is not just a horror for the Afghans. It is a provocative exhibition of weakness not unlike the spectacle that the Brits made in Afghanistan just before Elphinstone’s implosion. But for us, the primary audience is not in Afghanistan but in Iran, China, and Russia.