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  • Lawrence Bailey

Same tragedy, different place

To a certain generation, the image of desperate people running alongside the last plane to leave Kabul carry inevitable echoes from the past.

Such scenes evoke memories of the last days of Saigon as US personnel were scooped off the embassy roof by helicopter, watched by abandoned Vietnamese on the ground.

It’s easy to generalise but it always seems to end up badly whenever so-called super-powers attempt to run the world by proxy.

The blunt instrument used to interfere in Afghanistan’s destiny dates all the way to the 19th century.

This was a time of intrigue between British and Russian empires. Their efforts to exert influence in Asia as part of what was christened the "Great Game" by Rudyard Kipling. The Russians referred to “Turniry Teney” or "Tournament of Shadows".

It culminated in a series of bloody Anglo-Afghan wars, each of which were eventually just as inconclusive as the modern incursions.

I don’t realistically expect the media to go to that depth of background but I’m surprised how so few commentators have even touched on the more recent events that brought the Taliban into existence.

Back in the late 1970s, Afghanistan was ruled by the Marxist People’s Democratic Party. Given the nature of Cold War politics, the United States felt obliged to put its paw on the balance of power and destabilise the regime. They did this by funding an obscure Islamist resistance known as the “mujahideen” (which means “those engaged in jihad” – or holy war).

Moscow naturally responded in turn by putting boots on the ground. This was simple enough given that Russia bordered those days. The next ten years saw a bitter civil war with the usual suspects lined up in various guises as supporting cast.

The later collapse of the Soviet Union finally forced a troop withdrawal, leaving behind a puppet regime and a patchwork of feudal territories. It also created a power vacuum that would be exploited by foreign fighters who had earlier answered the call to jihad.

Among these was a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden, and who would go on to form something known as al-Qaeda - the architects of 9/11 – and who prospered under Taliban protection.

Sooner or later, someone was going to draw a line under successive foreign interventions and it turns out it was President Joe Biden. Then again, he did no more than finalise the peace deal negotiated by Donald Trump in 2020 which specified the removal of US and NATO forces. Of course, he was never obliged to uphold any part of the deal, but that's another matter.

Despite the UK Parliament being recalled and a substantial amount of rhetoric from both sides of the chamber, most politicians will quietly tell you that their mailboxes are not exactly stuffed with demands from constituents to send the troops back in.

In addition, they expect current popular sympathy for the plight of the Afghan people to wane dramatically once the extent of refugees admissions to the UK is explored.

Someone once wrote that “there are no such things as failed nations, only failed regimes”. The collapse of the Afghan administration might well be a case in point. Moreover, the rapidity of how it happened, compared to the predictions of intelligence services, suggest a grasp of events on a par with Kipling's contemporaries.

The imperialist approach once much favoured by European powers keen for a place under the sun was to invade a smaller, more backward country, subjugate the population, call it a “dependency” and then bugger off when things got complicated. Not much seems to have changed since then.

Sadly, it also seems the lesson has still not been learned from the days of Vietnam that you cannot win a war on the ground by fighting it by remote-control in air-conditioned command centres.

The tragedy is that it has to cost so many lives every time the same mistake is made.


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