At a recent press conference, a written statement attributed to the Taliban’s ‘commander of the faithful’, Haibatullah Akhundzada, said that the incoming government of Afghanistan will ‘work hard to uphold Islamic rules and sharia law’. In Arabic, ‘sharia’ implies a path to salvation, and ultra-pious Muslims don’t abandon that road willingly. But the rules to be upheld are less obvious. They’ve been contested for at least twelve hundred years. Some jurists have been tolerant and inclusive; others not. One prolific scholar popular in Taliban circles, Ibn Abiʼl-Dunya, a stern tutor to several princes in late ninth-century Baghdad, wrote seven tracts on prohibition alone. Among the frivolities he thought hateful to God were stringed instruments, chess, pigeon-fancying and sitting on seesaws.
The defence secretary, Ben Wallace, choked back tears on LBC earlier this week as the Taliban consolidated control in Afghanistan. ‘The big regret for me is that some people won’t get back,’ he said. Between 2003 and 2005, Wallace was overseas director at QinetiQ, the military technology firm created in April 2001 when the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency was privatised. Its revenues are around a billion pounds a year. Wallace’s contradictory roles – as a former senior executive at a company reaping financial rewards from the ongoing ‘war on terror’ and as a senior minister claiming rightly that much is owed by the UK to the people of Afghanistan – reflects a larger contradiction at the heart of the global war economy.
Three gunmen stormed Kabul University on Monday, taking dozens of hostages as hundreds of students fled for their lives. The six-hour siege, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left at least 35 students dead and many more injured. Jamshid, an economics student, was in class. ‘We were listening to the teacher when the electricity went out and the attack began,’ he told me. ‘If we stayed in the classroom, I thought that maybe the terrorists will kill me and my classmates.’ He managed to escape. Sara, Daoud, Rauf, Ali, Husna and Ahmad did not. The list goes on. They were going to be teachers, nurses, scholars, writers, artists, public administrators, economists.
The death toll from last Friday’s attack on Taverna du Liban, a Lebanese restaurant popular among expatriates in Kabul, has reached 21. The murdered foreigners include an American academic, the Lebanese head of the IMF’s Kabul office, two Canadian auditors and the restaurant’s owner, Kamal Hamade. The rest of the victims are unnamed ‘Afghan nationals’, many of them undoubtedly the cheerful young members of staff who would bring out extra dishes at no charge, who smiled when they mispronounced English words and waited to see if I would correct them, who were underpaid but happy at least to have a job. They were shot dead by two gunmen who got in after a suicide bomber destroyed the front gate and main security barrier.
Britain has been at war in Afghanistan for more than 12 years, which must be some kind of record. The media have largely forgotten about it, except when British soldiers are killed. Barack Obama said last month that the foremost US foreign policy concern was managing the withdrawal of its 62,000 troops. A Taliban political office in Doha was formally opened following long negotiations but promptly closed, apparently because of a row over its use of the name and flag of the 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan'. Coming back from a visit to Afghanistan, David Cameron welcomed the prospect of dialogue between Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul and the Taliban, but Karzai has called off the negotiations because of the row.
In most colonial wars people are arrested, tortured at random and killed. Not even a façade of legality is considered necessary. The ‘lone’ American gunman who butchered innocents in Afghanistan in the early hours of Sunday morning was far from being an exception. For this is not the act of a deranged maniac killing schoolchildren in an American city. The ‘lone’ killer is a sergeant in the US army. He’s not the first and won’t be the last to kill like this.
The US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, told reporters in his plane as he flew to Brussels for a Nato meeting on 1 February that US troops in Afghanistan would step back from a fighting role by mid to late 2013, remaining there only in an ‘advise and assist’ and training capacity.
Only a few days earlier, on 28 January, David Cameron, welcoming President Karzai in London, had said:
Between now and 2014 there will be opportunities for different countries to reduce their numbers...
It’s now official. Urinating on dead insurgents, the US Marine Corps informs the world, is 'not consistent with its core values'. I think we need a list of non-core values as soon as possible. Pissing on the dead is considered loathsome in most cultures, but clearly can be a morale-booster for demoralised troops in an occupied country where the war is going badly for western civilisation. What better way to assert civilisational values against the barbarians and win local hearts and minds? And why stop here? The next stage surely is to excrete on them and use their beards as toilet paper. That would enhance the value of the videos and might even win the innovators the Santorum Prize for Moral Superiority.
Those who should hear, they hear no more,Destroyed is the army that went to war,With thirteen thousand their trek began,Only one came back from Afghanistan. These lines weren’t written by Andrew Motion or Carol Ann Duffy but by the 19th-century German novelist and poet Theodor Fontane. Between 1855 and 1859 he was the Prussian ministry’s foreign correspondent in London: he found himself increasingly frustrated by the local fondness for drinking and dancing (‘Music, as many have pointed out, is England’s Achilles heel’) and the class system (‘England and Germany relate to one another like form and content’).
A friend in Afghanistan reminded me of what might have been had the West used Najibullah, the Afghan president abandoned by the Soviet Union, as their pawn rather than green-lighting the Pakistan-backed Taliban take-over of the country. In this last desperate interview with the New York Times in March 1992, a few months before he was toppled and hanged by the Taliban, Najibullah warned: If fundamentalism comes to Afghanistan, war will continue for many more years... Afghanistan will turn into a center of world smuggling for narcotic drugs.
General Stanley McChrystal's kamikaze interview had the desired effect. He was sacked and replaced by his boss General David Petraeus. But behind the drama in Washington is a war gone badly wrong and no amount of sweet talk can hide this fact. The loathing for Holbrooke (a Clinton creature) goes deep not because of his personal defects, of which there are many, but because his attempt to dump Karzai without a serious replacement angered the generals. Aware that the war is unwinnable, they were not prepared to see Karzai fall: without a Pashtun point man in the country the collapse might reach Saigon proportions. All the generals are aware that the stalemate is not easy to break, but desirous of building reputations and careers and experimenting with new weapons and new strategies (real war games are always appealing to the military provided the risks are small) they have obeyed orders despite disagreements with each other and the politicians.
Last summer, General Stanley McChrystal described US operations in Afghanistan as a 'retail war'. Now, thanks to Michael Hastings's notorious profile of the general in Rolling Stone, it's clearer what McChrystal meant: the conflict isn't only about winning over Afghans to the US cause, but also about selling a war that can't be won to increasingly sceptical Americans.
With the obvious exception of Baltimore, the most fashionable American city in which to set a cop show with a twist lately seems to be Miami. Perhaps Michael Mann's big screen remake of Miami Vice has something to do with it. The same year that movie came out, the first season of Dexter went on the air. The eponymous hero (played by Michael C. Hall) is a forensics expert with the Miami PD. In his spare time he kills murderers who've escaped more regular forms of justice. He thinks of himself as a serial killer, and that's the show's ostensible conceit: Our hero's a serial killer! But, that aside, he's a nice guy! It's a bit more cunning than that, though,
P.J.Tobia’s photographs of these monstrous buildings in Kabul convey only part of the horror. Their location is not too far from the slum dwellings that house the poor of the city, sans water, sans electricity, sans sewage, sans everything. A young photo-journalist from Philadelphia, Tobia supplied the captions and writes on True/Slant:
Not so long ago, a variation on the 'Nigerian billionaire' spam scam started circulating. A certain Sergeant Dewayne Pittman of the US military sent out a few thousand emails asking for help transferring large sums of money out of Iraq. It seems that Sergeant Pittman has not only changed his citizenship and moved to a new theatre of war, but has been very rapidly promoted – those smuggled Iraqi millions must really have come in handy. He wrote to the LRB this morning: Hi, I am an active British soldier currently in Afghanistan. I am with the 40th Regiment Royal Artillery in Afghanistan. We hijacked a suspected helicopter painted black[...] We discovered other currencies including US dollars of about $ 16 million loaded inside the Blackhawk helicopter. We want to move this money out of this place..
In 1880, David Barbour, a member of the Indian Civil Service, published a pamphlet called Our Afghan Policy and the Occupation of Candahar. Barbour argued that the British war in Afghanistan was both morally unjustifiable and politically inexpedient. One of his more striking assessments was that 'the thorough occupation of Afghanistan, including the Provinces of Cabul, Candahar, Herat, and Afghan Turkestan by troops who could under all circumstances be depended on, would require the services of 60,000 English troops'. At the end of July this year there were approximately 64,500 Nato troops in Afghanistan.
General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, on his new strategy: At the end of the day, you’re fighting for the population, not with the population or against the population. As you fight for them, you are trying to convince them. You are in an argument with the enemy over the population, and they are listening, and they are watching what you do and what you say. They are going to decide based on who makes the most convincing argument. Are you protecting them? Can you stop them from being coerced at midnight by an armed man who shows up and threatens them? It’s a retail war.
Maybe editors should only ever be gratified, never startled, to come across a photograph of someone caught actually reading what they publish. Startled somewhat we were, however, by this image. A someone in camouflage and with an assault rifle to hand: not your average phantom subscriber. It is in fact a young officer in the British army serving in Afghanistan and he’s one of the illustrations in a newly published military memoir called The Junior Officers’ Reading Club, whose author, Patrick Hennessey, has now resigned from the army to become a lawyer. He helped start the club when he was in Iraq and then took it with him to Afghanistan.
The Obama administration has applauded the Pakistan army’s offensive to oust the Taliban from Pakistan’s Swat Valley. It’s gingerly being heralded as a change in army thinking that no longer sees the 'mortal threat' as nuclear India to the east but a spreading Taliban insurgency to the north and west, which – if a BBC map is true – now controls most of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. The scale of the operation is immense. Up to 1.5 million people could be displaced by the fighting, if the current civilian exodus from Swat is added to earlier ones from the tribal areas. Pakistan’s federal and provincial civilian governments have given unreserved political authority to an operation devised wholly by the army. Opposition parties, the media, religious leaders and 70 per cent of the people (according to polls) all support it, aware, finally, that the savagery of the Taliban’s rule in Swat posed a graver threat to Pakistani democracy than to American imperialism or Indian hegemony.
Outside the main gate of RAF Wittering, on the A1 in Cambridgeshire, just past the funny old sign that says 'Beware: Camp Entrances', is a shiny new sign saying: 'Now Recruiting'. It's there outside RAF Scampton, on the A15 in Lincolnshire, too. And then in a lay-by on the A165 in East Yorkshire there's a big camouflage-green truck with a sign suggesting that if you'd like to drive it, you should think about joining the army. Back in London, on every other phone box (which are surely just glorified advertising billboards these days) I see there's an army recruitment ad, reminding people that doctors and engineers are needed too; it's not all about killing and being killed.