Sunday, September 5, 2021

Afghanistan: the More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same

 ‘The Taliban Islamic militia have come and conquered with stunning speed.’


You might think these words were used to describe the situation in Afghanistan in August 2021 as the Taliban took control of the country. In fact, they were written by British journalist David Loyn in September 1996, to describe events as the Taliban last came to power after the departure of Russian forces in 1988/89.


The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.


The past few weeks have seen the withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan after a conflict lasting twenty years. I doubt history will look kindly on the manner in which this evacuation took place. Although I agree with the words of German field marshal and military strategist, Helmuth von Moltke: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the gist.


Even so, I think Field Marshal von Moltke would be shaking his head in horrified wonder at the chaotic scenes we’ve watched on the nightly news, as crowds of desperate Afghans and foreign nationals tried to get aboard the last flights out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, even as the Taliban were re-taking the city. The sight of people clinging to the outside of a US transport plane as it rolled along the runway, and then falling as it took off, is not one I will soon forget.


On August 8, President Biden had announced, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” This was despite the fact that, as far back as May 20, the UN had reported that the Taliban “now contest or control an estimated fifty to seventy percent of Afghan territory outside of urban centres, while also exerting direct control over fifty-seven percent of district administrative centres.”


By August 14, the Taliban controlled all border crossings, with the exception of the airport. The following day, they began their assault on the capital, which surrendered within hours.


I realise I’m an outsider in all this, but I still wonder why—when political and military commanders knew well in advance that they were ending operations in Afghanistan—they didn’t begin evacuation of Afghan nationals who had worked alongside the coalition forces via Bagram Airfield, while they still had control of it. It would appear from reports I’ve seen that the last US troops left the base—shutting off the electricity and disappearing into the night—July 1, without a formal handover to the Afghan Armed Forces. Most of the AAF only realised the US troops had gone when the lights went out and the looting started. Although the AAF quickly regained control of Bagram it, too, fell to Taliban forces on August 15.


On August 26, a suicide bomber detonated around 25 pounds of explosives and shrapnel outside the Abbey Gate of the airport, killing at least 170 people and wounding 150 others. The Islamic State group IS-K claimed responsibility. This further hampered the evacuation efforts.


Although reports claim that 122,300 people were airlifted out of Kabul, tens of thousands were left behind. We are told that some are now living in fear of reprisals for having aided the coalition. Women are frightened of consequences for simply gaining an education, a job, or going about without a chaperone.


So far, the new Taliban government appears to be playing nice. They promise we will not see a return to the human rights abuses of the 1990s, when public floggings, amputations, and executions by stoning were commonplace. They even promise that women may continue their education, and return to their government jobs—although not at any kind of high level, obviously…


Only time will tell.


For me, it was heart-breaking to watch events as they have unfolded in Afghanistan. I took a particular interest as I’ve highlighted the situation there in two of my books. The first of these was Dancing On The Grave, the first of my Lakes crime thrillers. This story features an ex-military sniper who is suffering from PTSD after serving in Afghanistan. The treatment of a teenage Afghan boy who operated as his spotter plays a huge role in the plot.


The latest book to feature Afghanistan is a prequel to my Charlie Fox series, Trial Under Fire, which came out in August. The action of this book follows Charlie years before the series proper starts, back when she is still in the British Army and is on what should have been a routine patrol with her unit in Helmand province. At that time, female personnel were not supposed to be put in combat situations. But a helicopter crash and the arrival of a Black Ops team soon throws that out the window. They need Charlie’s ‘very particular set of skills’. How can she say no?


This week’s Word of the Week is dustsceawung, which is an Old English word for which there is no direct translation. It means to contemplate the fact that dust used to be other things—we came from dust, and will return to being dust when we are gone. It is supposed to shift one’s focus from the material things in life to subjects with deeper meaning.


As well as Trial Under Fire, my latest book out is the Charlie Fox short story collection, Fox Five Reloaded. Available for pre-order is the first in a new series, The Last Time She Died, which will be out in October 2021.


  1. It is a sorry tale - the whole 20 years of it. I could never understand why Obama dug the US further in. I feat Biden will carry the can for a mess that was not his fault.

  2. The strategy seems to have been to have the bitter pill swallowed early on in the presidency and as far away from the 2022 mid-terms as possible. When the music stops playing the one left front and center takes the loss. History shall decide.