Making sense of Afghanistan: If any question why we died, Tell them because our fathers lied.Part 1

Aug 24, 2021

Whatever took place in the last several days in Afghanistan, be it the Taliban’s victory as insurgency or counter-counter-insurgency, it is a development that will not disclose its full consequences for some time.

For now there is an infinity of images and accounts, all of which are related, but yet lacking in coherence. Indeed, many are contradictory. It is as though a drama is being produced by a multiplicity of directors who have entirely different scripts.

What reigns, for now is a tableaux of absurdities, contradictions, and obscenities. All have been seen before and many provoke recollections which are as valid now as when they were first directed at other events in history; indeed, they help us to make  tentative sense, but only that, of the present, and to ask questions.

  • Fintan O’Toole sets us right. When the times are dark, Yeats is recalled. Does not the Global War on Terror which subsumed Afghanistan deserve his dismissal of a previous conflict as an “expensive outbreak of insolence and stupidity”? More, and worse, “Was it needless death after all?” Answer, for now, and probably for all time: Evidently.
  • Helicopters, on the basis of the evidence since 1975, now have a status akin to that of canaries in coal mines up until the mid-1980s. When they start ferrying diplomats to the airport in large numbers, from the roof of the embassy, the game is well and truly over and the locale is quite likely to explode.
  • As anarchy at Hamid Karzai International Airport became the (dis)order of the day in mid-August, it was possible to see the benefits of a liberal-arts-humanities education piercing the spectacle of thousands of abandoned Afghanis attempting to board aircraft for departures to . . . well . . . anywhere, really.
  • The fleeing Afghanis seemed to have decided that Dante Alighieri was their man,  their actions confirming that, over every portal to the country should be his most famous phrase: Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate, most frequently translated as, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
  • What shone through in greater measure, however, was the thorough operational understanding, by those with privileged status and documentation, of the need to react unflinchingly in the face of clinical reality and in accordance with the categories and prescriptions of Frederick Nietzsche, Andre Gide, and Conor Cruise O’Brien of 1990s. 
  • Basically, despite the sheer terror of the situation, the great majority of them were reduced to being no more than a “misfortune to higher men.” As O’Brien explains the predicament through the metaphor of an already full lifeboat surrounded by survivors in the sea, all clamouring to get on board:  

The hands of survivors cling to the sides of the boat.  But the boat has already as many passengers as it can carry.  No more survivors can be accommodated, and if they gather and cling on, the boat will sink and all will be drowned.  The captain orders out the hatchets.  The hands of the survivors are severed. The lifeboat and its passengers are saved. 

  • A degree of guilt might have been experienced, limited of course by the circumstances, but there is consolation in the form of knowing that rationality was served: the situation was viewed impersonally, coldly, and with detachment. It’s all a Realist could ask for and hope to achieve.
  • Exactly why these same unflinching Realists, trained in the first principle of strategic analysis – namely, the worst case is always to hand – did not anticipate the collapse of the Afghan Army is unforgivable.  Since when do underfed, under-trained, illiterate soldiers under the command of corrupt officers and in service to an even more corrupt government provide the basis for an extended campaign of resistance as planned by the US military (which was itself leaving the field and denying those who remained the full spectrum of support they minimally required)?
  • One answer to the question immediately above is that it helps if deceit and dishonesty are ever-present. That way everything follows and nothing follows.  It’s thought to be an admirable and honourable American tradition – one celebrated by the uniquely American poetic voice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself / I am large, I contain multitudes.
  • In possession of such an armour propre a whole war can proceed under the cloak of dissembling. And the war in Afghanistan did right down to the final claim that the Taliban’s rapid takeover was without warning. As the various reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) detailed in extraordinary detail and at great length, the favourable, official accounts emanating from Kabul were essentially forms of artistic expression drawn from the imagination, exercises in creative writing from which forbade the trespass of analyses forecasting cascading collapse.
  • The tragedy of the Vietnam War, many hoped, would still such willed ignorance.   Some hoped that the US and its allies might have a moment of reflection – an experience of what the ancient Greeks knew as metanoia – a transformative change of mind and heart, a turning towards the light which quite possibly entails a spiritual conversion. But no – there is no capacity for being Greek among them.
  • Perhaps, then, a contemplation along the lines of someone who understood more than most about insurgency warfare. As both James Fenton and John Pilger have recounted, found in the debris of the abandoned US Embassy in Saigon in 1975,  was a framed passage by T.E. Lawrence, and it read: Better to let them do it imperfectly than do it perfectly yourself.  For it is their country, their way, and our time is short. But no – there is no capacity to learn from experience.
  • Kipling got the perpetrators right – those “who could not dig [and] dared not rob . . . but lied to please the mob.” And he renders them dumb with the question from all those who were needlessly sacrificed:

If any question why we died,

Tell them because our fathers lied.

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