The Afghanistan Papers, by Craig Whitlock; and Freedom, by Sebastian Junger

Summary: Why, long ago, the West lost again in Afghanistan.

On 18 August 2021, as the Taliban retook Kabul and the US prepared for full withdrawal from Afghanistan, Conservative MP and Afghanistan veteran Tom Tugendhat made a powerful and moving speech condemning the US “abandonment” of that country. Tugendhat suggested that the West had not shown sufficient patience to prevail in the conflict.

Tugendhat’s words, spoken in the context of the emerging vista of the Taliban’s renewed misogynistic rule in Afghanistan, struck a deep chord and drew considerable praise. Revisiting it in the context of The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock’s book based on the Washington Post’s reporting of successive US governments’ assessment of the war, suggests that Tugendhat’s speech was deeply mistaken.

The US went into Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. Before this had been achieved it had also invaded Iraq. Whitlock details how this distracted military thinking and resources from the primary mission of killing or capturing bin Laden who was able to escape into Pakistan.

However, the hubris gained from the relatively quick overthrow of the Taliban led to the US deciding to set itself the goal of creating a liberal democracy in that country. That they decided on this goal was a testament not only to a remarkable arrogance, but also to the depth of their ignorance of Afghanistan. Donald Rumsfeld was not alone in plaintively asking the question “Who are the bad guys?”

In many American minds the Taliban were fellow travellers with Al Qaeda and so “the enemy”. However, while they had given Al Qaeda sanctuary and shared an Islamist outlook with them, the Taliban were a particularly Afghan phenomenon, a product of the diverse ethnic and tribal rivalries that have plagued this part of central Asia for centuries. They were disinterested in world revolution and so could have been co-opted by the US if the US had bothered to learn.

Instead, the US allied with a different bunch of murderous warlords and corrupt local politicians and started shovelling cash at them, and lead and high explosives at ordinary Afghan people. Three presidents, Junior Bush, Obama and Trump, kept this up, all effectively lying to the American people that things were going well while blundering from one misconceived approach to another.

For example, at one point under Bush, the US decided that the Taliban were being funded by the opium trade and decided to eradicate it by paying farmers to stop growing opium. This of course boosted opium production as farmers rushed to ensure they could claim the available cash. The US also got into bulldozing the poppy fields, but their Afghan allies made sure that this policy only applied to their rivals consequently ensuring little actual effect on opium production. However, those who were disadvantaged by the crop destruction were thereafter predisposed to allying with the Taliban who had actually banned the opium trade as un-Islamic when in power.

The Afghanistan Papers describes an ineffectual war fought for an institutionally corrupt and ineffectual government. The messy nature of the fighting which often sowed support for the Taliban by the “collateral damage” of horrendous civilian casualties, was described in memorable detail by Sebastian Junger in his book, War, an account of a period he spent embedded with one US army outpost in Afghanistan. Freedom is something of a sequel to that book. Ostensibly it is an account of a trek with some unnamed friends, some of them Afghanistan veterans, along the railway lines of the east coast of the United States. But really the book is a mediation on why the US was doomed to lose in Afghanistan. Drawing on sources as varied as the 1916 Irish rebellion, the Pacquiao-Mayweather title fight in 2015, and the Apache’s campaign in the US South-West, Junger explains why poor, weak opponents can so consistently defeat wealthier, more powerful foes.

Whitlock quotes a source saying, “Foreigners read The Kite Runner on the plane and think they are experts on Afghanistan.” I have never thought myself an expert on Afghanistan and left the place perhaps more confused about it than when I first arrived. But then I was only engineering water supplies, not trying to construct a new society. But the awful ignorance of Nato soldiers and policy makers described in the Afghanistan Papers seems one of the few constants in the past 20 years of war.

Perhaps Tom Tugendhat has read more stuff and is the man with the strategic genius to articulate the winning formula that has evaded every other military and political leader in Nato for the past 20 years.

The evidence instead suggests that defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable once the US embarked upon its hubristic goal of nation-building. So, while the final withdrawal of US forces could perhaps have been handled better, Joe Biden deserves respect for the moral courage he has shown in facing up to this stark truth.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Summary: a spectacularly absorbing story of the collision between dreams and realities

Since its publication in 2000 Chabon’s Pulitzer prize-winning Kavalier and Clay has come to be regarded as a modern American classic. It is the story of two cousins, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Prague, and Sammy Clayman, who when then meet in New York in the late 1930s discover that they have just the complementary talents necessary to produce successful comic books. This includes one storyline featuring a Nazi-fighting superhero known as ‘The Escapist”.

The book skips back and forward in time, from Joe’s escape from Prague, up to the early 1950s taking leisurely excursions along the way into Jewish folklore, the legends of escapology, and the birth of the American superhero genre. 

It is a wildly entertaining piece of work, often funny, occasionally horrific, with central characters Joe, Rosa and Sam who you properly care about, aware that the brutal realities of the time may also consume them as they have so many others. 

Exquisite.

A Moment of War, by Laurie Lee

Summary: a haunting account of a fragment of the Spanish Civil War

A Moment of War is Laurie Lee’s memoir of his experiences of the Spanish Civil War.

His account is determinedly anti-heroic. Much of it deals with the bureaucracy of the Communist dominated forces that he is assigned to once it is accepted finally, after periods of incarceration, that he is not a spy and they did not have to shoot him after all. Ironically, he tells how he was subsequently assigned to what in the North of Ireland would have been called a “nutting squad” – a unit responsible for identifying and liquidating perceived threats, from deserters and saboteurs to little old men with lingering allegiance to the Catholic Church.

Apparently in sympathy with the anti-religious temperament of the Republican forces Lee relishes the sexual promiscuity he believes that this has bred. He describes an episodic affair with a young Spanish girl, Eulalia, who seems to represent to him a new spirit of sexual liberation in revolutionary Spain. Eulalia despite being at least five years younger than Lee calls him “very young” – perhaps what she has already lived though, like millions of women and girls before her and since, has aged her. So maybe what seemed like romantic abandon to someone as naive as Lee may have been a survival strategy for Eulalia. Lee’s English lover, presumably Lorna Wishart, a married woman with whom he was having an affair during this period, is also a recurrent, though mostly unseen, presence in the book, representing memories of humanity and normalcy away from the bleakness of war.

Towards the end of the book Lee states, almost in passing that he killed someone, blotting out the life of another young man in a confused skirmish during a hopeless battle that could have no bearing on victory or defeat in the war. Some have suggested that this is a fabricated incident, and that Lee was never actually a part of the International Brigades – assertions that Lee’s widow vehemently disputed. 

Both George Orwell and Tim O’Brien crafted elements of their experiences of war to sharpen literary effect. In The Things They Carried O’Brien is explicit about this, questioning whether a story describing how he killed a young man is a more honest accounting of his role in Vietnam than a description of his experiences in which he never personally pulls the pin on a fatal grenade.

Whatever the literal truth of Lee’s involvement in the International Brigades, A Moment of War is an atmospheric and haunting book, exquisitely written and deserved of its reputation as a modern classic.

The Shortest History of War, by Gwynne Dyer; and The War that Ended Peace, by Margaret Macmillan

Summary: War – good for nothing and may still be the thing that kills you

In The Shortest History of War, Gwynne Dyer, quotes, of course, Clauswitz’s maxim that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He does, however, conspicuously ignore that war has often been a continuation of racism by other means.

This considerable lacuna is most apparent when Dyer traces back only as far as the American Civil War the modern conception of “total war”- the making of war on the civilian populations of belligerent nations. It is true that Grant and Sherman practiced a version of this on the Confederacy. But total war has a more ancient pedigree. The sack of Troy, for example, is a story of how it was routinely practiced in ancient times.

Both Caesar and Genghis Khan also practiced versions of total war. And, while this may have gone out of fashion for a bit amongst the white nations of Europe in the 17th and 18th Centuries, it was always the way in which “Great Powers” made war on those they regarded as inferior or subject peoples: Cromwell halved the population of Ireland in his campaign in the mid-17th century. Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt and Palestine was ferocious in its violence towards civilians. The US campaign against Native Americans was genocidal as was the British campaign against Australian Aboriginals. The British conquest of India was another racist exemplar of total war.

But it is not Paddies and brown people that Dyer is interested in here. Rather he is interested in the “Great Power” version of politics and how this has been manifested in organised violence since ancient times. Within this narrower scope it is still a fascinating book, packed full of interesting detail and disturbing conclusions. Dyer argues that only three countries fulfil the criteria to be “Great Powers” in the 21st Century: the US, India and China. Russia he argues lacks the population to contend. So it may be unsettling to learn how it will cope with its inevitable decline. Dyer doesn’t consider the possibility that the European Union may represent an alternative political model for a 21st Century “Great Power”.

More disturbingly he notes that between them Indian and Pakistan have enough weapons to unleash a “nuclear winter” upon the Earth should they ever blunder into a nuclear exchange. In other words, in the space of a few days, while the rest of the world could be preoccupied with other things, events could unfold in South Asia that would spell the end of all human civilisation .

If anyone thinks such a thing is unlikely, they would do well to consider Margaret Macmillan’s The War that Ended Peace, her painstaking survey of European “Great Power” politics at the start of the 20th Century. The complex array of alliances and egos that she describes shows how at critical moments inadequate and posturing leaders can lose control of situations that spiral out of control in the most appalling ways possible.

That some of the contemporary systems of planetary security are currently in the hands of Johnson, Modi, Khan and Putin should be of concern to all of us who like the thought of the next generation, and the one after that, living into peaceful old age with improving standards of human rights and a restored environment.

Towards that end perhaps someone could prevail upon Presidents Biden, van der Leyen and Xi to take steps not just to limit global warming, but also to promote détente leading to mutual nuclear disarmament between India and Pakistan.

What a Bloody Awful Country: Northern Ireland’s Century of Division, by Kevin Meagher

Summary: a fine and concise history of the bloody consequences of a failed state

With this book Kevin Meagher seems to have two principle objectives: to provide a concise history of the conflict in the North of Ireland, and to identify British Government culpabilities in this conflict.

He fulfils both of these things admirably. While never excusing the routine atrocities of the IRA and the Loyalist paramilitaries, or the intrinsic bigotry of wider unionism, he identifies successive points where political courage on the part of the British Government may have staunched at least some of the bloodshed.

It was the British government which deliberately created a sectarian Orange state in the North of Ireland. This led to, until recently, a parallel illiberal state in the South as the ideal of a plural Ireland, uniting “Catholic, Protestant and Dissenter under the common name of Irish”, was shattered by British policy. 

The British excuse for Partition was to avoid civil war. But that came anyway, both in the South until 1923, and, off and on, in the North for the next 80 years. 

Meagher identifies 1914 as the last year in which this protracted conflict might have been avoided, had the newly passed Home Rule Act been implemented. It is not unreasonable to imagine that this may have allowed Ireland to have had a bumpy evolution into modern statehood akin to that experienced by Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

But that didn’t happen. Instead from 1921 onwards the British government was content to acquiesce in the establishment of a state which institutionalised a type of caste-based discrimination within the borders of the United Kingdom. Meagher shows how the use of the first-past-the-post electoral system was foundational to the gerrymandering of Northern Ireland in favour of bigoted unionism, just as FPTP is today foundational to corrupt Tory power in Britain.

Successive British governments, even under Irish-heritage Labour politicians such as Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey, were content to let this apartheid-style system fester so long as it didn’t bother them. They were not even stirred to do something when the Catholic community in the North of Ireland, inspired by Martin King and the black civil rights movement in the United States, took to the streets to peacefully demand their most basic civil rights. 

The British government only reacted when their puppets in the Northern Ireland government embarrassed them internationally by turning civil rights protests on the streets of Derry into a re-enactment of the sort of nakedly bigoted police brutality seen earlier on the streets of Selma and across the US South. By sending in the troops the British government blundered into escalating civil unrest into civil war.

Thereafter, as the death toll mounted, British Labour and Conservative governments alike missed opportunity after opportunity to deescalate. But eventually, starting with the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, a peace process began to be pieced together following John Hume’s blueprint of dealing with the “totality of relationships” – within Northern Ireland, North-South and between Britain and Ireland – within the context of common membership of the European Union. 

It was this painstaking and still fragile process that Boris Johnson – and I choose these words carefully – decided to shite over in his fevered scramble for the British premiership.

Meagher identifies a number of British politicians who made, on balance, constructive contributions to Irish peace – Whitelaw, Prior, Brooke, Mayhew, Mowlam, Major, Blair, even Thatcher, in spite of her inept handling of the 1981 hunger strikes which made her, in effect, the fairy godmother at Sinn Fein’s political rebirth. However, it is difficult to think of a politician since Lord John Russell who has been more damaging to Anglo-Irish relations than Boris Johnson. 

As Unionists try to celebrate 100 years of Northern Ireland, Meagher has commemorated this anniversary with this important book that shows why Northern Ireland has been such a disastrous political project.

And yet there are still those forlorn souls who bleat about the possibilities of a new “progressive” unionism for Northern Ireland’s second century. But, as Meagher shows, this is hardly a new idea. Terrance O’Neill as Prime Minister of Northern Ireland tried it in the 1960s and was destroyed for it. Every unionist leader since who has made even the slightest move towards equality has been dispatched. Most recently Arlene Foster was removed because she wasn’t homophobic enough, and Edwin Poots brief leadership was ended when he acquiesced in a British government move to give effect to his own party’s commitments regarding parity of esteem for the Irish language.

“Liberal unionist” is a relative term in a political ideology that is inherently reactionary. That is why unionism eats progressives raw, and always will. True progressives must instead turn their eyes to the prize of another of John Hume’s ideas: that of unity in the diversity of a New Ireland. 

As the ugly spectre of Johnson’s Blackshirt-hued politics continues to assert itself in England the prospect of a New Ireland will become ever more attractive to people of all traditions in the North of Ireland. For now, Kevin Meagher’s fine book shows why it’s time to put Northern Ireland out of our collective misery.

The Spy Who Loved, by Clare Mulley

Summary: An exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek (aka Christine Granville) and her incredible exploits as a resistant to totalitarianism during World War 2

The Spy Who Loved is Clare Mulley’s exceptionally fine biography of Krystyna Skarbek or Christine Granville as she later styled herself. Like all great biographies it does two things: it not only gives the reader a strong sense of what their subject was like, but it also provides an powerful introduction to their times. Neither of these are trivial matters, but the former is immensely complicated by the fact that Skarbek lived so much of her life clandestinely at one point taking the opportunity to shave 7 years off her age when obtaining an official identification.

Determined to resist the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia which consumed her own country, Poland, Skarbek led a remarkably dramatic life, first as a British liaison to the Polish resistance, and later as a Special Operations Executive agent in France. There she was a witness to the desperate French insurrection on the Vercors, and she played a central role in the Resistance preparations for the Allied landings in southern France. Her exploits included securing the defection of an entire German garrison on a strategic pass in the Alps, and, armed with little more than her courage and quick wits, saving a group of her colleagues from almost certain death following their capture by collaborationist police.

The title of the book, The Spy who Loved, is a deliberate reference to James Bond and the, unfortunately unlikely, story that Skarbek was the model for Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale. It also is a reference to the fact that Skarbek’s expansive sexual history was also Bondesque.

Judith Matloff, in her very fine account of the Angolan Civil War, notes how booze and promiscuity are common reactions to the experience of trauma. But, at moments, Skarbek’s choices put me in mind not of Bond, but of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s extraordinary creation “Fleabag”, a character deeply damaged by grief and guilt, and seeking fleeting respite from the pain through sex.

Nevertheless, Skarbek’s lovers, for the most part, were lucky in her choice of them. Several had her to thank for their lives. They remained devoted to her memory and some even tried, abortively, to write her biography together.

Skarbek had a difficult time readjusting after the war. She was almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But, because she was Polish and a woman, she got little support from officialdom. Unable to settle she got a job as a steward on an ocean liner where she was subject to bullying and petty harassment by others in the crew who disliked her being “foreign”, One of the few who befriended her on the liner was a man called Dennis Muldowney, who became obsessed with her and, eventually, murdered her.

It was an appallingly sad end to such a spectacular life. Clare Mulley has done Skarbek some measure of justice with this superb biography.

The Power of Geography: 10 maps that reveal the future of our world, by Tim Marshall

Summary: a further compelling lesson on geopolitics from Tim Marshall who highlights some of the challenges – and opportunities – that humanity will face in the coming decades

The Power of Geography is a follow up to Marshall’s magisterial introduction to geopolitics, Prisoners of Geography.

In this volume he focuses on some emerging issues, including how we as human beings will explore space. He also discerns potential for conflict arising in important parts of the world, such as the Sahel and Ethiopia. These places are often little understood to outsiders. But issues arising there are likely to have a huge bearing on the course of human events in the coming years as ancient national aspirations, global warming and competition for water forces political choices that will ripple out across the planet.

I regretted that Prisoners of Geography had no discussion of Britain and Ireland. This book does have a discussion of the UK, currently a leading contender for the title of most bizarrely deluded country in the world.

It has earned this unenviable accolade by deciding to make policy for itself with almost no discernible consideration of geography. Brexit, the fevered wet dream of a few disaster capitalists and frothing xenophobes, has now become the guiding principle of UK policy. Marshall pays little attention to the disastrous impact of this policy on Irish peace, which was built on the foundations of the UK’s and Ireland’s common European Union membership. But he does note how it has added impetus to the Scottish desire for independence. This consequence of Brexit would, Marshall observes, likely cause greater damage to the UK’s international standing than Brexit itself.

If that happens it would be a deserved fate. Over the past half decade the UK seems to have embraced a vision in which international rule of law should not apply to it. Hence its legal commitments are today hardly worth the paper they are written on. Such rogue states are not deserving of respect.

Of course, Marshall has a much broader perspective in this book than the repercussions of Brexit. His discussions also encompass Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Spain, Greece and even Australia. Each chapter is filled with fascinating historical and geographic detail and a clear perspective on their geopolitical implications. It is an outstanding companion to Prisoners of Geography and an essential book for anyone interested in current affairs and the issues that may confront us in the coming years.

Warriors: Life and death among the Somalis, by Gerald Hanley

Summary: An exquisite book about an unusual aspect of the Second World War in a part of the world that is still little known and understood

Warriors is Gerald Hanley’s account of his experiences during the Second World War when he was posted to Somalia as an officer with the King’s African Rifles. Somali friends have described it to me as the best book about Somalia written by a foreigner.

Hanley was not a typical British officer. An Irish Catholic from Liverpool, he was politically anti-colonialist, and so had an instinctive sympathy for those on the receiving end of the British Imperial project. He seems also to have had a particular fascination with Somalia and the Somalis. He appreciated their fierce individualism, and perhaps had some sense of kinship with them: the stories he tells, of their raiding, their magic and their poetry, has, for me, echoes of the Ulster cycle of legends from Iron Age Ireland.

Later Hanley led Somalis in battle in Burma. He remembered how the Somalis appreciated the Japanese there. They were a rarity: an enemy that the Somalis could go hand to hand with who would not run away. 

The troops of the King’s African Rifles were from many parts of Africa and many different cultures and communities. But they were united by the common usage of “army Swahili” as their medium of communication.

Hanley reflects at one point that this common language and the experience of common purpose and mutual dependence that war brought gave him a glimpse of a community that the British Empire could have been. But of course, he was also aware that the very moment he discerned this possibility it was already too late. Such a vision was already fatally undermined by the British Empire’s original sins of theft, racism and subjugation.

But it’s a reflection that I was reminded of this week when the Scottish elections delivered a decisive mandate for a new independence referendum. In response English politicians and commentators again made assertions that Britain is “better together”. But it is far too late for this hollow argument after half a decade of concerted campaigning and government intent on proving that the UK is a singularly English project in which the hopes and fears of subordinate nations simply don’t matter. English contempt for Irish peace, for the Scots, and indeed for the rest of Europe, apart from Putin’s Russia, is hardly any foundation for a community of equals.

So, fifty years after the first publication of Warriors, the UK looks as doomed as the British Empire. That’s also probably a good thing.

Do Not Disturb: The story of a political murder and an African regime gone bad, by Michela Wrong

Summary: An exceptional, and exceptionally courageous, study of Paul Kagame’s Rwandan dictatorship

I’ve been a fan of Michela Wrong since her first book exploring the history of Congo, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz. Her subsequent books on Eritrea, and particularly, on Kenyan corruption have been excellent.

Do Not Disturb is, however, by far her best book. It is an extraordinary work exploring the path to power of Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda.

Kagame, and Rwanda, have been the darlings of Western aid donors for decades. As Wrong points out he’s a regular at Davos. Both Labour and Conservative UK governments have fawned over him, and his musings pop up from time to time in the Guardian.

Which is all quite strange because it has been plain for decades that Kagame is a psychotic war criminal. He has waged illegal war. His armies have plundered eastern Congo with vicious abandon. He has assassinated democratic opponents in foreign lands. And he has massacred civilians both at home in Rwanda and abroad. In other words, Wrong details the atrocities of a man as rapacious of Central Africa as the worst of the colonial powers.

Since his earliest days as an intelligence officer in the Ugandan bush, Kagame has never been one to put himself in harm’s way. However he is an enthusiastic giver of orders, sending others out to murder on his behalf. As president Kagame has shown himself a petty bully as well as a murderous dictator.

Alongside Kagame’s story Wrong explores the careers of, among others, Fred Rwigyema, Rwanda’s lost leader, killed in disputed circumstances in 1990 shortly after the RPF invaded Rwanda, Seth Sendashonga, Rwanda’s first post-genocide interior minister, a democratic Hutu politician assassinated on Kagame’s orders, probably with the assistance of Patrick Karegeya, whose own assassination opens the book and whose story provides a thread through the narrative.

Given all of this, the book is not just an exemplary work of history and journalism, it is also a work of extraordinary courage. Wrong knows how vindictive Kagame is, and how murderous his state apparatus is: she details it here. Nevertheless she has done the whole of the Great Lakes region an immense service, by exposing in such unflinching detail Kagame’s corrupt brutality.

If, over the past two decades, donor governments had shown but a modicum of Wrong’s courage perhaps Central Africa would have fewer graves. Maybe now, at least, Kagame may have fewer preening op-eds in the pages of the Guardian.

The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum; and The Assault on Truth, by Peter Oborne

Summary: Lies, and the lying fascists who tell them

I was in Brazil just before Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency there. Why not give him a chance, one taxi driver asked me. What’s the worst that can happen?

The soaring death toll from Covid in Brazil rather answers that question. As similar levels of carnage have shown, under Trump in the US, and Johnson in the UK, electing fascists is never good for the national health – literally. How could it be otherwise when people are but livestock and cannon fodder to them.

In spite of the setback that Joe Biden delivered fascism with his defeat of Trump in the United States presidential election, authoritarianism remains a potent threat to liberal democracy and to the lives and livelihoods of millions across the planet.

These two books are important contributions to the struggle against the far-Right not least because they are by conservative writers: Applebaum a moderate US Republican married to a centre-Right Polish statesman; Oborne is a former Brexiter.

Both books are concerned with the centrality of lying to authoritarian political projects. Applebaum’s perspective is more international, exploring populist political projects in Europe as well as the United States. Oborne focuses much more sharply on the UK and in particular how Boris Johnson has so throughly corrupted British politics and mounted a concerted assault on the independence of the civil service and the judiciary, and debased the notion of parliamentary accountability. It may be churlish to point out to Oborne, given that he has somewhat rethought his position on Brexit, that Johnson’s assault on democracy is more easily undertaken outside the European Union than within. But that is the case.

These are useful books, but hardly happy ones. The rational arguments and pleas for decency that they contain are unlikely to find purchase in the fevered fantasies of the ultras. But they do help the rest of us understand better the machinations of the far Right. And, if we ever hope to successfully oppose something it is first necessary to properly understand it.