Fragments of Afghanistan


Summary: old memories of a war, with no useful conclusion beyond despair

Afghanistan was in chaos when I worked there towards the end of 1994. The warlords were still squabbling over the spoils following the Soviet withdrawal. So, as usual in war, the civilian population were caught in the middle. 

MSF Holland, who I was working for at the time, had a base in Peshawar in Pakistan from which we operated into Jalalabad in Afghanistan. 

Peshawar was a strange city. A garrison town under the British it fulfilled a similar function for the Pakistani government. Beyond the city limits lay the North-West Frontier province, that lawless area which the British could never control. Neither could the Pakistani government. So it was declared “self-governing”. That meant no government in reality. 

The North-West Frontier province began in the Peshwar suburbs, beyond the official city limits. After this point, marked by an arch across the road, the nature of the roadside shops changed from ones selling food and clothes, to ones selling hand grenades and Kalashnikovs. 

As the road twisted up through the foothills of the Hindu Kush towards the Khyber Pass it passed a palace, believed locally to contain the residence and laboratory of one of the wealthiest heroin processors in the world. Efforts by Pakistan to close down this enterprise were, it was said, always frustrated by the armed tribesmen of the North-West Frontier who valued the revenue this man brought into the region, being a ready market for their poppies and those of their counterparts in Afghanistan.

The relative order of the Pakistan side of the Khyber gates, maintained by the club-armed Pakistani police and soldiers, was wholly absent on the Afghan side, where crowds of migrants, desperate to get across the border seethed awaiting for an opening when the occasional authorised vehicle passed. When this happened they would try to surge through only to be beaten back by the Pakistani border guards. 

I worked designing a piped water scheme for a camp of people who had fled Kabul as a result of the fighting. In the arid countryside between Jalalabad and the border with Pakistan a new city of tents and mud had grown up for a quarter of a million people, scorching hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. 

It was a land sown with dragons’ teeth. The countryside had been a battlefield for so long that occasionally kids trying to scavenge scrap metal would have lumps blown off them when they picked up some unexploded ordnance or discarded anti-personnel mine. 

In the evening there was little to do in Jalalabad other than play chess. One of the drivers was particularly good. In years gone by he had been good enough to be selected to play the Russian grand master Anatoly Karpov in an exhibition match when he visited Afghanistan.

One night our warehouse in Jalalabad was robbed. We contacted the local authorities and the governor himself showed up to take charge of the investigation. This amounted to him ordering the warehouse guards arrested and beaten until they told the truth of who was responsible. The governor just naturally assumed that these young guards were involved somehow. Still, I don’t think the culprits were ever caught.

Once, in the Jalalabad bazaar to buy some fruit juice, I remember a young Afghan man, sporting bandoliers and carrying an AK 47 slung over his shoulder, screaming at me for reasons that I could not discern. Discretion always being the better part of valour, I tried to make myself scarce. But I noticed his green eyes dilated with drugs as I fled.

There was a shop in the bazaar we called the antique shop. It sold all manner of bric-a-brac. This included buttons cut from the uniforms of British and Soviet soldiers who had died at the hands of Afghan guerrillas during 19th and 20th Century imperial adventures, and whose graves lay still in the mountains around us. I imagined that if you went deep enough into that bazaar there might be a shop where the lamps burned darkness and, for the price of your soul, even a flying carpet could be yours to possess. 

Around this time we first heard the stirrings of the Taliban. I don’t know where I first heard the suggestion, whether it was in Afghanistan or Pakistan, that this might be a good thing. At least they were a national movement, it was said, who might finally end the years of factional and ethnic conflict in the country. Certainly uniting in the face of a common enemy would be one way of obtaining national unity. Unfortunately women and girls seemed to be the ones who would obtain that unfortunate designation of “common enemy”. 

Not that it was a feminist halcyon up to that. One Afghan engineer I worked with was nervously hoping that his pregnant wife would give birth to a son. If she didn’t his mother and sisters were already pressuring him to take another wife who would produce a boy.

***

Years later, on a beach outside the port of Massawa in Eritrea, I fell into a fragmented conversation with a small group of Russian sailors in port for a couple of days. One of them, the one who spoke the most English pointed to the eldest of the group. “He is an Afghanski”, I was told, a veteran of the Afghan war.

“What parts of Afghanistan did he serve in?” I asked. 

From the litany he repeated one name stuck out: Jalalabad. “What did you do there?” I asked.

“You know the power plant in Jalalabad?” he asked, via our translator. 

“There was no power plant.” I said. “It had been blown up.”

“Yes,” the Afghanski said. “I blew it up.”

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 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.

Some stocktaking

Summary: the struggle goes on from the spare room

So, after a year of lockdown I thought I should make a note of what I’ve done this past year:

  1. Learned how to zoom
  2. Read War and Peace
  3. Wrote a guide to the Forced Labour Protocol for the International Trade Union Confederation
  4. Co-wrote a report on child trafficking in Albania with OSCE Presence in Albania
  5. Wrote a guide to data gathering and reporting for Albanian child protection workers with OSCE Presence in Albania
  6. Wrote approximately 50 expert reports for trafficking cases
  7. Used zoom to record a contribution to a panel in Trinity College Dublin on human trafficking
  8. Delivered two public lectures – one on Frederick Douglas, and the other on ethical leadership – via the medium of zoom
  9. Realised I didn’t really know zoom at all
  10. Published my first novel, The Undiscovered Country
  11. Wrote six articles for Thomson Reuters Foundation News on aspects of contemporary slavery
  12. Read all seven of Mick Herron’s Slough House novels
  13. Conducted two evaluations of livelihoods programmes in Myanmar (before the Coup)
  14. Read part one of Don Quixote
  15. Started writing a book on ethical leadership
  16. Perfected making soda bread

Maybe this coming year I’ll have a chance to go for a swim again.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

The Patient Assassin, by Anita Anand

Summary: A fine account of the Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre and its aftermath

On 13 April 1919 British armed forces under the command of General Reginald Dyer opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Indian protesters in Amritsar. The official figure for the dead is 379. The Indian National Congress estimated, perhaps more realistically, over 1,000.

Legend has it that one survivor of the massacre, Udham Singh, swore vengeance that day on the blood soaked earth. And, just over 20 years later, in 1940, this vow was fulfilled when Singh shot and killed Sir Michael O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer had been lieutenant governor of the Punjab when the massacre occurred. While not involved in giving the order he was a long-standing apologist for Dyer’s murderousness. He was also an instigator of a few massacres of his own around the same time, as part of the British Empire’s bloody efforts to deny Indian self-determination.

The Patient Assassin is something of a triple biography, of Singh, O’Dwyer and Dyer. Particularly in piecing together Singh’s clandestine life, Anand has done an impressive job. Given this, it is almost churlish to complain that she makes some glaring mistakes elsewhere. For example, in her discussion of O’Dwyer’s background, failing to recognise that Daniel O’Connell was an Irish nationalist, indeed the most prominent one of the first half of the 19th Century.

By 1940, Dyer was dead. But O’Dwyer was crass as ever in his justification of the slaughter. It is ironic that a Catholic Irishman like O’Dwyer should have been such a advocate of empire given the depredations of violence and famine that the British had inflicted on his own people. But, there is a class of person, think Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill, or UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who so desperately want acceptance by the Establishment that they seek to feverishly outdo them in the vileness of their racism, often against people from their own backgrounds. O’Dwyer was one such.

There is actually no evidence, Anand notes, that Singh had been at Amritsar. But whether he was or not the scale of the Amritsar outrage would doubtless have been enough to stir a visceral desire for revenge in him and millions of others across the entire sub-continent. A much smaller massacre by the British in Derry in 1972 was enough to exacerbate murderous insurrection across the North of Ireland.

Nevertheless it is unlikely that assassination was Singh’s primary purpose when he left India and started travelling the world. But the memory of massacre was doubtless an impetuous in his involvement in various expatriate revolutionary organisations. Eventually Singh’s wanderings brought him to London and the opportunity to settle some scores.

The Patient Assassin is a fine and important work of an aspect of Empire history that few British have the first clue about, but which reverberates still in India, where Singh is now hailed as a national hero, and amongst it’s diaspora. Perhaps if this story were more widely known it might go some way to dissipating the misty nostalgia for Empire that still afflicts so many of the English.

V2, by Robert Harris

Summary: a fine cat-and-mouse style thriller set in the final bloody days of a European civil war

Towards the end of the Second World War the Germans launched a rocket assault on the UK. First with V1 “doodlebugs”, a sub-sonic flying bomb, lethal but possible to be brought down by fighters or anti-aircraft guns. The subsequent V2 rocket however was a different beastie altogether. A supersonic rocket carrying a one tonne warhead, the V2 was impossible to intercept once launched and would strike London without warning and at random. While not as murderous as the RAF’s civilian bombing campaign on Germany, they still had the capacity to wreak a particular brand of lethal terror on a war weary population.

As with his recent book, Munich, Harris takes this historical background and foregrounds it with his own fictional creations: on the British side, a young Women’s Auxilary Air Force (WAAF) officer, part of a team trying to locate the launch sites of the V2 rockets in the Low Countries; on the German side, a rocket engineer, dreaming of space flight but trying to survive the war by causing the needless death of hundreds, an atrocity he finds increasingly troubling. Sympathetic as these characters are, the war means that their allotted roles are to spend its last days trying to kill each other.

V2 is a fine war-time thriller that also offers a melancholic exploration of this most horrific of European civil wars. Nevertheless, unlike the bleak, bleak vista of his last book, The Second Sleep, V2 does carry a glimmer of hope at the end.