David Loyn is an award-winning foreign correspondent for the BBC, where he has worked for 30 years reporting from Moscow, Kosovo, Kashmir, and Kabul, among other places. He also was the only foreign correspondent who was with the Taliban when they took Kabul in 1996. “They trusted that I wouldn’t bring an air strike,” he said. “I had to trust that they wouldn’t kill me, and fortunately, they didn’t.” Loyn put his long experience in Afghanistan and with the Taliban to use in his latest work, In Afghanistan: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation, which explores the country’s long history of foreign occupation and war, and its long-standing reputation as an unconquerable place.
Q. How far back does the image of Afghanistan as an unconquerable country extend?
A. Alexander the Great, the most ambitious conqueror in the history of the world, got no further than the Hindu Kush, having conquered all of what is now modern Turkey and Iraq, and having come from Greece. No one has ever actually taken and held Afghanistan. People find it’s not a difficult country to take, as the U.S. did in 2001 in a casualty-free war, from the U.S. point of view. But holding the country is very hard.
My book in particular goes back over the past 200 years. It’s exactly 200 years since the first British envoy was sent to try to talk to the Afghans. The British wanted to secure their western border, but they never really succeeded in doing it, despite 150 years of bruising wars. The Russians had the same problem in the 1980s. They had far more forces and they lost. It does seem to be something about the country.
Q. What is that something that makes it so difficult to hold Afghanistan?
A. There are two key things. Firstly, the terrain is extremely hostile to armies who don’t have very good logistics and supply routes and all the rest of it. Even nowadays, U.S. forces are finding it difficult to keep supplies up despite all the technology available, and despite massive air superiority. This is a country of deserts and mountains and it naturally lends itself to people who can live in that environment. In particular, the eastern mountain range, the Northwest Frontier, is 400 miles long and 200 miles wide, with high peaks going up to about 15,000 feet and only three crossing points, the most famous of which is the Khyber Pass. That’s the place where the British found a huge problem trying to fight against Afghanistan in the 19th century, and where now the Pakistani army is trying to take on the Taliban and finding it a difficult fight.
The other thing apart from the terrain is the really unique capacity of Afghanistan to turn to political Islamism at times of national crisis. Right back from the 1830s and 1840s, the cry of jihad, holy war against the conqueror, was heard in Afghanistan. And it was sponsored by the U.S. against the Russians in the 1980s, because it suited the Americans then. What the Americans found was this desire to go to holy war among the mujahedeen, and it emerged again with the Taliban in the 1990s. This is a strong, powerful inspiration for individual Afghans. They don’t like invaders in their country and they have this ability to turn to political Islamism and take it out of the closet, as it were, and use it in times of national crisis. Even the word Taliban – the very first reference I could find is from 1880, in an attack by someone identified as a religious student, a talib, on British soldiers in Kandahar. The young Winston Churchill, who was a war correspondent, identified some Afghans as talibs, pursuing religious war.
It’s quite a hard thing to conquer. It’s quite a hard idea to turn around if you’re a modern power. This is a war where conventional military superiority, and having better weapons and more people won’t necessarily win the war.
Q. You note in your book that the Taliban is “not just another Afghan guerrilla group.” What makes them unique, and how much of a threat are they to the U.S., especially when compared to Al Qaeda?
A. It’s important to differentiate, and I think it’s been a bit of a policy failure since 2001. 9/11 was such a shock to U.S. policy. The response to it, which was understandable in terms of attacking the country that was harboring Osama bin Laden, didn’t make a distinction between Osama and the Taliban. The Taliban do not have a foreign policy. They are not interested in attacking America. They’re interested in defending Afghanistan.
In 2006 I spent a few days with their then-military commander…. The thing that struck me talking to this really quite clever commander – he’s not a fool, and he was killed a few months later in a British attack – is how much his worldview was about Afghanistan. This wasn’t someone who wanted to blow up the Metro system, or blow people up in New York. He was someone who wanted an Islamic way of life in his country, and he didn’t want anyone to get in the way of that. He saw Osama bin Laden as a distraction, and I said, “This is the reason the Americans came.” And he said, “Yes, he was our guest.” They shared an Islamic view but they didn’t share a strategy internationally. There has been a problem since 2001 of the international community not quite seeing this difference.
The other thing about the Taliban is the way they have emerged since the 1990s – with a huge amount of international money, mostly from Saudi Arabia – through education in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. There are madrassas, religious schools, where there are 1.5 million students learning little else but how to read the Koran by rote. That’s a huge problem. These schools are sort of Taliban factories. They’re turning out a generation of men who see their duty as jihad, to fight a holy war, and every six months or every year, a new regiment comes into Afghanistan and they find a new class graduated from the madrassas. Without some very substantial change in policy, that’s not going to change.
Q. Do you think Barack Obama’s newly outlined strategy for the regime seems different enough from what we’ve been doing so far?
A. I think it looks very different. I’ve been around Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke at international summits since the new administration came into power. The language is different. The “if we outstretch our hand, can you unclench your fist” kind of language is completely different. I think it’s a completely different strategy on the ground as well. There is a new kind of engagement. It’s going to be very difficult to get it right.
I do have one big concern about U.S. policy at the moment. There’s a desire to send lots of American civilians into Afghanistan. Barack Obama is very keen on mentoring the Afghans, which makes perfect sense in a theoretical way – having an American judge next to an Afghan judge means it’s harder to corrupt that individual. But each one of those Americans will need security. The problem since 2001 has been what the World Bank derided as an aid juggernaut, a huge system built in Afghanistan outside the state – what’s missing is an effort to build a competent Afghan government. The international community has failed Afghanistan since 2001. It has especially failed Afghan women. This was a war that was particularly popular in the West in part because of the way the Taliban treated women. I met an Afghan member of parliament who said rights for women in Afghanistan now are worse than they were under the Taliban. What she meant is because of the insecurity, they haven’t thrown off their burqas and become equal to men. It’s also a very traditional society. The Taliban worked with that, they didn’t create it, and the international community hasn’t worked enough to establish noncorrupt, competent government in Afghanistan. It would be better to spend money training middle-rank civil servants rather than having a clever idea of sending in mentors….
But God it’s going to be hard, nobody’s ever done it. The British Empire was incredibly strong and powerful in that region and fought pretty ruthless campaigns in Afghanistan, more ruthless in many ways than U.S. forces. The army in retribution in 1842 once burnt down the Kabul market, and in fact the whole city, and it didn’t have the effect they wanted.
Q. Sorry if this seems like a glib question, but why do we forget history so easily?
A. I just wish politicians did remember the lessons of history. I’m principally a TV correspondent and I wrote this history book because no one else had. It was a book that I wanted to read. I was trying to answer this question – was there something about this country? I think there’s a problem with the electoral cycle. Politicians are always fighting the next campaign and they need a result, and Afghanistan is a place that’s different from the rest of the world. You can’t just go in there and impose Western-style democracy and expect that therefore Western-style institutions will emerge. It’s going to be a much more difficult task than that. And understanding that in 2001, the Taliban were not necessarily all bad and the people who were U.S. allies were not necessarily all good has been quite a difficult lesson. Some of those people who America has put into power were criminal warlords, who stole much of what the state had. If they only had remembered history, they might have realized who those individuals were. There was a slightly naïve expectation in 2001, or very naïve. The Bush government had an unrealistic expectation of the ability of military might to prevail. We saw that in Iraq in particular, but we saw it in Afghanistan as well. The people who were U.S. allies turned out to be warlords, and many people in the Taliban might potentially have been engaged in a far more constructive debate than they were. It was very hard for senior Taliban figures to talk to the U.S. A lot of mistakes were made, and under anyone who had depth of understanding of the region, those mistakes would not have been made.
Q. You mentioned that we can’t go into Afghanistan and impose Western-style democracy, something that has been said of Iraq as well. What if anything makes Afghanistan a uniquely difficult place to establish such institutions?
A. The tribal family structure, which is particularly strong in the Pashtun areas. The Pashtuns are the largest minority, 30 to 35% of the country probably, although no one has done a census recently. But they’re the biggest minority in a country of minorities, and the Pashtun honor code provides enormous social coherence, and it gives them resilience. They’re very polite, but it’s quite hard to break into it. They’re very conservative, mostly traditional family-oriented groups. They have arranged marriages which are far less open than arranged marriages in other South Asian countries. Brides are almost bartered, almost bought and sold, almost, but not quite. Women get married very young, sometimes in their early teens, often to much older men. There is a sense that women are property, rather than equals. It’s quite hard to break into that just by imposing a western agenda for western-oriented democracy.
What you need to do rather is work with what’s there and we’ve failed to do that. One of the really interesting periods which I do write about in my book was the 1920s, after the First World War, when there was a real reform movement, in Turkey and Iran in particular. It came to Afghanistan through a reformist king who wanted to do a lot of the kind of things that those in the West would think is a good idea – equality for women, no marriage under 18, much better education, not licensing the most extremist mullahs, mullahs who were trained in places that trained the Taliban later. He lost power and was nearly killed in a revolution in the late 1920s which was all about women’s rights. He pushed it too far. He insisted that women went around unveiled. The mullahs used a photograph of the queen – I’ve put it in the book – unveiled at a ball in Europe in a ball gown with bare arms, and went around the villages and said “Do you want your wives looking like this?” That was the rallying cry to revolution.
It’s easy in Afghanistan to turn back to these conservative moral standpoints and quite hard to reform them and no one yet has really successfully found a way. It’s true that in the 60s and 70s, Afghanistan was moving in a reformist direction from the cities, and particularly from the north. I went to medical schools where women trained alongside men. There was much more of a sense of equality. All of that’s really gone. Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years – Russia invaded in 1979. People have turned back to these traditional family values in order to operate and survive. After 2001, there was this sudden moment of opportunity, with refugees coming back from abroad who had a different kind of view of Afghanistan. But it’s quite hard for them to introduce the ways that they want to live because of the strength of this social code.
Q. You’ve reported in Afghanistan a long time. Did anything you found while researching this book surprise you?
A. I’ll be honest, I think the fact that the very same places where Osama bin Laden was training his guerrillas in the 1990s and leading up to 9/11, in the very same mountains and same forests there were anti-Russian guerrillas being trained in the 1980s and anti-British guerrillas being trained in the 1930s and 1840s with the same kind of code. I think I was surprised by that, by the lengths of this kind of tradition. We can’t use these words now, but there was a wonderfully politically incorrect description that the army and the journalists used in the 1890s – they called one leader “the Mad Mullah.” The Mad Mullah led the biggest uprising against the British, in 1897, and he was inspired by just the same sort of ideology as the Taliban. I was really struck by that.
*Photos courtesy Palgrave Macmillan.