At least the old imperialists took the trouble to find out about a country before they invaded (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

August 25, 2021   6 mins

The first time Western powers installed and backed a leader in Afghanistan, it didn’t end well. His name was Shah Shujah; when he was lured out of his palace, supposedly for peace talks with the Afghan forces that had been deposed by the West, they shot him.

That was some time ago. More recently, the last time the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, in 1996, they found a previous president, Mohammed Najibullah, at the UN compound in Kabul. He, too, had been a puppet leader, supported by the Soviets. The Taliban seized him and tortured him and his brother to death, castrating him at some point. Their naked bodies were dragged through the street and hanged outside the presidential palace, as a warning to the populace. As a considered insult, funeral prayers for Najibullah were forbidden in Kabul.

On August 16th this year, the American president Joe Biden gave a televised speech justifying his decision to withdraw his troops. Much of it was devoted to complaining about the conduct of the Afghans — the ones who had been left high and dry. “Afghanistan’s leaders gave up and fled the country,” he claimed. It would have been true with the addition of the word “some” — Hamid Karzai, for instance, stayed where he was, in Kabul. And if the president, Ashraf Ghani, took the opportunity to seek safety in the UAE, it may have been the memory of Najibullah’s grisly fate that encouraged him to flee. Or the fate of Shah Shujah. Biden, on the other hand, appeared entirely ignorant of how things go and have gone in Afghanistan. Ignorance is the general condition of many anti-imperialists in the West, and Afghanistan has paid heavily for it.

I am a novelist by profession. About twenty-five years ago, I found myself inexplicably possessed by a subject. I couldn’t understand it. I had very little interest in historical novels. I had never been to Afghanistan. But there was no alternative: I felt under a compulsion to write a novel about the First Afghan War.

The British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, replacing the Emir, Dost Mohammed (who fled) with Shah Shujah. Two years later, forces loyal to Dost Mohammed routed the British, killing almost all of them on their retreat. Dost Mohammed regained his throne and kept it.

Nobody, in the late 1990s, could understand why I was writing this. I could only shrug. I could see that something important was happening in Afghanistan while I was writing, but I submitted to the compulsion rather than investigate parallels. Very strangely indeed, at one point I had the unarguable conviction that my hero, in 1839, should look up into the sky and see jet planes flying westward. It made no sense, and it had to be done.

The novel was finished, and the bound proof was delivered. It was September 10th, 2001. The next day I switched the television on, and understood what The Mulberry Empire had wanted to say.

At this time, I’d also been writing a weekly column for the Independent, and though I seemed like an unserious person to the editors, they occasionally let me write something about Afghanistan if there was nothing else going on. These are curious to read now.

I wrote that, when the Taliban destroyed the 6th century statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan in March 2001, it was a harbinger of much worse acts of destruction. After the war started, mindful of Dost Mohammed’s tactics in the 1830s, it was absolutely clear to me that the Taliban had usefully melted into the mountains to regroup patiently. In an interview in March 2002, I complained with comic exaggeration that rather than an imperialist project, the West in Afghanistan was “going there for three months, sending sandwiches and then leaving again, which is a recipe for disaster”. Quite soon after, I wrote that in the end of our Afghan adventure, “when it comes to the point, we can evacuate in shame and dishonour”. And so it has proved.

All this was perfectly obvious to a fairly lazy novelist sitting in South London. Why the sequence of events has proved so astonishing to every Western commentator and politician is an interesting question, and unlike many things said to be an interesting question, this one has a fairly easy answer. They don’t know anything.

This is not much of an exaggeration, as Biden’s amazement at Ghani running for safety instantly shows. What has primarily driven all political decisions in the absence of understanding is something universally agreed upon. Imperialism was a very bad thing. No-one must ever be able to describe us, now, as imperialists. We must “start a conversation about Empire” — since this demand came fifty years after Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica was a bestseller, this did not quite mean what it seemed to.

There was plenty of very interesting work being done on empire, but not much of it seemed to enter into the “conversation” — neither Srinath Raghavan’s exceptional study of India’s transition from empire through the experience of World War II, nor Amartya Sen’s lucid understanding of how Empire both shaped and went on restricting India.

Instead, a soothing bromide like Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland was much preferred by the lumpenintelligentsia, however ill-informed or misleading. Sanghera’s approach to his subject was summed up by his account of the “brutal truth” that the Koh-i-Noor diamond ended up in the Crown Jewels after being seized from Ranjit Singh. He fails to mention that Ranjit Singh’s family had owned it for all of 36 years, having seized it from Shah Shujah as the price of hospitality. Still, the evils of imperialism emerge consolingly from the half story Sanghera tells.

What lies behind Biden’s decision is a horror of what people might think of us. This is never going to lead to a stable position. People might think that an unstable and wicked foreign state needs to be dealt with. People might also think that putting things right by moving in and running is wicked imperialism. The end result is that the West decides to move in; after a while, they get bored and nervous of bien pensant opinion; their President declares that twenty years’ presence is a “forever war” and the only solution is to run away, and anyway, look how expensive it’s been. We tried to get them to do stuff our way for, like, forever, and my God they just wouldn’t. Their fault, obviously.

Since there is clearly no appetite for an open-ended imperial commitment, with a viceroy in the Bala Hissar, the only realistic option would have been never to have engaged in the first place.

“Hang in there, sisters,” a groovy Greek commentator advised the women of Kabul last week, and that seems to be about the limit of our interest. The old imperialists, appalling as they were to our eyes, at least took the trouble to find out about these cultures and talk to them. Sathnam Sanghera sneers at the limit of engagements of the imperialists who were to be found “dining on curry and arak, chewing betel and smoking hookahs, forsaking beef, donning dhotis and growing moustaches.”

I doubt Sanghera’s knowledge of Pushto and Dari is as confident as Alexander Burnes’s, however, or his Sanskrit up to that of William Jones. I suspect, on a lighter level, that those imperialists who dined on curry were a bit better informed than the commentator in the Washington Post who, from an impeccably bien pensant position, informed his readers this week that Indian food is “the only ethnic cuisine in the world insanely based on one spice”.

We are never, now, going to be able to have an honest conversation about Empire. It would now be quite impossible to say on paper, for instance, that Fiji tried to join the British Empire in 1852 and was turned down flat. Or to talk about the establishment of the medical school in Agra in the 1850s. Or to suggest, as I did, that the heroic ability to fight off imperial annexation, whether in the 1830s or the 2000s, may carry something of a cost.

The current confused state of affairs is that we are perfectly certain that wrong is being done elsewhere, and something must be done, and, also, it would be terribly wrong to do anything but run away in order to put that wrong right, or at any rate excuse ourselves from being called names.

I dare say that the Taliban are going to settle in for an extended period of rule after a certain amount of initial bloodshed, just like Dost Mohammed on his glorious return. There was always considerable tension between them — parochial, tribal, Afghanistan-focussed — and the sophisticated internationalists of al-Qaeda they found themselves hosting. They might not want to go down that path again, and the West will stick to mouthing platitudes and leaving the men, women and children of Afghanistan in the situation they find themselves in.

What’s the alternative? Learn something about the long history and culture of those men, women and children? Talk to them in their own languages? That’s never going to catch on.

Philip Hensher is the author of eleven novels and a Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University