What the history books have taught us about the Afghan quest

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BOOK REVIEW: The Afghan Quest

By Joyce Dunsheath and Eleanor Baillie / Bhavana books and prints (1960)

Revised by Nick Fishwick, former Senior Fellow at UK Foreign Office

The Examiner – Expert in Brief of Encryption Nick fishwick CMG, retired in 2012 after nearly thirty years in the British Foreign Service. He was posted to Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included Director of Security and after returning from Afghanistan in 2007 he served as Director of Counterterrorism. His last role was that of director general of international operations.

REVIEW – When I served in Afghanistan fifteen years ago, one of the few pleasures of the job was to visit the Shah Bookstore every now and then. The store knew its market – foreign aid workers, diplomats, journalists, etc. – and you could find all kinds of books by and about their equivalents in the 19e century – travelers, spies, military officers, traders, empire builders, empire dismantling, etc. Knowing its market, the shop charged high prices. We were sort of a captive market.

One book that seemed likely to have relevance sooner or later was that of Lady Sale, A journal of disasters in Afghanistan, featuring the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842. Shooting and North West Indian Border Arnold Keppel, written in 1911, also seemed very relevant a hundred years later.

But the book that will always intrigue me the most is Afghan Quest, written by two middle-aged members of the English Ladies Alpine Club in 1960, Joyce Dunsheath and Eleanor Baillie. The “quest” was a trip of these two women to Afghanistan, via the Soviet Union and Iran, for some mountaineering in Afghanistan and again via Pakistan, including what appears to have been a night without. incident in a place called Abbottabad.

The tone of the book is relentlessly cheerful. There is not much interest in politics. Some recipes are passed on (“How to cook gandum: Find a suitable rock flake that will cover the top of your fire with dung…”). The Afghans encountered are described in the manner of a very 1960 British middle class: some are primitive, some are sneaky, some are charming, some thieves, most are nice, but they are all – well, very different from ‘us’. .

Be clear on one thing – these respectable English 50s were tough as old leather. They might have had a network of buddies at embassies and businesses to help them with parts of their trip, but they knew they would face extraordinary risks alone. Not much was known about Afghanistan and some friends, before leaving, kindly warned Dunsheath and Baillie that sexual assaults and murders could await them. And they weren’t just hanging out in Afghanistan for a bit of sightseeing; they were there to climb 20,000 foot mountains in the Hindu Kush. Extraordinary women, then.

So, in 1960, it was quite possible for these women to tour Afghanistan by bus and stay, for example, in a hotel in Kandahar for a few days enjoying the beauty of the city. Dunsheath and Baillie sometimes note that Afghanistan still has some way to go before it reaches Western levels of civilization, or “civilization”; they note with astonishment that “in the cities the veiled woman is still the rule rather than the exception”. There is the odd, regrettable reference to the failure of King Amanullah’s Ataturk-style efforts to modernize Afghanistan in the 1920s. “Outside influences” are holding back the country’s progress, but they still hope that the Turkish narrative s ‘will also apply to Afghanistan.

When I first read this book in 2006, there weren’t many English women traveling in Afghanistan by bus, climbing mountains in the Hindu Kush, or relaxing in hotels in Kandahar. British troops were crushed in Helmand and bombs exploded in Kabul. You did not arrive in Kandahar by bus but by C-130. Yet for me and for thousands of other foreigners who spent time in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, our mission was not just to ensure that another 9/11 could not be planned since. Afghanistan. It was not about making the country an ungoverned space that was no longer safe for terrorists. It was about helping it to become a country that was no longer an ungoverned space. A country where middle-aged foreign women could travel by bus, stay in Kandahar hotels, and climb mountains.

We are now looking at the ruins of that dream, and Lady Sale in 1842 and Arnold Keppel in 1911 are much more relevant to Afghanistan than the Alpine Ladies Club of 1960. At the time of writing, Afghanistan is in the process of changing. collapse. And it is no one’s fault. US Presidents have had to deal with the challenges they faced in 2001, 2010, 2019 and now. They faced different political realities and who can condemn them for the decisions they made? Afghanistan, as Afghan Quest seems to point out, was a fairly fragile country even in the 1960s, and from 1979 onwards it had its guts ripped out by the Soviet invasion and civil war. It is not the fault of Karzai or Ashraf Ghani that Afghanistan has not been able to unite against the Taliban. It is no one’s fault that corruption and drug trafficking have been the only activities to thrive steadily since 2001. The blame cannot be blamed on anyone.

And here is the problem. No one is responsible, in a curiously democratic sense. The West intervened in 2001, prompted by what seemed imperative to drive terrorism out of Afghanistan, and a hope that seemed quite realistic to help Afghanistan become a decent and prosperous country. We have now reached the point where the West cannot spare even a few thousand troops to preserve at least some of the gains of the past 20 years. We betrayed Afghanistan, but it is no one’s fault.

I hear friends say, “sooner or later we will have to go back to Afghanistan once again.” Another terrorist attack or similar event will force us to intervene, they believe. I wonder.

A lesson learned by Western leaders, as they turn their backs on Afghanistan, will be to keep their boots on the ground in the future. A deeper lesson is that democracies with elections every four years or so are not suited to carrying out long-term projects of the kind we undertook twenty years ago. Smart people realized that back then.

All these decades later Afghan Quest wins a prestigious four on four trench coat.


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