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From the Kabul Café to the Taliban takeover: memories of Afghanistan

The catastrophe that we are now witnessing in Afghanistan was inevitable, appalling and horrific as it is. Sadly, the writing has been on the wall for a very long time. Despite that, the astonishing speed with which the Taliban has taken over the country has shocked everyone.

Like me, many thousands of foreigners have spent time in the country, made friends there, and have an emotional attachment to it. For us, watching the tragedy unfold is more than just watching a news story because it also has a personal dimension. Lots of us are trying to help, but the sad reality is that there doesn’t seem to be much we can do.

November 15, 2005, Kabul, Afghanistan: Afghan Schoolgirls In Kabul, Afghanistan (Credit Image: © Peter Langer/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire)

Whatever you think about President Biden’s decision to pull out now, it’s unlikely that after 20 years in theatre, any further delay would have made any difference to the final result. The consequences — not just for women but for Hazaras, middle-class Afghans, and others who have adopted Western ideas — are tragic. An enormous number of brilliant books and papers analyse what went wrong: Pakistan allowing safe havens for Taliban fighters to corruption on an epic scale in the Afghan administration. There were failures of American and Nato policy, interference by regional powers and general incompetence. Above all, there was the misreading of the history and the culture of a very complex country.

I have so many precious memories of my time there. I remember the strong and amazing women I met. Women who became journalists and politicians. Some who created jewellery. In Kabul, every morning, I would see young girls going to school dressed in their white headscarves and black dresses. The young urban population was in touch with the modern world.

Women were out on the streets. The Aga Khan Foundation renovated the famous Babur Gardens in Kabul. Cafés and restaurants abounded, the hills around the capital glowed with electricity. There were mobile phones for the first time and a vibrant media landscape. There were art galleries, skiing in Bamiyan, and the Kandahar Air Field was big as a prairie town. In the rural parts of the country, where most Afghans live, life changed little.

I took my first trip to Kabul in 2007. Even then, people spoke of the lack of hope. Every year after that, the poppy production was up, confirming Afghanistan’s role as a significant narco-state. The poppy palaces built from the profits proliferated all over the country, particularly in the capital. Every year after that the security situation deteriorated. Even then, almost every urban Afghan I met asked if I could help them get to Canada or the UK.

I travelled for work to Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, Taloqan, Lashkar Gah, and Faisalabad. Every one of those provincial capitals has fallen. And now Kabul too. I remember one woman, part of a German-funded project, telling me how she felt valued for the first time in her life because she could help provide for her family. The project had given her a small net to protect her vegetables from insects. That project and everything like it has now disappeared.

A decade and more after those still hopeful times, we sit and watch the scenes of chaos that confront us. The helicopters are taking off. We have witnessed the drama of men, women and children taking refuge at the airport or packing their cars with their belongings and trying to cross any border they can. One Afghan friend who lives in Canada with his wife and children was en route to Kabul to rescue his family when the capital fell. I remember a wonderful day spent with him and his mother at their beautiful home in the exquisite Panshjir valley, dominated by a billboard of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the legendary Afghan mujaheddin fighter. His rescue mission has been aborted after his flight was cancelled.

This whole situation resonates for me on another level, as I have just written a book on genocide. It chronicles the last hundred plus years, from the Armenians to the Holocaust to the Cambodians, Bosnians, Rwandans and the Yazidis. I have asked the question, read brilliant and scholarly works and still cannot really understand how can we let this happen. But we did and we probably will do again.

It’s not that we’re not interested or that we don’t care. We lament what is happening, we despair, and then we get on with our lives. There are countless examples.

The world watched the Armenian Genocide of 1915, which was well documented at the time, as was the extermination of Jews from 1942 onwards. Bosnia happened in real-time in 1992, as did Rwanda in 1994, as did the Yazidi genocide of 2014.

Despite all our knowledge, we have not put in place the mechanisms to stop crimes against humanity. We have broadened the scope of the law, but we are not any closer to preventing them from happening. And, tragically, we are now going to see a repeat of people subjected to unspeakable atrocities. The only way to defeat the forces of the Taliban is with military might. Iraqi troops defeated Isis in Iraq with strong leadership and massive support from the US, the UK and our allies.

I wrote a book in 2015 about my time in Afghanistan, which was one of the highlights of my life. It was extraordinary professionally, intellectually and personally. I left for the last time in 2012. In Dispatches from the Kabul Café , there was a sense of that last helicopter taking off the roof of the American embassy as the US abandoned Vietnam. It’s not that I had great powers of prediction. Even to the casual observer, it was apparent that wishful thinking would lead right back to where we are now.