Hindsight: “What about the Taliban?” “They’re gone…”
By Tim Foxley
Although I have been to Afghanistan eight times for perhaps a total of eight months since 2002, I don’t really have a book in me about the whole experience. Unless you really want to hear about sitting in various queues waiting for various transport options to turn up (or not) or sitting at a computer on a broken swivel chair. Thought not. But, amidst all the analysis we have had, are having and will continue to have about why the West failed to see the dangers of a returning Taliban until too late, I submit my own minor anecdote. I was in Kabul in 2003 and was invited to attend a dinner held by UK officials with – and I’m probably being over-protective here – a senior member of the former Northern Alliance who was by that time a senior member of the Karzai government. He is now a major political opposition figure. Yeah, you can probably work it out… (In fact, shame on some of you if you can’t)
The dinner was polite, restrained and as a result, something akin to watching a live enactment of a diplomatic telegram. Full of quiet optimism, offers of UK government assistance, discussion of all the key issues, politics, governance, reconstruction, development aid, education – essentially quite a dull affair, but I was more than happy to be a very minor observer of history – from the cheap seats, as it were.
After the dessert, it became apparent to me that the evening was drawing to a very rapid – and formal – close. I chose a small conversational lull and dived in with the question that had been forming in my mind over the last hour:
(From fading memory)
Tim: “Sir, you’ve talked about the efforts to reconstruct the country, the progress made, education and development issues and such like. But I notice that you haven’t mentioned the Taliban once – why is that? Do you think they are no longer a problem?”
Mystery Former Northern Alliance minister (making dismissive hand gesture combined with curt shake of the head): “The Taliban are gone. Finished…”
So the hindsight lesson of the day really is that if the West was making errors of judgement and demonstrating a poor understanding (and mid-2003 was a very early stage in the learning process, in hindsight), there was a significant Afghan constituency of key players who were also making the same mistakes – and with, I submit, perhaps less excuse for getting it wrong. And for the future, you can be as adamant and “black and white” in your analysis as you want, but the answer will almost certainly be in a grey area somewhere.