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Afghanistan: the Monkey and the Sonnet

August 20, 2021

Sometimes we forget the blindingly obvious. or at least I do.

No, history does not repeat itself. It merely pretends to do so for the convenience of the lazy historian.

It is foolish to compare the fall of Saigon with the fall of Kabul. Or to compare the fall of Kabul with any other previous event.

No weather pattern is an exact replica of another. It might take one chimpanzee billions of years to write a Shakespeare sonnet through assembling random letters. Another might do it in a couple of days. It’s a matter of luck. So is arriving at an exact prediction of future events when humans are involved. With apologies to Isaac Asimov, psychohistory is bunk.

As I watched the Taliban taking over Kabul, I started thinking about the future for Afghanistan. I went through the usual gears of historical comparison and came up with nothing but questions.

Will there be violence and retribution? Based on historical precedents, of course there will. Think back to the Second World War. Violence in Europe didn’t stop in May 1945. It continued for years beyond the defeat of Germany. But will the Taliban’s victory also spark an orgy of ethnic cleansing, factional conflict and mass migration of people across borders? Maybe, maybe not.

Will the Taliban return to their oppressive ways, using their vision of the Sharia as its justification? Maybe, maybe not. In some parts of the country, maybe, in others maybe not. Do we think of the Taliban as a monolith, or as a cloud of sub-cultures, educational backgrounds and experiences? Is what holds the Taliban together stronger than what might pull them apart?

In a wired world where everyone has access to the Internet, is formal education even relevant any more? When information is imparted as much by video as by the written word, is literacy as important as it once was?

So what influences a young Talib? The word of his elders, the written word of the Quran or the experience of watching his brothers, sisters and parents blown up by a drone or through a casual act of violence by someone in uniform?

What have the Taliban’s leaders learned over the past twenty years? Have they learned more from sipping cardamon coffee in cushioned comfort among the gilded towers of Qatar than from fighting on dusty plains?

What do the Taliban want from their new government? Lasting peace, to be left alone by their neighbours or once again to serve as a base for those who would spread the Islamist revolution elsewhere? Will a Lenin emerge, determined to export a revolutionary ideology? A Stalin, determined to project power at the expense of ideology? A Brezhnev, a conserver of power? A Gorbachev, a prophet of openness at the expense of political control? Or a Putin, a nationalist empire builder? Most likely none of those things, because each leader thrived in the conditions of their time, which are so different from those of today as to make parallels ridiculous. That’s of course assuming that the Taliban have a leader worthy of the name.

It’s easy to make historical comparisons, mostly by using big picture stuff. Anyone who invades Afghanistan is doomed to failure. Look at Twitter and you’ll find many people quoting from Return of a King, William Dalrymple’s epic story of the disastrous British expedition of 1839-42. On a more micro level, before long someone familiar with Middle Eastern history will no doubt trot out the story of how King Abdulaziz galvanised a small army of religious zealots and used them to conquer what is now Saudi Arabia. When they became ungovernable, he wiped them out, paving the way for what the country’s critics would claim was a slowly ossifying dynasty of his sons, propped up by western powers with an interest in the country’s natural resources.

There will be others who will use the story of Saudi Arabia’s oil to ask whether lithium is Afghanistan’s oil, and whether China will attempt to monopolise its mining and production, as it has done with other rare earths in various parts of the world.

Will the Taliban allow another Al Qaeda to take root? On the basis that history never repeats itself, unlikely for two reasons: there will never be another Al Qaeda, and if they allow something similar to operate in the way Al Qaeda did, they know the likely consequences. In a nation full of factions, ethnic groups and former opponents, the Taliban might well find it difficult to organise a coherent government, let alone one whose intentions and machinations could easily be concealed. It would take decades of oppression and ethnic cleansing to build a hermit state like North Korea, and unimaginable wealth to build a surveillance state like China. Until Afghanistan has transformed itself into a version of either, in which it is able to obfuscate and conceal, the Taliban will discover that you can fight an insurgency with impermeable cells, but you can’t govern a country on a need-to-know basis.

Counter-terrorist intelligence gathering, or so we are told, is so much more sophisticated now than it was in 2001. So what happens in Afghanistan will, to a greater or lesser extent, take place in the full light of day, even if that light is obscured by a haze of disinformation. If Afghanistan is ungovernable, it’s ungovernable by the Taliban too. And if Al-Qaeda-style camps spring up, the US, anxious to justify their decision to disengage, will probably have no hesitation in locating and destroying them from afar.

Back in the political centres of the former occupying (or liberating) powers, the search is on for sonnets written by monkeys. The media look to interview people who “told you so”. The truth is: those people didn’t know, they couldn’t know. If anyone knew, it was an unknowable entity Who for some reason refused to share the knowledge, Who preferred to watch from afar and Whose reason for allowing twenty years of pain and bloodshed is unknowable, whatever the claims of those who search for simian sonnet writers.

In Britain, the ineffably wise people who govern us have announced that we’ll take 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next four years, starting with 5,000 this year. How do they think that that will work? By building a dam a quarter of the size needed, putting it halfway up a mountain, and hoping that the rest of the water will wait patiently rather than cascade down the slope any which way?

What’s done is done. The usual suspects will spend the next ten years ruminating on what lessons can be learned from the debacle. Books will be written and PhDs will be awarded. But will we be any the wiser about how to deal with such a situation should it arise again? No, because the same situation will never arise again.

Last year, when the threat of COVID became apparent, the British government rolled out a plan based on a flu pandemic. COVID is not the flu. Within months the government was struggling to improvise, lashing out huge sums on inadequate protective equipment, allowing thousands to die in care homes and building tracking software that didn’t work. Why? Because it chose the wrong model, and because a model for dealing with COVID-19 didn’t exist.

The truth is that each new crisis is unknowable because it’s new. You can only work on probabilities, just as you can only create vaccines for the disease in front of you, not for any variants that haven’t yet appeared.

Biden, Johnson and other clearly did a poor job in contingency planning and readiness to implement those plans. But whatever the finger pointers might claim, and whatever failures of intelligence-gathering might emerge, it is absolutely unrealistic to believe that what happened could have been accurately predicted, unless you happen to be the chimpanzee that wrote the sonnet.

We live in a messy, unknowable world that consistently overturns the data we diligently collect, confounds the wisdom of experts and constantly surprises us. Admittedly, sometimes it’s surprising that we’re surprised. If you’re a nation that for twenty years has become addicted to Western wealth and firepower, is it surprising that faced with the withdrawal of those resources, you collapse in a heap of despair? Why would you wish to lose your life in a losing cause?

What arrogant fools we humans are, that we should presume to believe that we know the unknowable, especially what lies in the hearts of our fellow humans. A little more humility might be in order.

And no, history isn’t bunk. It’s glorious, enriching, enlightening and endlessly open to interpretation. But it isn’t a tool for predicting the future.

  1. Doug Langmead permalink

    We provided software tools for the Operation & Maintenance manuals and asset register for the Bamyan Cultural Centre in Afghanistan, built under the auspices of the United Nations “to serve in pursuit of building a unified nation under the common objective of creating an open society free from conflict and where ethnic diversity is recognised as a societal benefit. The project endeavours in establishing an anchor and model for what a creative hub can look like in the Afghan milieu, trying to integrate local communities as well as to identify Bamiyan’s rich cultural backgrounds.”

    Located on a hillside across the valley opposite the empty caverns where two huge statues of Buddha were blown up by the Taliban, the winning design by a firm of Argentinian architects was selected from an astonishing 1070 entries in an international competition run by UNESC in 2014. Construction of the Centre was funded by South Korea. I have been unsuccessful in trying to contact Fabrice van Teslaar, the project manager for the project.

    The Bamyan Cultural Centre will be a litmus test for the resolve of the Taliban to be more tolerant in their regime. Will they allow it to remain, destroy it, or subvert it for their own purposes? Only time will tell.

    • Thanks Doug. It certainly will be al litmus test. I suspect that the second or third outcome is most likely. Very sad.

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