On 20th November 2001, in the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, the Taliban stamped into my passport their very last visa, number 001518, valid only for Kandahar and printed on a paper of varying shades of green. At the top were printed, in English and Dari, the words: “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
Less than a year later, the new pro-American Karzai government of Afghanistan issued me with a visa at the very same embassy. This time it was visa number 010937, printed on identical green paper but with the words ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ snipped off at the top and replaced by a rubber stamp bearing the words “Embassy of Afghanistan, Islamabad”. A pair of scissors got rid of the ‘Emirate’.
Then last week, the brand new, blindingly-white Taliban office in Doha opened with that critical ‘Emirate’ re-inserted in its title. And the Americans wouldn’t talk to the Taliban because Karzai wouldn’t talk to them – or the Taliban – because of that dreadful word.
The bloody trail from battlefield to negotiations has been littered with such nonsense since the Irish were invited to Downing Street by Lloyd George to discuss the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921. Superpowers have followed the same dismal journey from defeat and humiliation – and torture – in occupation, to retreat without humiliation. Occupying armies must leave with dignity. If they can, they’ll hand over to a local proxy. To hell with the people they leave behind. Words don’t matter.
So the offending ‘Emirate’ sign has been removed – along with the Taliban’s white flag and its Koranic verse – and the Taliban have grumbled that ‘peace’ talks are going to be more difficult. I doubt it. The Americans have breathed a sigh of relief. In Palestine, in Algeria, Cyprus, Yemen, Kenya, Vietnam, Iraq – after the peaceful struggle for independence in India, too – it was the same old story. Enemies who were to be liquidated, expunged, tortured, imprisoned – men and women whose very existence enraged their colonial or imperial rulers – would turn up at London or Evian or Zurich, in Paris or Washington and soon in Doha, to chat amiably with their antagonists. ‘Men of violence’ would suddenly become ‘delegates’. And lo, the ‘terrorists’ of the IRA, the Haganah, the FLN, EOKA, the Mao Mao, the NLF of Yemen, the Viet Cong and the Dawa party – and now the Taliban – all transmogrified into responsible chaps who would one day drink tea with their former masters and sometimes – Makarios and Kenyatta and Begin come to mind – with the Queen as well.
After shaming themselves with torture, after negating the very values they claimed to represent – and claiming a hollow military ‘victory’ into the bargain – the superpowers stalked miserably off the stage. Only after British barbarism in Ireland – “things are being done in the name of Britain which must make our name stink in the nostrils of the whole world,” a Labour Party report stated – did Winston Churchill shake the hand of Michael Collins. “His hands had touched the springs of terrible deeds,” Churchill said of the IRA intelligence boss. So what?
Britain used torture and execution against its Arab and Jewish guerrilla enemies in Palestine and retreated after fruitless negotiations with both sides. We left both Palestine and India – after Mountbatten’s new borders had created Pakistan – to be consumed by civil war. ‘Our’ mandate and the people of ‘our’ empire were engulfed in bloodbaths because we wished to make an honourable exit. In Cyprus, we kept a few bases – Akrotiri and Dhekelia were precedents for the fortresses NATO hopes to keep in Afghanistan – after we left. Of Kenya, after a shameful war of torture and executions by the UK – a dreadful imperial legacy still being fought over by the victims in British courts this very summer – Enoch Powell said that a nation which behaved in this manner did not deserve an empire.
The French employed torture and mass executions on a grand scale in their attempt to destroy the FLN in Algeria. They assassinated so many potential negotiators – ‘interlocuteurs valables’ – that it was difficult to find delegates with whom they could talk at Evian. The Americans have just done the same in Pakistan, ‘droning’ to death Wali ur-Rehman, a highly political cadre close to the Pakistani Taliban whose loss is a setback for those in the movement who believe in negotiations.
The Brits did a secret deal with the NLF in Yemen to destroy their Nasser-supported rivals in Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) and then – after routinely using torture against Yemeni rebels at Fort Morbut – fled Aden. After the disgrace of British and French torturers, and of their US colleagues in Vietnam, the obscenity of Abu Ghraib and Bagram and of the CIA’s ‘black’ prisons was inevitable.
Three things always accompany occupation: torture by the masters who claim the moral high ground, declarations that they have won their war even though they are in retreat, and the absolute insistence on a dignified exit after negotiations. The Russians left behind their old Afghan secret police chief Najibullah in Kabul, the Americans hope to leave Karzai in the same city next year. The Americans thought that Nguyen Van Thieu might be able to hold out in South Vietnam. Malaki still holds the fort in Baghdad, in theory for the Americans, probably for the Iranians.
And so the newsreels show the Royal Marines leaving Haifa and Aden, the Somerset Light Infantry leaving India, the Black Watch departing the new Pakistan, the US 21st Infantry Regiment leaving Saigon. No-one wanted a repeat of France’s crushing defeat at Dien Bein Phu. The Brits lost only 183 dead in 1919-1921 Ireland and 370 in Cyprus, against 414 in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans lost 47,424 in Vietnam, 5,281 in Iraq, more than 2,000 in Afghanistan, the French 17,456 in Algeria, the Soviets around 15,000 in Afghanistan. Some of the figures are contested; no-one has collected the statistics of civilian or ‘enemy’ dead. They run, of course, into the millions. ‘Our’ wars – western and Soviet – were supposedly fought to preserve communism, to ‘contain’ communism, for empire, against ‘terror’, to destroy ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or to preserve what was left of imperial prestige.
The ‘enemy’ always fought to get rid of ‘foreigners’. And now we have ‘won’ the battle over a word in Doha. Just so we can get out of Afghanistan.