Afghanistan, the Road Back


If you look closely, all landscapes speak their histories. But few do with such dramatic directness as the ones in Afghanistan. One afternoon, about halfway between Bamiyan and Baghlan we stopped at the bottom of a gorge guarded by three massive jagged lunar peaks, the sun in half eclipse behind one of their giant faces. We stopped not because we were tired, but simply because we were struggling to come to terms with the turmoil of feelings unspoken within each of us at the colour, texture and contour of the land, the light, the water. Even our veteran Afghan driver was overcome, and getting down from the car he gestured at the towering peaks, spreading and lifting his hands like a pious Muslim marvelling at Allah’s imagination. In front of us was a bridge–rusted, twisted, blown up by the forces of one of the many warring forces that have traversed this region over the past two decades. It too, had become a part of the land – a corpse, half fossilised, of some gigantic animal native only to this realm. What haunts me most about the Afghan landscape is how the evidence of seemingly endless conflict–the scrap metal of bridges, the endless miles of rock painted red to mark mine-fields, the silhouettes of burnt out tanks against the sky­ has become a part of nature. It struck me that you read, in W.G. Sebald’s words, a natural history of destruction, as you read this terrain..

I was in Afghanistan for a very short period–just under two weeks- in October 2003. There were several reasons for making the long trip from the north of England. I owed a visit to a close friend who works with a NGO there. And this seemed a good time for the visit, because after months of being completely overshadowed by Iraq in the British and American airwaves, Afghanistan was gradually seeping back into public consciousness. The debate between Tariq Ali and Mike O’Brien published in The Guardian on Oct.11, 2003, was a fairly typical example of this. Here Ali, a leading critic of Bush and Blair’s global wars, argued that the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan had resulted in the breakdown of security, decimation of the economy, regional instability and escalation of radical Islamism as evident in the war currently raging in the south of the country. In the long-term, he predicted, this would mean a return to the anarchy of the pre-Taliban civil war years. Mike O’Brien, as befits a loyal (so far) Blairite official, dismissed this and answered that the benefits of ‘liberation’–increased security and opportunities for women, access to education, economic recovery, dispersal of terrorist training camps–far outweighed the negatives. He added that unlike Ali, he had only recently been to the country, and thus had the benefit of a ‘first-hand experience’.

I am one of those people who believe in the value of distance and perspective, especially in any critical analysis of the ‘reality on the ground’. But a lot of what the demagogues in Britain and the US, both in the pro and anti-war camps, have been spouting too often deliberately ignored the complexities of Afghanistan. I do not believe that any ‘field trip’ automatically guarantees an all-seeing access to the ‘real truth’ of any country. Inevitably, one operates within certain constraints. In my case, for instance, I would be only travelling in a rough triangle (albeit fairly extensive) north of Kabul, in areas traditionally hostile to the Taliban, mostly meeting educated Afghans working with the Aid community, and as a foreign guest of a blonde, white woman who herself was startlingly foreign. All these factors would set limits to my Afghan experience. Still, I felt that it would give me a lot wider access to the people than a heavily protected British Minister who would only meet officials in the urban areas, usually within Kabul. I felt both Ali and O’Brien had, perhaps necessarily, excluded a variety of shades of grey from their analyses of Afghanistan, and I could at least make their pictures less simplistic. Also, Tony Blair frequently cites his ‘success’ in Afghanistan to answer critics pointing at the fiasco in Iraq, and argues that as in Afghanistan, Iraq would also be gradually ‘normalised’ by the dint of Anglo-American steadfastness and commitment. Blair and Bush, as we have been learning everyday, have lied and continue to lie about everything from WMDs, Al-Qaida, and the diplomatic background to the Iraq war. So I was also eager to test how far Blair’s analogy held up to the view from the Afghan roadside, not from the spin generating couches of Westminster and Washington. This, in short, was the framework of my Afghan visit. In the event I travelled from Kabul to central and northern Afghanistan and then back through the Salang tunnel to Kabul in one of those amazing Japanese All-terrain vehicles that forded rivers as easily it took the boulder strewn donkey tracks of Afghan hillsides. I had the opportunity to observe, talk and listen to Afghans from a range of backgrounds, urban and rural. I was invited to share the gallows humour of the expatriate aid workers. What follows is my attempt to test out the assertions made about Afghanistan by both the apologists for war and their critics.

The way of the gun

Security and stability, unsurprisingly, is the mantra for all who want to control Afghanistan. The Taliban swept to power promising an end to the anarchy of the warlords, the CIA-backed Mujahideen commanders who fought the Soviet forces and subsequently tore the country apart with a decade of bloody civil war. For a brief period beginning in 1996, the talibs succeeded in defeating the warlords and restoring law and order, albeit it was a particularly severe version of the Islamic sharia that infringed the basic human rights of over half the country’s population. Blair and Bush sing from the same hymn-sheets, and claim that their invasion and ousting of the Taliban has restored a humane and would-be democratic stability to a country tired of almost twenty five years of constant war. Their claim, at this moment, is at least as inflated as the Taliban’s.

I couldn’t travel in southern Afghanistan because of the low scale, largely unreported war going on there involving the forces of the international coalition, the private armies of the landlords and the mainly Pashtun tribal forces sympathetic to the Taliban. In the northern areas, things are relatively normal. In Afghanistan, ‘relatively’ is a big qualifier. I was unable to fly from Kabul to Mazaar-E-Sharif, because a small ‘local’ dispute between rival warlords, the result of which was a savage shelling of the city that killed almost a hundred people. While I was in the supposedly safe town where my friend is based, a bus carrying villagers was hit by anti-tank missiles in the neighbouring province of Samangan, and twelve people killed. It was a routine flare up between the forces of rival warlords. In the province itself, at least 26 children of both sexes have been kidnapped and raped. A large improvised explosive device had recently been left near a UN agency office, which fortunately did not explode (In Kandahar, a bomb did explode recently outside the UN compound). Of course, people do carry on with their lives, locals as well as foreigners. Two German friends who live and work in Kabul took a day-trip to Ghazni, a city dotted with ancient historical sites. It was largely acknowledged that they had a mild form of death wish, since the city had been classified as a no-go zone by the UN, and since then a French woman has been shot at point blank range while travelling in a UN vehicle in broad day-light in the town centre. Overall, Tariq Ali’s description of the Afghan security situation seemed to be closer to truth than Bush-Blair, Fox and Murdoch’s.

However, that is not the only story. The day after the bus got blown up, I took a taxi with an Afghan friend and travelled up the road towards the northern province of Kunduz. That day, the road was busy with international troops out on patrol–Germans and some bearded gunmen travelling in unmarked vehicles with the distinctive white and black patterned kaffeyahs around their necks who were, the locals said with knowing smiles, US special forces. I asked our taxi-driver, and then, some people eating at the restaurant we stopped for lunch, how they felt about foreign soldiers on Afghan soil. Almost universally they agreed that they were a good thing. One young boy said “B-52”, beamed and gave a big thumbs up. But only, they added, if they were disarming the warlords and the local ‘security’ forces. They didn’t care whether they were Americans, British, Germans–whoever kept them safe and rebuilt their country was welcome to stay in Afghanistan. But the larger aims of the international forces often puzzled the Afghans. Why, they wondered, were international forces training and arming the private forces of the warlords in some place, Paktiyar for example, where these were being used against the Afghan national army? Why, in the campaign to disarm the country with a cash-for-guns incentive, there were no efforts being made by the Americans to target the private thugs of the warlords. Till the warlords, or ‘commanders’ as Afghans call them, were disarmed or at least the size and firepower of their private armies cut down, no ordinary Afghans would be willing to give their guns up. It was their only defence against the so-called law-keepers. The Afghan engineer of one of the NGOs I visited, beat off armed gunmen of the local commander with the help of his extended family. Without their guns they would have been another bit of local kidnapping statistics.

This is where Blair and Bush’s backing of the commanders of the ‘Northern alliance’ against the Taliban chafe against their stated aim of restoring security to the country. A strong central government and regional stability is directly opposed to the interest of the warlords and commanders–who control the gun and opium trade of the country. Warlords like Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar have fought for twenty years, switching sides, forming temporary alliances, committing large scale atrocities, not in order to give up their power to the US-favoured would-be government of Hamid Karzai. In fact, on November 13 Hekmetyar (a key ally in the war against Taliban) gave an interview to Al-Jazeera where he expressed his intention of organising “Islamic resistance” against the Americans in Mazaar-e-Sharif, just like he “did against the Soviets”. This is what the Afghans I spoke with were worried about–that the West’s strategic alliance with the warlords would result in a slide back to pre-Taliban anarchy. And these were northern Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks who are emphatically not misty-eyed about the Taliban. In the south, the armed resistance that Hekmetiyar spoke of is already underway. This reality is the one Blair and his spokespeople are at pains to deny–the lack of any coherent strategy to deal with the warlords and the pitfalls of their alliance with them. While critics of the war like Tariq Ali may be overstating their case when they speak of an anarchic country waging a war against unpopular foreign occupiers, in the long-term their predictions seem to have been more accurate than those politicians and ‘specialists’ who whipped up war-hysteria by talking about liberation, democracy and security.

Re-building Rubble

Like security, ‘reconstruction’ has been a word much abused by western leaders. For Blair, this has not only meant restoring the economy but much more ambitiously, the whole political and social fabric that lies torn to bits. I was fortunate to have been the guest of the Aid community, which is at the heart of this ‘reconstruction’. As anybody who has visited the ‘field’ in any part of the world will recognise, years of living in physically harsh and dangerous conditions and the frustrations of having to deal with mind-numbing bureaucratic quagmires, as well as the cultural isolation and dislocation, breeds a kind of self-deprecating gallows humour among the members of this community. Generous to me to a fault, they treated me to a series of stories about the underside of ‘reconstruction’ that would make Blair choke and go blue in the face in the middle of one of his pious exhortations about ‘saving the Afghans’. Over a lavish, if eccentric dinner and later in a bomb-shelter that has been converted into a night-club (where, weirdly, I spent hours spinning Eminem) I heard stories about how tons of coal was dumped on the Kabulis during winter 2002/3- as fuel to keep them warm- and how people died of carbon monoxide poisoning and explosions trying to light their kerosene stoves with it. No one had bothered to research whether their stoves were capable of using coal. I heard how the WFP was pressurising the NGOs to receive surplus seeds after the planting season when they were completely useless to farmers in order to inflate the statistics about the amount of agricultural aid being delivered to Afghanistan. Or how UNICEF, after declaring the famous Buddhas to be a world heritage site, turned out the several hundred Afghans who have traditionally lived in the rock caves around the statues and despatched them to live on the freezing, open plateaus in utterly inadequate plastic tents, alleging that their presence would otherwise hinder the restoration work. Unless these people are sheltered before winter arrived, a number of them could die from exposure–but then these Afghan lives are not rated very highly in Downing Street, Brussels or Washington, unless, that is, they make good copy.

But once one cuts through the ironic survivor’s humour, it is easy to see that some people are doing the best they can under extremely difficult conditions. One soon learns that there is a certain heroism in building a 50 feet long bridge, built to replace one blown up by a local warlord, that will enable the women of the local village to cross the river to the local market for the first time in many years (being heavily veiled they could not ford the river before). Or that sinking a well, and organising a teacher’s training course may not be media-friendly and will not attract press photographers from London, but are activities as evocative as that of the marine patrolling with his M-16 cocked and ready. The central problem in the re-building of Afghanistan it seems to me, is that it is caught in a transition point between the culture of emergency aid and sustained development. Emergency aid aims at immediate short term-relief of food and shelter and is a very different thing from empowering the local population to develop their own society by assisting them with funds, technology and expertise. For a country that has been in the state of extreme emergency for over two decades, it is not surprising that both the locals and occasionally the agencies are unwilling to break out of the culture of emergency aid. The people expect the agencies to be hand-out centres for food, clothing, shelter and are resentful when these are withheld in favour of longer-term infrastructural investments. To change this attitude would require a guarantee of sustained political stability–NGOs can only work in parallel with governments and in the absence of any stable local administrative structures cannot, and should not forge ahead with any sustained developmental work. Here one comes back to the problem of political stability. The Afghans desperately long to believe that the international community will not bail out again, leaving the people in the grip of unscrupulous warlords. But in the absence of any signs of this happening, they cannot trust in investing in their regions, harnessing their own abilities, and are unwilling to see the agencies as being in a supportive, instead of all-powerful sources of succour

One step initiated by Hamid Karzai’s central government to give back political agency to the people at grassroots level, and one that most people in the aid community seemed enthusiastic about, is the NSP or the National Solidarity Programme. This calls for elections to be held in the countryside, where the villagers would choose local representative councils – ideally, of both genders–that would then be provided with block grants to spend up to £200 per family in the villages. Here it seems, is the perfect solution to the reconstruction dilemma–political empowerment of the people at the grassroots level leading to regional stability and confidence, which in turn will stem the emergency aid culture and facilitate long-term regional development. Sitting in on one of the village meetings and listening to Afghans, young and old, it is easy to see people get excited about this project. About half the people of this particular village were ‘returnees’, Afghans who fled the conflict to Iran and Pakistan. Their return has clearly had a dynamic effect on the village, and this seems true of most ‘returnee’ villages of the region. They were eager to participate in the NSP programme and already had a functioning village council with two women on it (we didn’t see them, apparently all the women were away at a wedding). When asked why they elected two women to be their representatives, they said it was because they had spent time in Iran and they felt this gave them the experience, education and ability to raise and secure issues important to all villagers. They added they were grateful to the current government for giving them this opportunity to decide their own fates, at least to a greater extent than before. This seems capture a genuine mood in those rural areas participating in the NSP. I was told by my friend, equally touched and bemused, how Afghans had been explaining the exciting new notion of ‘one person, one vote’ and ‘secret ballot’ to her and asking whether things were the same in England!

But it is by no means clear that this political reconstruction can be sustained in Afghanistan. Will the Pashtun south embrace it? Will the warlords allow the villagers to vote for genuine candidates rather than those hand-picked by themselves? Will Karzai’s government be in a position or even interested in the village councils or will they be a public relations exercise for Karzai, London and Washington? Amidst all the tales of rotting seeds, exploding stoves the NSP came as one ray of light in the ‘re-building’ of Afghanistan. To sustain it, the West in general and the World Bank – the sponsors of the project – in particular, needs the political will, courage and honesty to put the Afghan people first, and ignore local warlords and foreign multi-nationals hovering to carve up the land. This Republican administration in Washington is not known for putting humanitarian concerns above business and strategic interests. Its staunchest supporter, Tony Blair talks in ringing evangelical tones about conscience and humanity, but has so far done little to back this up. I fear for the future of those Afghans I met who are so desperately, and courageously, trying once again to believe.

Unveiling Afghanistan

I had 36 hours in Dubai before I could board the tiny UN plane that would take me to Kabul. I have always found Dubai’s combination of glitzy hotels and hordes of roaming ex-pats and tourists, eyes glazed with shopping fever, vaguely depressing. So I decided to drug myself with sleep and bad television. Flicking between Al-Jazeera and Will and Grace, I was suddenly arrested by an image on the MTV channel. It was showing some beauty contest and among the bevy of improbably perfect human bodies, had chosen to focus on one particular one. A tall, dark-haired woman in a bikini was standing next to a swimming pool and speaking in faultless American. The voiceover introduced her as the first Afghan model to represent her country for over two decades. The camera slid lovingly over the perfect contours of her body as she explained how her presence in the competition signalled the real progress made by Afghan women since their liberation from the Taliban regime. The interviewer put the best of trembles in her voice and welcomed the Afghan beauty to the world of freedom and choices, and in turn, she answered that she was now looking forward to returning to Afghanistan from the US where she had grown up.

Before, during and after the invasion of Afghanistan, British and American airwaves were clogged with virtually unprecedented coverage of veil. Countless images of Afghan women in chador and the burqa found their way into newsprint, with much earnest discussion about the brutality of the Taliban regime who had enforced the veiling of Afghan women, who now needed to be freed by the western armies and self-styled ‘liberators’ like BBC’s John Simpson. This image of the veil as a symbol of the oppression of women in Islamic states, specifically Afghanistan, conveniently ignored the complex history and function of the veil–like its use as a statement of resistance to the West by Egyptian women in the 1980s and as revolutionary weapon by Algerian women who smuggled bombs in their burqas during the war of liberation against the French. It also neatly dovetailed into Islamophobic hysteria promoted by much American and British media that found a fertile ground in the racist popular imagination of these countries. In this particular algebra of western power, Taliban=veil=oppression of women=Islam with the end product, inevitably, being a war of liberation undertaken on behalf of the poor Afghan women. Now programmes like the one I saw on MTV were unveiling Afghan women were beaming the image of the US-resident bikini-clad model across the world as the sign of their liberation. The body unclothed could now act as the counterpoint to the body veiled. It seemed to me that caught between the Taliban and MTV, the women of Afghanistan were still struggling to make their own voices heard.

The Taliban committed many atrocities against Afghan women, the chief among which were the dismissal of the entire female work-force from the public sphere and denying education to female children. Among the most uplifting sights in Afghanistan today are women working in offices, albeit under varying degrees of segregation from men, and girls attending schools. But I wanted to know whether being a part of the reality manufactured by MTV was on their list of priorities, and whether the mantra of freedom chanted by George Bush and Blair was also how they thought about freedom.

Being a foreigner and a male drastically reduced my chances of meeting Afghan women, especially outside Kabul. Afghanistan has been one of the most patriarchal societies in the world for thousands of years. The veil has repeatedly been a flashpoint in Afghan history between the so-called ‘modernisers’ and the rest of the country. Early in the twentieth century, King Amanullah dramatically unveiled his wife in a public congregation, a symbolic gesture of welcome to modernity in ‘Afghanistan’ and an extension of his other reformist measures like opening of schools for women and encouraging their participation in sports. Within two years, he had been deposed by the popular armed rebellion of Bacha-E-Saqo–a rural warlord–and was forced to flee the country. Nearly three years after John Simpson of the BBC reported about the liberation of Kabul, the overwhelming majority of Afghan women have refused to give up the veil. Clearly, the equating of veil with oppression and lack of progress was simplistic. As was the equation of unveiling or disrobing with freedom.

The important question was how much control Afghan women had over their lives through access to education, jobs and healthcare. And if they did, how this could be sustained. I tried to overcome the disadvantages of my nationality and gender by sticking as close to my friend as possible. As a foreign woman her movements in the public sphere were severely restricted but she was welcomed into the ‘female’, domestic spaces of Afghanistan. Here are some glimpses I caught of the lives of Afghan women today.

Driving through the northern mountains, one day our car-radio crackled to life and a colleague of my friend came on air. He was trying to organise the NSP elections in a Tajik-dominated valley renowned for its anti-Taliban sentiments and once described to me once as the wild west of Afghanistan. Everything was going fine, he reported, except one thing–the Tajiks were not allowing any women to participate in the elections. Not just preventing them from standing for posts, but from voting at all. This, of course, sort of defeated the purpose of the whole exercise, and he was wondering what to do about it. Here, it seemed, was the face of traditional Afghanistan, Taliban or not, writing out women from even the most fledgling of democratic gestures if it meant sharing any public space with them. But again, this may be too simplistic an argument. As in most things, security is a key issue in the gender politics of Afghanistan. I was told that behind this apparent ‘oppressive’ behaviour of the Tajik men were deep-seated fears about the fate of women in a zone of sustained conflict. The veil and prohibition of female presence in public spaces have become a way of protecting them from the mass rapes that characterised the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. The people were desperately worried about the proposed national elections of 2004 and were trying to keep the women ‘safe’ from future trouble.

There seemed to be a minor uproar in my friend’s office about a group of Afghan women who had been recently recruited to do fieldwork. Urban, sophisticated and clearly worn out by their long bus trip from Kabul, they were finding it hard to face up to the prospect of life in rural Afghanistan. Most of them had only recently bought the full burqa; usually they would wear just a headscarf and this had added to their sense of dislocation. This too, was a face of Afghanistan, well-travelled (most from this group had spent more than 8 years in Pakistan), urbane ‘returnee’ women struggling to adjust to life in a country where the codes of veiling and female participation were different from what they had grown used to.

We visited an Afghan friend’s house. This is not as simple as it sounds, as social interaction between ex-pat workers and Afghans are not encouraged because of security issues. But my presence gave my friend some leeway and we walked all the two hundred “unsafe” yards to the house. Her colleague is from Kabul (he constantly complains about how boring it is in the provinces) and lives here with his sister, her husband and their children. Their home was like any Muslim home in India and Pakistan. His sister did not have any English, but after scolding us for failing to turn up the evening before, she brought enormous piles of food, vodka and Pepsi (it was around 11 in the morning) and sat around fussing at our weak appetite. Her two year old daughter played around us, we all chatted and watched MTV, which was now showing a hip hop band in fairly graphic video. I wondered what would happen if the Afghan beauty queen came on now and used her body to signal the liberation of her country. How would these friends react? Especially what would our hostess–the hospitable, curious, chatty pregnant mother of one with her elegant headscarf think about this image of her liberation being peddled in the west? For the moment, she was showing no signs of discomfort at this televisual intrusion of foreign bodies simulating sex to pre-packaged urban beats, not even in the presence of a foreign male guest. Did her Kabuli background explain this? Or were they trying to make us comfortable by offering us culturally familiar entertainment?

I met another Afghan colleague of my friend, this time a woman, very briefly one day in my guesthouse when they dropped in between what she described as mind-blowingly boring UN NGO coordination meetings. We said hello, she struck me as unusually strong, determined, open. She worked on gender training programmes and exuded hard-nosed efficiency and intelligence. But again, she worked in a NGO office where women had been allocated a segregated space after allegations that the lack of such facilities destroyed the “work culture”, encouraged flirting and turned the office into a social club. What does this tell us about life for women in ‘liberated’ Afghanistan?

It seemed to me that life for Afghan woman after Taliban does not at all conform to the stereotypes being currently peddled in the west. Just as the stereotype of the veil does no justice to the complex reality of women’s life in Islamic societies. The Afghan woman is hungry to get back to education, to work. She is buffeted by the differences between rural and urban Afghanistan by patriarchal prejudices that pre-date the Taliban by thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan women have been extremely mobile over the past few decades, living mostly in Pakistan, Iran. Many have returned, bringing with them complex experiences from abroad. They may be able to confront the hyper-consumerist MTV culture without necessarily abandoning those facets within their own Islamic, central Asian culture that empower them. In this, they need the support of the outside world, which insults their struggle by presenting the veil and the bikini as the only two alternatives of freedom and oppression available to them.

Life in post-Taliban Afghanistan is much more complex than British and American commentators would have us believe. The invasion of Afghanistan was undertaken with the stated aims of ‘liberating’ the Afghan people from Taliban, securing the country and the region from militant groups both Islamist and non-Islamist, and to a lesser extent, reviving the economy and helping the country recover from two decades of war. All of these aims are very far from being achieved. In his recent interview on BBC’s Breakfast with Frost, the US president George Bush said that the trouble in Iraq was being caused by “some Mujahideen type of people who wanted revenge for getting whupped in Afghanistan”. As anybody living, working or visiting in Afghanistan will testify, the Mujahideen are very far from “whupped” in Afghanistan. Indeed, as the Northern Alliance, they are in charge of most of the country and frequently clashing over bribes, weapons, territory and the control of narco-traffic.

Similarly, Taliban’s exit has not meant the transformation of Afghanistan into some central-Asian Starbucksland. The economy is fuelled by opium trade, and in the absence of any alternatives or incentives, the Afghan farmers are rightly not interested in stopping their poppy production. On the other hand, the ordinary Afghans, despite regional differences, want to work with the international community to rebuild their country, to disarm the warlords, to have peace, basic healthcare, education. Overall, they do not, despite Hekmetyar’s recent declaration, want to unite in an upsurge against foreign occupation. Jonathan Steel, in a rare bit of level-headed and courageous analysis of Afghanistan (Guardian, Nov., 13), wrote about the nostalgia the people of Kabul seem to have about the Soviet occupation–when they and other urban population of the country enjoyed access to education, jobs, health care. Cold war politics dictated that the west would back the resistance to Soviet occupation, even when the resistance comprised of fundamentalist Islamic groups who promptly devastated the country with their infighting. Steel hopes that this time the West would stay and help the Afghans defeat those dark forces still haunting the country and ends with a call for continued assistance–“Let the development money keep on flowing in. Governments will call it aid. I prefer to see it as reparations.” But nothing in the history of western governments, certainly not the pattern of George Bush and Tony Blair’s own leaderships, suggest that British and American resources, “reparations” for the decades of warfare they sponsored by proxy, will keep flowing unconditionally and indefinitely into Afghanistan.

I began describing an Afghan landscape that seemed to speak of the decades of destruction visited on this land. Let me end with one with one whose meaning I perhaps cannot fully decode. As one drives into the Shomali plains away from Kabul, one sees twisted tanks, trenches, gunmen smoking in their dugouts, fingers of destroyed artillery batteries poking the sky. The plains once used to be covered with vineyards, producing wine that the Mughal emperor Babur praised almost 400 years ago. About half an hour outside Kabul, as one drives towards the Hindukush mountains and the Salang tunnel, there is a small cluster of abandoned houses on the left, where one can see, so the local legend goes, the ‘hanging Talib’. This is the skeleton of a Taliban fighter, who was caught and hanged on a tree in this spot, as his forces retreated from Kabul. The locals did not permit his body to be buried, keeping his bones hanging as a reminder of their rage. This seemed a fitting symbol of the land, the desolate dusty plain littered with broken machines of war, and this grim reminder of death. But we already knew, even as our driver pointed out the hanging Talib in a suitably hushed tone, that there was no such thing. The German friends we were staying with the night before had driven to the village, intrigued by the story, and found nothing but abandoned houses and dusty trees. It is the story told to outsiders by a people traumatised and scarred by years of brutality inflicted on them. The legend captures the spirit of the place, but the reality is already different. I could have told our driver this. I could have told him that his story was just that, a tale to scare children and tourists to their beds. Another example of the Afghan gallows humour. But instead I narrowed my eyes and looked at the tree. In the morning sunlight, on the bare brown plain, what did I see moving in the wind–dead twigs of a tree or the bones of a man long dead? I kept quiet. The stories of the Afghans, these legends of survival, must be respected.

Dr PABLO MUKHERJEE teaches in the school of english at University of Newcastle. He can be reached at: