CategoriesInternational AffairsPolitics

Ukraine

Like many people, these last few weeks, I have been glued to the news regarding Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine. I have read and watched vast amounts about the conflict in the hope that I could form a sensible view. My experience as a Burma campaigner taught me to be sceptical of popular opinion – opinion usually based on scant knowledge of the subject.

On Twitter, I have seen hundreds of smashed and deserted Russian tanks, armoured personnel carriers, artillery pieces, land rovers and logistics vehicles. I have seen circa one hundred captured Russians, mostly conscripts, and, sadly, seen dozens of dead Russian soldiers and slain civilians. I have watched Russian planes and helicopters be shot down. I have seen Russian cruise missiles fly overhead and watched Russian cluster munitions land in residential zones. The “pornography of war” available for those who seek it, all consumed on my phone.

Furthermore, I have watched some right-wing US pundits applaud Putin – reminding their audience that Biden’s son was caught up in some sort of scandal in Ukraine. I have listened to Democrats remind us that Trump’s impeachment centred on a call to the Ukrainian president.

Like many caring British people, I have been appalled by our Government’s shameful attitude to refugees. Our European friends have taken 2.6m, whereas we have taken – reluctantly – a few thousand. Even Ireland has taken 5,000.

I have watched most news channels show their audience how the Ukrainians are creating stockpiles of Molotov cocktails, and I have seen some be thrown on Russian vehicles to deadly effect. I think of how most media outlets treat the wars in Yemen and between Israel and Palestine, and note the double standards.

Today, our family signed up to offer our spare room to a Ukrainian family. We would have signed up yesterday, but the website crashed. Sadly, I have little confidence that the Government will accept our offer, or the offers of the other thousands of people.

My personal analysis of these last few weeks:

  1. The background to the conflict goes back decades and is complex. The West, NATO, EU and Ukrainians have all contributed to the state of affairs: however, as complex as it is, I believe that this is a conflict that demands that sides are taken. And I side with Ukraine. In my lifetime, this is a resistance which satisfies all the criteria of the Just War doctrine. I see parallels with why George Orwell fought fascism in Spain in the 1930s (and nearly died).
  2. The response from the West, including the reportage, makes it clear just how racist most of us are, and that how – we humans – are content with the mental contortions of double standards. I ask myself: would our family have signed up to host an Afghan family, in the way that we have volunteered to house a Ukrainian family? The question was never asked, but I don’t know that we would have done. I am ashamed to write that sentence. I need to interrogate this thought.
  3. It can come as no surprise to watchers of this Government that they did not foresee the risk of a humanitarian disaster, even though they had been predicting an invasion for some months. And it comes as no surprise that the Government’s instincts towards Ukrainian refugees was inhuman, bureaucratic and at times patently dishonest. Their instincts and ability to govern – the two key areas of competency for any government – are not fit for office.
  4. The Russian armed forces, though numerous and though fighting in their backyard, are largely clueless, lacking in professionalism and leadership; devoid of ethics; ill-equipped, with poorly maintained equipment; lacking in logistical support, air support and modern communications; and their soldiers lack the will to fight, given that they have been misled.
  5. We, in the UK, are at war, just not a kinetic one. These days, war is fought through economic policy, cyber attacks and good, old-fashioned supplying your enemy’s enemy with weaponry. I doubt that most British people are aware that we are waging war. We are, so expect a Russian response.
  6. The Russians offered settlement last week, yet few outlets properly reported it and its terms are not being discussed. Very simply, Russia demanded recognition of Crimea as Russian; recognition that Donbas and Luhansk are independent states; and amendments to the Ukrainian constitution to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO and the EU. From where I am sitting, this offer ought to be accepted. The lack of attention on this settlement proposal should give us all pause for thought: who benefits from the continuation of this war?
  7. Putin has gravely miscalculated the response from the West and over-estimated the capabilities of his forces. It is doubtful that he is receiving accurate information. I suspect that his health is in serious decline.

I have no idea what come next.

CategoriesInternational AffairsTravelThought of The Day

Almost Lost in Translation on the Longest Day (in 2004)

Below is a copy of my email to some friends, which I sent in August 2004, from Yunnan Province, China. That day, I had saved an American’s life. As I typed, I was knackered, discombobulated and tearful.

I record this email here, for posterity, for my children, as well as a record of what I thought – at that time – of Chinese medicine and their approach to SARS. This makes more sense to me now, 17 years on, given the initial approach of the Chinese government to Covid.

I really detest my writing style – so many typos! But more than the typos, I don’t like the tone of the person who wrote it – me – particularly the cultural tone. I am glad that I have changed.

As at a few years ago, Greg was still alive and well. We remain connected.  

………………………………….

Dear All,

I write this email to you a different man that wrote the last. I have a lump in my throat, a potential tear in my eye and I am semi delirious through lack of sleep.  Maybe this should not be in an email but I have nobody else to talk about it with.

Last Monday was to be my last day in China as my flight from Bangkok was today, however, I had been placed on a waiting list to extend my stay by one week. The kind lady in Bangkok had bought my story that I was ill in China and granted me my extension. Delighted, I returned to my guest house to break the great news to my two travelling companions.

So, we decided to go to something called the Tiger Leaping Gorge in a remote hilly area of Yunnan bordering Tibet (dont worry if you have never heard of it because I hadnt either). The gorge is possibly the largest in the world, with 3900m between the top of the mountains and the Yantse river below. The only problem we had was that the gorge was closed because of the wet season which made it even more prone to landslides than before. Many travellers and locals had died on this gorge.

We arrived in a ghost town. Only one cafe open and managed by an eccentric Aussy woman called Margo. After settling into our hotel, which for some bizarre reason possessed a western loo, we returned to the cafe to pick up some info on the next day’s trekking. She made us some delicious food which did not contain the following: chicken feet, heart, head, eyes or bones. We began to settle down and drink beer.  Margo told us everything that we needed to know, including the fact that we must start walking at the crack of dawn and the first three hours would be a 1000m assent.

As we relaxed, whilst listening to Savage Garden, Margo received calls from other points along the trek that an American couple that had set off from her cafe hours earlier were in serious trouble. She began to panic but we continued to drink beer as there was nothing we could do and the beer was good.  As the afternoon became evening and the locals had begun their annual torch festival, the heavens opened. We made friends with an American (yes, another American traveller in China) and a shy Chinese guy called Wang Wei ‘Wrong Way’. More calls came in from the almost deserted Gorge that the American couple were in need of desperate help. We just sat, drank and watched a local child in beautiful traditional dress pull the wings and legs off an unfortunate huge insect. More calls came in.

Suddenly, out of the rain, emerged a Chinese man, shaking. He was saturated and scared. The atmosphere amongst us five travellers changed. The problem was here. An American woman burst in a minute later in a state. Her boyfriend, Greg, was in the local hospital across the river. He was seriously ill. He set off in the morning with a cold and when he was 3000m up his chest began to hurt, he vomited, went into a fit and fell 5-feet down the gorge, landing on his head and swallowing his tongue.

Margo called the US embassy (a bunch of useless bloody morons) and I ran to the ‘hospital’. Can you imagine what this ‘hospital’ looked like in a rural village of 1,000 people? I found a crowd around the patient and the American girl, Liz, wailing. The patient, Greg, had his eyes open, fixed in one position, whilst he was in a constant fit. His arms and legs moved uncontrollably, as they had done for the last three hours and continued to do so for next 12 hours. I cannot think of a hospital I would less like to be ill in.  The crowd around the bed consisted of 15 people, including the drunk chief of police, a doctor, some nurses and anyone else who wanted to see a foreigner in risk of losing his life with only Wrong Way who could translate for us. Liz was delighted that there was a Westerner around who understood what she was saying.

I cleared the room, with the help of Wrong Way. Greg, the patient, continued to scream and fit. I assembled the doctors in the next room and, with the help of Wrong Way’s very broken English, I managed to understand that Greg was in danger and that we owed 700 yuan (80 US). The consensus was to take him by ambulance (van with flashing lights) two hours to a little city with a better hospital.

It took 8 men to carry Greg, with drips coming out of him, to the van. Liz wanted me in the van, as a friendly face, even though we had never met, and Wrong Way got in to help translate.  The journey was crazy. Greg was unconscious, but yet his arms and legs would not stop. Liz talked to him throughout. The journey was undertaken at midnight on roads that were prone to landslides, through the rain. To make it worse for me, I had been drinking most of the afternoon. I called all the people that Greg knew in the US, insurance companies and anyone who would listen to me on my mobile, as you need a special phone that is registered with the communist regime to call abroad (bastards).

We got to the hospital OK and were put in a ward with a bemused old man. There was only one doctor on duty and nobody that spoke English. The nurses filled him with drips, as Wrong Way tried to explain what had happened. Greg’s breathing deteriorated, and nobody seemed to know what to do. The night was horrid. We took him to have his brain scanned. Wrong Way held his head in place and I pinned his legs down, as Liz held his hands and tried to talk to him but he couldnt hear. We think that the scan was OK. No blood on the brain. Small mercy.

We took him back to the ward where there was urine and blood all over the floor. A vision of hell. In China, there is a rather do-it-yourself approach to health care. We had to hold the oxygen over his face and often had to hold the drips in place.  One vision that will live with me forever is Wrong Way holding Greg’s hand in place from pulling his drip out, whilst Wrong Way slept. I tried to doze but needed to reassure Liz that he was in a good place which I didnt believe. Liz didnt sleep and just talked to Greg with more love than I have ever witnessed.

The morning came and so did 30 non English-speaking doctors. The monring was so horrible. His condition got worse and his heartbeat was erratic at best. Liz remained calm. I tried. Wrong Way tried explaining what had had happened and I rang International SOS to get Greg out.  He was moved to another room with an expectant mother. Doctor after doctor came in. It was such a novelty to see a Westerner, especially one naked, having a fit for hour after hour. Every medical student came for a look and so did every patient in the hospital and those visiting those already in hospital. In fact, I feel sorry for all the other patients who lost the doctors and visitors just to see Greg. The Chinese had no shame: they stared with impunity at someone close to death because he is Western.

Greg’s father, with the help of me on the phone, managed to organise a medical evacuation but it was so hard to do. I think the fact that his Greg’s father is a wealthy state representative must have helped. I took call after call from his parents and made calls to speed things up.

All of a sudden, the situation got worse. He stopped breathing. There was 15 doctors around his bed trying to save him from an illness that they have only seen six times before and they all died. Liz, who was wailing, was taken to another room to be interrogated by another 15 doctors using a local business man who spoke quite good English. I remained with Greg, threatening law suits to International SOS, whilst crying at the same time. I was put onto an English doctor who reassured me that the Chinese would intubate him but they hadnt. Muppets. Eventually he was intubated and his life saved for the time being.  Maybe I should mention that this is the place where SARS started and the Chinese’s botched response to it began.

Greg stabilised and he was eventually intubated. International SOS got their act together (once a massive cheque had cleared) and called the hospital. All was not over. The doctors had a meeting where THEY were going to decide what to do. My mission was to stop them touching him again until the plane from Beijing arrived. Are doctors the world around so condescending??  Just as China seemed like hell, Wang Wei ordered us the equivalent of a KFC and paid for it. This single gesture was magic. The only time that Liz smiled. She is the strongest of women at 23.

The plane was now fours away with English-speaking, English trained doctors, onboard. I granted myself a smile. When things get good over here something always happens that reminds you that sometimes this place is so backward. The police arrived. Three menacing brutes in uniform and two pretty female undercover agents who wanted to know why were at the gorge and how the accident happened. Liz had to sign yet another form – all in Chinese – but what did it say? Who knows.

At 6pm, 26 hours after the accident there was a commotion at the door and the crowd pulled back from the door. It was the SOS team!!!!! YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS. They spoke English and they knew what they were doing. The equipment that is standard in the West fascinated the Chinese doctors. It took two hours to move him onto the trolly with crowd now at standing at 40.

I will never forget two things. First one, English-trained doctor and one English trained nurse could do what 30 Chinese doctors and 10 Chinese nurses could do. The second was a Chinese doctor saying to the English trained doctors that the patient’s salt levels were low and the better doctor retorting ‘It’s irrelevant’. The Chinese doctors looked on with disbelief. We could trust these two angels from the sky. Liz’s credit card had maxed so I paid half of the 700$ so he could be discharged.

The crowd and I waived the ambulance off, shattered.  According to the insurance company, Greg is still alive and is in Hong Kong. My prayers are with this man that I have cried over but have never spoken to. If he recovers, both Wang Wei and I have been invited to the wedding.

Dont reply. I had to write it.

Andrew

on a lighter note, never tell a Chinese hairdresser that you only want a little bit off your hair and show them a small space between your fingers to show them a small amount as they will cut it to that size. I now have a number three all over and wear a hat to cover my shame.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Voices For Burma (Wikipedia entry)

(What follows is my Wikipedia entry for the organisation which I co-founded in 2003: Voices For Burma (VFB). Wikipedia removed the entry, so I add it here for posterity. Hopefully historians of that period will locate this page, and perhaps my kids will be proud of their father. After all, Aung San Suu Kyi was regarded as a saint until 2017, but we campaigned against her 14 years before that).

Voices for Burma

Voices for Burma (VFB) was a Non-Governmental Organisation founded in 2003, closing in 2009. Founded in the UK, Voices for Burma campaigned on two fronts. First, to examine the complexities of the tourist boycott of Myanmar promoted by Aung San Suu Kyi and secondly to educate visitors to Myanmar on the need to travel in the country ethically.

Original Founders

Voices for Burma was founded by Andrew Gray, Anna Laycock and Zishaan Arshad, following Andrew Gray’s visits to Burma/Myanmar in 2002 and 2003.

Change of Leadership of Voices for Burma

As Cherie McCosker and Emily Pelter joined Voices for Burma, Zishaan Arshad and thereafter Anna Laycock stepped aside. Andrew Gray remained throughout.

Campaigning

Voices for Burma was supported by Dr Zarni of the Free Burma Coalition and several British former diplomats and Myanmar scholars. On their key message that ethical tourism to Myanmar could be undertaken ethically, Voices for Burma took the counter position to The Burma Campaign UK which had maintained strict adherence to Aung San Suu Syi call for a total tourism boycott.

Primarily, Voices for Burma educated potential visitors to Myanmar through its website (now defunct) and through Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree online travel forum. The website was created and managed by Burmese refugees living in India.

Voices for Burma was invited by Lonely Planet editors to advise on the 9th edition of the Burma/Myanmar guidebook, referenced in the 2005 edition.

Publications

In 2006, Voices for Burma submitted written evidence to the UK House of Lords on the efficacy of the tourism boycott here. Voices for Burma concluded:

“It is VFB’s stance that the UK Government’s policy on tourism to Burma is at best confused and at worst irreconcilable with its commitment under the Common Position to assist the poorest sections of Burmese society. It is not VFB’s argument that the Travel Boycott is fundamentally flawed, as VFB discourages some tourists to Burma, however the boycott policy has not been evaluated and has not engendered any positive societal shifts.”

In 2006, founder Andrew Gray appeared in the New York Times here.

“When I was in Burma, I’ve never met anyone who said that I shouldn’t be there,” said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Mr. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia’s poorest nations.”

In 2010, though now defunct, Voices for Burma appeared in The Guardian at here.

“While favouring engagement, Voices for Burma and the Free Burma Coalition urge tourists to do as much as possible to help private Burmese citizens and not put money in the government’s pocket, and in fact it is possible to do so now as a tourist.”

 

 

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Buy a Generator, Just in Case

Political nerds like me are fascinated with Dominic Cummings. So interested, in fact, that I pay him a monthly fee to read his excellent newsletter. I know: I have just lost a chunk of my audience at that announcement. (You can sign up here. Previously, I blogged about Cummings here.)

In a recent lengthy post, Cummings writes:

“If you will live in the UK over the next 6 months take steps to ensure you and your family can cope with a 4 week major disruption — e.g a cascade of logistics and energy failures. The only safe assumption is that the true situation is much worse than the media are telling you. This was true in spring 2020 and autumn 2020. It’s true now. Making some basic preparations is extremely low downside and extremely high upside. Keep in mind, some of the people I know who were most right most early on covid and other things have bought generators they can plug into their homes…”

In a more sensible media landscape, the suggestion from someone as senior as Cummings that we should consider purchasing a generator would be a major headline. But the media landscape is warped, fixated on personalities and trivialities.

Cummings is in good company, for Goldman Sachs has warned of a “non-negligible risk” of power outages, too.

With a number of energy providers having gone under in the last few weeks and with 12m people soon to get a whopping 12% hike to their energy bills, we should examine the reasons why, which, according to Deloitte, are:

  1. Natural gas prices have quadrupled over the past six months.
  2. Gas provides the UK with 40% of electricity production and 80% of the heating of homes.
  3. There is ongoing maintenance work in the North Sea.
  4. Wind speeds are low.
  5. Droughts have reduced hydropower.
  6. Unlike in Europe with their 20-30% storage facilities for gas, we stand at only 2%: there is no wriggle room.
  7. Fixed-rate tariffs and price caps don’t easily allow price increases to be passed onto consumers.

And we haven’t opened a nuclear power station since 1995. If Norway and Russia don’t increase supply, and if we have a cold winter with low wind speeds, we are in serious trouble, according to the experts.

Risk-assessing this situation, buying a generator – and the fuel if you can get any! – is a sensible course of action. If Reckless Boris says that there is nothing to worry about, then there is everything to worry about.

Think clearly, folks.

CategoriesEnvironmentInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Us and Them

Accompanying the scenes of the Kabul evacuation, Pink Floyd’s Us and Them plays on a continuous loop in my head.

“Us (us, us, us, us) and them (them, them, them, them)
And after all we’re only ordinary men.”

In recent weeks, this troubling issue – of ‘them’ and ‘us’ – has dominated my thoughts. Why do some people matter to us, but others do not? Imperilled people at Kabul airport who have had our help, are just as important as humans in, say, sub-Saharan Africa who have not, right? Former soldier and Tory MP, Patrick Mercer, wrote in The Yorkshire Post on 29 August 2021:

“If ever there was an unimpeachable reason for offering safety and sanctuary to our friends, this is it. We need to get those people out – all of them – and help them here in Britain just as they stood by our boys when the bullets were flying over there.”

Since the invasion of Afghanistan twenty years ago, I do not recall the British media suggesting that any Afghan was on our “side”. Deaths of Afghans – either in “collateral damage” or otherwise – didn’t seem to matter much. Only the deaths of our unfortunate soldiers ever made the news. Until now. Now, Afghans who worked on our side, or who benefitted from our presence, have quickly become ‘us’ in a matter of weeks.

Perhaps we now care for some Afghans because “our” people got to know some of them, fighting and dying together. Because those Afghans picked our tribe over “theirs”, they are now friends for life, as Mercer says. Our tribe owes their tribe, goes the logic. Difficult shared experiences develop strong bonds between people.

As I hope to treat all people equally, this rapid volte face in the media, though welcome, causes me concern. And if these Afghans can quickly change sides in our consciousness, are there any useful lessons for how we could shine a spotlight on other unfortunate people, equally deserving of our help? What methodology and logic should we use for determining who deserves our assistance?

Yuval Noah Harari’s magnum opus – Sapiens – which ought to be compulsory reading for all – traces the development of our species. Like many of his readers, I now understand myself better because I recognise my DNA code. Harari spends much time explaining the ‘them’ and ‘us’ phenomenon. He writes:

“Evolution has made homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ is people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for ‘them’. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human.”

A challenging read, because it is true for many people.

In 2016, at the suggestion of a Quaker friend, I travelled with him to the Calais refugee camp – The Jungle – together with some members of a Pentecostal church in Leeds. Our mission was to distribute food and other assorted items.

At that time, in the British gutter press, The Jungle had become notorious. If France was so civilised, why not stay there? – went the narrative. The gutter press’s answer: only because Britain was a soft-touch, ready to help others rather than “our own”. Charity begins at home, they intoned.

In The Jungle lived Afghans, Syrians and many other nationalities – mainly young men – who wanted a better life, escaping war and poverty. If, through fate, I had been in their position, I imagine I would have done likewise.

Here are some photos of that trip.

You might expect that such an experience would leave a lasting impression, but it did not. Rarely do I think about The Jungle, however, frequently I think about the people whom we travelled with: they became part of my tribe. Perhaps this is because I did not (frankly, because of fear), spend any meaningful time with any of the inhabitants of The Jungle: it was intense, overwhelming experience – one that I do not wish to have again. I cannot tell you any of their names of the people we helped. In my head, they didn’t enter my tribe.

Harari’s work helps humans to understand our still-primitive minds. If we are all encoded to really only care about ‘us’, if we want to break-free from such thinking, answers can be found in religion and ideology (taken as one) and philosophy.

Although religion unquestionably sows division, it is also a great unifer, by increasing the size of the ‘us’ pool, extending the size of our tribe. Don’t just care about Christians in your town in affluent Harrogate – goes the logic – care about the plight of Christians in Kurdistan, too. Furthermore, if an omnisicient creator gave all things life, assuming that humans are at the zenith of the importance hierarchy (which is quite an assumption), then religions are a helpful antidote to humans only caring about the people whom they know. For example, the Christians from Leeds, who led The Jungle odyssey, were inspired by their faith to help those in need. And for these Leeds Christians, upliftingly they did not care for the religion for those whom they helped.

Similarly, communism encouraged the working classes to care about the class struggle throughout the world, extending the working class tribe. Communism and the reaction to it certainly caused much bloodshed, but it also spawned human connection.

In philosophy, I draw great strength from Peter Singer – the inspiration behind the animal rights movement. Together with my instinctual predilection for utilitarianism, Singer’s Drowning Child Experiment has shaped how I see the world. His thought experiment goes as follows:

Imagine that you are walking through an empty village – empty except for a young child. That child is about to drown in the village pond. You are the only person who can save it. If you wade into the water, through the mud, to make a rescue, then you will permanently ruin your best clothes. The financial cost would be modest. Morally, should you wade in?

To which everyone answers – of course! Singer asks why it is, then, that most people in rich countries would not spend only a small sum of money to save the life of a child – or perhaps a few children – in a developing country, a country that we will in all likelihood never visit. Why does it matter that we cannot see, in the flesh, the child drowning in another land? Singer challenges us to ignore distance, to apply logic – a life is a life wherever it is – and to make that donation.

Inspired by Singer’s reasoning, the organisation – The Life That You Can Save – ranks charities who make the greatest contribution to saving lives. I encourage all readers to subscribe to their newsletter.

Drawing lessons from Harari, religion and philosophy, how should we, in rich countries, act? My personal recipe is to get to know one developing country – in my personal case, Myanmar – and give a fair proportion of your wealth (including your time) to achieving the maximum return. We cannot know all people, or we would exhaust ourselves. Alternatively, we could let the Life That You Can Save direct our giving, but you will never get the warm feeling of knowing the people your money helps, perhaps leading us to give to the local donkey sanctuary instead when we get bored.

Perhaps more intelligently and compassionately still, our money and time ought to be focussed on environmental matters: allowing us to be both local as well as global, acting in the knowledge that the people who will be hit worst by environmental collapse are always the most needy. This requires long-term thinking, something which does not come naturally to most of us.

CategoriesInternational AffairsPoliticsThought of The Day

Taliban 2.0?

On the morning of September 11th, 2001, my good friend went to the Iranian Embassy in London to collect our visas. In what was a foreboding experience, we had completed the requisite paperwork in the embassy several weeks before. With our plane tickets booked to Athens, the plan was that we were to make it overland – from Greece to Thailand, flying home from Bangkok. By this point, we had obtained visas for Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. The back-of-a-fag-packet plan was to apply for a Burmese visa when in Bangladesh. The Iranian visa was the missing piece.

Due to 9/11, with the world in a pickle, with travel insurance invalidated for Iran, we were only able to safely visit India.

Watching the Taliban press conference, a few days ago, I thought I would revisit my Lonely Planet Guidebook to Central Asia, printed in 2000. My friend and I would have ventured into Afghanistan, had it been safe at that time. The guidebook reads:

At the time of writing the sound of gunfire and shelling still reverberates over parts of Afghanistan as it has done with depressing regularity since the late 1970s. Hopes are high that the latest faction to win control over the war-torn capital, the Islamist Taliban fighters, may eventually succeed in bringing peace but for the time being Afghanistan is unsafe to visit.

The 19th century was a period of often comic book confrontation with the British, who were afraid of the effects of unruly neighbours on its great Indian colony. The rise of Great Game tensions and the internal weakness of the Afghan Kingdom resulted in a series of remarkably unsuccessful and bloody, preventative wars being fought on extremely flimsy pretexts.

In 1841 the British Garrison in Kabul found itself under attack after Alexander ‘Bokhara’ Burnes was hacked to pieces by an Afghan mob. The British attempted to retreat to India and were almost totally wiped out in the Khyber Pass – out of 16,000 persons only one man survived. The British managed to re-occupy Kabul and carried out little razing and burning to show who was boss, but Dost Mohammed ended up back in power, just as he had been before the war.

Following local wars, from 1878 to 1880, Afghanistan agreed to become more or less a protectorate of the British, happily accepted an annual payment to keep things in shape and agreed to a British resident in Kabul. No sooner had this diplomatic mission being installed in Kabul than all of its members were murdered. This time the British decided to keep control of Afghanistan’s external affairs, but to leave the internal matters strictly to the Afghans themselves.”

History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, so said Mark Twain.

……………………………………………….

In strict legal terms, the initial war in Afghanistan in 2001 was lawful. Morally, there was a casus belli – just cause. The “occupation” also had legal cover, as the foreign troops were invited to remain in situ by the Afghan Government. But was there a duty to nation-build – and, if so, at what cost and for how long?

My view is that our shameful colonial legacy, rather than the invasion of 2001, obliged us to help. The boundaries drawn by colonial officials many years ago split communities, artificially creating this country and that country, sowing generations of division. As a former Burma/Myanmar expert, this pattern is familiar.

With regards to the US, any obligation to the Afghans stems not from their invasion in 2001, rather from their proxy war fought against the Soviet Union during the 1980s, flooding Afghanistan with weapons. Such obligation does not last twenty years, nor should it cost $2 trillion, 2442 dead and 20,660 wounded.

President Biden has come under sustained criticism due to the manner of the collapse, but he was elected on a pledge of ending the “forever wars”. I shall not join in with the condemnation, for he was democratically elected, with his rival – Trump, who made the deal with Taliban – also promising likewise. Had the US remained, in breach of the presidential promises, the US taxpayer would have shouldered additional considerable expense. If such cost had been met by the UN, fairly split across the G20 countries, given that no US soldier had died in 18 months, such continued involvement would have been equitable to the US, but it was not. Expecting the US to act as the world policeman, with the expectation that the US spends a higher proportion of her GDP on defence than other NATO allies, is the root cause of the scenes at Kabul airport. Look to Germany, France, other NATO countries and to the UN, if you want to allocate blame.

Certainly, the intelligence assessment of the capability and durability of the Afghan National Army (ANA) proved wildly inaccurate, but such predictions were always educated guesses. Just as the intelligence errors which led to Pearl Harbour did not bury Roosevelt, the CIA assessment of the ANA shouldn’t finish Biden. In fact, the speed with which the ANA collapsed, when faced with an inferior force, gives credence to Biden’s position – that the US job in Afghanistan could never be complete, leading to many more trillions to be spent to little strategic or economic gain.

However, politics is an unfair business. Images of Taliban fighters in US fighter planes and driving around Kabul in Humvees, which will drip-drip for years to come, will pummel Biden on a daily basis. Given his age, Biden will not seek re-election, paving the way for Harris. Harris’ success may rest on her ability to distance herself from the withdrawal. This may wash with the US electorate, who know that Biden has always been opposed to US military adventurism. As the Taliban always say, “You may have the watches, but we have the time.” Foreign expeditions on behalf of a democratically elected Government – in this case, the US – can only ever be time-limited affairs.

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Combined with the angst that we in the West feel for those caught up in these unfortunate circumstances, my (likely unpopular) view is that we feel embarrassed – humiliated even – that “our side” were so easily swatted away, often without a fight, by fighters whom many regard as primitive. Furthermore, the Taliban leaders whom we now see on TV, do not so far appear to be the monsters which we were led to believe that they were. This is not to ignore their multiple atrocities, rather it is comment on their appearance and actions as de facto rulers thus far.

My sense is that many people in the West feel discombobulated: everything that we thought we knew was wrong. To make matters more disorientating, my view is that many in the West now feel unsafe: our soldiers were beaten (when they were not); our allies are incompetent and untrustworthy; refugees and terrorism will soon be brought to a street near you; our prestige, shattered.  As George Orwell wrote: “We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” Our “rough men” have gone, though most of them left years ago.

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Watching the Taliban take Kabul without a fight, pondering the reason why it was an effortless coup d’état, instantly I thought of my favourite organisational thinker, Simon Sinek. Sinek created the third most-watched TED Talk of all time. Sinek’s simple message is that organisations need a shared Why: i.e. a culture – a mission – that all participants subscribe to. Through adhering to that vision, an organisation can achieve great things.

Sinek highlights how the little-known Wright Brothers somehow managed to fly the first plane despite being pitted against Samuel Pierpont Langley – an eminent astronomer who was bankrolled by the US Government and who assembled the brightest minds of the day. As Sinek states about the Wright Brothers, “they were able to inspire those around them and truly lead their team to develop a technology that would change the world.”

My view as a non-expert (though with some foreign policy acumen – I submitted written evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee) is that the ANA were without a mission that the foot soldiers and their leadership bought into. Though well-trained and well-armed, they were no match for purpose-driven Taliban fighters. Without purpose – because Afghanistan, though a nation state in legal terms, has little cohesivity. This mountainous country, with few roads, makes for insular, autonomous areas, rather than a joined-up whole. This is not to criticise the Afghan people, for a national identity cannot be forced. Why, then, as an ANA solder would you risk your life for an idea that you do not – to your core – believe in?

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Do we in the West have a moral or legal duty to evacuate anyone who is queuing at the airport? Have “we” spent enough? Should we aid the brain and financial drain, which is taking place, hampering the country for years to come? If so, who do we bring over and for how long? Because our taxpayers funded Afghan engineers, should we take their whole families with us, depriving Afghanistan of their skills?

The moral answer perhaps lies in our analysis of what may happen to such people if they stay, but then we have already witnessed the issues with predicting what will happen in Afghanistan. Applying a risk-assessment methodology, temporary residency should be provided for those with cause. If Afghanistan does not descend into reprisals, then Afghans would need to return, supported by turbo-charged foreign aid. Whilst in the UK, all Afghan should have the right to work – a right that refugees have but asylum-seekers do not. If safe, Afghanistan will need most of the people back who are now departing.

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But has the Taliban changed in twenty years? Early indications suggests that they have. The world has changed in that time. Their leaders have experienced life in other countries. A generation of Afghans has experienced democracy, women’s rights, and the internet. The country they now govern is a different prospect from what they knew. Taliban leaders will still scan the sky for drones, perhaps tempering some of their activities.

Sadly, what I expect to see is some reprisals and a dramatic reduction in women’s rights. I expect that the West will make it difficult for the Taliban to access banking and international aid, so I expect to see – as has happened in Burma/Myanmar – the march of the Chinese into Afghanistan. Iran, Russia and Pakistan too will all look to curry favour, with minerals to exploit and border zones to influence. The Great Games – as mentioned in the extract from my guidebook above – continue. Everything changes, but nothing changes.