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In one of the most riveting stories in the articles writer William Dalrymple wrote for the left-leaning British publication New Statesman, an Afghan tribal elder chats with the writer over a glass of green tea:
"'Last month, some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting,' he said. 'One of them asked me: "Why do you hate us?"
'I replied: "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."
What did he say to that? 'He turned to his friend and said: "If the old men are like this, what will the younger ones be like?"
'In truth, all the Americans here know their game is over. It is just their politicians who deny this.'"
Dalrymple's articles about what he calls the last days of the American-led invasion and support of a puppet regime led by Afghan President Hamid Karzai were picked by the rightwing Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.
"I did not expect that," chuckled Dalrymple, who was in New York recently to promote his newest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. His next book on the First Anglo-Afghan War, in which Britain suffered a humiliating defeat in 1842 when thousands of Afghans massacred the British army, has been completed. It will study the parallels between the Afghan insurgency against the British Empire and the current insurgency against the NATO forces in that beleaguered country. William Dalrymple discusses Afghanistan with Arthur J Pais.
The first part of a fascinating interview
Click on NEXT to read how the situation in Afghanistan is fast deteriorating...
How many times have you been to Afghanistan?
Strangely, this was my first visit and I spent a month there. I have been travelling and writing about India, Pakistan and Iran for over 25 years and I have been to cities across the Afghan border but I had never been there till recently. My book is to be published in 2012 but the events in Afghanistan are moving so quickly I am persuading my publisher to advance the publication date.
Why do you assert that the present regime is collapsing? People have written off Hamid Karzai many times but he has survived.
The situation has been fast deteriorating in the last six months. He may still survive but just in Kabul. There could be a big civil war in the country. The Americans may end up backing the Tajiks or a group of warlords. It is going to be a big mess. We see the signs of the Western efforts crumbling right in front of our eyes. The mightiest American army is not able to control the Taliban.
When we invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban was widely hated but now many people believe that only the Taliban can restore order. A woman I met in Kabul told me that if the Taliban comes to power her daughter won't be able to work and women won't be able to study but at least they -- like other Afghans -- will be spared from the daily acts of terror and bombing.
A family member, who lived in Kabul over 25 years ago and has worked with an NGO, says the situation is deteriorating (so fast) that he is mortally afraid for the first time ever of walking freely in the city. I also observed that despite the presence of huge numbers of foreign troops, it is now impossible -- or at least very dangerous -- for any Westerner to walk around Kabul without armed guards.
The Taliban already control more than 70 per cent of the country, collecting taxes, enforcing Sharia law and dispensing their kind of justice. Each week they are becoming stronger.
According to a recent Pentagon study, Karzai's government controls only 29 out of 121 key strategic districts. In May, a suicide attack on a US convoy in the Dar-ul Aman quarter of Kabul killed 12 civilians and six US soldiers. There was an assault on the US military headquarters at Bagram airbase, killing nine soldiers. The death toll for US armed forces in Afghanistan has exceeded 1,000. There have been many attacks on the Kandahar airbase.
A former Afghan security chief told me that he felt very gloomy about the situation.
Three months ago there was much celebration in the American media about General Stanley McChrystal's forces driving the Taliban off the opium-growing areas in Helmand province, but the Taliban are firmly back in control.
What are some of the most important causes for the debacle of Western armed forces?
One of the biggest mistakes the West did was to impose a unitary, centralised constitution on Afghanistan without taking into consideration regional aspirations. A centralised Afghanistan has hardly worked throughout history because of various competing tribes and how the country is divided into many sections by the mountains.
On the other hand, quite a bit of India's success is due to its federal structure. There is substantial power given to the Indian states and regional aspirations are not curbed. Many times people have said India is going to be fragmented but this hasn't happened because of its Constitution.
You also write about Karzai's alleged mental imbalance...
A high-ranking UN diplomat calls him 'off-balance' and 'emotional', and whose continued 'tirade (accusing the West of orchestrating a fraud in last year's elections, describing NATO forces as 'an army of occupation', and threatening to join the Taliban) raises questions about his mental stability.'
I have not checked this out but I heard that when he was a student in Shimla he had a sort of mental breakdown. He is also perceived as a puppet, who works against his people.
He is a Pashtun but the country's Pashtun majority has been driven out of power because he allowed NATO forces to do that. People across Afghanistan -- for that matter even in the West -- know he is too weak, corrupt, unprincipled and unpopular to provide security or development.
Because of Karzai and because the West has hardly backed developmental work in Afghanistan, the Taliban are coming back and are not being swept away by General McChrystal's surge. (Soon after this interview President Obama asked for McChrystal's resignation following a Rolling Stone magazine interview where disparaging remarks were made against the President and his top aides).
There are vivid stories in your magazine writings about the arrogance and foolishness that have caused enormous problems in Afghanistan.
One of the many stories of foolishness I have read is in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. It is about how the Americans download a traffic manual meant for Maryland and tried to implement it in Afghanistan.
During my travels in Afghanistan I came to realise that the Afghans were not so much filled with a hatred of the West, but were more concerned with a dislike of foreign troops swaggering around but not doing much for the very people they are meant to be helping. I can imagine similar feelings people in India had against the British army.
I remember as I was returning to Kabul from another province, I got stuck behind an American convoy of Humvees and armoured personnel carriers in full camouflage. They were travelling at less than 20 miles per hour. But they would not let any Afghan drivers overtake them because they were scared of suicide bombers.
Two hours later, there were 300 vehicles behind the convoy. The trucks were carrying fruits, nuts and commodities for daily use. The drivers were full of rage against foreigners who were ordering them in their own country.
The drones are causing enormous tension as many families have been killed by them not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan. A tribal leader asked me how many times the Afghans were expected to forgive the allies for killing innocent people, especially women and children. He also said: 'They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say: 'Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people'.' He added: 'And they keep doing that.'
You quote a similar reaction experienced by the British in 1842...
A young officer, Captain N Chamberlain whose grandson would become the prime minister of England, wrote about meeting a wounded Afghan woman pushing herself towards a stream with a water pot.
'I filled the vessel for her,' he wrote, 'but all she said was: 'Curses on the feringhees [foreigners]!"
Watch out for the second part of this fascinating interview tomorrow
This was typical British chivalry and the officer had not realised that the woman's village had been destroyed and many in her family had been killed. The officer also wrote: 'I continued on my way disgusted with myself, the world and above all with my cruel profession. In fact, we are nothing but licensed assassins.'
PART II: 'Indian involvement in Afghanistan was a blunder'