Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow – coda in Kabul

I once wrote that the twenty year war in Afghanistan was like the Hotel California:  you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Recent events have shown otherwise – or have they, really? I am recalling those lines from David Byrne’s dystopian song, Once in a Lifetime: “same as it ever was, same as it ever was”. But perhaps Burning Down the House is more apt.

Desperate people scramble to escape, over the borders and over the airport walls. Afghans from all walks of life, including officials, soldiers, and policemen, former employees of the allies, women, and human rights advocates, fear the worst, as do ethnic and religious minorities who suffered horrific abuses at the hands of Taliban 1.0. Governments, NGOs and concerned folk all over the world wring their hands in vicarious anxiety, and for some, in shame.  Europe. meanwhile, braces for another flood of refugees as displaced Afghans seek sanctuary

The US president declares that the America gave most of it’s all to save Afghanistan whilst the blame game as to “who lost Afghanistan?” commences, just as it did decades ago when the US ‘lost China” and then, Vietnam. The Chief Security Adviser says there’s no way of knowing how much American military hardware has been gifted to the Taliban, but it looks like a veritable bonanza.

America’s allies ponder the reliability of its erstwhile protector, fearing that the giant might have feet of clay  – in choosing to give up on Afghanistan in order to confront China, Biden might actually have undercut America’s position everywhere. .China and Russia, always happy to see America squirm, but always anxious about instability in neighbouring countries, eye up economic and strategic opportunities. And extremists all over the world, of all colours and creeds, are emboldened as yet another apparently rag tag militia humbles the world’s mightiest military power.

On the ground, and away from the besieged air[port, with the Taliban now well equipped and in control of the main towns and cities, many of the old politicians and warlords have chosen to work with them in the hopes of creating an inclusive transitional government. Former presidential aspirant and reconciliation council leader Abdullah Abdullah, disingenuous former president Hamid Karzai, and  that vicious and powerful old warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have formed a council that seeks a political settlement with the Taliban, rather than join any nascent budding insurgency.

The old Afghanistan, divided along tribal, ethnic and religious lines, and governed by deals, compromises and the divvying up of the spoils may even reassert itself. all that is old might be new again!

Meanwhile our mainstream and non-mainstream media is awash with coverage and commentary , including contributions from a good number of Afghanistan/Iraq hawks – the ones who brought us those twin disasters in the first place _ who have been called on by major media organizations to offer their sage assessment of the current situation. Whether it’s retired generals who now earn money in the weapons industry, former officials from the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations who in many cases are directly responsible for the mistakes of the past two decades, or war enthusiast pundits with an unblemished record of wrongness, we’re now hearing from the same people who two decades ago told us how great these wars would be, then spent years telling us victory was right around the corner, and are now explaining how somebody else is to blame for Afghanistan.

As a counterbalance to all this, In that Howling Infinite republishes below  two excellent pieces by commentators of repute.

Sarah Cheyes, a journalist and political adviser with long experience in Afghanistan, identifies four elements contributing to the failure of America’s Afghan Project: corruption at the highest levels of government which the US chose to ignore – it also ignored the many billions of dollars ended up in the bank accounts of American arms manufacturers and contractors (a recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019, the US spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors); the role played by Pakistan’s intelligence organization, the ISI, in creating and nurturing the Taliban – and the allies refusal to call out Pakistan encouraged its impunity; the dubious maneuverings of former America’s onetime-favourite and former president Hamid Karzai, who appears to have a foot in both camps ; and America’s self-delusions about these and other matters.

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert   is always worth reading – and below is his latest piece  for The Australian. Whilst Cheyes looks back to determine how it all  came to this., Kilcullen ponders where it will it will go. But first, he denounces the blame-shifters and buck-passers: “Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part”.

None of the elements identified by Cheyes and Kilcullen is new news. Old Afghanistan’s hands like Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn, and many others have been saying this for decades. The big question, which I am sure will be answered soon is whether Taliban 2.0 will be an improvement on Taliban 1.0 vis a vis women, human rights and even modernity.

But Kilcullen does not see the war as a misbegotten  and forlorn hope. Far from it:

“Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated”.

That much is true.  And with an America smarting from humiliation and a China swaggering with hubris. What could possibly go wrong now?

Addendum

An old friend, Charles Tyler, wrote to me apropos this post:

“The last couple of weeks have certainly seen major shifts of power, but things are so very far from being settled, and probably never will be. Indeed. events as they unfold will defy all predictions, as they always do, and the commentary, informed and shallow, will continue as always. And all will need revision in the light of what actually transpires.

As several commentators have noted the US is now likely to become closer in military and strategic cooperation to India, while China and Russia will become closer to Pakistan and Afghanistan, with all the risks these shifts entail for every country involved.  But in this three-dimensional chess game the field of military and strategic action is just one layer. The layers of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, nationalism and plain human emotion – not to speak of even broader considerations like climate and demographic change and economic development – overlay and play into every other field, and can only be controlled or manipulated or predicted so far. So the consequences of moving any particular chess piece are unknowable”.

Well said, Charles!

 


For the history buffs, we also republish below an excellent history lesson from American academic and author Priya Satia; and  in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Ghosts of Gandamak; The Devil Drives, and  One Two Three what are we fighting for?  

Taliban 2.0

Sarah Chayes, August 15, 2021

I’ve been silent for a while. I’ve been silent about Afghanistan for longer. But too many things are going unsaid.

I won’t try to evoke the emotions, somehow both swirling and yet leaden: the grief, the anger, the sense of futility. Instead, as so often before, I will use my mind to shield my heart. And in the process, perhaps help you make some sense of what has happened.

For those of you who don’t know me, here is my background — the perspective from which I write tonight.

I covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR, making my way into their former capital, Kandahar, in December 2001, a few days after the collapse of their regime. Descending the last great hill into the desert city, I saw a dusty ghost town. Pickup trucks with rocket-launchers strapped to the struts patrolled the streets. People pulled on my militia friends’ sleeves, telling them where to find a Taliban weapons cache, or a last hold-out. But most remained indoors.

It was Ramadan. A few days later, at the holiday ending the month-long fast, the pent-up joy erupted. Kites took to the air. Horsemen on gorgeous, caparisoned chargers tore across a dusty common in sprint after sprint, with a festive audience cheering them on. This was Kandahar, the Taliban heartland. There was no panicked rush for the airport.

I reported for a month or so, then passed off to Steve Inskeep, now Morning Edition host. Within another couple of months, I was back, not as a reporter this time, but to try actually to do something. I stayed for a decade. I ran two non-profits in Kandahar, living in an ordinary house and speaking Pashtu, and eventually went to work for two commanders of the international troops, and then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (You can read about that time, and its lessons, in my first two books, The Punishment of Virtue and Thieves of State.)

From that standpoint — speaking as an American, as an adoptive Kandahari, and as a former senior U.S. government official — here are the key factors I see in today’s climax of a two-decade long fiasco:

Afghan government corruption, and the U.S. role enabling and reinforcing it. The last speaker of the Afghan parliament, Rahman Rahmani, I recently learned, is a multimillionaire, thanks to monopoly contracts to provide fuel and security to U.S. forces at their main base, Bagram. Is this the type of government people are likely to risk their lives to defend?

Two decades ago, young people in Kandahar were telling me how the proxy militias American forces had armed and provided with U.S. fatigues were shaking them down at checkpoints. By 2007, delegations of elders would visit me — the only American whose door was open and who spoke Pashtu so there would be no intermediaries to distort or report their words. Over candied almonds and glasses of green tea, they would get to some version of this: “The Taliban hit us on this cheek, and the government hits us on that cheek.” The old man serving as the group’s spokesman would physically smack himself in the face.

I and too many other people to count spent years of our lives trying to convince U.S. decision-makers that Afghans could not be expected to take risks on behalf of a government that was as hostile to their interests as the Taliban were. Note: it took me a while, and plenty of my own mistakes, to come to that realization. But I did.

For two decades, American leadership on the ground and in Washington proved unable to take in this simple message. I finally stopped trying to get it across when, in 2011, an interagency process reached the decision that the U.S. would not address corruption in Afghanistan. It was now explicit policy to ignore one of the two factors that would determine the fate of all our efforts. That’s when I knew today was inevitable.

Americans like to think of ourselves as having valiantly tried to bring democracy to Afghanistan. Afghans, so the narrative goes, just weren’t ready for it, or didn’t care enough about democracy to bother defending it. Or we’ll repeat the cliche that Afghans have always rejected foreign intervention; we’re just the latest in a long line.

I was there. Afghans did not reject us. They looked to us as exemplars of democracy and the rule of law. They thought that’s what we stood for.

And what did we stand for? What flourished on our watch? Cronyism, rampant corruption, a Ponzi scheme disguised as a banking system, designed by U.S. finance specialists during the very years that other U.S. finance specialists were incubating the crash of 2008. A government system where billionaires get to write the rules.

Is that American democracy?

Well…?

Pakistan. The involvement of that country’s government — in particular its top military brass — in its neighbor’s affairs is the second factor that would determine the fate of the U.S. mission.

You may have heard that the Taliban first emerged in the early 1990s, in Kandahar. That is incorrect. I conducted dozens of conversations and interviews over the course of years, both with actors in the drama and ordinary people who watched events unfold in Kandahar and in Quetta, Pakistan. All of them said the Taliban first emerged in Pakistan.

The Taliban were a strategic project of the Pakistani military intelligence agency, the ISI. It even conducted market surveys in the villages around Kandahar, to test the label and the messaging. “Taliban” worked well. The image evoked was of the young students who apprenticed themselves to village religious leaders. They were known as sober, studious, and gentle. These Taliban, according to the ISI messaging, had no interest in government. They just wanted to get the militiamen who infested the city to stop extorting people at every turn in the road.

Both label and message were lies.

Within a few years, Usama bin Laden found his home with the Taliban, in their de facto capital, Kandahar, hardly an hour’s drive from Quetta. Then he organized the 9/11 attacks. Then he fled to Pakistan, where we finally found him, living in a safe house in Abbottabad, practically on the grounds of the Pakistani military academy. Even knowing what I knew, I was shocked. I never expected the ISI to be that brazen.

Meanwhile, ever since 2002, the ISI had been re-configuring the Taliban: helping it regroup, training and equipping units, developing military strategy, saving key operatives when U.S. personnel identified and targeted them. That’s why the Pakistani government got no advance warning of the Bin Laden raid. U.S. officials feared the ISI would warn him.

By 2011, my boss, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Taliban were a “virtual arm of the ISI.”

And now this.

Do we really suppose the Taliban, a rag-tag, disjointed militia hiding out in the hills, as we’ve so long been told, was able to execute such a sophisticated campaign plan with no international backing? Where do we suppose that campaign plan came from? Who gave the orders? Where did all those men, all that materiel, the endless supply of money to buy off local Afghan army and police commanders, come from? How is it that new officials were appointed in Kandahar within a day of the city’s fall? The new governor, mayor, director of education, and chief of police all speak with a Kandahari accent. But no one I know has ever heard of them. I speak with a Kandahari accent, too. Quetta is full of Pashtuns — the main ethic group in Afghanistan — and people of Afghan descent and their children. Who are these new officials?

Over those same years, by the way, the Pakistani military also provided nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea. But for two decades, while all this was going on, the United States insisted on considering Pakistan an ally. We still do.

Hamid Karzai. During my conversations in the early 2000s about the Pakistani government’s role in the Taliban’s initial rise, I learned this breathtaking fact: Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice to pilot Afghanistan after we ousted their regime, was in fact the go-between who negotiated those very Taliban’s initial entry into Afghanistan in 1994.

I spent months probing the stories. I spoke to servants in the Karzai household. I spoke to a former Mujahideen commander, Mullah Naqib, who admitted to being persuaded by the label and the message Karzai was peddling. The old commander also admitted he was at his wits’ end at the misbehavior of his own men. I spoke with his chief lieutenant, who disagreed with his tribal elder and commander, and took his own men off to neighboring Helmand Province to keep fighting. I heard that Karzai’s own father broke with him over his support for this ISI project. Members of Karzai’s household and Quetta neighbors told me about Karzai’s frequent meetings with armed Taliban at his house there, in the months leading up to their seizure of power.

And lo. Karzai abruptly emerges from this vortex, at the head of a “coordinating committee” that will negotiate the Taliban’s return to power? Again?

It was like a repeat of that morning of May, 2011, when I first glimpsed the pictures of the safe-house where Usama bin Laden had been sheltered. Once again — even knowing everything I knew — I was shocked. I was shocked for about four seconds. Then everything seemed clear.

It is my belief that Karzai may have been a key go-between negotiating this surrender, just as he did in 1994, this time enlisting other discredited figures from Afghanistan’s past, as they were useful to him. Former co-head of the Afghan government, Abdullah Abdullah, could speak to his old battle-buddies, the Mujahideen commanders of the north and west. You may have heard some of their names as they surrendered their cities in recent days: Ismail Khan, Dostum, Atta Muhammad Noor. The other person mentioned together with Karzai is Gulbuddin Hikmatyar — a bona fide Taliban commander, who could take the lead in some conversations with them and with the ISI.

As Americans have witnessed in our own context — the #MeToo movement, for example, the uprising after the murder of George Floyd, or the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol — surprisingly abrupt events are often months or years in the quiet making. The abrupt collapse of 20 years’ effort in Afghanistan is, in my view, one of those cases.

Thinking this hypothesis through, I find myself wondering: what role did U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad play? And old friend of Karzai’s, he was the one who ran the negotiations with the Taliban for the Trump Administration, in which the Afghan government was forced to make concession after concession. Could President Biden truly have found no one else for that job, to replace an Afghan-American with obvious conflicts of interest, who was close to former Vice President Dick Cheney and who lobbied in favor of an oil pipeline through Afghanistan when the Taliban were last in power?

Self-Delusion. How many times did you read stories about the Afghan security forces’ steady progress? How often, over the past two decades, did you hear some U.S. official proclaim that the Taliban’s eye-catching attacks in urban settings were signs of their “desperation” and their “inability to control territory?” How many heart-warming accounts did you hear about all the good we were doing, especially for women and girls?

Who were we deluding? Ourselves?

What else are we deluding ourselves about?

One final point. I hold U.S. civilian leadership, across four administrations, largely responsible for today’s outcome. Military commanders certainly participated in the self-delusion. I can and did find fault with generals I worked for or observed. But the U.S. military is subject to civilian control. And the two primary problems identified above — corruption and Pakistan — are civilian issues. They are not problems men and women in uniform can solve. But faced with calls to do so, no top civilian decision-maker was willing to take either of these problems on. The political risk, for them, was too high.

Today, as many of those officials enjoy their retirement, who is suffering the cost?

My warm thanks to all of you who have left comments, for taking the time to write, and for the vibrancy of your concern. A number of you have asked some excellent questions. Please have the kindness to stand by. I will try to provide what answers I can when I can.


Much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is collapsing in real time and a new bloodbath beginning. Now the world has a choice to make.

By Weekend Australian ,

Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture: AFPTaliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15. Picture. AFP

Afghanistan is collapsing in real time. Two decades of effort down the gurgler, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives lost, and a new bloodbath beginning inside Afghanistan. US credibility – like that of every American ally, including Australia – is on the line.

Approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we are back to square one. What happened? Describing the full debacle would take more space than I have, but let me try to answer some obvious questions: Why did we fail to foresee the fall of Kabul? What is happening on the ground and what does it mean? What will others do now, and what should we do next?

I promised a mea culpa, and here it is: I was dead wrong about the fall of Kabul. I am on record just weeks ago saying “it would be a stretch to imagine the Taliban capturing Kabul anytime soon”.

Of course virtually every other analyst got it wrong, too, but I can speak only to my own thought process. Thinking it over, examining my conscience, I realise my lack of imagination rested on a critical but flawed assumption.

I simply could not credit the possibility that the US government and the entire international community would just abandon Kabul overnight without a fight, leaving their own evacuation plan in disarray and surrendering both the Afghans and many thousands of their own citizens to the mercy of the Taliban. I took it as given that the US, UN and global institutions (all of which repeatedly promised ongoing support to Afghanistan) meant what they said. I mistakenly believed our major ally possessed a modicum of moral fibre and basic competence, and would muster the will to fight rather than see decades of effort down the drain.

I was wrong, and I apologise.

In the end Kabul fell as described in my last piece and the world’s response was to do – nothing. Not one airstrike; not a single attempt to blunt the Taliban offensive (even as guerrillas gathered in the open on Kabul’s approaches, presenting the juiciest target since 2001); not even a harsh tweet. Instead we saw excuse-making, blame-shifting and victim-shaming of the most nauseating kind from many (not all) American military and political leaders, and hand-wringing impotence from the UN.

A baby is handed over to the American army over the perimeter wall of the airport for it to be evacuated, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19. Picture: OMAR HAIDARI/via REUTERS

A baby handed to the US  army on the perimeter wall of Kabul airport,  Aug 19. Omar Haiudari

Those pinning the entire blame for the collapse on the Afghan military should hang their heads in shame. The Afghans have been fighting desperately to survive, losing thousands killed every month, ever since President Joe Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April kicked off the final campaign. They have been carrying the main combat burden of the war since late 2014, losing close to 70,000 casualties in that time against a few dozen on the coalition’s part.

The Afghan forces – which the coalition built to our own specifications – were like a stack of Jenga blocks in which certain critical pieces, by design, could be provided only by the US. Principal among these were air support, intelligence, logistics and maintenance. Suddenly in early May, with no warning, we whipped away these pieces, having promised Afghans for a decade that this was exactly what we would never do.

Of course the Afghan army collapsed – it was designed by us to function only with the parts we provided. To quote British explorer and author Rory Stewart, blaming Afghans now is like removing the wheels from your car, then complaining that it can’t drive.

Once the air support, intelligence and logistics were gone, the Afghan forces rapidly began to lose ground in an accelerating collapse of control across the countryside. As each successive district garrison fell, the government grew weaker and more isolated while the Taliban gained weapons, vehicles, defectors and ammunition. More than 200 such garrisons were lost in May and June alone. The loss of assets was bad enough but the blow to morale was deadly – no more so than early last month when US forces bailed out of the vast Bagram air base without even bothering to tell their Afghan partners, who woke up to find the Americans gone.

By early this month, the first provincial capitals began to fall. Within a week multiple provinces were falling each day, and by last Friday Kabul was the only major city in government hands.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting politicians in June, scoffed at the need to evacuate at-risk Afghans who had worked with the coalition, saying: “We are not withdrawing. We are staying. The embassy is staying … If there is a significant deterioration in security, I do not think it is going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.”

He was right: it happened from Friday evening to early Sunday afternoon. That is cold comfort for the 86,000 at-risk Afghans now running a gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints to reach the sole remaining runway at Hamid Karzai airport (soon to be renamed, one would think) in downtown Kabul. That multi-runway air base at Bagram we abandoned last month would be nice to have right now.

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. Picture: AP

Taliban enters the presidential palace in Kabul. AP

Like many other veterans, I have received hundreds of mes­sages and dozens of frantic calls for help during the past few days from Afghan friends now stranded – some being hunted house-to-house by the Taliban. There will be time to be angry about this later. For now, it’s most important to share their perspective as objectively as possible. So, what is happening now across the country, and what does it mean?

In Kabul, a Taliban delegation in the presidential palace is negotiating with Hamid Karzai and other leaders, seeking to form a transitional government. On the streets, Taliban forces are securing government buildings and patrolling in green Afghan police trucks or captured armoured vehicles.

While Taliban leaders have announced that they seek no revenge, they have put the security of Kabul under the control of Anas Haqqani, known for his deadly 2018 attack on the Kabul Serena Hotel and other civilian targets.

Civilians are being disarmed, since according to the Taliban the war is over now so nobody needs a weapon. In fact, special Taliban units have been going house-to-house, “disappearing” former military, intelligence and government officials.

Some have been shot in the street, others tortured to death. Taliban checkpoints are stopping all Afghans, and witnesses say they have pulled special-visa holders from the airport queues and beaten them with chains. Remnants of the Afghan army and intelligence service are hiding from death squads or trying to make their way to the Panjshir Valley, 160km north of Kabul. Some stragglers, and a few formed units, are still fighting outside the city.

In the Panjshir, first vice-president Amrullah Saleh, citing the escape of former president Ashraf Ghani, has declared himself acting president and is rallying opponents of the Taliban to join a government in internal exile. (Ghani has appeared in the United Arab Emirates, living in an expensive hotel and claiming he was forced to flee to avoid lynching.) In the Panjshir a coalition of local militias and army remnants is forming to defend the valley. Their size and capability are still vague.

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul on August 17. Picture: AFP

Afghan people line up outside the Iranian embassy to get a visa in Kabul, on Aug 17. AFP

Access to the valley is easy – for now. One Afghan officer, in plainclothes, made it from Kabul to the Panjshir on Monday carrying a message, then turned around and drove back to Kabul, unmolested by the Taliban. As any soldier knows, just because a district is Taliban-controlled does not mean there is a Talib on every square metre of it. In fact, Taliban forces have flooded into the cities, leaving parts of the countryside relatively open. Those cities will be a handful to control.

Already there have been deadly protests – met by brutal beatings and Taliban shooting of protesters – in several towns, and reports of 1000 trusted fighters from Helmand and Kandahar heading to Kabul to help secure it.

What this means is that, much as the Taliban may like to claim the war is over, it is far from finished. Afghanistan is still at war, and revolutionary regimes that are at war and facing potentially disloyal populations are legendarily lethal. It also means the international community has a choice to make.

This choice will strongly influence what others do now. Pakistan – despite a history of some elements in its intelligence service backing the Taliban – is looking warily at the potential for mass refugee flows or spillover of violence. Central Asian states such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are stepping up border security. Russia is working with these states, activating a military base in the region, but simultaneously attempting to shape Taliban behaviour by dangling the possibility of recognition, aid and trade if the regime shows moderation. China’s leverage is more economic, with discussions on trade and investment starting as early as Monday when the Taliban held a press conference calling for an international donors’ conference and foreign direct investment.

A Taliban fighter holds a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city. Picture: AFP

Taliban fighters Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city. AFP

America’s European allies have been stunned and alienated by the speed of the collapse, and offended by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal, on which they were not consulted. French, German and British politicians have all criticised the US this week. The UN Security Council has strongly condemned the violence, calling for respect for women and human rights (presumably such harshly worded statements were what the UN meant when it promised “ongoing support”).

What, then, should we do next? Initially, the answer is crystal clear: save as many Afghans as can be saved. The evacuation is the critical activity of the moment and the only way to salvage some self-respect from this debacle. After a horrifically chaotic start, the airport is finally under control, though the Taliban maintains an outer cordon preventing civilians getting through. This is creating a massive logjam, with crowds surging around the airport perimeter and few getting through. Many evacuation aircraft have departed almost empty as a result.

More important, the crowds are a tempting target for terrorists such as Islamic State-Khorasan, the local ISIS group, which hates both the Taliban and Westerners, and deplores Afghans who have worked with foreigners. It is only a matter of time before a suicide bomber or a truck bomb gets in among the crowds and stops the evacuation in its tracks. Clearing the backlog is thus a humanitarian as well as a strategic necessity.

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III flown from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. Picture: AFP

Inside a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III  Aug 15, evacuating some 640 Afghans from Kabul. AFP

Allied commanders recognise this, but political constraints – the US government has promised the Taliban its troops will not leave the airport, according to sources in the State Department – have prevented them expanding the perimeter or pushing the Taliban back.

Creating landing sites away from the airport, from which evacuees could be flown by helicopter over the Taliban checkpoints, is another obvious military move that will likely be blocked on political grounds. Beyond the obvious humanitarian imperative, resettling refugees (many of whom initially are being flown to Qatar) will be a huge and protracted task, one for which many countries are stepping up to assist, though few seem prepared to take anywhere near the number of evacuees needed.

Bigger choices loom. Should the International Monetary Fund release Afghanistan’s funds to an interim government that will be dominated by the Taliban? Should the US support Saleh’s government-in-exile in the Panjshir and back his fighters, or accept defeat and deal with the Taliban? Should airstrikes (so conspicuously absent when they could have made a difference) now resume against terrorists and, if so, who on the ground is left to spot and designate targets? Should there be a post-mortem to analyse what went wrong and allocate (or evade) blame, or should we move on?

All this will become increasingly important in coming weeks, but for now the focus needs to be the humanitarian crisis – and potential bloodbath – unfolding on the ground.

Some will say the war was unwinnable, that it could never have succeeded. But deep down we all know that is not true. We were sustaining the effort with minimal expenditure and zero casualties, and could have continued it forever had we chosen to do so. We did not. The war was winnable, but we did not win it. Rather, we screwed it up and we have been defeated.

Last weekend, as the Taliban advanced across Afghanistan, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared Aug. 14, the eve of Indian independence from British rule in 1947, “Partition Horrors Remembrance Day”—a day to remember the violent Partition of British colonial India into the separate countries of India and Pakistan, which produced the largest migration in human history. Millions of people died or lost their homes, livelihoods, and ways of life and suffered rape and other atrocities in harrowing months of sudden displacement as Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew a largely arbitrary border dividing Punjab and Bengal. But Modi’s pronouncement, made with typical blindsiding precipitousness, was also deeply disingenuous.

It is lost on no one that Aug. 14—the day chosen for this gruesome remembrance—is the day Pakistan marks its independence. (Independence came to British India at midnight on Aug. 14, with India marking its independence on the 15th and Pakistan on the 14th.) Modi’s designation of Pakistan’s Independence Day as an anniversary for Indian mourning is calculated to deflect blame and serves to aggravate rather than heal old wounds. It elides the reality that the violence of 1947 was not the work of neighbors in villages and towns turning against one another but of well-armed paramilitary groups bearing the imprint of Western fascism—including the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a group that Modi joined as a child and that remains a pillar of support for his Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government.

His call to remember Partition’s horrors appears decidedly cynical against this historical reality. But its coincidence with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan created an unintended opportunity for more honest reckoning with one often forgotten aspect of this haunting past. 1947 marked not only the creation of a new border between Pakistan and India but also, equally disastrously, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As Afghans flee across borders today, remembrance of the dotted line from that past to our present, of the continued reboot of colonial-era partition, is essential for South Asians and for meddlers in Afghanistan, past and present.

Before the Radcliffe Line, there was the Durand Line. The British, having seized territory from Afghanistan during the Second Anglo-Afghan War in 1878-80 and annexed it to British India, dispatched Mortimer Durand to formalize those gains with a treaty in 1893. Afghanistan was not fully sovereign: The British controlled its foreign affairs in a semicolonial arrangement common to British practice in many parts of the world. The treaty was thus coercive (and possibly duplicitous under the cover of faulty translation), as was often the case with colonial-era British treaties. Indeed, the Durand Line was drawn just shortly after European powers had, with similar arbitrariness, etched borders across the map of Africa.

The line divided a large region inhabited by Pashtuns, many of whom Afghanistan had permitted to remain self-governing, with a western half included in an Afghan sphere of influence and an eastern half in the British sphere. The British took direct, formal control of the most eastward districts and informally influenced those abutting the line, like Waziristan, by providing tribes there with subsidies and arms. Since the line was not a physical border but a demarcation of spheres of influence, considerable freedom of movement persisted. But it was disputed by those on whom it was foisted, prompting an uprising in 1897.

After putting down this rebellion (a young Winston Churchill took part), the British reasserted control over disputed parts of the demarcated area and worked to stop the flow of arms into the region. In 1901, they incorporated the directly controlled eastward districts into the North-West Frontier province of British India. That year, a new emir came to power in Afghanistan and again questioned the British partition of the region, prompting the British to attempt to renegotiate arrangements in 1905. Still the line remained disputed. That year, the British also partitioned Bengal on India’s eastern frontier along religious lines with a view to undermining intensifying anti-colonial sentiment there. (By 1911, anti-colonial pushback forced the undoing of that partition—though Radcliffe would partition the region again in 1947.)

During World War I, Indian and Afghan affairs remained entangled, with anti-colonial activists establishing an independent Provisional Government of India in Kabul, plotting with the Turkish and German empires to free not only India but all Islamic countries from British rule. Its members worked with Bolsheviks, Pan-Islamists, Pan-Asianists, and other anti-colonial activists as far away as California, embracing humanistic ethics of internationalism and love. They saw this joint struggle as an end in itself, regardless of its political results.

Having encouraged these anti-colonial forces, Afghanistan also asserted its own full autonomy after the war and attempted to retake the disputed areas abutting British India, including Mohmand and Waziristan. The resulting Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919, however, again left the issue unresolved. Anticipating the U.S. drone strategy of today, the British resorted to the new technology of aerial policing in the region, which Chief of the Air Staff Hugh Trenchard deemed suited to “the psychology, social organization and mode of life of the tribesmen and the nature of the country they inhabit.”

Indian anti-colonial activists with wartime ties to Kabul remained influential in the massively popular postwar Indian anti-colonial struggle. But while they dreamt federal dreams, the British practice of drawing hard lines to divide peoples acquired new force and purpose. Partition was asserted as a “solution” to political conflict between different groups across the empire—the division of Ireland in 1921 as the price of independence (Northern Ireland remaining within the United Kingdom) became a template for recommending a similar “solution” for Palestine in the 1930s. By the 1940s, partition was a standard part of Britain’s decolonization toolkit. And the British justification for colonialism in South Asia—that its Hindus and Muslims constituted distinct nations requiring a mediating presence—had been built into the society’s political fabric in the form of separate, religiously based electorates that encouraged separate political movements as Indians incrementally wrested greater autonomy from the British. A push to partition British India into Muslim and Hindu states emerged, predictably, but struggled for support among many Muslims. These included the Pashtun Khudai Khidmatgar movement in the North-West Frontier, a nonviolent anti-colonial organization closely allied with the Gandhian Congress movement and staunchly opposed to partition.

When the plan for partition was announced in June 1947, the Khidmatgars—a word that means servant—feared that geography would automatically dictate their membership in Pakistan, whose creation they had vehemently opposed on principle. They pushed instead for an independent Pashtunistan, as did the Afghan government. After August 1947, as Punjabis and Bengalis fled for their lives across the new Radcliffe Line, the Pakistani government defended the ever contentious Durand Line, too, as Pashtuns and the Afghan government denied its legitimacy and rebuffed Pakistan’s claim to the Pashtun areas abutting it. Despite Pakistan’s strenuous efforts to crush the Pashtunistan movement, it survived, finding loyal support from Afghan President Daoud Khan in the 1970s.

Pakistan’s U.S.-backed support of mujahideen against the Soviet presence in Afghanistan was aimed, in part, at solidifying the border at the Durand Line. (The communist governments during the Soviet occupation refused to recognize the Durand Line as the border.) But even the agents Pakistan cultivated to intervene in Afghanistan refused to serve that end. The border was more or less moot during the conflict itself, but the mujahideen, recruited primarily among Pashtuns, maintained loyalty to the Pashtun position against the Durand Line. So it went with the Taliban: Pakistani backing didn’t trump the Taliban’s Pashtun loyalty to historic opposition to the Durand Line.

Pashtuns on both sides of the border deny the validity of the Durand Line, but the Pakistani government, in the hands of a Punjabi elite perhaps hardened by the violent partitioning of their own community in 1947, has relentlessly repressed the Pashtun desire for unity and autonomy. It has clung with increasing desperation to the principle of territorial integrity, especially after losing the Bengali half of the country, now Bangladesh, in 1971. The colonial U.S. presence in Afghanistan has abetted this effort. Of late, Pakistan is disrupting cross-border life by building up the frontier in a manner that is likely to rival the India-Pakistan border to the east—a border so fortified that it is one of the few man-made structures visible from space. In holding on to Pashtun land claimed by Afghanistan, the Pakistani government, with U.S. support, has extended the outlook of the past British colonial government toward the land and its people, twisting a knife in the wounds of 1893 and 1947. Meanwhile, the Modi government, in stoking the notion of the Muslim “other”—both inside and outside India—also twists a knife in the wounds of 1947.

In a region characterized by syncretic cultures that are the product of long intermingling, both colonial and postcolonial governments have engaged in endlessly destructive efforts to partition people into boxes defined by language, religion, and ethnicity, rather than afford them the freedom of coexistence fostered by the looser, federal structures that many anti-colonialists proposed. But the intermixing persists. Afghan refugees reside in Pakistan by the millions, and the specter of an undetectable Pakistani and Bangladeshi presence fuels the Modi government’s bigoted policies for proving citizenship. Who is Indian and who Bangladeshi? Who is Pakistani and who Afghan? The difficulty of answering such questions stems from the artificiality and violence of the hard lines that have been drawn between people entangled in what the Congress leader Maulana Azad called a “composite culture,” in which nonviolent anti-colonial struggle easily encompassed both Muslim Pashtuns and Gujarati Hindus.

India’s Punjabi farmers have been challenging the Modi government’s assertion of the central government’s authority for a year now in what has been one of the biggest protests in history. All around South Asia’s borderlands—from Kashmir to Kerala, from Bengal to Pashtunistan—we see resistance to the centralizing power that is a legacy of colonial rule and struggles for greater local governance, federalism, and layered forms of sovereignty promoting coexistence with the other, as envisioned by the anti-colonial thinkers and activists of the Provisional Government of India in Kabul, the Khidmatgars, and Mahatma Gandhi.

While the Cold War helped spur the federal unification of a Europe reeling from the horrors of nationalist violence, the neocolonialism it unleashed simultaneously abetted South Asia’s fragmentation into fortresslike nation-states sustained by the continual demonization of enemies within and without. Still, as the masses of farmers encamped at Delhi show us, alternative futures are never foreclosed. South Asians can still dream beyond those fortresses and promote enduringly composite cultures focused on the shared protection of water and land that is critical to survival in our time. As memory of the horrors of colonial partition fuel fascist Hindu nationalism in India and the Taliban’s expansion in Afghanistan, it has never been more important to remember and amplify the khidmatgars of anti-colonial coexistence.

Priya Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance professor of international history at Stanford University and the award-winning author of Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East and Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution. Her most recent book is Time’s Monster: How History Makes History.

Tel as Sabi’ – Tarkeeth’s Anzac Story

The 25th April is Anzac Day, Australia’s national day of remembrance, honouring Aussies and Kiwis who perished in foreign wars from South Africa to Afghanistan. It takes its name from the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign – on this day in the spring time of 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed under heavy fire from Ottoman forces entrenched in the heights above what was later to be called Anzac Cove on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula. 

The Anzacs were just part of a wider campaign devised by British Secretary of the Navy Winston Churchill to knock The Ottoman Empire out of the war with one decisive blow by seizing the strategic Dardanelles Strait and occupying Istanbul, the capital. It do not go well. The Ottoman soldiers commanded by Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the future founder of modern Turkey, Kamal Atatürk, held the high ground and fought stubbornly and bravely, and ultimately, victoriously. 

The bloodshed ended in stalemate. The Allies withdrew eight months later leaving behind over eight thousand dead Australians and nearly three thousand New Zealanders (along with over thirty thousand English, Irish, and Frenchmen, Indians and North Africans, and close on ninety thousand Ottoman soldiers, Turks and Arabs, Muslims and Christians), without, historians say, having had any decisive influence on the course of the First World War. 

The rest, as we say, is our history. 

The Anzac Trail

Whenever we visit Israel, our friend and guide Shmuel of Israel Tours drives us all over tiny beautiful and vibrant country (travelling through the West Bank, we use Palestinian guides). During the pandemic year, most Israelis had been locked down three times and like in many countries, the all-important tourist trade barely has registered a pulse. When permitted to travel beyond his home in Jerusalem, Shmuel has spent the year exploring and learning, visiting places he has never guided to before. He believes that he has exited the plague year a better guide, and we are already making plans for our next Israel adventure, including recently excavated Herodian palaces and further travel in the Negev Desert. 

Shmuel recently told me that he had visited Tel Sheva, Tel as Sabi’ in Arabic, in the Negev, five kilometres east of the city of Beer Sheva, a site inhabited since the fourth   millennium BC. The ancient fortified town dates from the early Israelite period, around the tenth century BC. The walls, homes, storage warehouses and water reservoir system have been excavated and opened to the public. Today, Tel as Sabi’ s also known as the first of seven Bedouin townships established in the Negev as part of the Israeli government’s policy to plant the once-nomadic Bedouin permanent settlements. 

It was from the foot of this stark desert hill that the Light Horse Brigade launched its famous  charge towards the Ottoman lines at the strategic rail-head and wells of Beersheva on October 31st 2017. 

Today, it is the ninth (not seventh) stop on The Anzac Trail which traces the route of the Light Horse Brigade from Gaza on the Mediterranean coast to Beer Sheva. For obvious reasons, it begins beyond Gaza’s wire and concrete encirclement and trail culminates at the Anzac Memorial Centre In Beer Sheva, inaugurated on the 100th anniversary of the battle. 

Tel as Sabi’ to Tarkeeth 

As we commemorate Anzac Day this Sunday, few folk in Bellingen Shire would know that there is a link between that hill in the heart of the Negev and Tarkeeth on the north bank of the Kalang River just six kilometres west of Urunga as the crow flies.  

In A Tale of Twin Pines, the first of our Small Stories, I wrote of how researching the history of the Tarkeeth Forest, where we live, I came across Lloyd Fell’s story of the Fell Family Farm. This was located close to the present Twin Pines Trail, just east of Fells Road on South Arm Road, and west of the Uncle Tom Kelly motorway bridge over the Kalang River.  Click here to access TwinPinesStory.pdf

Lloyd tells the story of how in 1926, New Zealand farmer, solo-yachtsman, and returned ANZAC Chris Fell first saw the land that became the family farm, purchasing it from a deceased estate for a thousand pounds. Chris was impressed by the two mature hoop pines that stood on either side of the track leading to a rough timber house that already stood there – and these gave the farm its name. He cleared the bush, felling and hauling timber until he had sufficient land and capital to run cattle. In time, he built up a prosperous dairy business and cattle stud where he and his wife Laura, a Sydneysider from a well-to-do Vaucluse family, raised their three children. The house has long gone, but the two magnificent pines are still there. 

On October 31st 1917, Chris Fell and his comrades in the New Zealand Mounted Infantry fought on Tel as Sabi’. 

Tel as Sabi 1917, showing Ottoman trenches (AWM)

Chris Fell and the battle of Beer Sheva

As told in Short Stories – a tale of Twin Pines:

in his ebook The Twin Pines Story, Lloyd Fell tells how his father served as a mounted machine gunner with the New Zealand forces in the Gaza campaign of late 1917. His war record reports that he was one of the machine gunners who fought through the day before the famous charge to knock out the Turkish machine guns on the strategic Tel al Saba, east of the strategic desert town Beersheba.

The strong position the Ottomans had established on the hill was a key obstacle to the conquest of the town and the ANZACs had to seize it before storming Beersheva itself. The Ottoman soldiers fought valiantly, and it was only at around 3 p.m. that the fighters of the New Zealand Brigade, primarily the Auckland regiment, succeeded in capturing the hill in a face-to-face battle. Had these fortifications not been overrun, the Light Horse would have been prevented from advancing on the wells. Afterwards, the machine gunners and their Kiwi mates took part in a bayonet charge against the enemy.

As Jean Bou wrote in The Weekend Australian:

“The New Zealand brigade was sent against Tel el Saba’, but this steep-sided hill with terraced entrenchments was formidable. The dismounted horsemen, with the limited fire support of their machine-gunners and the attached horse artillery batteries, had to slowly suppress the enemy defences and edge their way forward. Chauvel sent light horse to assist, but as the afternoon crawled on, success remained elusive. Eventually the weight of fire kept the defenders’ heads down enough that the New Zealanders were able to make a final assault. The hill was taken and the eastern approach to Beersheba opened, but nightfall was approaching”

Major-General Harry Chauvel, the ANZAC commander faced a dilemma. The light was fading and there wasn’t enough time to properly regroup to assault the town. An unsuccessful attack would mean withdrawing far to the south, whilst delaying ng the attack until morning would deny him the element of surprise and and also give the Turks time to destroy the town’s vital wells. He decided to attack, and assigning the  the mission to the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade. 

See also, : The Taking of Tel el Saba

In In that Howling Infinite, see also, Tall Tales, Small Stories, Obituaries and Epiphanies,  The Watchers of the Water, and Loosing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

 

That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

The Crown – the view from Down Under

Having luxuriated in series one to three of The Crown, the fourth is deliciously seditious – particularly if one is a republican – and an Australian republican at that. 

Pheasants and peasants, dead trout and salmon, trekking the wilds in tweeds and wellies, and the stalking of a wounded stag. When Uncle Dickie gets blown to smithereens, it feels like some karmic comeuppance. This is even before we get to witnessing the making and breaking of “the people’s princess” in what transpired to be a fractured fairytale. 

There was plenty for us antipodeans to enjoy in an episode ironically titled Terra Nullius, a phrase that is particularly potent in our ongoing “history wars”. The Australian scenes were actually filmed in Spain, but never mind. There was Richard ”Cleaver Green” Roxburgh as our larrikin Prime Minister, the late Bob Hawke, remarking that Princess Di had set back the republican movement for decades. The “silver bodgie” is cast as as an impatient republican, but in reality, he did not forcefully agitate for a republic during his early years in office.

On matters Australian, series four offered up a couple more events that have contemporary echoes. 

During the royal couple’s trip to Australia in 1983, Diana tried and failed to scale our iconic Uluru – it was called Ayers Rock in those days, the site of the tragically famous “a dingo are my baby” saga. Our government has only recently conceded to the wish of the traditional owners that climbing the sacred megalith be forbidden – to the chagrin of many, and the joy of many more. 

There is also the presence of Sir Martin Charteris, the Queen’s private secretary. Though long gone to his maker, and retired well before his fictional appearance, his name and reputation have been brought into critical review with revelations of the role he played in our Governor General’s dismissal of Labour Prime  Minister Gough Whitlam on Remembrance Day 1975 – an event that resonates still nearly half a century on. Whilst it has been shown that Queen Elizabeth did not have foreknowledge, it has also come to light that Prince Charles gave retrospective encouragement to Sir John Kerr, who was enthusiastically pushing for the Crown Prince succeed him as Governor General.

It is said that Australians’ affection for Wills and Kate has an impact on republican sentiment DownUnder similar to that of Princess Diana – though The Crown’s unflattering portrayal of Prince Charles, fresh on the heels of the release of “the Palace Letters” might lead folk to contemplate that when Her Maj goes to meet the saints, will we Aussies might declare that “it’s time!”?

For further reading on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see; Down Under and The Frontier Wars – Austrtalias Heart of Darkness

Call yourself a Republican?  Then why are you bingeing The Crown?

Jacqueline Maley, Sydney Morning Herald, 22 November 20207

The television show The Crown presents a unique dilemma for republicans. How can we maintain our disdain for the monarchy, our assurance of its irrelevance, while we are bingeing on its depiction, lapping up every detail of its costume, marvelling at the strong hairline of Princess Margaret and delighting in Diana? Even the corgis who have walk-on parts compel us with the sureness of their stride.

As a friend of mine put it in our defence: I don’t like murderers, but I like watching shows about serial killers. Tolstoy knew how interesting unhappy families were, and there is plenty of personal misery in the fourth and latest season of The Crown, even though the only person the creators give us any sympathy for is Diana, Princess of Wales.

The power of her celebrity, two decades after her death, defies gravity. We only really want to watch the show because of her – the scenes which just feature the self-absorbed, self-pitying Prince Charles are the only ones that drag.

This mirrors the central problem of Charles’ life – the public was never very interested in him. What he doesn’t understand, at least according to the show (yes, I know, I know, it’s fiction), is that nobody is actually obliged to find him interesting.Advertisement

The Real Life Charles is reportedly very cross at the characterisation of him as a cruel husband who moons around Highgrove enunciating his pretentious gardening philosophy (“There will be no straight lines, Mummy,” he tells the Queen when she comes to visit).

I find myself straining to care when I read articles where “sources close to the prince” tell us such-and-such an event never happened that way, or that the depiction of Charles as smug and insecure is mean. So what? Fiction portrays truth far better than documentary, and that is the genius of the show.

Illustration: Reg Lynch
Besides, the most outlandish parts of the story are all true – the fact that two of the Queen’s first cousins were locked away in an institution for life because their disability might have caused people to believe the royal bloodline was “tainted”. The fact that a princess was so unhappy before her wedding that she tried to disappear herself through the misery of bulimia. The fact that the Queen’s children have to make appointments to see her.

I remember reading a defence of Kate Middleton – who was accused of not welcoming her sister-in-law Meghan Markle into the royal family – in which it was indignantly stated that Kate had even invited Meghan to her home once. This sort of weirdness is the second-generation iteration of Diana’s loneliness – in the show, the breeding mare/child bride Diana (she was 20) has been chosen to provide an heir, then locked in a palace to learn the rules. 

She is the key to the monarchy’s survival, yet when she rings the Queen, and her fiance, over and over, neither will take her call.

The Crown S4. Picture shows: Denis Thatcher (STEPHEN BOXER) and Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON). Filming Location: Rothiemurchus, Scotland Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher in season 4 of The Crown.

In a recent essay on the pandemic, British novelist Zadie Smith writes that “suffering is not relative; it is absolute … it cannot be easily mediated by a third term like ‘privilege’.”

This sums up the Diana dynamic perfectly, and explains why millions of people loved her, or thought they did, for her vulnerability and her sadness, even though it was attended by servants and played out on the plump couches of Kensington Palace.

Here is another partial defence for republican viewers: the locations. Who is not dreaming of salmon-fishing in the Icelandic wilderness, walking the beach sadly in Mustique, a la Princess Margaret, or roaming the highlands of Scotland on a jolly hunting party (maybe minus the animal suffering)?Advertisement

The scenes of Balmoral, when Margaret Thatcher comes to stay with her husband Denis, are a fascinating portrayal of the clash between the low-born, broom-sweeping neo-liberalism of Thatcherism, and the fusty conservatism of Establishment Britain.

The Windsors look down on the shopkeeper’s daughter who doesn’t know how to dress properly for hunting. Seen through Thatcher’s eyes, the royal family are a ridiculous tribe with funny costumes and arcane habits.

Thatcher’s partially-sympathetic portrayal should be more controversial than Charles’ unsympathetic one. The bleakness of Thatcher’s Britain is shown but not focused on, and the only victim of her recession we see is Michael Fagan, the intruder who famously broke into the Queen’s bedroom in 1982. Fagan tells Liz “the system” is broken and complains about PM Maggie. The Queen is sympathetic and they have a moment together before he is whisked off by security.

Emma Corin as Princess Diana  in an episode of The Crown  about Charles and Diana's tour of Australia.
                                                         Emma Corin as Princess Diana

But nothing happens, because the monarchy can’t make a material difference to any of its subjects’ lives, not that many of its members have shown an inclination to do so.Advertisement

Then there are the sons – Charles is self-pitying, Edward is a bullied boy turned bully, Andrew is charming but spoiled (perhaps a future series will explore the protection racket the royal family ran for the prince who refuses to answer police questions about his pedophile friend Jeffrey Epstein).

The Queen’s children, Diana, and even the Queen herself, all desperately need the validation of popularity, usually via the medium of the press, because it’s too sticky to get involved with one’s subjects personally. They are all jealous of the attention the others are getting. They all believe their misery to be worse than others’.

That, finally, is what the show brings out – how needy the royals are, and perhaps that’s the best republican take on The Crown.

That the act of divesting ourselves of the monarchy, when it eventually happens, will feel less like unshackling from a colonial power, and more like shaking off a clingy partner: the relief that comes with the end of a relationship you have simply grown out of.

Arguments of Monumental Proportions


Our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking. Ulrich Raulph

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…The opening of the film Gone with the Wind

The past is another country – they thought things differently there; and if the past shapes the present, the present also shapes the past.

With the spread of Black Lives Matter protests around the world, in response to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the defacing and destruction of monuments to dead and dubious white men is back in vogue – not that the practice has ever actually gone out of style.

Fallen Idols

There is a certain historical irony that the statue of a 17th century slave trader (and on account of his wealth, philanthropist) Edward Colston has been consigned to the watery depths of Bristol Harbour from whence his ships sailed. He’d built his fortune as an influential member of the Royal African Company, a private company which branded its initials on the chests of some 100,000 men, women and children before shipping them to the Americas and the Caribbean. Thousands never made it, tossed into the ocean after drawing their last breath in the filth below decks. Ted and his fellow slavers have a case to answer. In the hundred years after 1680, some two million slaves were forcible removed from their homes in West Africa to the work camps of the West Indies. By 1750, the numbers of slaves had reached over 270,000 per decade, and by 1793, Liverpool handled three fifths of the slave trade of all Europe.Historian Peter Ackroyd wrote in his History of England: “No more than half of the transported slaves reached their destination; some plunged into the sea and were said to hike up their arms in joy from the brief sensation of liberty before they sank beneath the waves”.

Bristol owed its past prosperity to the slave trade – as did Liverpool. The statue had stood in the city centre for 125 years with a plaque that read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city’. Streets and buildings were also named after Colton though most townsfolk have probably never have heard of him. 

Activists have drawn up a hit list of 60 monuments in the United Kingdom that “celebrate slavery and racism”. London mayor Sadiq Khan paves the way for the legal removal of many of historic statues in the British capital and the changing of street names. Slave owner and West India Docks founder Robert Milligan has already been taken down. On the same day, Belgium’s bloody King Leopold, whose rule of the Congo – it was his private property – became a byword in colonial barbarity, was removed from his plinth in Brussels 

As an Aussie and a Brit of Irish parents, and as a history tragic, I find the long running monuments furore engrossing. Statues of famous and infamous generals, politicians and paragons of this and that grace plazas, esplanades and boulevards the world over, and their names are often given to such thoroughfares. They represent in visual and tangible form the historical memory of a nation, and as such, can generate mixed emotions reflecting the potentially conflicted legacies and loyalties of the citizenry. 

It is about the control of history – and who controls it. We all use history, incorporating perceptions of our national story into lessons that guide or confirm our present actions and outlooks. Our history is written not only in scholarly narratives, but also, in commemorations, in statues, flags and symbols, in the stories that children are taught about their country and their community from their earliest school years, and in the historical figure skating  they are taught to remember and honour. History, it is said, is written mostly by the victors  – but not always. So the inevitable tensions between different versions of the past fosters tension and conflict, and grievance and offense in the present. Particularly in onetime colonialist and settler countries, and the lands these once ruled and exploited.

Juxtaposing controversial British statuary, and those of American Civil War generals, against the empty plinths of the former People’s Republics of Eastern Europe, and the images of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein, I have always contemplated our own monuments to reputed bad boys past. 

There are statues of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell all over the place in England where his legacy is still debated. He stands authoritatively outside the Houses of Parliament and is remembered as one of the godfathers of that institution. And yet, when he died, and the monarchy he deposed restored, his body was disinterred and hanged. In Ireland, for so long “John Bull’s other island”, however, he is reviled. He did, after all, march through the land with “fire and fury”, to borrow Donald Trump’s hyperbole, and killed quite a number of Irish folk. In my southern Irish mother’s day, people would put his picture upside down, facing the wall. This may be apocryphal, but whatever.

Oliver Cromwell, Parliament Square

A statue of Lord Nelson stood in O’Connell Street, Dublin until March 1966 when the IRA blew him up, celebrated by the Clancies in the song below. The IRA also blew up that other famous English mariner, Lord Louis Mountbatten, inveterate pants-man, victor of the Burma campaign and facilitator of Indian Independence). It wasn’t that Horatio had inflicted anything unpleasant upon the Irish, but rather his renowned Englishness that earned him the TNT. And yet, in the wake of intermittent US monuments barnies, beady British eyes were always focusing on the admirable admiral and his ostensible racism (not a word in use at the turn of the eighteenth century) and support for the slave trade. After Colston’s dip in Bristol harbour, it won’t be long before Horatio is harangued – not that anyone actually believes that Nelsons Column should be evicted from iconic Trafalgar Square, and it would be damn difficult to paint-bomb his myopic visage. The British attachment to Lord Nelson is long and strong. In Birmingham, my hometown, the city centre around the Bullring has been refurbished, redesigned and reconstructed numerous times during my lifetime, but the immortal mariner and his battleship stand still on their plinth of honour – as in the featured picture.

The ongoing controversy in England over statues of Cecil Rhodes, colonialist and capitalist, and ostensibly an early architect of apartheid, still rages with respect to his African legacy, with many demanding that he be demolished. his statue in Cape Town, South Africa, was removed after extensive protests in  2015. as As I write, Cecil may not survive the week. There is a statue in Parliament Square, close to Cromwell and Winston Churchill (who some also abhor), of South African soldier and statesman Jan Smuts. His Boer War (on the enemy’s side) and segregationist sympathies were outweighed by his military and diplomatic record in service of the British Empire, and to date, none has called for his eviction. Perhaps he will be spared as he did not have a pariah state named for him, as it was with Cecil. Nor was he associated with the apartheid regime as it was decades before his time – although this wouldn’t satisfy some iconoclasts. But most likely, he is safe because most folk have never heard of him.  

Cecil Rhodes, Oxford University

Winston Churchill gets a paint-job

I have heard mumblings, however, of doing for General Smuts, and also for his Parliament Square neighbour Sir Winston Churchill, who has now been graffitied. Now, he might have saved Britain from Hitler’s hoards, but he did not like the Irish, nor Indians (and Pakistanis for that matter), and said some gross things about Arabs and Jews. And we Aussies, and Kiwis too, still blame him for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – although he did give us our indefatigable and untouchable ANZAC legend and a long weekend. And whilst on the subject of the Middle East, an equestrian Richard the Lionheart stands close by. He did dastardly things to tens of thousands  of locals – Muslim, Christian and Jew – during the Third Crusade, almost a millennium ago. Watch out, Dick and Dobbin! 

Richard the Lionhearted

Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the world scout movement, of which I was a relaxed and comfortable member for half of the sixties, sits on the seafront in Poole, Dorset, under twenty four hour CCTV protection. In a 2007 poll, he was voted the 13th most influential person in the UK in the 20th century. But critics say that he held racist views, and in 2010 declassified MI5 files revealed he was invited to meet Adolf Hitler after holding friendly talks about forming closer ties with the Hitler Youth. If old “bathing towel” as he was once affectionately called by us Boy Scouts, becomes persona non grata, what will become of Baden Powell Park in Coffs Harbour, our regional centre? It sits behind the Dan Murphy’s liquor mart, one of the town’s most popular retail outlets, and provides an opportunity for our discussion to segue DownUnder.

Dark deeds in a sunny land

In this strange, copycat world we live in, politicians and activists call for the removal of statues of our Australian founding fathers for the parts they played in the creation of our nation. In his challenging revisionist history of Australia, Taming of the Great South Land, William Lines tells us that if we look up the names of the worthies who’ve had statues, squares, streets and highways, building and bridges, parks and promontories, rivers and even mountains named after them, we will uncover a dark history of which few are aware. Try it sometime; you’ll be surprised.

There has inevitably been much fuss about Captain James Cook, the renowned and courageous navigator who “discovered” the place two hundred and fifty years ago (notwithstanding that the Aborigines, Javanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and French had been here first). His “discovery”, many argue, led to genocide and the dispossession of our First Peoples (Columbus no doubt also gets more than pigeons shitting on him!). And also, there’s Lachlan Macquarie, fifth and last of the autocratic governors of New South Wales, who laid the economic and social foundations of the new colony. He is in the cross-hairs as responsible for initiating the ‘frontier wars‘ and for ordering the massacre of Aborigines. 

The captain, his chopsticks and his lunch. James Cook, Whitby, Yorks

Lachlan Macquarie, Hyde Park,Sydney

Inevitably, right-wing politicians, shock-jocks and  commentators, came out swinging, venting against political correctness and identity politics, defending what they see as an assault on our “Australian values”. When Macquarie got a paint job three years back, for a moment it seemed that our intractable history wars” were on again – the “whitewash” brigade versus the “black arm-band” mob. Statues were vandalized, voices raised and steam emitted as opposing sides took to their hyperbolic barricades. But once the graffiti had been removed from the statues of Cook and Macquarie in Sydney, and The Australian got it off its chest with a week of broadsheet history and a swag of indignant opinion pieces by the usual suspects, things appeared to have calmed down. 

But not for long, perhaps.

All sorts of emotions, hopes and fears lie behind our various creation myths. No matter the source of our different “dream-times” we are all correct in one way or another. People wheel out the wise old “blind men and the elephant” story to illustrate how blinkered we are; but in reality, if those blind men were given more time, they would have expanded their explorations and discovered a bigger picture.

For more on our Aussie worthies, see, for example, from The Guardian, on Australia, Statues are not history, and regarding former Soviet monuments, Poles Apart – the bitter conflict over a nation’s history. Below is a review of Alex von Tunzelmann’s recent book Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History

And, in In That Howling Infinite, read also: The Frontier Wars – Australia’s heart of darkness, and America’s Confederate legacy, Rebel Yell 

Fallen Idols: up they went and down they come

Jim Davidson, Weekend Australian, 17 Sept 2021

A statue of Cecil John Rhodes on the slopes of Devil’s Peak, Cape Town, South Africa.

For as long as there have been statues, says Alex von Tunzelmann in this new book, they have been subject to attack. The Egyptian pharaohs regularly disfigured or smashed images of their predecessors. And so, what we have witnessed over the past few years, for all its urgency, in one sense has been a recurrence.

Von Tunzelmann demonstrates this very well by the way she has shaped her new book, Fallen Idols: it may end with the statue of George Washington being pulled down in Portland, Oregon, but its first focus is the statue of George III pulled down by New Yorkers. This occurred immediately after a public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Attacking statues is as old as the United States itself.

Von Tunzelmann has been fascinated by statues for years. She challenges the notion that statue attacks are aimed at “erasing our past in its entirety” and she is sceptical that a man of his time (for they are nearly always men) can hold, say, racist assumptions, and yet be justified by good works. She says orderly removals are all very well, but the process is protracted and cumbersome: street action is sometimes necessary.

“Statues do not have rights,” she says. “They stand at the pleasure of those who live alongside them.”

The book examines 12 case studies. Each culminates in attack or removal, when statues had functioned as instruments of dominance. The massive Stalin statue that loomed over Budapest – 25 metres high – was partly constructed from melted-down Hungarian ones, and people were enjoined by the Communist Party to go and respectfully converse with it. Friendly little Stalin – and yes, he was in fact quite short, and sensitive about it.

Worse (in some respects) was Rafael Trujillo, who graduated from outright criminality to becoming police chief, supervising an election so that he came to power and stayed there. He employed state terror to rule the Dominican Republic for 31 years, peppering the place with statues and public busts – nearly 2000 of them. Almost certainly a serial rapist, he gloried in what he saw as his virility: a couple of his column-centred monuments were in-your-face phallic. In case people didn’t get the point, at one unveiling his vice-president spoke of Trujillo’s “superior natural gifts”. All these statues came down, with others like them. In India as in Eastern Europe they have been put in special statue parks, where they stand largely neglected. A relatively benign relegation, sometimes leaving behind blank spaces. In one way, the recent attacks are a reversal of the statue-building mania across the Westernised world that accelerated through the 19th century. In 1844, London had 22 statues; by 1910, there were 10 times as many. The attacks are perhaps best seen as part of the reset following through the implications of the collapse of the European colonial empires. Hence the speed with which the Black Lives Matter movement spread: 13 days after George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota, a crowd in Bristol, England pulled down the statue of slave trader Edward Colston and threw it in the harbour.

The book also gives a highly contextualised account of the “Rhodes must Fall” movement. It is shown how deeply – indeed brutally – racist Cecil Rhodes was; how his belief in the superiority of the British race led him to conclude that it had a right to occupy those lands “at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings”.

So the first statue to go, after it had been smeared in excrement, was that at the University of Cape Town. Oxford, where he gazes down at the High Street from the facade of Oriel College, has proved a tougher nut to crack. The college has prevaricated – people threatened to withdraw bequests if it moved to take Rhodes down – so he is still there. But the agitation has led to some improvement in Oxford practice, including the appointment of the first black head of a college.

Toward the end, Von Tunzelmann retreats a little from a generally abolitionist stance when it comes to statues, admitting that she is quite fond of a few. As are the British public, polls show. Certainly, some statues should be statements of what the people who live around them admire, but some are needed to remind us of who we, as people, were, when they went up. There should always be room for that: in the recent frenzy in America, a statue celebrating an antislavery abolitionist was toppled, as was another celebrating women’s rights. For there is a broader problem: the technological imperative has brought with it a flattened sense of the past.

Jim Davidson’s book, Emperors in Lilliput: Clem Christesen of Meanjin and Stephen Murray-Smith of Overland, is to be published by Melbourne University Press next year.

Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History, Alex von Tunzelmann (Headline 2021)

Bad company – how Britain conquered India

In September 1599, as William Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, in Southwark, a mile to the north across the Thames, a group of London merchants, artisans, adventurer and privateers formed history’s first joint-stock, limited-liability company with tradeable shares.

The East India Company developed over two centuries into “a state in the guise of a merchant”, to use English politician Burke’s phrase, with a private army 260,000 strong – twice as large as that of Britain at the time, and the proving ground of many celebrated British officers, the most famous of those being Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and who at the time of his Indian service, was the capable younger brother of the equally capable Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the principality Bengal, the keystone of the British hold on the Indian subcontinent.

At its peak, it had built a third of London’s docklands, its annual expenditure was half that of the British government, and it oversaw a third of the country’s imports and exports. For Britain, the East India Company was a gift that kept on giving. Unwittingly and haphazardly, it established and solidified British power in India and China, seeing off their European colonial competitors – the French and the Dutch, who also coveted a piece of the Indian action – and overseeing the transfer west of massive wealth to the home country. It set the keystone for the British Empire, with India, “The Raj”, the jewel in the crown.

William Dalrymple, author, historian, Indophile and longtime resident of India, has written a page-turner of a book called The Anarchy about the rise and fall of what became known as ‘The Honourable Company’ – yes, that’s what it was called with no hint of irony! It is a harrowing tale of how a small limited stock company managed to build an empire.

When the East India Company was first established, the Britain had about 1% of world GDP compared to 43% per cent for Mughal India. By the time it was wound down over one hundred and fifty years later, it had more or less inverted that. In co-opting, corrupting and conquering the powerful warlords of the fractious Mughal Empire, it effectively established the British Empire and in the process, destroyed India’s sovereignty, economy and society. The word “loot” is of Indian origin – it came to symbolize how the company drained the blood from India’s veins, sucked the marrow from out of Its bones, and sending its wealth back to Britain, many historians argue, substantially financed the nascent industrial revolution.

Sepoys of the East India Company

Granted the right to ‘‘wage war’’ in its royal charter, the Honourable Company was the first multinational corporation to run amok (a Malay word for unrestrained rampage) on a grand scale. Having established itself in eastern India, by 1765 it had control of a production and distribution network for opium that was illegally imported into China, sowing the seeds for the Opium Wars – and a Chinese animus that resonates to this day. It bought Chinese tea, which it sold in Britain and the continent, and established tea plantations in India. It was in fact company tea that ended up in Boston Harbour in 1773 – fear of what the company could do if it was granted access to the New World was one of the causes of the American Revolution.

The company effectively bankrolled the British economy, yet ironically, it was also the Bank of England’s largest creditor. It could also be said to have invented corporate lobbying. Members of the British Parliament were on retainers, and were offered shares in exchange for extending the company’s monopolies: some  two-fifths of British MPs held stock, including most members of the cabinet. Many members were in fact former employees who had repatriated millions of pounds in ill gotten gains from Bengal.  And yet, it overextended itself and its resources and was on the verge of insolvency. The contrast between the bankruptcy of the company and the vast riches of its employees was too stark not to be investigated, and indeed it was. but was deemed “too big to fail”,  and was bailed out by the British government  in 1773.

The Company’s premier enabler and exemplar was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, Robert Clive, or Lord Clive of Plassey, as he was ennobled after a battle that demonstrated the aphorism that one should never enter a gunfight armed with just a knife. But wasn’t that just how the East – and West – was won?

Clive was a humble accountant labouring on the ledgers, but found his calling as a soldier (just like the Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortéz “the killer” – as Neil Young called him), and rose to great heights of power and riches through remarkable grit and graft. When arraigned by parliament for his rapacity – and acquitted – he exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”

If ever you are in London, visit the small, quiet and shady Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, as he became known, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat with a blunt paper-knife. “How are the mighty fallen”. Leonard Cohen’s poet King David said that. “Not often enough!”  I said that.

Eventually, the company – whose lobbying efforts saw its original fifteen year charter last for 274 years – became an embarrassment for the English government and establishment. Its Indian “subjects” rebelled unexpectedly and violently in the Great Rebellion of 1857, and it was only by considerable military effort and repression that the British Army was able to save the company and its Indian ’empire”. In the wake of what the British called The Indian Mutiny, which saw cruel atrocities committed by Indians and Britons alike, tens of thousands of rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers in the company’s employ) were executed in vicious reprisal. As George McDonald Fraser’s antihero says in Flashman in the Great Game, “there’s nothing as cruel as a justified Christian”. Assuming full control, the British government nationalized the company in 1859. Long outliving its purpose it was wound down in 1874. Read more about what the British did for India in Weighing the White Man’s Burden  

Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government with the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. As Dalrymple himself has put it, The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!

Read more about India and The Raj in In That Howling Infinite: Weighing the White Man’s Burden; Freedom at Midnight (1): the birth of India and Pakistan; Freedom at Midnight (2): the legacy of partition ; and Paradise Lost – Kashmir’s bitter legacy

Flashman in the Great Game

The Indian Mutiny – Weighing the White Man’s Burden