Tim Page’s War – a photographer’s Vietnam journey

Photographs of guns and flame
Scarlet skull and distant game
Bayonet and jungle grin
Nightmares dreamed by bleeding men
Lookouts tremble on the shore
But no man can find the war
Tim Buckley 1976 

Marines, Operation Starlite

Tim Page had already been two years “in country” when as an undergraduate I’d participated in the violent melees in front of the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square protesting what Kenny Rodgers would call “that crazy Asian war”. Our undergraduate passions were inflamed by the fear that our government would answer US President Lyndon B Johnson’s call to join him and his forces in Vietnam – our Antipodean kin in Australia and New Zealand has already committed troops, and Johnson was applying the economic screws. But Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson held firm and Britain avoided the débacle that has haunted the US for half a century.

This is the story of a war, and a young man who wandered into that war.

Chaos without a compass

A ship is waiting for us at the dock
America has trouble to be stopped
We must stop Communism in that land
Or freedom will start slipping through our hands.
I hope and pray someday the world will learn
That fires we don’t put out, will bigger burn
We must save freedom now, at any cost
Or someday, our own freedom will be lost.
Johnny Wright, Hello Vietnam

The Twentieth Century’s “Thirty Years War” was waged in South East Asia initially by the colonialist France, and then by neo-imperialist America. France’s war ended in defeat and ignominy for French arms and prestige, and a partition that was but a prelude to America’s Vietnam quagmire.

America’s War has since been defined as chaos without compass. It was inevitable that acclaimed historian Barbara Tuchman would chose it as one of her vignettes in The March of Folly, her celebrated study of débacles through the ages characterised by what would appear to be a single-minded determination amounting to tunnel vision that is akin to stupidity.

As Tuchman saw it, exceptionalism and manifest destiny are historically proven folly. Self-belief in American power and righteousness has historically created delusions of grandeur, obstinate attachment to unserviceable goals, stubbornness, and an inability to learn from past mistakes or even admitting error – a wooden-headedness that often sees the US persisting on erroneous paths that lead to loss of blood, treasure, reputation and moral standing.

Why did the US’ experience of backing the wrong horse in China in the forties not provide an analogy and warning in Vietnam in the fifties? Why did the experience in Vietnam not inform the it with respect to Iran right up to the fall,of the Shah in1978? And why hadn’t it learned anything when it stumbled into Salvador in the eighties? And then, of course, we arrive in the 21st century with no-exit, never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Middle East that end in retreat and betrayal with the ‘freedom-loving’ USA still backing the wrong horses by supporting autocrats and tyrants against their own people.

But, back to Vietnam …

As historian Per Yule noted in The Long Shadow: Australia’s Vietnam Veterans Since The War, the Vietnam War was based on an assortment of unproven assumptions and half truths. It wrongly identified a dictatorship as a democracy a civil war as an international conflict. Our armed forces were sent to fight in support of a corrupt military regime which received solid support only from the catholic minority and the small landowning class. Few willingly fought for the regime.

Many in the US military reckoned that if given a free hand by the administration of President Johnson, they could have prevailed against North Vietnam – by destroying it utterly with overwhelming firepower. But the US had backed the wrong side and no amount of support could make the South Vietnamese fight and die hard enough for their corrupt, incompetent, puppet government. We hear a similar rationale with regard to the the Afghan army’s rapid collapse and the US’ shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan

The US wanted to convince the North Vietnamese that they couldn’t win on the battlefield. The North Vietnamese wanted to convince the American people that the cost in blood and treasure was too high. Both sides continued to believe that they could improve their positions through escalation and both continued to focus on military rather than political means to end the conflict. And so we were left with an almost certainly unwinnable strategy of bombing the enemy to the negotiating table when that enemy shows no willingness to negotiate under duress. The bombing campaign, code name Rolling Thunder, was described by a commentator in Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War as “the dumbest campaign ever designed by a human being”.

The many names for a war lost before it began

All we need is a little determination;
Men, follow me, I’ll lead on.
We’re waist deep in the big muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
Pete Seeger, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

Vietnam has been called the pointless war and the needless war. It was certainly a costly war. The butchers bill was horrendous. No one really knows how many people perished. Civilian deaths range from 1.3 to 4.5 million.of which over 80% were Vietnamese and 7% Cambodian. American soldiers dead numbered 58,220 and wounded,153,303. The number of Vietnamese and Cambodian wounded is inestimable.

As for the American forces, it most certainly “the poor man’s war” – most who were perished or were maimed were not rich folks, and a disproportionate number were black. Amd the more who died, the more were sent to replace them. And like here in Australia, thecdraft caught mainly the poor and unconnected. Even as soldiers started going home, actual or attempted murder by enlisted men of their superiors increased alarmingly.

As to the monetary cost: an estimated $1 trillion in today’s dollars. But that is doubtlessly an understatement – what about the rebuilding, the rehabilitation, the recompense? Vietnam was the most heavily bombed country in history. More than 6.1 million tons of bombs were dropped, compared to 2.1 million tons in WW2. U.S. planes dumped 20 million gallons of herbicides to defoliate VietCong hiding places. It decimated 5 million acres of frostbite and 500,000 acres of farmland.

It has been called “the helicopter war” because choppers were the primary mode of ground combat and transport, and also “the television war – it’s triumphs (few) and tragedies (many) were beamed Into American homes nightly, fuelling the public’s confusion and unease about this Asian war, and eventually, the anger that forced the US government to eventually withdraw over half a million soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors and abandoning South Vietnam’s puppet government, its demoralised and abandoned army, and its unfortunate, battered and bloodied people to the tender mercies of the hardline and heartless ideologues in Hanoi.

Vietnam was also, notoriously, a pharmaceutical war. In its final year’s, as raw and reluctant draftees made up an increasing proportion of the US forces, indiscipline and substance abuse transformed, in the words of one professional soldier, an officer, a fine army into a rotten one. Alcohol, marijuana, acid, coke, heroin, and a cornucopia of pills were freely available on base, on leave in Saigon, and often, in the field, and many soldiers actually made it a business. The press too were sucked into the machinery.

And, it was a promiscuous war. So far away from home and loved ones, like warriors in all wars since time immoral, US solders took comfort and solace where they could find it. Historians, memoirists, veterans of both the French and American wars in Indochina write and talk of the beauty of the Vietnamese women. Economic deprivation and social dislocation create a flesh market supplying lonely, frightened strangers in a strange land.

It was chemical warfare – not the mustard gas of older wars, and the Zyklon B of the Nazi death camps, nor the recent wars in the Middle East, in the first Gulf War, between Iraq and Iran, and in Syria – but the broad-acre use of chemical defoliants designed to deny the enemy of jungle and forest concealment that left behind a bitter harvest, a legacy of disease, deformity and death that ricochets to this day.

And, in the United States, it was a war that divided a nation. The protest movement emerged during 1965. It grew and grew, and by the Moratorium of October 1969, it became the largest outpouring of public dissent in American history. The moratorium movement was massive and unprecedented – and peaceful. Nationwide, hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across the US were marching. The children of politicians and officials and soldiers were also marching. They were marching not about winning or losing the war but demanding an end to the war.

It was a journalists war too, and the photographers’ War. The military had a relaxed and tolerant attitude towards the press that would seem profligate and foolhardy in today’s tightly managed and manipulated combat media. Journalists and photographers would be permitted and indeed invited along on patrols and sweeps, carrier landings, on helicopter “dust offs” (a euphemism for evacuating the wounded and the dead), and the controversial “search and destroy” operations that destroyed so many fields, villages and lives. Needless to say, the coopted fourth estate were often in harm’s way. They were taught how to use weapons and often actually did use them in self defence and, sometimes in anger. And like the officers and men with whom they worked, many were wounded and slain. More than two hundred would die covering the fighting in South East Asia.

And English photojournalist Tim Page, who ran away from boring ‘sixties Britain to the exotic East at the age of seventeen, taking the ‘overland’ route that decades later would be called ‘the Hippie Trail’, washed up in the war of our generation, and left it critically injured and indeed clinically dead in a medivac chopper.

Tim in a tight spot

Cameras and Comrades

There is no decent place to stand in a massacre
But if some women takes you’re hand
You go and stand with her.
I left a wife in Tennessee and a baby in Saigon
I risked my life but not to hear
A country-western song
Leonard Cohen, The Captain

Tim Page literally and figuratively ambled into the last of the “great” wars of the Twentieth Century; and reading Tim’s autobiography, you wonder whether this peregrinating, ever-restless bloke had more lives than a cat!

Page ran off to join the circus. Leaving England in 1962,was was to be twenty years until he saw his folks again. A restless soul, he split for Europe with his girl friend, and when she baled, headed ever-eastwards, an early pioneer of that famed trail in a succession of secondhand vehicles and a caravan of colourful comrades. The further east he wandered, the more drugs he savoured, sampling the local toke through Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and Burma. Many a time, he was flat broke and broken down, and laid low with a variety of exotic, intimate and excruciating ailments. But we needn’t go there.

Though photography was a teenage hobby, he drifted into the profession almost by accident, and virtually ambled into the Vietnam War, the Great War of our generation, almost by accident: – a road -trip to Vientiane, the sleepy capital of the Kingdom of Laos to renew his expired Thai visa saw him hanging out there just as the the US’ fateful foray into Indochina was escalating into the quagmire that it was to become.

For Tim, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. “Hot and cold running …” he says, using the vernacular of those days … booze, drugs, girls, he meant – battle injuries and diseases – and action, lots of it, in the air in helicopters and on occasion, fighter bombers, on the land in jeeps, armoured vehicles, and motor bikes, on the rivers in patrol boats, and on foot.

The lure of sex, drugs, and excitement – and paid work for a major news agency saw him wash up in Saigon and the celebrated, inebriated Frankie’s House, a kind of home-away-from home and party house for transiting bao chi – ‘round-eye’ newsmen – a decadent, dissolute, de facto foreign correspondents club. From here, they would fan out though war-wracked South Vietnam under the often dodgy and dangerous protection of Uncle Sam.

Like the soldiers they accompanied, many came back in body bags or on stretchers. Many just disappeared @and it has been Tim’s mission in life to trace these lost souls. They include his best buddy Sean Flynn, the son of famous actor and pants man Errol Flynn.

Tim’s number almost came up in a blood-soaked friendly fire debacle on a navy river boat. Patched up and R&R in the US, he photographed the burgeoning antiwar demonstrations wracking the nation and ‘fesses up in his chronicle that he didn’t quite get the rage of the protesters – to Tim and his Saigon peers, the war might’ve been hell, but it was also a helluva buzz, and he was itching to return to the maelstrom.  

But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helicopter crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.

Post-op and recuperating in the US, Tim took himself off to Woodstock, New York State. where it was being said that there was going be a cool scene – which indeed there was, as we all remember:  the famous music festival held over three days in August 1969 on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York (65 km) southwest of the town of Woodstock. But Tim never got to hear any of the great music – complications from his injuries meant that he had to be medivacced out of Woodstock, probably on the same chopper that had just brought in the legendary Crosby, Stills and Nash.

And today he is still alive and kicking, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures, revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his bao chi who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the forest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
Jim Morrison 1967

A Vietnamese woman grieves for her dead husband

Author’s note

Internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page has been the subject of many documentaries, two films and the author of ten books, including his latest opus Nam Contact. He has been recognized as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Photographers of All Time’ and is the recipient of many awards. After a career spanning sixty years, world renowned photographer Tim Page has settled quietly into the Bellingen Shire, where he and his wife Marianne live what Tim describes as “a peaceful life. The choice of the word Peaceful’ is pertinent considering that his photographic assignments during the of the Laos Civil War, the Vietnam War and the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967 brought him directly into the firing line. He still carries the injuries to prove it.

This piece was originally conceived as a forward for an autobiography of Tim, now a friend and near neighbour on the edge of Bellingen’s Tarkeeth Forest. It was but a fallback option – I’d suggested to Tim and his Marianne that the book would be better served with a forward by either Paul Ham or Peter Fitzsimmons, Australian historians who have written about the Vietnam War.  It eventuated that the book was not published – but the story grew with the telling, informed by a re-watching of Ken Burns’ excellent documentary The Vietnam War and historian Max Hasting’s masterful tombstone of a book Vietnam., an epic tragedy 1945-1975  

The photographs featured in the post are but a few from Tim’s large archive. They are used with his kind permission ©Tim Page. These and many more can be viewed on his website timpage.com.au and in Nam Contact .

Also in In That Howling Infinite: The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy ; and Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited

Nam Contact: Symphonic coda to Tim Page’s Vietnam

 

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.

The Ballad of Denton Crocker – a Vietnam elegy

One of the most poignant stories in Ken Burns’ powerful documentary The Vietnam War is that of a young man called Denton Winslow Crocker Junior, born June 3rd 1947, class of ‘65.

The story opens with Bob Dylan singing With God on Our Side …”Oh my name it ain’t nothin’, my age it means less; country I come from is called the Midwest”.

Denton’s family nickname is “Mogie”. “He’s a right little mogul, the way he rules our lives”, says dad of his infant son. Young Denton loves history, is proud of America and its heroes, and hates “Reds”.

It is 1964 and Mogie is restless. He wants to do his bit. So he runs away from home for four months returning only when until his folks consent to him joining up before he turned 18.

He enlists in March 1965.

Eager for combat, he wants to be a paratrooper and is delighted when he is able to join the celebrated 101 Airborne, the famous “screaming eagles” who had led the way on D Day back in another war. 

Posted to a support unit, he is disappointed, writing home that he “felt no sense of accomplishment whilst one’s friends are facing all the dangers”.

He finally gets reassigned to a combat unit at Qan Duc on the Cambodian border.

May 11 1966. Paul Simon sings The Sound  of Silence.

Denton’s buddy is mortally wounded beside him. He carries his dying friend from the battlefield, earning an Army Commendation Medal.

He’s in the field and at the sharp end, hoping he’ll be taken off the line. He writes home: “I was religious for a while, sending out various and sundry prayers mainly concerned with staying alive. But I am once again an atheist – until the shooting starts”.

Hopes of withdrawal are an idle dream.

It is his 19th birthday, June 3rd 1966, nighttime, “in country”, on the Cambodian border, and yet another operation.

His unit is ordered to climb to the crest of a hill overlooking a besieged ARVN (South Vietnam Army) outpost to organise artillery support for the morning’s offensive.

Mogie is the point man. Out of the darkness, a Vietcong machine gun opens up.

Denton Crocker Junior never made it to the top the hill.

Back home, officers come to the door. His mother recalls: “it was just lovely day to be out in our garden”, in Saratoga Springs, New Jersey.

Bob Dylan sings “One to many mornings and a thousand miles behind”.

“Our children are really only on loan to us”, says his mother, who by the end of 1965 was already having doubts about what America was doing in Vietnam – she was well aware of the politics and the protests in South Vietnam and in the US.

But she never let on, least of all to Mogie.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning. we will remember them.


Authors Note:

This piece was collated from Ken Burn’s chronological account of the Vietnam War and retold as one narrative.

The photograph heading this post is by internationally acclaimed photographer Tim Page who spent three years “in country” in Vietnam from 1965.  But his intoxicating and intoxicated Nam days came to an explosive end in a dry paddy field when he and his helo crew landed to help an injured GI and walked into a minefield. Dead on arrival and resuscitated three times, he was medivacced stateside minus part of his skull and with injuries that hamper him still half a century later. Photographs of that almost fatal encounter turned up out of the blue just a few years ago.  Hes come through, despite multiple surgeries, PTSD, and suicidal impulses, and is still shooting pictures , revisiting Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and hanging with those of his ‘bia chi’ who have also survived the journey. He’s now a neighbour of ours, over the hill, across the Torest, four thousand miles and a lifetime away from his Asian war.

For more in In That Howling Infinite with regard to the ‘sixties:

Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold ; Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Encounters with EnochRecalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for Lehrer; Shock of the Old – the glory days of prog rock; Window on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club.  

Sawt al Hurriya – remembering the Arab Spring

Ten years ago, people across the Middle East and North Africa rose up in protest against their corrupt, autocratic and repressive rulers, demanding freedom and democracy. Tyrants were toppled or feared that power was being torn from their grasp as millions of demonstrators surged through the streets, chanting that “the people demand the fall of the regime”.  

Myth and memory often embellish the stories and the glories of oppressed people rising up against the power, but when we recall these oft-times forlorn hopes, from Spartacus to the Arab Spring, it is difficult to imagine ourselves, in our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of heroic failure.  We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

As Patrick Cockburn writes in a gloomy opinion piece in The Independent,

“There was nothing phoney about this mass yearning for liberty and social justice. Vast numbers of disenfranchised people briefly believed that they could overthrow dictatorships, both republican and monarchical. But …the dream of a better tomorrow expressed by herself and millions during the Arab Spring in 2011 was to be brutally dispelled as the old regimes counter-attacked. Crueler and more repressive than ever, they reasserted themselves, or where they had fallen, they were replaced by chaotic violence and foreign military intervention.

… none of the kleptocratic powers-that-be intended to give up without a fight. They soon recovered their nerve and struck back with unrestrained violence. … across the Middle East and North Africa, rulers used mass imprisonment, routine torture and summary executions to crush dissent. Repression not only affected places where the Arab Spring had been at its peak, but spread throughout the region, which is home to 600 million people, as frightened rulers sought to stamp out the slightest hint of dissent in case it could become a threat to their regimes …

… Could could the Arab Spring have ever succeeded against such odds? The question is highly relevant today because oppression by regimes, aptly described as “looting machines” on behalf of a tiny elite, is no less than it was in 2011. Even more people now live crammed into houses with raw sewage running down the middle of the street outside while their rulers loll on yachts anchored offshore.”

We published the following piece just over a year ago. Little has changed since them – if anything, with the world distracted by the pandemic and the US and its allies – and also  adversaries, indifferent if not complicit, the situation has gotten much worse. 

In Egypt, the grip of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi has tightened. Civil wars rage still in Yemen and Libya exacerbated by outside interference (see Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East). Syria’s misery continues with the regime almost but not quite on the verge of victory, and the Kurds betrayed by the Trump administration and defeated by Turkish forces and their Syrian mercenaries. Lebanon, which avoided the fate of other Arab countries a decade ago, although enduring the influx of millions of Syrian refugees, in the wake of a winter of protests, economic meltdown and political paralysis, and the explosive destruction of Beirut’s port and environs, is on the edge of an abyss (see our Lebanon’s WhatsApp Intifada).

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

Sawt al Hurriya – Egypt’s slow-burning fuse

In That Howling Infinite, 9th October 2019

Déjà vu

Last month saw the death in exile of former Tunisian strongman, dictator and kleptocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, and the resurgence on 20th September of Friday street protests in Cairo and smaller Egyptian towns – and around the world – against the corruption and oppression of Egyptian strongman Abd al Fattah al Sisi and his military cronies. Predictably, some three thousand people have been arrested – protesters, prominent activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians, including Islamist and leftists alike and dissenters in general. These have now been added to the tens of thousands that have already been incarcerated on conspiracy and terrorism charges, largely without trial.

it appears to be an indiscriminate backlash, The Independent’s Bel True writes: “… according to rights groups and people I’ve interviewed, among those haphazardly rounded up are children who were out buying school uniform, tourists holidaying in Cairo, human rights lawyers going to court to represent clients, confused bystanders, young men popping out for evening strolls, visiting foreign students and street vendors. All are now swallowed up in Egypt’s notoriously opaque justice system”.

The protests have for the moment been contained, but with a third of Egypt’s population below the poverty line (and that’s a government figure – it’s very likely much higher), about one-third of the total under age 14 and sixty percent under 30, one can’t help feeling a hint of déjà vu. It is hard to keep one hundred million people down with just a strong arm up your sleeve.

Meeting with al Sisi in New York, US President Donald Trump praised him for restoring order to Egypt. At this year’s G7 summit in Biarritz, Trump had referred to the Egyptian president  as his “favourite dictator”, a comment that was met with stunned silence from American and Egyptian officials. Boris Johnson has likewise found a friend in Al Sisi. Tru quotes a British-Egyptian filmmaker: “There is a misconception that Sisi is a partner in stability which allows governments, particularly in Europe, to turn a blind eye to his behaviour: as long he keeps buying weapons and submarines and power stations”.

The Voice of Freedom

In our relatively comfortable, free and democratic countries, it is difficult to put ourselves in the position of people desperate and passionate enough to risk life and limb and to face the terrible consequences of potentially heroic failure. We can but sense, vicariously, the ache and the urge behind Lord Byron’s passionate couplet:

Yet, Freedom! thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind.

The courage of the of the Egyptian protesters – for brave they are indeed For having experienced six years of brutal and vengeful military regime, they are fully aware of the consequences of their actions – reminded me of an exhilarating song and video created by a young Egyptian and his friends, celebrating the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of practically president-for-life Hosni Mubarak eight years ago last February. Sawt Al Huriya (The Voice of Freedom)), went viral on YouTube after its release on 11 February 2011, the day before Mubarak’s departure.

Bur first, let us revisit those heady days and the doleful years that followed.

Remembering Tahrir Square

The self-immolation in December 20111 of young Tunisian Muhammed Bouazizi was the catalyst for the pent-up popular outrage that led to the heady days of January and February 2011, with the green of the Arab Spring fresh sprung from the soil of the economic and political bankruptcy of the Arab Middle East.

The fall of longtime dictators Zine el Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, was precipitated by the yearning of their oppressed and impoverished people, and particularly the young, for freedom, justice, dignity and employment, and an end to endemic corruption, nepotism and brutality; for a society in which there were jobs and a decent living, where you could save up enough money to get married, where you didn’t have to bribe corrupt officials for everything from traffic fines to court decisions to business permits to jobs, where you could be arbitrarily arrested and/or beaten up or worse for speaking out against the government, the system, or just…speaking out.

Egypt had only known a handful of military rulers until Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, following weeks of protests centred around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

When elections were held a year later, Mohammed Morsi, standing for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, emerged as president. After decades of repression of the Muslim Brotherhood under Egypt’s military rulers, Morsi promised a moderate agenda that would deliver an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”.

A year later, he was gone, replaced by Abd al Fatah al Sisi, his own defense minister, who threw him in jail and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, putting hundreds of its members in front of courts that sentenced them to death in mass trials. 

His year in office was turbulent, however, as Egypt’s competing forces struggled over the direction the country should go in. Opponents had accused him of trying to impose an Islamist agenda on the country and mass protests began on the anniversary of his election. After more than a week of spreading protests and violence and talks with Sisi in which Morsi reportedly was prepared to make concessions to the opposition, the army announced it had removed Morsi and taken control on 3rd July 2013.

Morsi’s supporters had gathered in Cairo’s Rabaa Square before he was toppled, and there they remained, demanding he be reinstated. On 13th August, the army moved in, clearing the square by force. More than a thousand people are believed to have been killed in the worst massacre of peaceful demonstrators since China’s Tienanmen Square in 1999.

Whereas Hosni Mubarak died in pampered confinement, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president, was held in solitary confinement for six years, and died in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power. See: Nowhere Man – the lonesome death of Mohamed Morsi 

Morsi’s fall led to a military regime more brutal and corrupt than any that preceded it, and with full support from the US and it’s European allies, and of the Egyptian elites, has consolidated the rise and rise of the new pharoah. Al Sisi and other US supporterd and armed Arab autocrats have transformed an already volatile Middle East into a powder keg. 

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s only elected president died  in June 2019 after collapsing in a courtroom, the place where his face has been seen most often, behind metal bars, since he was removed from power in 2013

The Arab Spring failed because its youthful vanguard were not prepared for the next stage. In reality, it only occurred in Tunisia and in Egypt. Like the Occupy movement in the west, it lacked coherent leadership and purpose, and in the end, unity against the forces of the establishment that were mobilized against them. But the young, inexperienced idealists were no match for the experienced activists of the Muslim brotherhood, the apparatchiks of the established political parties, and the cadres of the mukhabarat, the military, and the “deep state” that were able to hijack and subvert the revolution.

The Arab Spring was effectively over once the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators had departed and the counterrevolution had already begun – in Egypt particularly with the electoral success and later putsch of the Ikhwan, and finally the “tamarrud” or “rising” of the fearful and conservative middle classes that ushered in military rule.

 The great unravelling

The Tunisian and Egyptian risings were followed rapidly by the outbreak of insurrections in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. These were more sectarian and tribal based, with less reliance on social media, and while media chose to consider them as part of the Arab Spring, in reality, they were not.

This was transformed into a long, hard and bloody winter., and eight years on, the wars of the Arab Dissolution have dragged the world into its vortex. Great Power politics and proxy wars are taxing intellectual and actual imaginations.

And they led to the virtual destruction and disintegration of these countries, the ongoing dismantling of Iraq, and an expanding arc of violence, bloodshed and repression from Morocco to Pakistan, extending southwards across Africa into Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and the Sudans, and their unfortunate neighbours.

Tunisia alone has held on to some of the gains of its “Spring”, but there it is often a case of two steps forward one step back. Nevertheless, the country is holding ostensibly free and fair elections as I write. Elsewhere, the misnamed Arab Spring entered into a cycle of protest and repression little different from earlier unrest, and also, as in the past, foreign intervention. And the story has still a long way to run…

Civil war and economic desperation propelled millions of refugees across the Mediterranean and the Aegean into Europe, threatening the unity and stability of the European Union. Islamic fundamentalism filled the vacuum created by crumbling dictatorships and vanishing borders, unleashing atavistic, uncompromising and vicious Jihadis against their own people and coreligionists, and onto the streets of cities as far apart as Paris, Istanbul, Beirut, Djakarta, and Mogadishu. In Syria particularly, but also in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, outsiders intervened to further complicate the chaos, rendering an early end to these wars a forlorn hope.

All is, as Kent lamented in King Lear, “cheerless, dark and deadly”.

See also in In That Howling Infinite, A Middle East Miscellany

 The voice of freedom

Against this a back-drop of the revolution despoiled, hijacked, and betrayed, I share the song created by Seed Mostafa Fahmy and his friends and the video they shot in Tahrir Square during the demonstrations. “In every street in my country, the voice of Freedom is calling!”

Sawt al Hurriya

I  went (to go protest), vowing not to turn back.
I wrote, in my blood, on every street.
We raised our voices, until those who had not heard us could.
We broke down all barriers.

Our weapon was our dreams.
And we could see tomorrow clearly.
We have been waiting for so long.
Searching, and never finding our place.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

We raised our heads high into the sky.
And hunger no longer mattered to us.
Most important are our rights,
And that with our blood we write our history.

If you are one of us,
Stop your chattering,
Stop telling us to leave and abandon our dream.
Stop saying the word, “I”.

In every street in my country,
The voice of freedom is calling.

Brown Egyptian hands
Are outstretched amidst the roars (of the crowd)
Breaking barriers.

Our innovative youth
Have turned autumn into spring.

They have achieved the miraculous.
They have resurrected the dead,
Saying: “Kill me,
But my death will not resurrect YOUR country.
I am writing, with my blood,
A new life for my nation.
Is this my blood, or is it spring?
In color, they are both green.”

I do not know whether I smile from happiness,
Or from my sadnesses.
In every street in my country,

The voice of freedom is calling.

(Translated by Egyptian Seed Mariam Bazeed.)

Sout al-Hurriya
صوت الحرية

Nezelt We qolt ana mesh rage3
نزلت وقلت انا مش راجع
I went out and said I would not return

we katabt bedamy fe kol share3
وكتبت بدمي في كل شارع
And I wrote on each street with my blood

Sama3na elli makansh same3
سمعنا اللي ما كمش سامع
We heard what was not heard

we etkasaret kol el mawane3
واتكسرت كل الموانع
And all the barriers were broken

sela7na kan a7lamna
سلحنا كان احلامنا
Our weapon was our dreams

we bokra wade7 odamna
وبكره واضح قدمنا
And tomorrow was clear ahead of us

men zaman benestana
من زمان بنستني
We’ve been waiting a long time

bendawar mesh la2een makkanna
بندور مش لاقيين مكانا
Seeking but not finding our place

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

sout el houriya beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the voice of freedom is calling
……………….
rafa3na rasna fe elsama
رفعنا رسنا في السما
We lifted our heads high (in the sky)

we elgo3 maba2ash beyhemna
والجوع مبقاش بيهمنا
And hunger no longer bothered us

aham 7aga 7a2ena
اهم حاجه حقنا
What’s most important are our rights

wenekteb tarekhna be damena
ونكتب تاريخنا بدمنا
And to write our history with our blood

law kont wa7ed mnena
لو كنت واحد مننا
If you were really one of us

balash terghi we t2ol lena
بلاش ترغي وتقولنا
don’t blather and telling us

nemshy we neseeb &elmna
نمشي ونسيب حلمنا
To leave and abandon our dream

we batal te2ol kelmt ana
وبطل تقول كلمه انا
And stop saying the word “I”

fe kol share3 fe beladi
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country

Sout El-7ouria beynadi
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
……………..
spoken poetry at 2:14:
ايادي مصريه سمره
Dark Egyptian arms
ليها في التمييز
knows how to characterize (against discrimination)
ممدوده وسط الذئير
reached out through the roar
بتكسر البراويز
breaking the frams
طلع الشباب البديع
the creative youth came out
قلبوا خريفها ربيع
turned it’s fall into spring
وحققوا المعجزه
and achieved the miracle
صحوا القتيل من القتل
awakinging the murdered from death
اقتلني , اقتلني
kill me , kill me
قتلي ما هايقيم دولتك تاني
killing me is not going to build up you regime again
بكتب بدمي حياه تانيه لوطاني
I am writing with my blood another life for my country
دمي ده ولا الربيع
is this my blood or the spring
اللي اتنين بلون اخضر
both seem green
وببتسم من سعادتي ولا أحزاني
am i smiling from my happiness or my sadness
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling
في كل شارع في بلادي
In every street of my country
صوت الحريه بينادي
the sound of freedom is calling

Tangled 2 – Libya’s bloody circus rolls on

UN-sponsored talks have produced a new interim government for Libya aimed at resolving a decade of chaos, division and violence by holding national elections later this year. But with myriad factions loathe to surrender influence they already hold, and with foreign powers invested in local allies, the new government may rapidly come under pressure. The appointment of a new government may also do little to change the balance of military power on the ground, where armed groups rule the streets and factions remain split between east and west along a fortified front-line.  

Some Libyans have been critical of a process which they view as being managed from abroad and which they fear will allow existing power-brokers to cling to their influence. “It’s just a painkiller to portray Libya as stable for a while. But war and tension will certainly come back sooner or later so long as militias have power,” said Abdulatif al-Zorgani, a 45-year-old state employee in Tripoli.

“Déjà vu all over again”

A year ago, In That Howling Infinite published Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East Back then, Libya held poll position for its multitude of active players and, to use that Shakespearean script note, “voices off”. A year on, borrowing again from the Bard, there are continuing “alarums and excursions”. 

Libya has long been a jigsaw puzzle of competing interests –  tribal versus urban, Islamist versus secularist, revolutionary versus old-regime, localist and regional players, Middle Eastern and European – all prepared to tear the country apart for in pursuit of their own political and economic interests – which include, as is often the case, oil and gas. Their contortions get more and more torturous. 

It was reported year last year that that more than 1400 Russian mercenaries had been were deployed in 2019 by the Wagner company, a Russian military outfit headed by a confidant of Russian President Vladimir Putin, had deployed in Libya to assist warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army in its push against Libya ostensibly internationally recognized government. It was joining troops hired by Haftar’s backers, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, and included mercenaries from Sudan’s brutal Jamjaweed militia – aided and abetted by several EU members and French, Italian and sundry other arms suppliers. 

Wagner’s sell-swords included a good number of Syrians – sundry rebels and jihadis left high, dry and unemployed by the Syrian regime’s ongoing ‘reconquista’ – which is, as we know, bolstered by the Russian military – including Wagner’s fighting men, who include in their number many Muslim Chechens from Russia’s subservient neighbour. 

When Haftar’s offensive stalled outside Tripoli, Libya’s capitol, last June, it was reported that more than a thousand of the Russian and Syrian mercenaries had been  pulled back from the front lines and taken planes to who knows where. This “retreat” was precipitated by a Turkish military intervention that has helped block an assault on the capital. 

The Turkish contingent is comprised of numerous specialists and advisers, artillery and aircraft, and a contingent of, surprise surprise, hirelings drawn from the same battered battlefields of northern Syria. Those same jihadis and rebels in Wagner’s pay. 

Many Syrians sell their services because it is the only way they can feed their families in the war-battered economy of the regime’s Syria, and the besieged enclaves of the disparate rebel forces. It reported that these mercenaries, zealous and reluctant alike, have also been deployed in the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh during the recent brief but bloody war between Russian-backed Armenia and Turkish-supported Azerbaijan. Recruits on both sides in both conflicts are reportedly complaining that they are not being paid what they were promised nor on time. 

Haftar spend time late last year in Egypt conferring with his patron and mentor, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over possible next moves. There is speculation now that whilst Haftar’s backers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with his martial abilities, they are reluctant to relinquish their influence in this politically and economically strategically area leaving the field to an ambitious Erdogan. They may, indeed, be surreptitiously looking around for a new dance-partner. 

As COVID-19 infections continued to rise, and as Turkey and Russia vied for influence in this strategically important corner of the Mediterranean, there were incoherent mumblings that the that the USA might be about to throw its MAGA cap into the crowded ring, This did not however eventuate, and there are indications that the new administration may be reluctant to involve itself in torturous proxy wars involving disreputable Arab and other despots. 

Nevertheless, Libya’s nightmare continues. As American baseball wizz Yogi Berra once said, “It feels like déjà vu all over again”.

In That Howling Infinite, see also; Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East and A Middle East Miscellany

Here is a good  analysis of this unwinnable civil war:  The citizens of Libya are suffering – All sides have to take the blame for this bloody stalemate

© Paul Hemphill 2021.  All rights reserved