THE BLOG

The Light Garden of the Angel King

03/11/2014 16:31 GMT | Updated 03/01/2015 10:59 GMT

In Kabul, there were bullets in the squash court, three in the bedroom, three near my bed, three in our bathroom, one missing the minister by six inches. The gardener has continued to drive his two donkeys about our garden with complete unconcern, but the day has come when only one donkey is left.

This was Lady Humphrey writing at the end of 1928 as Habibullah Kalakani, or Bacha Saqao, with the help of Afghan tribes who opposed modernisation in Afghanistan, drove down on Kabul to depose the king, Amanullah Khan. Nine months later Kalakani was removed by the pro-British Mohammed Nadir Khan. The building programme at the British embassy, from where Lady Humphrey was writing, began again. Mangoes were being flown in from Bombay - how excessive was that? Aghanistan exported fruit to India. In 1959 there was in the country, on the order of the king, a formal lifting of the veil for women in Afghanistan. In the 1960s women were given the vote.

John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor recently said in summing up at the withdrawal of Nato troops, that he had visited Afghanistan since the early 1980s and the Soviet occupation, and that he thought there were finally reasons for hope for the country.

Perhaps the most effective change for Afghanistan - or Kabul at least - has been the arrival of the world wide web and mobile phones. There are a reported 17 million mobile phones in Afghanistan, for a population of 30m. There is facebook and twitter enthusiastically used by politicians, warlords, and the Taliban as well as by civil society.

Outside of this between 2001-1014, for the third decade since 1979, Afghanistan again went through the mill of foreign invasion.

The amount of money, so little of which benefitted the Afghan people, spent by the US was recently relayed by Rory Stewart in a review of Anand Gopal's No Good Men Among the Living for the New York Review of Books at $1 trillion; the 13 year spending on the war by the UK around £19bn. [There are other figures: Christina Lamb in an article for the Sunday Times in April this year quoted $1trillion and in the same article $1.6 trillion; William Dalrymple in the Daily Mail in 2010, before the surge, a more modest US $80bn.] The most shocking, haunting report I saw through the whole war was on UK's Channel 4 News in July 2012: keeping the Nato supply lines going fell to Afghan drivers desperate to feed their families and so desperate enough to make the journey in trucks week in week out from Kabul to Helmand, high on opiates, to be constantly blown off the road by the Taliban.

Meanwhile, for the public in the UK and US it still remains unclear why we were in Afghanistan: so too for the media who covered it, and many politicians. Once in 2008 the Mail on Sunday, in the family magazine that accompanies it, I thought I found the answer. It was the military wives talking. One said "he [my husband] says we're in Afghanistan to protect the subcontinent". Not so far-fetched, perhaps, if you see it as a pattern of proxy wars, that the US was infact at war with Saudi Arabia, it's oil-producer, but discreetly, off the beaten track, in Afghanistan.

As with Iraq, the US never considered the obvious: go in, drive the Taliban regime from Kabul and go. How much more effective it might have been if the invasion-liberation of late 2001 had been followed by a pull-out in 2004 when Afghanistan had a stable currency, millions more children in school, a better health system, elected parliament, no Al Qaeda and almost no Taliban.

Most significantly the business of war became a huge strategic trap. The Taliban initially melted away in Afghanistan on the arrival of the US and the Nato coalition because there was an agenda to create a cash-cow: vast amounts of money paid by Washington to the Pakistan military to guarantee supply routes to fight a Taliban funded by Gulf money, and mostly directed from Rawalpindi GHQ. From 1979 by backing a mujahideen response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Washington had created the Frankenstein they were now fighting, post 9/11 when suicide pilots of Saudi nationality flew into the World Trade Centre.

Between the two lay the great US mistake: after the Taliban (backed by the Pakistan military) took Kabul in 1992 - Amnesty estimated that the cost was 25,000 civilian lives - the Clinton administration turned a blind eye, their position that the Taliban were alright to fill this gap because they were (Sunni) Pushtun, and hostile to (Shia) Iran. The Nineties in Afghanistan were a time of the rise of the powerful war lords, always on the look-out for foreign sponsors and unable to function without their funding.

In three decades the most steady policy always came from Pakistan's military, who had vested interests in Afghanistan. "The West think they can use the fundamentalists as cannon fodder - they were all right to win the war but not to run the future Afghanistan. Well, we will not allow that," said Hamid Gul, the ISI chief in 1988. The vast financial support that Washington granted to the Rawalpindi military equally had the effect of crippling democracy in Pakistan in the 1990.

Meanwhile, John Simpson's summing up is valid for three decades only. The academic N A Khalidi estimated that under the Soviet occupation 1978-1987 876,825 civilians (60 Afghans for each Soviet soldier) died [Afghanistan: demographic consequences of war, 1978-87]; in a BBC interview in October 2013 President Karzai said that there had been 14-19,000 civilian deaths under Nato. The Nato presence in Afghanistan historically looks more benign.

The greater reality might be that Afghanistan has never been at rest, there have been no golden periods for the area the nineteenth century British prime minister Gladstone described as 'an earthen pipkin between two iron pots' (superpowers, at this time Russia and the British, now on the Sunni-Shia axis the regimes in the Gulf states and Iran, Russia, China). Through the centuries violence has ebbed and flowed around Afghanistan: since the nineteenth century into it; most characteristically in previous centuries, out of it.

At the end of the 1960s, a classicist and poet from Oxford university, Peter Levy, took a long holiday in Afghanistan with his friend Bruce Chatwin, and intermitently, Chatwin's wife Elizabeth. This was an Afghanistan of just 1553 miles of paved road and 10,750 miles of track. His mellifluously titled book The Light Garden of the Angel King takes its name from the inscription on Babur's tomb in Shah Jahan's mosque in Kabul "This mosque of beauty, this highway of archangels, the light garden of the angel king."

Babur, a man of Transoxiana like his fourteenth century war-bent ancestor Timur, was someone else who violently entered Afghanistan and didn't belong. He had been expelled from his Ferghana homelands in present day Uzbekistan, and conquered and adopted Afghanistan. Then began the incursions into India, the foundation of the Moghul dynasty.

Levy's book isn't always smooth or circumspect - his academic interest with classical Greece means that "my own opinion is that Kabul was Ortospana, a lost city which we know from Strabo was a crossroads somewhere in this area .... the case for a Greek Kabul is compelling" and "Ghazni may have been and probably was a Greek city; perhaps it was the Gazaka or Gauzaka listed by Ptolemy among the citires and villages of Paropamisadai".

But he is good on historical geo-politics: "What is now Afghanistan is a network of passes between China and Central Asia, India and the west, so that the conflict and the intermingling of cultures here was bound to be extraordinary."

"On the plain south of Ghazni, Mahmoud, who became king in 997, mustered his elephants and armies for seventeen annual raids into India."

"The colossal wealth of the ancient indigo trade passed through Ghazni and Kabul."

On landscape: "The sky above old Kandahar was lime-yellow; the sun disappeared with a hiss, like a red-hot iron into water"; "sometimes I saw moving groves of camels and butter-yellow crops. Ghazni was wrapped in the deep dreams of provincial peace".

On Kabul at the end of the 60s "the old quarter consists of late 19th century merchants houses in terrible condition ... to penetrate this area you cross toxic runnels of every kind of filth and stagnant waterpools of an astonishing bright colour like polished stone. The flies swarm everywhere, particularly in the foodshops and on children's faces .... it is sad to say, but in Kabul there was no obvious basis for the future, except perhaps among the students, whom we hardly saw because the university had been on strike for several months."

On Kandahar ("ferociously hot") " the centre of the drug trade... a big industry... in liquid form hashish looks and smells worse than methylated spirits. Every kind of smuggling device was for sale: hash belts, hash-heeled shoes, strings of hash beads".

Afghanistan remains a country of tombs of foreigners, exquisite ones of smoky grey marble and unmarked ones and narrow slate ones beneath the snow lines of the central mountainous belt. Occasionally there is a reminder of happier lives, easier times. It doesn't appear in Levy's book but in the foreigners' cemetery in Kabul, a casualty of the hippy trail, a man named William Joseph Jahrmakt, 36, was buried in 1972 under a gravestone which says: "Billy Batman loves Joan, Jade, Hassan, Caldoannia and Digger."

For countries to prosper they need to be able to trade something more than their geo-strategic position. China is extracting copper at Mes Aynak, opium is grown again in Helmand. Neither of these look good for a country that might value prosperity for all its citizens.

Amongst the young and educated there is an internet generation, linked into global dreams, at last. It would be strange if the thing that really shifted Afghanistan from centuries of violent, expensive and crippling war, was the free world wide web.