My book review in the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age:
August in Kabul
Matthieu Aikins is a journalist who has spent extended periods in Afghanistan, including stints with The New York Times. Early this year, he told The Columbia Journalism Review that his whole profession had often failed when reporting on the conflict and were surprised when the Taliban resumed control of the country in August 2021.
“Even though I always tried to be sceptical of the US and Afghan governments and power in general,” he said, “I realised as a result of what happened last summer [the collapse of the US-backed government] the depths of this ‘bubble world’ that we had all been part of.
“As Western journalists in Afghanistan,” he went on, “we always had this funny duality. On the one hand, we were ‘objective journalists’, right? Which is a very Western conceit that involves travelling to ‘someone else’s war’ and observing it from above. On the other hand, we were materially and socially grounded in – and ideologically linked to – one side of the war.”
It’s a powerful rebuke to journalists in a time of war, too often uncritically embedded with the Western agenda, and highlights how rare it is for any reporter to understand truly the nature of a messy and brutal war.
When US journalist Nir Rosen embedded with the Taliban in 2008, he was ruthlessly attacked by some for being unpatriotic. In response, he slammed his critics for wanting a black and white worldview. “The Taliban are not well understood by anybody,” he said. “We don’t know who they are, why they take up arms, what their goals are.”
Rosen’s account offered a unique perspective that should have been a wake-up call for the US-led coalition; its legitimacy across the country where most Afghans live, away from the major cities, was limited at best. Instead, most of the Western media continued to parrot Pentagon talking points about the prospects of “winning” the war.
Now comes a revealing account both of the Taliban takeover last year and also of the roots of its inevitability. Australian photojournalist Andrew Quilty, winner of nine Walkley awards and a host of international journalism prizes, was based in Afghanistan from 2013. In a book that compellingly blends the exposure of US delusions with moving character sketches of Afghans under extreme pressure, he shows how life in Afghanistan became more than an assignment.
“The imperatives of community were already beginning to take precedence over those of journalism,” he explains as the Taliban closes in on Kabul in July 2021.
Take Abudajanah, born near Chak-i Wardak in 1994, eastern Afghanistan, and a Taliban fighter since the age of 15. His experience was like many rural Afghans, tens of millions of people who initially welcomed the Taliban’s perceived piety. It’s a perspective that’s rarely heard in the Western press. Hundreds of billions of dollars of US aid spent since the October 2001 invasion didn’t largely funnel down to these poor and needy villagers. Rampant corruption was too ubiquitous with a distant Kabul government operating on patronage and payback.
Quilty writes that, “although the Taliban’s brutality was famous in Kabul and other major cities that had seen pushes towards modernisation in the past … the Taliban’s methods weren’t exactly welcomed but they were less of an affront to Chak’s residents than they were to those in the cities. If anything, the new rulers’ austerity mirrored local cultural norms. But the religious zeal the Taliban brought to Chak wasn’t matched by a capacity to govern.”
The book shows how “counter-terrorism”, as defined by the United States, Britain, Australia and the West, was in effect often “revenge”. Innumerable Afghans were kidnapped, tortured and murdered not because they were dangerous but due to business rivals of other Afghans ratting them out.
American intelligence was clearly misnamed, Quilty shows. There was nothing intelligent about it; instead, the West (including Australia) was “credulous” and culturally clueless looking for enemies to kill. The CIA armed, trained and funded an Afghan death squad, 01 National Strike Unit, that caused carnage across the country. These killers were evacuated to the US last year, thanks to the Biden administration, able to start new lives.
Today the Afghan people are beset by hunger, poverty and a Western world that’s content to punish its population for beating them on the battlefield. About 19 million people, out of a population of 40 million, are on the verge of life-threatening hunger. Outside aid money is arriving, but it’s barely a trickle. Although all citizens are struggling, it’s particularly women and girls who are restricted in education, free movement and work.
The moving story of Nadia, a young Afghan woman, is central to the book. Her aspirations are crushed by her own family and societal pressures. “Preserving the safety of women is a common sleight of hand used by Afghan men to keep those within their family under control,” Quilty writes. The return of the Taliban saw her world, with dreams of becoming a judge, eviscerated.
The book details a litany of counter-productive tactics that undermined the US mission. One man, Captain Malik, disguised as a humanitarian worker, was asked to gather intelligence in Paktia province on a particular target, who was later killed. The result? “In 2018, such practices resulted in bans on house-to-house vaccination campaigns in Taliban-controlled areas and the subsequent spikes in the spread of the polio virus,” Quilty details.
August in Kabul is a unique and deeply insightful book that makes for uncomfortable reading. There’s no happy ending, nor a clean resolution. Quilty has spent years of his life documenting the horrors in Afghanistan, and his skilful weaving of characters and observational journalism reminded me of one of the seminal works about Afghanistan by a Western journalist since 9/11: Anand Gopal’s 2014 No Good Men Among the Living, a finalist in the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.
The Western legacy in Afghanistan is grim; this book explains why.
Andrew Quilty is a guest at Melbourne Writers Festival. The Age is a festival partner and is pleased to offer a 20 per cent discount on tickets for Age subscribers.
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author, filmmaker and co-founder of Declassified Australia who has been visiting Afghanistan since 2012.