I’ve long had a love affair with Afghanistan. At times painful but always passionate, it’s been going on now for the best part of 30 years. Almost entirely throughout that time this hard land and its generous people have been wracked by war. That was what took me there in the ﬁrst place and why I continue to return. Having said that, even without the war, or jang, as the Dari word beautifully captures its true clashing, dislocating essence, I would still be drawn to the place.
‘Every rock, every hill has its story,’ wrote a young Winston Churchill in a despatch to the Daily Telegraph back in those Great Game days of 1897, as the British and Russian empires tussled for strategic control of the region. How right Churchill was. Anyone who goes to Afghanistan can’t help but feel the richness of this reservoir of tales and desire for storytelling. Where else but in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier town of Peshawar on the edge of Afghanistan would you expect to ﬁnd the Kissa Qani or storytellers’ bazaar? To visit these wild lands is to feel part of a great narrative tradition.
It was here once upon a distant war, back in the early 1980s when the Afghan resistance or mujahideen were taking on the Soviet Red Army, that as a journalist I ﬁrst set foot illegally inside Afghanistan. One day, disguised in a turban and the baggy outﬁt or shalwar qameez worn by locals, I followed my Afghan guide along a dried up river-bed through the same frontier foothills where countless soldiers, explorers and smugglers had journeyed in earlier times. Sidestepping a small cluster of anti-personnel landmines on the track ahead of us, I recall pointing to the ground and asking that pressing one word question of my guide: ‘Pakistan?’
‘No, Afghanistan,’ he instantly replied with a grin. After weeks of clandestine negotiations in Peshawar at the foot of the famous Khyber Pass, here I was ﬁnally on Afghan soil in the midst of a war that few westerners had then managed to access.
In the years that followed I would often come and go across this border in exotic guises. Once dressed as a woman, enveloped in a burqa, complete with painted toenails and sandals. On another occasion I was swathed in bandages drenched in sheep blood and laid in a makeshift cofﬁn.
Always though, the long march in-country would follow a familiar pattern. Each night our heavily-armed band of mujahideen set off by starlight to avoid the Soviet helicopter gunships. Gruelling marches of anything up to 20 hours or more. In the distance, explosions rumbled and the horizon would ﬂicker like a candlelit room. Often as fatigue set in, events would assume an almost surreal quality, as if a line from the Arabian Nights had come to life.
Over the decades there have been some wonderful travellers’ accounts from this region, not least Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana and Eric Newby’s classic, A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush. What then to make of more recent offerings especially the myriad of war books that has emerged from Afghanistan’s current volatile travails? Like the journalists turned authors who have written most of these accounts, they tend to fall into two categories. The ﬁrst are books based on the experiences of those who have witnessed Afghanistan’s present conﬂict through independent travel and encounters. The second are those seen through the prism of embedded reporters accompanying the British or US military. Maybe it’s because of my own intimate long term association with Afghanistan’s culture and people, but to my mind those that best get beneath the skin of the place are books like Jason Elliot’s An Unexpected Light, Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between or Christina Lamb’s The Sewing Circles of Herat. Here is the Afghanistan I know, love and ﬁnd myself intrigued by. A land of mind-boggling beauty and hospitable people, who at one and the same time are granite hard and tenderly poetic.
As Olaf Caroe in his historical book The Pathans once put it, this is a place where ‘the land was made for the men in it, not men for the land.’ Much has been written about Afghan hospitality but once encountered it is never forgotten. ‘Trust a Brahmin before a snake, a snake before a harlot and a harlot before an Afghan,’ goes the Hindu saying that Rudyard Kipling was fond of using to colourfully describe the Afghan character. What such an observation fails to make clear however is that those same Afghans wouldn’t hesitate to give you their last morsel of food or the shelter of their home.
Afghans are the greatest of friends but make for dangerous enemies, something that many of the other books written about the current war spend an inordinate amount of time pointing out. Among the ‘embedded journalist’ genre some are better than others. Stephen Grey’s Operation Snakebite and James Fergusson’s A Million Bullets are reads that give an insight into the workings of the British Army on the notorious battleﬁelds of Helmand Province. To their credit, they never shy away from criticism or negative observation of our role when it’s due. Mercifully, they also avoid fawning over ‘our boys’. There is a tendency for some authors, described by professional soldiers themselves as ‘army barmy’, to become ﬁxated with the paras, commandos, Special Forces, and so forth. At their worst, the books written by these authors are cringe-worthy, but more often that not simply dry and impenetrable. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that many ex-soldiers and marines appear the least equipped to write such accounts so close have they been to the controversial politics of the Afghanistan war and effectively still neutered in terms of what they can say. Then on the other hand of course, there are the wannabe soldiers who should have done just that, joined the army, leaving the written word to others more able and less breathless in their admiration for all things military. On both counts there is no shortage of such tomes.
Some, such as Helmand Assault, by Ewen Southby-Tailyour, I found as easy to get bogged down in as the ‘Somme-like’ mud and Helmand dust that the publicity blurb harps on about. Among the more recent crop is Six Months Without Sundays, Max Benitz account of his considerable time spent with the Scots Guards during Operation Herrick12. ‘Max, remember the plan. Dinnae write a shite book,’ a Company Sergeant Major warns Benitz according to the introduction to this newly published title. For the Scots Guards at the centre of the action in Benitz book, he may have avoided doing just that – but the general reader might beg to differ.
The problem with so many accounts like these is not the subject matter itself so much but that the books are often quite simply ill considered, badly structured and generally not well written. Beyond limited appeal to those of a military minded disposition, their chewy army-speak and literary shortcomings make for a real turn-off when it comes to the lay reader. In what we are constantly told are difﬁcult economic times for the publishing industry it is amazing that so many books of this ilk continue to see the light of day in an already congested market.
American writer Sebastian Junger’s simply titled and powerfully rendered War stands apart. Like Max Benitz, Junger spent a considerable time with one speciﬁc unit in Afghanistan, in his case a single platoon in one of the most dangerous outposts in eastern Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. What resulted here though was a book that doesn’t just tell us about soldiering but takes the reader as close to what it’s really like being in a war as any sane person would wish to get. In terms of its literary worth, Junger’s book is to the current Afghanistan war what Michael Herr’s Dispatches or Tim O’Brien’s If I Die In A Combat Zone was to the writing that came out of the Vietnam conﬂict.
A few weeks ago in a Glasgow bar of all places, I met by chance a man called Andrei who was an ‘Afghantsi’ or Russian veteran of the 1980s Soviet war. Mutually amazed that both of us had at one time been within a few miles of each other but on opposite sides of that bitter divide, we exchange old war stories. Andrei told me about the men in his unit, while I talked to him of my times as a reporter accompanying Afghanistan’s mujahideen guerrillas. At the end of our encounter we both bought, signed and swapped two books as mementoes of our chance encounter. For my part I gave him Sebastian Junger’s War and he in turn gave me a copy of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, so titled because of the zinc lined cofﬁns which were used to bring home Russia’s Afghanistan war dead.
Two books, two wars, two veterans of sorts. Those wars may now be far apart but they continue to have equal resonance. Sad to think that so little has changed for Afghanistan. Sad also to think that so few good books are around to reﬂect such profound events.
SIX MONTHS WITHOUT SUNDAYS – THE ROYAL SCOTS IN AFGHANISTAN
BIRLINN, £16.99 320PP