Last month in our Afghanistan series, I spoke with journalists who are continuing to cover a country in crisis – even as they put their lives at risk just to do their jobs. They offered perspectives on what is currently happening: compounding humanitarian crises, forced “disappearances” and the lasting threats to the rights of women and girls.
I wanted to start this series with what is happening at the moment. But it’s also important to understand how we got here.
Historians like William Dalrymple teach us that we can better understand the present crisis in Afghanistan by studying the past. William has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the region, after spending decades researching the colonial period in South Asia. He is also a wonderfully engaging writer – I listed his book “The Anarchy” about the East Indian Company on my autumn reading guide.
Below you will find an edited and condensed version of our discussion. He covered a lot of history in our conversation, so if you wish to learn more, I encourage you to explore his books.
You can also follow William on Twitter, where he shares fascinating tidbits like art and articles to help restore dignity to a region often only portrayed by devastation.
Malala (M): So glad we could finally find a time to meet.
William Dalrymple (WD): Finally yes!
M: I follow your work and I've been recommending your books in my newsletter as well.
WD: One note from you, Malala, and my sales have skyrocketed! [Laughs]
M: In Return of a King, you wrote about the [British] East India Company invading Afghanistan, in a war that lasted from 1839 to 1842.
You have said that looking at history, we could predict how the latest military invasion of Afghanistan by Western forces would turn out. I would love to hear your perspective on what happened in Afghanistan after the British left in 1842 and what can we learn from that period about what might happen in Afghanistan now?
WD: I should just start by saying there are extraordinary parallels in the period before. The reason I wrote Return of a King was this strong feeling of history repeating itself, not just in a vague sort of trajectory, but substantial similarities, particularly on the tribal level.
Behind the first Afghan War lay the old rivalry in Afghanistan between the elite Sadozai, Popalzai tribes and Ghilzai, who are the nomads and the marginal people, day labourers and so on. The British put the same family on the throne twice, and it didn't end any better this time than it did the last time. My book, which was published in 2006, ends with saying that we're going to end up with the same government, the Taliban, that this war was fought to remove. We're going to see the downfall of the Western allies who will be viewed as quislings. And that is exactly what happened. You didn't need a crystal ball or extra-sensory perception to tell that.
Everyone in Afghanistan knew the way it was going. The only people perhaps who didn't didn't admit it were American officials and some of the urban Afghans.
M: In a 2011 interview, you said that, for all the billions of dollars that the U.S. and U.K. poured into Afghanistan, the only noticeable change was that you saw "girls in white headscarves going off to school in large packs today." And then you added, "how long that will last remains to be seen."
Watching that interview now feels like a prophecy, unfortunately, with millions of Afghan girls now out of school for months. Given what you know about the history and politics of the men who now form the Taliban's government, what do you think will happen to girls' education?
WD: The Taliban government as set up now…is exclusively male, exclusively Pashtun, mostly rural. It has made no attempt, even in a way that the Karzai government did, to bring in the other communities of the country. There are virtually no Tajiks, virtually no Uzbeks, virtually no Hazara, absolutely no women. Virtually no one from the towns. Virtually no one [in government] is educated.
One of the lessons of Afghan history, I think, is that you have to be able to reach out to all the different, diverse communities in the country, or at least create a very strong coalition of a great body of them to hold the country together. And in the absence of that, you're going to get rebellions and crackdowns and breakdowns, and we've seen a bit of that already.
So I don't frankly think that this regime will survive in its current complexion very long. What I fear is that what you'll find is a revert to warlordism and tribalism – and we’ll find the different regions of Afghanistan fracturing into little cantons, which has been the way Afghanistan looked after itself for much of its history.
For example, you might find Tajik areas running their own lives and women being allowed back to school quicker than in the conservative Pashtun south. I mean, there's nothing that's looking good out of Afghanistan at the moment, frankly. The government is unstable. The economy is in ruins. The people are starving. I don't think it’ll last. But it may well be that what follows is not much better now.
M: Do you think the Chinese can have a positive influence in Afghanistan, particularly for women and girls? Or do you see this as part of this transactional and economic relationship?
WD: There is a clear, strong move by China to fill the vacuum left by America and its allies. The Chinese are already involved in road-building programs and mining operations.
The way China has worked its influence on the world has been a new model of imperialism. The Chinese get in, they invest heavily and they offer large loans. When the loans default, as they've done, for example, in many African countries and in Sri Lanka, they seize important strategic assets.
They do not get involved in politics. They do try to spread the Chinese Communist Party into Pakistan or Afghanistan or Africa. They buy up the raw materials. That is where the imperialism of the 21st century and imperialism of the 19th century have a great commonality. And what China is interested in Afghanistan is rare earths and copper. And the Afghans and the Taliban are very happy to sell them. I don't think there's much in it for the ordinary Afghans other than getting better roads.
And I don’t think you'll find the Chinese investing heavily in education or risking their relationship with the Taliban by interfering in matters of women's education. I would like to be proved wrong and be very happy to be, but I don't imagine I will be.
M: You mentioned the different ethnic groups in the northern parts of Afghanistan and in the southern parts, where you have the Pashtun ethnic groups. And then within the Pashtun, there are tribal divisions. Do you think these splits create a sort of decentralization within these groups and lead to some sort of stability? Do you still see that division being prominent and affecting politics?
WD: I think the divisions became very clear immediately once the Taliban government installed itself in August. One already began to see chafing along exactly the lines that you're suggesting. I'm actually a little bit surprised that it's held together as well as it has so far. I suspect that we will have another Afghan civil war of some sort probably looming. I may well be wrong.
Can I ask you a question, Malala, obviously central to your life? Do you see this spilling out into Pakistan? Do you see the Pakistan Taliban emboldened again by this? Do you see your own Swat Valley returning to the nightmare that changed your life?
M: The way that that the U.S. left Afghanistan and how the Taliban gained control again – some politicians, including [Pakistan’s] Prime Minister Imran Khan have glorified the victory of the Taliban against the slavery of the West.
That rhetoric can have a damaging effect on the stability and peace in Pakistan. Sometimes you feel like it's happening next door, but it won’t affect your land. But before we know it, there’s an increase in terrorist activities. The Pakistan Taliban group has already gained some prominence. There have been attacks recently. So there is fear.
WD: It’s a very porous border, isn’t it? I mean, I was in Chitral last summer and there were fears of Pakistan Taliban attacks coming across the Chitral hills.
M: You know the politics and you know the history. I hope that the leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s other neighbouring countries take this issue seriously. It's in their national security interest to have a peaceful Afghanistan.
WD: One thing I should say is that I hope if anyone with any influence is reading this, I feel very strongly that the West needs now to give much more generously to stop mass starvation in Afghanistan.
A coalition, which was able to raise so many hundreds of billions of pounds for weapons, seems to be suddenly unable to produce even a few tens of thousands of pounds for food. That is going to leave such a lasting sense of betrayal and hatred. It also is ethically and morally wrong of its own right.
M: I was curious to know that as a historian, when you research different time periods in history and you see atrocities and injustices, do you feel frustrated?
WD: The golden ages are few and far between in this world. If you read Indian, Pakistani or Afghan history, it tends to be a succession of predatory regimes exploiting the poor and making a nice lifestyle for the elite.
At all periods of history, there are atrocities and injustices. It isn't just the colonial period, though the colonial period is especially rich in them. And history contains many dire warnings. That's one of the fascinations of reading it.
What do I feel when I read this? There are occasions when I've had topics that have deeply depressed me. I remember, for example, I wrote a book on the Christian minorities in the Middle East called From the Holy Mountain, and I remember it very, very hard to wake up every day researching things like the Armenian Genocide.
M: What would give you a bit of hope for the future of Afghanistan? The history is really depressing, but how can we fix it?
WD: An immediate and generous gift of food to stop starvation this winter could only create goodwill where there is very little towards the West. The Taliban are in a very weak position and open to negotiation. It may well be that the Taliban are open to persuasion.
M: Well, thank you so much for your time, and it was so nice speaking to you.
WD: No, thank you very much! I mean, I feel like a complete fraud Malala advising you on this region. This is an area you know much better than me, but thank you for this.