Interview: William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple: ‘Prestige of America heavily dented’

Print edition : September 10, 2021

William Dalrymple in conversation with former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai at the Jaipur Literature Festival on January 26, 2018. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

‘Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan’ an account of the First Anglo-Afghan War by William Dalrymple, first published in 2013, has now become the subject of intense discussion.

Interview with William Dalrymple, writer and historian.

The ascension of the Taliban “does not look good for India’s foreign policy”, says the veteran writer and historian William Dalrymple, whose book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (2013), an account of the First Anglo-Afghan War, recently became the subject of intense discussion some eight years after it was first published. In this book, Dalrymple talks about why it is difficult, even unviable, for any imperial power to control Afghanistan. In the 19th century, it was the British who faced a humiliating defeat, just as the United States has had to retreat in 2021.

Darlymple spoke to Frontline about how history is repeating itself in Afghanistan, and what the rise of the Taliban means for the world in general, and India in particular. Excerpts from the interview:

In ‘Return of a King’, you wrote that Afghans were perceived to be mere pawns in the chessboard of Western diplomacy. Has anything changed since then?

No, clearly not. There are two crucial reasons why the imperial expeditions always failed. First, the landscape of Afghanistan and the tribal structure and the war-like nature of those tribes lends itself perfectly to guerrilla fighting. Second, Afghanistan is a poor country. If you occupy India, for instance, it is different. India has many resources. You can tax not just the rich people themselves, you can seize minerals, you can finance the occupation. [If you occupy] Afghanistan, you have to pay from your own pocket. Eventually that drains any treasury. The East India Company was in profit because of the Bengal opium trade with China in 1839, but went into the red because of the cost of occupation in Afghanistan. There was no financial gain and the cost of occupation was massive.

The same was true of the Russians during the Soviet invasion. The occupation broke the Soviet economy, and now it is the domestic cost that has made Biden pull out.

In none of these cases were the occupiers completely defeated; all three could have put in more resources and could have fought on, but in all three cases, it was simply not affordable. The East India Company went into the red, the Russian economy went into the red and now Biden has found that the domestic cost in terms of politics and in terms of support has been unsustainable. There were too many American deaths. Potentially, America could have fought on, put in more money and resources. It wasn’t that they had to leave, it was simply because it was not sustainable domestically, that is at home, financially or in terms of body bags.

As you say in your book, no imperial power has emerged victorious in Afghanistan. The British lost in the 19th century, and now the U.S. troops have retreated in 2021. Does this also mean that Afghanistan is Biden’s Vietnam?

Yes, I would say so. I think it is the biggest American foreign policy failure since Vietnam. It is clear that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the military and the State Department, all completely underestimated the Taliban. Everything I know does not make me believe in the conspiracy aspect as in a secret set-up or agreement of it. I think it is a huge mistake, a huge cock-up, a massive miscalculation by all branches of the American government. None of them saw this transfer to the Taliban, none of them guessed this was happening and all of them were taken by surprise, quite clearly.

Don’t you think there was some talk on the sidelines of the Doha agreement with the Taliban and it was, in a way, set up for their coming back to power in Afghanistan after 20 years?

Certainly the Doha agreement enormously weakened the Afghanistan government. It gave legitimacy to the Taliban, and at that time everyone, including me, said that it was a catastrophe, a huge mistake. [Zalmay] Khalilzad was the envoy for Trump and now Biden must bear responsibility for miscalculating completely. But no, I do not believe, rather I do not have any evidence, that there was a secret set-up and in fact I have every reason to believe that that’s not the case because simply the Americans feel so humiliated. No one will now trust Biden’s government. The prestige of not only America but also NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) has been heavily dented.

Do you not think that President Biden is paying the price for the mistakes of his predecessors?

Yes, but he must also own this. It was his decision to go ahead with Trump’s policies. He has reversed many other policies of Trump; he could have reversed this. So no, I don’t think he gets off the hook, certainly not now when he should have reversed it.

From September 2001 until August 2021, Afghanistan has had many “soft leaders” such as Hamid Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, and so on. In some ways, do they remind you of the 19th century Afghan king Shah Shuja, whom you have discussed in detail in your book, and the way he was used by the East India Company?

As you know, Karzai is a direct descendant of Shah Shuja, but history teaches us a lesson and Karzai changed his policies from those of Shah Shuja’s. After having read Return of a King, Hillary Clinton blamed the book for the change in policies. We know this because of WikiLeaks/New York Times. Hillary Clinton exclaimed that Karzai should have been stopped from reading the book since it led to policy changes. She was very angry with the book since it led to a change in Karzai’s attitude as well.

At the moment, we see so many graphic visuals from Afghanistan of people clinging on to aeroplanes, people having misgivings about their treatment of women, and so on. Virtually everyone is going by their experience of 1996, but is the Taliban of 2021 a more evolved entity and is it going to be more open to negotiations and different mindsets?

It [the Taliban] is certainly more PR-savvy, it is aware of its public relations, in a way it previously was not, but it is too early to say whether it will substantially change its policies.

Mixed signs

So is the fear about the treatment of women well-founded?

There are mixed signs and we do not know yet. I came to know about Saad Mohseni, who is the chief executive of the MOBY news network.He says that he has been putting forward female news anchors on the TV station and they have been interviewing the Taliban commanders. So that is a good sign.

On the other hand, the government-controlled news networks have removed female anchors. This leads to a mixed picture. It is not clear whether the change in attitude that says that they do respect the rights of women, at least under the Sharia law; we do not know whether that is just PR or is it substantial. There are some optimistic signs, like the fact that Abdullah and Hamid Karzai stayed in Kabul and are now in live negotiations with the Taliban, unlike earlier where it resulted in the murder of the President.

All the female anchors were wearing headscarves. Your comments?

Yes, but they were already so, that is, before the Taliban took control.

Pakistan’s role

There has been a lot of speculation about the possible role of Russia and Pakistan in the upsurge of the Taliban.

I have no details about Russia, but Pakistan has been funding, training and sheltering the Taliban ever since 9/11. This is no secret. This has been completely validated by every scholar, every journalist who has written about this. We know that the Quetta Shura is based in Quetta [in Pakistan], so the role of Pakistan is established, verified and documented. But the Taliban are not the same as ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence], they have their own set of interests. Now that they are in power, they are in a position to free themselves from ISI control and also have the leverage, weapons and money.

To put it in better terms, they have more leverage in Afghanistan than they had in Quetta where they were guests of the Pakistani intelligence.

Do you think Afghanistan has become the satellite state of Pakistan?

Some commentators in India do not give Afghanistan sufficient autonomy. Where their interests align, the Taliban works with Pakistan but where their interests diverge, the Taliban can pursue an independent line and it remains to be seen how long they will do this. To speak in clearer terms, it is 100 per cent true that the Pakistani intelligence have trained, armed and sheltered the Taliban.

But it is also possible, now that they are in power, they may possibly be able to form an independent course because these are people who regard themselves as Afghan patriots irrespective of however much they are disliked. Now that they are in power, it may be that they will now be able to defy their ISI paymasters if they wish to. However, it is too early to say how much influence Pakistan will have now. It is possible that Afghanistan is merely a satellite state but it is too early to tell, as I said. Now since they have more leverage, they are capable of defying and disobeying their masters in Islamabad.

The future of India-Afghanistan relations

In the past we have seen that Afghanistan’s fate was often intertwined with that of India’s. You talk of Shah Shuja, Maharaja Ranjeet Singh and Ahmad Shah Abdali in the book. How will the geopolitics of Afghanistan and India play out in the coming years with the Taliban in the forefront?

It is too early to say. However, ostensibly, this is a blow to Indian foreign policy because the government of India had very good relations with Karzai and Ashraf Ghani, and obviously the Taliban are much closer to Pakistan. It is an unhappy moment for Indian foreign policy because a pro-Indian government has been replaced by a pro-Pakistan government in Kabul. Irrespective of [whether it is] the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre in India, it is a given that both would be anti-Taliban. And irrespective of the party in power, the Taliban will not be pro-India.

I was interested by what a commentator said today: that this is an opportunity for India to draw closer to the U.S. and work within the Quad, work with its allies and increase its influence in the region. Having said that, it is an unwanted situation not just for Indian foreign policy but also for American foreign policy, British policy and NATO. All the different governments which supported the democratic Afghanistan have had their credibility tarnished. It is a sad situation not just for the people of Afghanistan but for all democratic allies.

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