William Dalrymple: the Af-Pak Fiasco "on its last legs"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with William Dalrymple. (49 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

William Dalrymple is drawing on a deep well of personal and imperial history in his stark clarification of our American comeuppance in Afghanistan.

“The war has lost all semblance of shape or form,” he observes, at a moment when our puppet is trying to make peace with our enemy. “I’ll be amazed,” Dalrymple says, “if the Taliban aren’t in Kabul by the end of the year.”

He confirms on the ground the inescapable but conventionally unprintable judgment that the American “predator drones” have been the Taliban’s most effective weapon and our own moral downfall. “All you read in the papers here is the successful ‘hits’ on militant hideouts. What you don’t get is what you get in Pakistani papers: ‘Five More Wedding Guests Killed in Party’ and ‘Petraeus Apologizes.'”

In Afghanistan this Spring, it struck Willy Dalrymple that “the whole thing is on its last legs, considerably worse than I expected or had been led to believe by reports I’d read. The Taliban are everywhere… The only answer now must be some way to bring the Taliban and the Pashtuns into government. But there’s no sense that Obama or Holbrooke are ready to break that to the American people. It’s blindingly obvious. The Brits and the Europeans and Karzai are all pushing for it. The Americans are the only ones not taking the view that the Taliban has to be brought in…”

I was in Jalalabad on my trip, and I went to a Jurga there of the tribal elders… I was trying to get to Gandamak, the site of the British last stand in 1842, the symbol of the failure of the first British attempt, the first Western attempt, to take over Afghanistan: 18,000 East India Company troops march in in 1839 — like our own war of our generation, a surprisingly effortless conquest. The enemy merge off into the hills, the British spend two years skating, playing cricket and thinking they’ve got Kabul. There’s even discussion about making Kabul the summer capital of the Raj. Then an insurgency starts among the Pashtun of Helmand and it spreads northwards, until eventually there’s a revolution in Kabul. The two senior British leaders, the civilian and the military leader, both get murdered in the streets and the East India Company troops march out in 1842 in the middle of winter, and are ambushed on the return. 18,000 march out, one man makes it through to Jalalabad. And the last stand of the last 50, before that man escapes, is at Gandamak.

Now I wanted to go see this place — my next book is about the First Anglo-Afghan War and the parallels with the present. And the only way to get to that area, because it’s now under Taliban control, is to go off with the leaders. So I went off with a wonderful ex-Mujahideen, ex-Olympic wrestler called Anwar Khan Jigdalek who’s this mountain of a guy with cauliflower ears. And we went off with six trucks full of former Muj, all with keffiyehs wrapped around their heads, and rocket propelled grenades, the full-monty. And we got to his home village — which is, again, where about half the British army was massacred in 1842. And he is taken, feted by his people and taken to his old entrenchments, a feast was laid on. By the time we’d actually finished this blessed feast, it was too late to go to Gandamak, because it was five in the afternoon — and with the darkness comes the Taliban. So we headed to Jalalabad…

The next day I go to the Jurga and I talked to the elders. Where we were sitting in Jalalabad was, by chance, beside the Jalalabad airfield, which is one of the major takeoff zones for the drones. And as we’re having this conversation, these sinister creatures, these pilotless craft were taking off and landing the whole time… And one of the elders told me about an interview he’d had with some American soldiers in a hotel in Jalalabad the previous week. And the American had asked: “Tell me, why do you hate us? We’ve come, we’re trying to help, we’re trying to bring democracy. We’ve built roads — why do you hate us?” And the man replied: “Because you come in our houses, you knock down our doors, you take our women by the hair, you kick our children, and we will not allow it. We will break your teeth like we broke the teeth of the British, and like the British, eventually you will leave.” And he said: “The Americans know that this war is lost. It is only their politicians who pretend they can win it.”

William Dalrymple in conversation with Chris Lydon in New York City, June 18, 2010.

We’re in conversation at the Asia Society in Manhattan on the morning after a singing-dancing book launch of Willy Dalrymple’s latest, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. The party performance the night before was for me disconcerting. It felt, as I told Dalrymple, like a minstrel show of Indian artists at a British club in E. M. Forster’s India. In fact it was a night on Park Avenue in the new seat of empire, at the Asia Society once chaired by Richard Holbrooke, for well-to-do folk (many Indian) who ought to know better about the Af-Pak war but have almost nothing to say about it.

William Dalrymple calls himself, through veils of irony, “the last Orientalist.” He is a Scots-Englishman who’s enraptured still, after 25 years living in India, with the ancient and the exotic: “the calligraphers, the old Muslims speaking courtly Urdu, the bullocks pulling wooden plows” in India today, and with the temple prostitutes, self-starving Jain spiritualists, and Sufi singers in his cast of Nine Lives, a brilliant sampling of the “divine madness” that survives the radical modernization of India.

All the while, Willy Dalrymple — “gone native,” as they used to say — has become a pillar of the new global literary India. He’s a founder and co-chair of the now multitudinous Jaipur Literature Festival every January. He has won India’s choicest prizes for travel books like City of Djinns about Delhi, and for social histories like White Mughals, about intermarriage under the Raj. In The Last Mughal, he retold the gruesome story of the “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857, rather more as Indians saw it, as the “First War of Independence.”

In Willy Dalrymple’s telling, the miserable self-deceptions of imperial over-reaching have come full circle from the rout of the Brits in Afghanistan in 1842. It helps that he speaks by now in the voice of a witness who’s been there from the beginning.

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  • marsh

    Thank you, thank you.

    This interview only solidifies the fact that the United States of America is a fools paradise.

  • Potter

    Dalrymple is a wonderful storyteller.

    I love the idea of going to places that we don’t understand, we don’t know and, as Dalrymple says, attempting to see beneath the surface: to “strip off the very thin veneer of globalization which hides a multitude of attitudes” (so well put).

    I agree that the lesson of 9/11 is that we don’t understand the world. By making it, and allowing it to continue to be, a “war on terror”, we, as a country, especially those in leadership positions, seem to have lost an opportunity to understand more about that which we don’t know, or postponed it while in our ignorance and naiveté we harm and destroy.

    It’s an interesting thought: swapping Holbrooke and Mitchell assignments. The real horror, regardless, is that we continue on in this war knowing full well, as even Michael Steele knows, as Obama must know and probably did know when he made his surge decision, that there is no winning, that there will be those that die for and from this while in the name of security and freedom we are actually doing ourselves more harm.

    Dalrymple maybe feels that there is little we can do and that first we are responsible for our own awareness, that we can through our work and encounters try to effect, enlighten, inform.

    About the Jains I always think of them when I see a spider an ant or a mosquito. I relocated two toads in harms way today.

    Thank you for this bounty. Best wishes to you on your travels Chris. Be safe, joyful and stay cool.

  • There is something about Dalrymple, like about his fellow Brit Robert Fisk, that just does not add up. Fisk, as almost any user of search engines can discover, ties himself up in knots trying to explain to American college audiences why he doesn’t think 9/11 was an inside job. It makes you wonder about all his stories. Dalrymple might not have been similarly challenged in public, but I do know that he is very evasive about discussing any of the challenges to the official 9/11 story such as by David Ray Griffin, Steven Jones, Christopher Bollyn, and a host of others. His dogged refusal to make sense on this topic leads me to think he is a prime asset of British intelligence. He says, “The only answer now must be some way to bring the Taliban and the Pashtuns into government.” Right you are, Willy. Like Vietnam — the only answer in Vietnam was to bring the Communists into government. Or is that not what you meant?

  • Ken

    As I have come to believe this war was commenced and continues for the purpose of enriching of political cronies and others with hooks deep into the government, I don’t now believe there ever was much intention to do anything beyond that enrichment. The difficulty has been, for those tasked to explain, how to come up with a passingly coherent cover story involving various strategies and objectives– all of which have unraveled, and some in a very short time.

    Our occupation is a piece of such breathtakingly cynical political calculation that only a few on site or expert in Afghani affairs have been able to recognize the scale of audacity with which this sorry war has been confected. We lavish very near the amount of treasure on this faux-war that we would on a real one, which enriches those for whom riches are intended, while our casualties never amount to such a number as would over-alarm the electorate.

    And lately, our use of predator drones has increased our footprint in the region, while demanding no new sets of boots on the ground. The fact that so often the drones kill innocents our leadership imagines they can make up for via unfelt apologies in officialeze, but nobody’s buying that crap on the ground. And when we kill those at whom we’ve been aiming, we do so without necessity of trial. We will soon be driven out by those we have taught to hate us– and for good reason.

  • Abbas

    Thank you for uploading this. William Dalrymple to me is the authoritative source on South Asia, and I’m Pakistani!

  • 1 way to express is that I have bought 9 copies for so far and gifted away to people who had lived in Delhi but did not know about many of the places described touchingly. We spend so much of our lives in a city and know the most obvious places. Never do we think of the history of the city. Delhi is the best choice for it and Dalrymple is the ideal writer. This got me to 5 other titles of Dalrymple.