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15 September 2021

John Simpson’s Diary: crossing the Khyber Pass, why the Taliban is a problem for Imran Khan, and my biblical comeback

The Taliban’s leaders want to show the group has modernised – but it will be the same as it ever was.

By John Simpson

The Khyber: the very thought of being here brought a shiver. The Pass, grim and overlooked by fortresses, opened up in front of our television team as we stopped to get an opening shot. It’s one of the most numinous places on earth, every inch soaked with history and blood. For 3,000 years, armies have pushed through these narrow, rocky defiles, camping in the plains where the Pass broadens out. Darius the Great marched here; Alexander the Great sent his generals to take the Khyber route into Afghanistan. Babur, Nader Shah, Ahmad Shah Durrani, Ranjit Singh – all came this way.

An entire army from British India, complete with elephants, lumbered through the Pass into Afghanistan in 1839 to launch its disastrous campaign. It took more than half a century for the Raj to seize control here. On 12 September 1897, 22 Sikhs defended to the death the outpost of Saragarhi against 10,000 Afridi tribesmen. On the rocks along the Khyber Pass the signs of British and British Indian regiments are still preserved.

[See also: How Secunder Kermani became the face of the BBC’s Afghanistan coverage]

I’ve driven through the Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan a dozen times: usually wearing my normal clothes, but sometimes unconvincingly disguised as a Pathan. When my cameraman Peter Jouvenal and I put on burqas in order to film inside Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we were briefly the tallest women in the country, and the only ones wearing size-ten boots.

I first came to the Khyber Pass in January 1980, a week after the Russians had invaded Afghanistan. Our press group was given lunch at the officers’ mess of the Khyber Rifles, and I was too overwhelmed to reveal that as a boy my favourite reading was a sub-Kiplingesque novel called King of the Khyber Rifles. Later, we stood on a rocky outcrop while a Khyber Rifles officer pointed out Torkham, the border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was now Soviet territory. I was tempted to slip away and head towards it but in those days I was well-behaved, so I climbed meekly onto the press bus back to Peshawar.

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Under the flag of the Islamic Emirate

Joe Biden’s unforgivably careless way of signalling the US decision to pull out of Afghanistan gifted the Taliban an easy success. People said that it would be months before it captured Kabul, but I’d seen the city fall three times before, and it never took longer than a few days.

Many countries have been wrong-footed by Afghanistan’s collapse: the US, Britain, Germany and France, but also India, which invested money, influence and prestige in the country. Only China will benefit. Pakistan, habitually blamed by Afghans for setting up and arming the Taliban (which it did) and controlling them (which it has never been able to do), now has a major problem. The prime minister, Imran Khan, instinctively shied away from the Taliban and worked with Afghanistan’s democratically elected Ghani government. That hasn’t ended well.

The other day, when we reached Torkham, I shook hands for the sake of the camera with a heavily bearded Taliban border guard. What was going on, I asked. “The set-up has changed,” he said ominously. “Afghanistan used to be democratic. Now the flag of the Islamic Emirate flies over it.” The Taliban’s leaders want to show that the group has modernised, but it has never had any centralised control, and every local warlord or commander is pretty much free to do what he wants. That’s how it was last time the group was in power, and it will probably be the same now.

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Why journalists can’t take a joke

From here I’ll head down to Islamabad, to interview Imran Khan. Once, years ago, my cameraman and I were driving with him to an election rally when our car was attacked by an angry mob. He smiled at the yelling faces, waving politely: it made for tremendous footage. Still, he needs to learn that the Western press is utterly literal. I last met him with a small group of journalists, two years ago. “Who do you want to win the Indian election?” we asked. “Well, since your toughest opponent is the best one to do a deal with, I suppose it ought to be Narendra Modi,” he laughed. “Imran Khan: I Want PM Modi to Win Indian Election” was the headline. It took Khan months to get over it; in Pakistan, Modi is regarded as the devil’s younger brother.

Frame of reference

As soon as I get back to London we’ll start work on a new programme which I will present on BBC Two. (The details are still under wraps.) In these ageist times I was chuffed when management gave the green light to my proposal. “It’s the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” I told my wife and my 15-year-old son Rafe. “Who does he play for?” Rafe asked.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor

[See also: Elif Shafak’s Diary: Publishing heroes, Afghanistan’s forsaken women, and the lessons of Turkey’s autocratic turn]

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This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor