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25 August 2021

First Thoughts: History repeating, the Taliban’s populism, and Rupert Murdoch’s sensitive side

In 1842, in a similarly chaotic fashion as today, the British evacuated 16,000 troops and civilians from Afghanistan. 

By Peter Wilby

As the British leave Afghanistan, the verdicts are clear. The evacuation “resembled… the retreat of an army defeated” and the war brought “not one benefit, either political or military”. It was “unjust, arbitrary and impolitic in the extreme”. The Afghans inflicted an “almost irreparable injury on the British nation” and the whole affair left “an almost indelible stain on the British character”.

Those verdicts – respectively from an army chaplain, a back-bench MP, and a monthly magazine – were delivered in 1842, not 2021. Britain had marched into Afghanistan three years earlier in the false belief that the Russians were about to invade. Faced with rebellion against the occupation, 16,000 troops and civilians were evacuated in January 1842. Before they could reach safety, they were ambushed in a narrow mountain pass. All but a few were slaughtered.

As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana later observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

[See also: The Afghanistan crisis has exposed Global Britain’s delusions of grandeur]

Why many back the Taliban

Among the stories about the hopes and dreams of Afghans being dashed, little attention is paid to how, outside Kabul at least, most people probably welcome their new rulers. A survey in 2013 by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found the large majority of Afghans backed the Taliban’s peculiarly harsh version of sharia law, including corporal punishment, stoning of adulterers and death for apostates. More recent research suggests that many who shrink from locking women in their homes and banning music and TV still prefer the Taliban’s legal and policing system because, they believe, it will be more effective, more consistent and, above all, less corrupt than what has been on offer for the past 20 years. Studies by the UN and the independent Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimate that amounts equivalent to $2.25bn were spent on bribes in 2020 (formal GDP is $19bn).

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In some respects, the Taliban – ignorant, insular, fiercely anti-elite – is part of the wave of populism sweeping the world. Nick Carter, chief of the UK defence staff, echoing smart Kabul opinion, calls the group “country boys”. Though few would agree with him that they have a code of honour, you could say they have taken back control.

[See also: Lyse Doucet’s Kabul notebook: A dystopian airfield, and the Afghans leaving everything behind]

No silly season

August is a dangerous month for a cabinet minister to linger on his sun lounger. Here are some other events of international significance that Dominic Raab, had he been foreign secretary at the time, could have missed. The overthrow of the French monarchy (1792); the burning of the White House by British forces (1814); the outbreak of the First World War (1914); the Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939); the beginning of the Warsaw Uprising (1944); the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945); the erection of the Berlin Wall (1961); the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968); and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait (1990).

Murdoch’s legacy issues

You would have thought that Rupert Murdoch, after more than five decades of owning British newspapers, all happy to hurl mud at anyone who displeased him, would be able to tolerate criticism. But, no, he is reportedly intending to complain to Ofcom, the media regulator, about a three-part BBC series on him and his family, broadcast last year. He argues that the programmes suggested he “exercised malign political influence” and “implied he posed a threat to liberal democracy”. Moreover, they didn’t pay sufficient tribute to Murdoch’s financial successes. The BBC’s own complaints procedure has already considered Murdoch’s case and even upheld it on one point, causing the version on the corporation’s iPlayer to be re-edited.

Murdoch is still not satisfied, however. It feels a bit like a heavyweight boxer complaining that his opponent is punching him too hard. Most journalists thought that, whatever his other faults, Murdoch had a thick skin. He has never, so far as I know, sued for libel. He is, as his biographer Michael Wolff observed, “a defendant, not a plaintiff”. Perhaps, now in his 91st year, he is worried about his legacy. 

[see also: First Thoughts: A new terrorism, a generation’s lost future, and why home-working helps employers]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat