Richard North, 14/07/2021  

If you wanted to chart the depths of decadence to which this country has descended, as good a measure as any would be the behaviour of yesterday's Daily Telegraph. In its online edition – excluding its sports section – it published six follow-up reports on Sunday's football match. But on the rapidly growing disaster in Afghanistan, it had no comment.

In fact, the most recent input from the paper was the day before, when it reported on General Nick Carter – currently CGS - interviewed on the Marr Show.

That had Carter asserting that Afghanistan was "not yet going to 'hell in a handcart'", illustrating once again that the Army brass have a slender grasp of the issues, having made major mistakes at the start of the deployment and continued in that vein ever since.

We did, however, get a short article in The Times but the paper need not have bothered, offering an uninformative (if not downright misleading) report under the heading: "Taliban lay siege to cities as Afghan forces run out of guns".

Written by Hugh Tomlinson, the paper's South Asia correspondent – who claims amongst his great scoops, "the campaign to bring toilets to every village in India", together with Pakistani stringer Haroon Janjua, based in Islamabad, the pair are palming us off with generic agency copy which doesn't reflect the more recent coverage from people on the ground.

Not for the first time, the fullest account of recent events comes from the Guardian. This is written by Emma Graham-Harrison, based in Kabul. Although she is reporting, inter alia about events in Herat, some 500 miles away (equivalent to someone sitting in London and reporting on events in Aberdeen), at least she is in the same country, which is more than can be said of The Times reporters.

This is something you have to be very careful about when reading (or watching) media reports. The journalists like to give the impression that they are on top of events, but sometime the "local" reporters (i.e., 500 miles away) are relying on copy sent from London or elsewhere, collected from diverse sources, which they then transmit locally to give the impression of immediacy.

In truth, with events happening simultaneously all over Afghanistan, hundreds of miles apart, influenced by events in Pakistan, India, China, Iran – and other countries – as well as in Washington and London – no single person (or even team) can adequately cover all the events on the ground. Any sense of what is really happening has to come to a synthesis of multiple sources and informed analysis.

As it stands, Graham-Harrison's thesis, conveyed by the headline to her piece, is: "Afghanistan stunned by scale and speed of security forces' collapse", apparently contradicting Nick Carter's misguided optimism. " More than 1,000", she says (retailing news several days old) "have fled across the border, and hundreds more have handed over weapons to the Taliban".

In many ways, though, this is old news. That the ANA is crumbling the moment it has been faced with a serious challenge comes as no surprise to anyone who has followed events in Afghanistan for any length of time, and knows something of its history.

I recall a piece written in December 2009 for the Sunday Times on the ANA, headed, "Corrupt, untrained, underpaid, illiterate: the forces waiting to take over". I commented on this at the time at the time, reminding readers that the problem was very far from new.

"In 1900", I wrote, "Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman was recalling the state of the army he had inherited from his predecessor, noting that it was 'defective in certain respects'" ...
... one of them being that the soldiers did not get their pay regularly, and had certain privileges granted them of extorting money from the subjects without any punishment being inflicted on them for so doing. The officers were lazy, steeped in indulgence and vices of all kinds, gambling, opium-smoking, Indian hemp-smoking, and other bad habits which cannot be mentioned ...
More recent accounts, such as this illustrated that nothing had changed, and as late as the end of 2019, the Washington Post was saying much the same thing, with access to the "Afghan papers", which depicted the Afghan security forces as "incompetent, unmotivated, poorly trained, corrupt and riddled with deserters and infiltrators".

But while the unrolling disaster is nothing if not predictable, that hardly excuses the British media from reporting it. A more than usually instable Afghanistan in an instable region is bad news for Britain, not least because – if the instability spreads – we could end up being pressured to accept hundreds of thousands more immigrants. At worst, we could be confronting a nuclear war in the region.

Here, there is a worrying, but rarely acknowledged dynamic at play, centred around the role of India in Afghanistan. Following up a rare reference in October 2009, I wrote of the Indian Elephant, pointing out that India stood accused of using the Afghan conflict to destabilise its old enemy, Pakistan - part of a wider regional effort that included supporting the independence movement in Baluchistan, and even paying the Taleban to mount attacks on installations in Pakistan.

We had then seen Pak's Interior Minister Rehman Malik directly accuse India of funding the Taleban – something hotly denied by the Indian government.

No doubt it was inconvenient for the British government to have such allegations widely aired in the domestic media – where India was effectively assisting Britain's enemy - and I do not recall reading any follow-up in the British press, right up to the present.

Yesterday, though, we saw a lengthy US policy analysis telling us that: "India Is Scrambling to Get on the Taliban's Good Side". In this piece, it has former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, Amar Sinha, saying he had argued in favour of talks with the Taliban in September last year. "Once the two sides, that is the Afghan government and the Taliban, sat together, then of course we should have reached out to them", he now says.

This, though, is written by a policy analyst specialising in the Middle East, based in Beirut, who asserts that, to date, India has stuck to its principled opposition to the Taleban and stood by the Afghan government.

One wonders if there is anyone, anywhere, who is prepared to reveal what is really going on, especially as the Washington Post retails stories of backdoor contacts between Indian officials and the Taleban.

WaPo actually thinks this could be a good thing, but it only reports contacts going back to 2013, when India issued a visa to the senior Taliban leader, Abdul Salam Zaeef, for a conference. Zaeef was the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, but after 9/11 the Pakistani government arrested him and handed him over to the United States.

Later, his book, “My Life with the Taliban", was published in India in 2010. His name was also removed from the UN terrorism list; at some point after that he turned up in India. A big question remained, says WaPo: "Why did he agree to visit India and why did India let him in?"

There thus appears to be far more to current events than appear on the surface, and once must always bear in mind the very real and active enmity between India and Pakistan, where the two nuclear powers are confronting each other across their borders, which is manned by tens of thousands of armed troops.

It would not be wise, therefore, to assume that the Indian government would refrain from exploiting the situation in Afghanistan to further undermine Pakistan – all in the context of Pakistan being far more fragile than is generally assumed.

Here, the Times's stringer, Haroon Janjua, does have something to offer. Writing for Deutsche Welle, he warns us that the Taleban advances have given impetus to the Pakistani Taleban, called the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which operate in the country's northwestern region.

This was precisely the organisation that, back in 2009, India was accused of funding, creating another layer of uncertainty which has had Pakistan since 2015 fencing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (pictured), in an attempt to stop Afghan infiltration.

But, if the outcome of the current instability is a prolonged civil war in Afghanistan, not even a fence will insulate Pakistan from the fallout and, as long experience tells us, it will not be long before the effects are felt globally. For all that, it seems we can be assured that the British media will diligently avoid expending its resources on anything so grown-up as covering this developing situation.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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