Back From Not Having Been Away: The Taliban

senlis.jpgI used to think that the only countries where you could get a decent pizza were Italy (by some distance, of course), the United States and (at some distance, of course) the Netherlands. How long I laboured under this misconception I can’t remember, but I do remember the day when my eyes were opened to the truth. I was on holiday in France, heading south where golden sands and blue waters beckoned, when I passed through the little town of Senlis, in the region of Picardie where, as the song has it, “roses are blooming”.  In the grip of lunchtime peckishness I stopped at one of Senlis’ four pizzerias, a charming place called Au Petit Creux, where I had one of the best gorgonzola pizzas ever. I had picked this place because its name did nothing to suggest the isle of Capri, the music of Antonio Vivaldi or a mustachioed padrone named Beppe. Au Petit Creux had a ring to it of carefully prepared, immaculately seasoned food at reasonable prices; something I was not led to expect from the others who were called Le Patio (ugh!), Chez Pino (ugh, ugh!) and Pizzeria Maestro, which I found particularly off-putting. Mind you, their pizzas may have been delicious, I mean no disrespect. It’s just that I’m allergic to gondolas, straw-clad Chianti bottles and plastic leaning towers of Pisa, much as I love Italy itself. 

Senlis’ main claim to fame -apart from its historic role as a staging post for travellers between Paris and the north of France- is its fine 12th century Gothic cathedral, a riotous concoction of every conceivable feature of the style. Smaller than its Parisian namesake, the Senlis Notre Dame is actually more pleasing to the eye. My eye anyway. Why such a pretty medieval town should have given its name to a 21st century club of worthies with global ambitions I cannot begin to guess, but we’re stuck with it. I give you:  The Senlis Council, grandly described by various sources as “an international policy think tank with offices in Kabul, London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa and Rio”. I love think tanks, don’t you? People just like you and me who have ideas about what should and shouldn’t go on in the world. You and I may discuss these over a pint of Speckled Hen in our local pub, whereas think tankers do so over foie gras, a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage, saddle of venison, a slug of Islay malt and a good cigar in a mansion or chateau near Kabul, London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa or Rio.

The Senlis Council made news this week, when it issued a report about the situation in Afghanistan. Its conclusion: things aren’t going well at all. Not to put too fine a point on it: the Taliban are back. They’re back, moreover, with what looks disturbingly like a vengeance. The question, according to the Senlis boys and girls, is not if the bearded zealots will regain control in Afghanistan, the question is: when and how. This is, of course, bad news, especially for women who’ve just passed their driving test and husbands whose wives surprised them on their birthday with the latest battery-operated Gillette Mach 3. Or is it 4?

Now, I’ve always been of the opinion that -although the Taliban are by and large a pretty objectionable bunch- it is not the place of other countries to come to Afghanistan and sort them out. Not only is it ethically indefensible to assault people on their own soil, it is also doomed to fail. Fighting the Taliban is like setting fire to your mattress; you put out the flames with a bucket of water (read: huge quantities of ordnance), but just when you think you can lie down and go back to sleep it begins to smoulder again. I know this because (as Richard Dawkins is my witness) I once actually did accidentally set fire to my bed. I could not put it out again. Anyway, since Uncle Sam called in some IOU’s western countries under the NATO flag have been slugging it out with the Tali’s, whose now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t type of warfare has so far thwarted each and every western objective, be it socking it to Islam, destroying the poppy fields, spreading women’s rights to every nook and cranny of the country or simply nabbing Osama Bin Laden. Occasionally, thanks largely to our superior firepower, we manage to mow down a dozen or so Taliban but, like mushrooms on a damp day, others spring up to take their place. A regular harvest of collateral civilian death ensures that the hearts and minds we are so keen to win remain resolutely turned against us. Except of course in Kabul. Kabul, though, isn’t Afghanistan by any stretch of the imagination. It may once have been a pearl among eastern cities but you wouldn’t think that now. It’s a low-rise, sprawling collection of shoddy buildings, with a few beautiful mosques to keep the spirits up and -more importantly- it’s where the Americans and their Afghan government can feel safe —–for the moment.

Why is the West in Afghanistan and when will we leave? Not because we expect to succeed in getting all the war lords to fall into each others’ arms and bury their Lee Enfields or making flowers grow in their deserts. Flowers that aren’t poppies, I mean. We’re there not because we have a hope in hell of finding Bin Laden but because we need a place to drop our bombs, see a few Taliban bodies fly up in the air and tell ourselves we’re fighting and winning the war against terrorism. It is an unwinnable war; terrorism will stop only if we are prepared to help remove the grievances that cause it. So when will we leave? Preferably tomorrow, but more likely not for many years yet. As a fellow Dutch columnist recently put it: the reasons for leaving Afghanistan are here now; the reasons for staying will still be there in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time. Take your pick. The Taliban don’t care either way; not only is Allah on their side, time is as well. A fact lost on the Dutch parliament, which has just OK’d an extension of what, with Christian zeal, they call ‘the mission’ in Afghanistan. See what I mean?     

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    […] Maki’s journal wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerpt … slug of Islay malt and a good cigar in a mansion or chateau near Kabul, London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa or Rio…. […]


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