The Talking Dog

July 6, 2009, TD Blog Interview with David Loyn

David Loyn has been an award-winning foreign correspondent for 30 years for the BBC. He has reported from such places as Moscow, Kosovo, Delhi, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Kabul. His book Frontline: The True Story of the British Mavericks who Changed the Face of War Reporting was shortlisted for the 2006 Orwell Prize. He is currently the BBC's developing world correspondent. He lives in London. His recent book is called In Afghanistan: Two Hundred Years of British, Russian and American Occupation. On July 5, 2009, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Loyn by e-mail exchange.

The Talking Dog: Where were you on 11 September 2001 and 7 July 2005?

David Loyn: On 9/11, it was said that I was the first reporter in the world to name Osama bin Laden as the most likely suspect. (It's a rather heady claim to make in a world of instant reactions, but it may be true). I happened to be close to the live TV news studio and was dragged onto set after the first plane hit, as the BBC took the pictures live. I named bin Laden as I knew him to be obsessed with the World Trade Center; he had tried to blow it up before. And then the second plane hit. It was early afternoon in London and I went from the studio to a TV edit suite for an extraordinary afternoon trying to piece together what was happening as events unfolded for the lead story for the main evening news - at 6'50" the longest opening item broadcast to date.

On 7/7 in London I had a far more domestic morning as I was taking my son for a piano test. As I arrived there was an odd report on the car radio of an electrical fault that appeared to have knocked out the whole of the London tube system. It soon became clear it was something far more serious as other parents arrived with news of casualties. One of those waiting for the piano teacher turned out to be the wife of a bus driver on the route where a bus had been hit and she was upset as the mobile phone system had crashed, overloaded with too many calls, and she could not make contact She panicked a little and had to be persuaded not to try to travel into the center of town, so I took her to her home instead, and on the way she did get through to find it was not his bus that had been hit.

The Talking Dog: The U.K. title of your book "In Afghanistan" appears to be "Butcher and Bolt," I suppose a reference to the evident strategy of the British Empire for dealing with much of Afghanistan (if not other places troublesome to it) throughout much of the 19th Century (not to mention a description of guerrilla hit and run tactics). Certainly, you noted a number of incidences of extraordinary brutality in Afghanistan by foreigner and local alike, with currently active warlords such as G. Hekmatyar (now aligned with Al Qaeda) and A.R. Dostam (now on "our side") for example, being peculiarly cruel and nasty, though by no means alone in that. I have a "chicken vs. egg" type question: can you draw any conclusions from your reading of the history and your knowledge of the region as to what degree the singular brutality that has been engulfing Afghanistan has been "finely honed" as a result of the foreign interventions-- starting with British, Russian, Arab and American, or others, if you like... in other words, is there a peculiar barbarity that just exists from the make-up of the people, terrain, living conditions, et al., or has this barbarity been enhanced by specifically Western interventions?

David Loyn: George Forster, in 1783 the first British traveler to leave an account of a journey into Afghanistan, was robbed as he went through the Khyber Pass as countless others were after him. He concluded that Afghans were a 'rude race of men', with a 'fixed contempt for the occupations of civil life.' The first official British envoy, Mountstuart Elphinstone, who led an expedition to Afghanistan in 1809, exactly 200 years ago, found a country in a rather similar condition to today, racked by civil war, with bad roads and people mistrustful of outsiders. He wrote, 'To sum up the character of the Afghans in a few words; their vices are revenge, envy, avarice, rapacity, and obstinacy; on the other hand, they are fond of liberty, faithful to their friends, kind to their dependants, hospitable, brave, hardy, frugal, laborious and prudent.' So it's hard to blame the west for the diamond hardness and ruthlessness of the Afghan character. But it certainly makes them a tough and resolute enemy when united against a foreign invader. And since the Russian invasion of 1979 the country has been comprehensively brutalised by war, first by Russia and then by the response of the US, UK and other western countries in backing a violent Islamic insurrection against the invasion. This stripping down of civilised values left an open door to those, like Saudi Arabia, who wanted to encourage the virulent and singular strain of Islamic belief that is causing such problems today.

Afghans have an ability to endure pain and hardship that seems to go beyond sanity. During the war against the Russians, one reporter saw a warrior hold his hand over a fire until the flesh melted when his bravery was questioned. And they can be cruel in the way they deal with captives - mutilating them and skinning them alive for example.

The phrase 'Butcher and Bolt' was a late nineteenth-century insult for British campaigns in the North-west frontier - i.e. killing to no good effect, destroying villages but not then holding the ground. Winston Churchill, later British Prime Minister, popularised it in an excellent book he wrote about the 1897 British campaign on the frontier. It has strong echoes in the modern era. In the 1980s, a Russian journalist wrote 'Upon completing an operation, the Afghan-Soviet troops as a rule return to their bases and the regions fall back under the control of the rebels.…In the course of those operations, housing and the agricultural fields are often destroyed, the civilian population is killed, and in the end everything remains the same.' And when British forces took the war to the Taliban for the first time in their heartland in Helmand in the south in 2006, a disillusioned officer, Captain Leo Docherty, wrote afterwards that they had taken ground but not been able to hold it as the Taliban came back in. Looking back, he wrote, 'All the well meaning reconstruction stuff is an illusion. The time spent there now seems to have been an egotistical folly.'

The campaign now going on through the summer of 2009, with a significant increase in U.S. forces, is the first serious attempt to break this stalemate, holding ground once it is taken.

The Talking Dog: Your book features an amazing panoply of characters involved over the years, on all sides; I will say that the character I found most amazing was the British officer's wife: Lady Sale, who kept a diary of many of the horrific circumstances of one particular period of British occupation, including her own leadership in battle. In modern times, perhaps Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the murdered Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massud are also of note, in my view. Can you identify three or four players from the vast cast of characters, any side, that you found compelling in the course of your work, and what resonance they have for the present?

David Loyn: It is certainly a story rich with compelling individuals. Five that stand out:

Lady Florentia Sale was a gifted artist, writer, and courageous observer - one of the few heroes amid the incompetence and indecision that led to the humiliation and slaughter of around 16,000 British and Indian men,women and children in the retreat of the Kabul garrison through the harshness of an Afghan winter in 1841. Even after she has been injured herself, riding through a hail of gunfire, and seen her soldier son-in-law die in her arms, she still commented on the magnificence of the surroundings as she and other women from the convoy, including her pregnant daughter, were led away to an uncertain future. After several months in captivity, and with the British 'Army of Retribution' not far away, she picked up a musket, taking command and turning their Afghan captors into prisoners when none of the few surviving men would do so. Her husband, Captain 'Fighting Bob' Sale, commanded the relief column sent to free the prisoners, and was a true Victorian in not letting his emotions show. When a brother officer rode up to ask him how his reunion with his wife had been: 'he made a hideous series of grimaces, dug his spurs into his horse, and galloped off as hard as he could.'

Captain Thomas Seaton was a British officer in the garrison that defended Jalalabad fort, one of the few success stories during that first disastrous British war. Seaton earned the undying affection of his colleagues by setting up a still to make a very rough and ready whiskey. No sooner had the British built their defences for a seige than they were destroyed by an earthquake, and once the seige began, the ingenuity that Seaton recorded in his entertaining account ensured victory. As they ran out of ammunition they held up red-coated dummies on poles, harvesting the lead musket balls that rained into the fort for their own use. They needed to send out foraging parties to gather grass for their horses, and the Afghans put large flocks of sheep onto the the grass closest to the fort to force the foraging parties to travel further and into harm's way. One morning the British sent out a large detachment of infantry to form a corridor and then mounted a cavalry charge to round up the sheep, raising morale, and giving them a much needed supply of fresh meat.

Abdur Rahman, the Amir (king) of Afghanistan for the last 20 years or so of the nineteenth century, was a ruthless and canny player of the 'Great Game' - the century-long struggle for control of Afghanistan between Russia and Britain. He played one off against the other, although he felt himself caught 'like a grain of wheat between two millstones.' He secured the best deal he could for Afghanistan in 1893, when it became clear that the British emissary Henry Mortimer Durand was intent on drawing a new eastern border for Afghanistan through the mountains to its east. The border that now divides Afghanistan from the North-west frontier of Pakistan is called the 'Durand Line' to this day. During the inevitable huge frontier uprising that erupted just four years after Durand's line was supposed to secure peace, Abdur Rahman promised to back Britain, while at the same time encouraging the frontier leaders to mount a 'Jihad', a holy war, against the invader. My book includes the first English translation of his call to Jihad, which has direct parallels, including use of the same verses of the Koran, with the call to Jihad made by Osama bin Laden in the same region today.

Mahmoud Tarzi, the Foreign Minister and son-in-law of King Amanullah, the reforming Amir of Afghanistan in the 1920s, was the driving force behind the most determined attempt to reform Afghanistan to date. Girls' education was guaranteed, child marriages outlawed, pharmacies subsidised, and fundamentalist Wahhabi mullahs banned from preaching. Foreign investment was encouraged, as Afghanistan looked to the success stories of Islamic countries like Turkey, then turning itself into a secular state. It ended in a violent insurrection after the Amir's wife was photographed on a European trip wearing an evening dress with bare arms. It is this episode that President Karzai is referring to when he cautions western visitors against bringing equality to Afghanistan. He likes to say 'Remember, the last king of Afghanistan who tried to give rights to women ended up dead.'

Mullah Borjan was the military commander of the Taliban from their beginnings in 1994 until he was killed in their assault on Kabul in 1996. He was a tough and experienced fighter who had endured much in the war against the Soviet Union, and joined the Taliban to end the corruption and criminality among the mujahidin leaders who had won that war (many of whom have resumed positions of power in Afghanistan since the Taliban defeat in 2001, and are still corrupt and criminal). I interviewed Borjan for the BBC the night before he died and was struck by his rational and commonsense approach. He was rather in favour of girls having education once the war was over, and was not a fundamentalist like some of his colleagues. His death robbed his movement of a voice of reason, but there were and are many strains of political thought within the Taliban. It is a major western foreign policy mistake to try to split them off and bring them over; Far better to try to engage with the leadership, however hard that may look, encouraging those within who want conciliation and not confrontation.

The Talking Dog: Your book notes that with respect to the famous interviews you did with Taliban fighters in Helmand province in 2006, you quite literally owe your life to the Pashtun honor code, to wit, once you are a guest of a Pashtun, they will protect you with their life, and so, your host protected you against his allied fighters who regarded you as "the enemy" (perhaps how certain UK parliamentarians felt about you after you did that interview). This, alas, is one of the rationales of Mullah Omar and the Taliban harboring Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda leadership, seemingly on both sides of the "Durand Line" that forms the Pakistan-Afghanistan border to this day, making it a rather difficult endeavor to bring OBL, Zawahiri, et al, to justice. From your historical observations, can you give us an example from the British/Raj era, the Soviet invasion era and the current American/NATO intervention of an outside power misunderstanding Afghan tribal traditions-- particularly that one-- to the peril of the outside powers? Any particular lessons for the current intervenors from this historical context?

David Loyn: During both of the nineteenth-century British wars, the warning signs of impending doom were ignored until it was too late. Gifted as we are with the perfect vision of hindsight this is rather easy to see. But in the first war there were those in the British camp, particularly an Indian secretary, Mohan Lal, who had seen the storm clouds gather from the beginning as the British, confident in the success of their ability to wield overwhelming force, did not properly reward Afghan tribal leaders who had come over to their side. During the weeks before the insurrection, it was Lal who recorded how tribal chiefs were angry as their subsidies from Britain were cut just as food prices were going up and wages for government jobs going down. The night before the uprising began, the civilian head of the British occupation force, Sir William Macnaghten, talked of ‘a season of such profound tranquillity’. But Lal had recorded the most telling sign of change: mullahs had stopped saying prayers for the British-installed Amir, Shah Shuja, in the mosques. As the US-led force in the 21st century is discovering, Afghans follow power. If they believe that the occupying force is wavering, then they tend to withdraw support. The most astute British observer in 1841, Captain Seaton, complained of inconsistency in the British approach, ‘a mixture of iron and clay . . . utterly unsuited to the fierce tribes of the country, who soon detected the weakness of their rulers’.

The Talking Dog: Jared Diamond ("Guns, Germs and Steel" and "Collapse") might suggest that geography is destiny, at least in terms sociological and cultural, and hence, people from lush, fertile, relatively flat islands (like Britain) or peninsulas may develop different societies from people from landlocked, infertile mountainous countries (like Afghanistan). You have certainly noted that the Afghan character is not unrelated to their spectacular mountainous and largely uninhabitable country, which, if nothing else, provides useful cover for guerrilla combat. Based on your historical observation and long familiarity with the region as a journalist, do you find any merit to this proposition, and, based on the interplay of the Afghan national character and the Afghan national geography, how would you advise international policymakers to proceed?

David Loyn: Geography certainly defines Afghanistan's destiny. Less than 5% of the land is irrigible farmland; the rest is deserts and mountains, framed by the right-angled ranges of the Hindu Kush across the middle, and the Suleiman Mountains running up the east of the country. But this does not mean it was always poor. In the 1970s Helmand exported more raisins than California, thanks to the Helmand irrigation project (based on the Tennessee Valley Authority). That fertile valley now grows about 90% of the world's illegal opium. Afghanistan is on a geographical crossroads, trampled across by invaders for thousands of years, but none has stayed the course. There were big mistakes made after 2001, with raised expectations that women would 'throw off the burqa' and that a western-style voting system would somehow conjure up a civilised society as if by magic out of nowhere. In a highly critical report the World Bank talked of an 'aid juggernaut' descending on Kabul, sucking out the translators and officials for itself, rather than building the capacity of the Afghan state. Dealing with local corruption might have been a better use of international effort. In the first year after the Taliban fell, government revenues were actually lower than during the Taliban years, as local warlords creamed off the cash again for themselves. There is a growing realisation that it will not be possible to create something like Switzerland in the Hindu Kush, and eight years on there are far lower expectations about the kind of society that can be built. Respecting Afghans' ability to do things for themselves and then letting modern notions of sexual equality spread out from the cities would be a better way forward. But without stability and competent government none of this will happen.

The Talking Dog: Your book notes a 40-year gap of relative peace and prosperity (in Afghan terms) during the reign of former king Mohammad Zahir Shah from the early 1930's until the early 1970's; he just died in 2007 in his 90's. The remaining, more turbulent part of the last two centuries, discussed in your book, has been marked by a number of foreign interventions in Afghan affairs. In your view, to what do you attribute this uncharacteristic period of stability (during which, also uncharacteristically, Afghan living standards improved... they have since deteriorated again)? To what effect do you see a brilliant strong man, cooperative local war lords, intelligent central administration, or quiet from sources abroad (unlikely given that this period saw the dismantling of colonial empires including neighboring India and Pakistan, World War II, and much of the Cold War) or sheer luck... or something else? Although restoring Zahir Shah himself to the throne was thought of, and evidently rejected as a post-9-11 possibility, what other policies do you see as likely to restore Afghanistan to a position of relative stability-- like the Zahir Shah era?

David Loyn: It is one of the great 'what ifs' of history - what if Zahir Shah had come back to power? He certainly had respect in many quarters. There was a strong pro-king movement within the Taliban themselves. But his time was over, and with some grace he blessed the swift no-nonsense meeting of tribal leaders - the Loya Jirga - after the Taliban fell, that engineered the coronation of Karzai as President instead, with the Taliban excluded from the process. Zahir was a clever ruler, who played Europe, Russia and America rather well for 40 years, before being ousted by his cousin in a palace coup as reform demands grew too loud to ignore in 1973.

The Talking Dog: While I had vague conceptions of such European overlays on the Asian map like the Durand line (and the Sikes-Picot line to the West), until I read your book, it had not really dawned on me that the Durand line was actually a demarcation of the extremes of (pre-partition) India, nor did it dawn on me that "Pashtunistan" was conveniently divided in half, and has proven "ungovernable" by both the weak Afghan state or the somewhat stronger Pakistani state alike and, of course, is where OBL, Zawahiri are presumably enjoying someone's hospitality). I regard myself as extremely well informed by American standards, and I even took a college course on Modern Indian and Pakistani history... and yet, was ignorant of many of the basic historical facts until I read your book. To what extent do you believe that the lack of even the most basic understanding of the South and Central Asian regions by American (and to some extent, European) policy-makers has resulted in what I'll call not merely disastrous, but potentially apocalyptic policy results (for example, if the Taliban acquire control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal at Rawalpindi and environs... from which they are less than 100 kms away in the Swat Valley)? How would you suggest alleviating this-- aside from having people read your great book-- i.e. how can we get more Westerners (or even Westerners who matter) to get a greater understanding of the region?

David Loyn: Reading my book is obviously a start as an answer to your question! The Bush/Blair years were a period when complicating factors like context and history were not allowed to get in the way of policy. It has become a truism in British intellectual life to say that Tony Blair did not 'do' history, either in domestic or international affairs - everything was fashioned as if new. And the belief in the Bush White House in the overwhelming ability of US military power to prevail, blinded policymakers even to simple known truths about conflict - such as that conventional forces, however powerful, usually lose against unconventional guerrilla groups, if those groups have a safe haven, high morale, and some local support. The Taliban have all these strengths, and have time on their side. Politicians around President Bush ignored reality even written down in their own military's counterinsurgency doctrine: 'Insurgents that never defeat counterinsurgents in combat still may achieve their strategic objectives.'

The USA inspired, armed and funded the mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and then walked away once communism had been defeated, leaving the Afghans to pick up the pieces. (I was talking to an ex-CIA officer recently, who had been involved in running the war against the Soviet Union from the North-west frontier in the 1980s, and when I put this point to him about continuing responsibility he said simply 'Well, we weren't in Afghanistan in the 1980s' - factually true, but morally corrupt). When 9/11 happened, there was not a single person on the CIA's books who spoke Pashtu - the language of the Taliban.

Obama plays in a different league. In his recent Cairo speech his acknowledgement of US complicity in bringing down the Iranian leader Mossadeq, elected in 1952, was an extraordinary turnaround, and noticed across the region. So let's see.

The Talking Dog: Please tell me your impressions of former Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, both from your research and personal experience if any. (For readers less familiar, Wilson, of course, was the prime Congressional mover in getting clandestine funding for Afghan mujahadeen, and in particular, what I view as his murderous legacy of indiscriminate funding of violence (notwithstanding the glamour of having Tom Hanks portray him in a movie) that (again, my opinion only) led as directly as anything else I can think of to the events of September 11th.)

David Loyn: I have never met Congressman Wilson. I relied heavily on the wonderful book by the late George Crile, who chronicled Wilson's role in persuading the US that Afghanistan was the place where Soviet communism could be defeated. The Tom Hanks film is a pretty good take on the story (although for me it underplays the sheer pleasure, and enormous appetite, that Wilson had for women and drink.) Where the film parts company with history is in showing Wilson apparently failing to raise more than a few hundred thousand dollars for education and reconstruction in Afghanistan once the Russians were out. The facts are that US military funding for the mujahidin continued on a colossal scale for a further two years, even after it was obvious to anyone, including some on Wilson's staff, that the mujahidin heroes of the war against Russia were now turning the guns on their allies and on Afghan civilians in a war for the spoils. It was this fighting more than any other single factor that inspired the rise of the Taliban. The road to 9/11 began when the USA took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan between 1989 and 1992.

The Talking Dog: . As my college classmate President Barack Obama prepares for a "surge" in troop strength in Afghanistan (as he promised during his campaign), what specific advice (other than perhaps "read the book") would you give him, based on your reading of the historical legacy of the prior foreign interventions--British and Soviet-- that took place there? Any advice re: dealing with the current situation in Pakistan and its Taliban uprising, in this context?

David Loyn: If you ask people in rural Afghanistan, or in the Pakistani North-West frontier, why they are backing the Taliban, the answer that most often comes back is that the Taliban provide justice. It may not be the kind that we would like - sharia law has some notoriously harsh penalties, such as amputation. But the worst failure in Afghanistan since 2001 has been in allowing corruption to return so that the police and courts did not provide justice. How could 2 million refugees be expected to return to their land if warlords were again controlling things? It is the same story on the Pakistani side of the mountains. Easy access to justice has deprived people of any recourse other than to the Taliban. And the failure to provide any education has opened the door to Wahhabi religious schools, madrasas, some financed from Saudi Arabia, who teach little other than the recital of holy texts by rote. Any western-designed policy that does not address this, and do it in a way that respects local customs, is likely to fail. Expensive and cleverly constutructed aid programs designed outside the country have not worked so far. One of the popular reasons for the war against the Taliban was because of their harsh treatment of women, but the outspoken Afghan woman MP, Malalai Joya now says that 'Rights for women in Afghanistan are worse now than under the Taliban.'

The Talking Dog:. Anything else that I should have asked you but didn't or that the public needs to know on these critical subjects?

David Loyn: The one continuing theme across two centuries of foreign intervention in Afghanistan is the ability of insurgents to politicise their Islamic faith to inspire jihad against the invader. It was this that the US exploited so effectively in the 1980s against Russia and it has come back to bite the hand that fed it. Even the word Taliban is not new. Winston Churchill, later British Prime Minister, who was a war correspondent in the 1897 frontier war, identified taliban among the enemy and said they were the most ferocious. He wrote that they corresponded with theological students abroad, and 'lived free at the expense of the people.' And it goes back even further than that, as detailed in my book. In the 1830s, the Amir that Britain wanted to depose, Dost Mohammed, took a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed from its case in a mosque in Kandahar, displayed it to the people and declared himself 'Amir al-mu'minin', leader of all muslims. With this declaration as king and priest he roused his people against the invader. The next person to do that was the Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the months before he took Kabul in 1996. Afghans remember this history; perhaps we should have more of an idea of it.

The Talking Dog: I join all of my readers in thanking Mr. Loyn for that interesting and informative interview, and I commend interested readers to check out "In Afghanistan".


Excellent interview! Useful information and insight . Thank you Mr. Loyn and TD.

Posted by Bonnie at July 8, 2009 12:46 AM

I've ordered the book. Keep up these great interviews.

Posted by Michael L at July 10, 2009 9:19 AM