A Wish For Afghanistan

IN 2002 Zalmay Khalilzad flew into Kabul, the capital of his homeland, in the wake of the American invasion. “It was like a dead city,” he recalls. “No cars, hardly any bicycles, shops empty, destruction in each and every way. It was heart-breaking.”

It was Khalilzad’s job to fix it. He was, as journalist Lyse Doucet pointed out in the first episode of A Wish For Afghanistan on BBC World Service last Wednesday, “point man on Afghanistan for three presidents.” He was also the man who negotiated last month’s US withdrawal from the country with the Taliban. That’s some full circle turned.

Doucet has been reporting from Afghanistan for more than 30 years and this new series, recorded in the months before the fall of Kabul, is an attempt to ask what has happened in the years between 2002 and now. Later in the series she will be talking to former President Hamid Karzai who led the country from 2001 to 2014. But she began with the power behind the throne as it were.

Doucet’s interview was fascinating, disturbing and at times hard-hitting. She was not afraid to ask tough questions and Khalilzad at least had the grace to try to answer rather than dodge away.

Khalilzad was born in the north of Afghanistan in 1951 into straitened circumstances. As he told Doucet, his own sister died because of the lack of medical attention at the time. No wonder he was seduced by his first visit to the US as a teenager in the mid-1960s. The lights of New York alone were enough of a contrast to the country he had grown up in.

He became a student at the University of Chicago and a US citizen, went on to teach at Columbia University, then started writing policies for the Rand Corporation and began working his way up the government’s foreign policy machine, “throughout,” Doucet points out, “articulating a muscular, neo-conservative view of America’s place in the world.”

Read More: Ben Nevis on the radio

It was Khalilzad who President George W Bush turned to in the wake of 9/11. Hence the flight in 2002. It was Khalilzad’s job to help establish peace and democracy, via drinking tea with warlords or, if required, having a B1 bomber fly over the warlord’s house if he was being recalcitrant.

And though out of the picture during the Obama years, it was Khalilzad who Mike Pompeo called when President Donald Trump wanted to negotiate with the Taliban over an American pull-out.

“I frankly did not think we would be there for 20 years,” Khalilzad admitted to Doucet.

Now that the US has left Afghanistan in the wake of his own negotiations, did he have any regrets, she asked him?

“I regret that Afghanistan doesn’t have peace,” he replied

Doucet persisted. Did America fail? “America achieved its goal with regards to terrorism.”

But look at Afghanistan now, Doucet pointed out. “Well, I’d rather not judge her now,” he concluded “Big events like this judgement would have to be made retrospectively in several years when this current chapter has worked its way out.

Which is no doubt true, but possibly easier to say when you are thousands of miles from Afghanistan.

On 6Music last Sunday Guy Garvey celebrated the 20th anniversary of Bjork’s album Vespertine ((which just happens to be one of my favourites). A reaction to her miserable experience making the film Dancer in the Dark, it’s an album that is all microbeats and intimacy, the equivalent, many of Garvey’s guests suggested, of an ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), that tingly feeling you might get from someone whispering in your ear or thistling paper.

By coincidence I was driving past the house where I first listened to it while Pagan Poetry played and I felt my own ASMR, a rustling reminder of another time when my wife was alive and my children were young. Sigh.

Listen Out For: The Sounds of the 21st Century, Radio 2, tomorrow, 9pm. As if we’re not feeling old enough, here’s the first blast of nostalgia for the early years of this century, fronted by Claudia Winkleman. Wasn’t 2003 just last week though?

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992