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Speed Read – tragedy in Afghanistan

Every week the Friday Speed Read wishes the world was a nicer place sometimes.

In the early hours of this morning I had decided I wasn’t going to write a Speed Read this week. I had an excuse ready to go – I was on leave yesterday and there’s a fair amount that I need to catch up on before then getting on with today’s task – and it would have allowed me to sidestep the challenge of composing anything remotely prescient about the events in Afghanistan in the past week. What could I add that would be in any way insightful from my comfortable home office in Weston-Super-Mare?

But writing a weekly news column for over 200 editions does strange things to you. Or to me at least. And I had a niggle. I drank a coffee in the hope that it would banish the niggle in the same, efficacious way it had banished the early morning Friday fuzziness. But the niggle remained. And so, I decided to listen to this niggle and here we are.

Along with many, many others,  in the early years of the new millennium I read two novels by Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini. The first, The Kite Runner, followed the life of a young boy called Amir through several decades of turbulent, tragic history and a second, A Thousand Splendid Suns, focussed on an illegitimate daughter called Mariam as she searches for love and acceptance. I enjoyed them both and scenes from them vividly stay with me twenty (gulp) years later.

Like all great literature, these two novels were a shot of distilled, high-octane empathy pumped straight into an artery. We all knew Afghanistan from the news reports: brown, barren, filled with men carrying automatic weapons and fringed with mountains giving shelter to the terrorists that had killed so many people in our countries in recent years. All of this was true. But, as ever, the media picture was incomplete. Hosseini’s novels showed the human side of Afghanistan: families, love, fun, sexual desire, ambition, worry . . . you know, all the stuff that we all go through. It perhaps shouldn’t take art to kickstart a sense that human beings share similar preoccupations wherever they are in the world but sometimes it does. Sometimes we’re all too busy to reach obvious conclusions on our own. And this is why art matters.

Anyway, the brutal rule of the Taliban is unflinchingly depicted in these novels. The subjugation of women; the public executions, the terror they imposed upon a people unable to resist with a casual disregard for life that belied the Islamic teachings that they claim to be sacred – all of it vivid and horrifying. So, following the American and British intervention in the country and the slow but seemingly effective expulsion of the Taliban from power, whatever the problems that were left in the wake, and they were myriad, there was a sense of relief that life would no longer be quite as terrible for the Afghan people. Girls could go to school; women no longer needed to wear a burqa; women could have jobs and some even began serving in government. It was still a dangerous, volatile place but it was better.

And then in just over two weeks, following the withdrawal of American troops from the country, the Taliban returned. Last weekend, they entered the capital Kabul and, as the Afghan president fled on an aeroplane, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was declared and twenty years of stuttering progress was halted. The new leadership appealed for calm and reassured its citizens that there would be no reprisals, no revenge, no return to brutality of their previous rule. The crush of desperate people at the airport shows how many people believed them.

The image of people clinging to the outside of aeroplanes as they began to take off is of a kind that burns itself into the memory even if you just glimpsed it before turning away. The futility of the gesture and the irrational desperation that led to it are both heart-breaking; this was an attempted escape that had absolutely no chance of success. That these people would fall to their deaths was inevitable but this inevitability didn’t stop them trying.

The politics around this tragedy are tangled and contradictory. It’s hard to disagree with President Biden when he said that America couldn’t intervene in a foreign country forever but then, what was all the death for? American troops, British troops alongside many others have all been killed in Afghanistan in the past twenty years. And so for what? Biden claims that the mission was to defeat terrorism and in those terms it must be judged a success. Maybe he’s right. But looking at the news this week, success seems like an absurd claim.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was on holiday in Crete at the end of last week. His staff told him that he should urgently speak to his then-counterpart in Afghanistan to seek the safe evacuation of translators who had worked with the British military. He didn’t make the phone call. At the time of writing, Dominic Raab remains Foreign Secretary.

And that’s all I am going to write about Afghanistan for now. I’m sorry that it was grim but I’m glad that I made the effort. It’s all too easy to look the other way.

We finish this week with a couple of silly stories that are entirely inconsequential but unconsciously celebrate the freedoms that we take for granted in our flawed but generally brilliant life in the UK.

Paul Taylor from Wantage in Oxfordshire has embarked on a 1800 mile tour of the UK on a tiny moped with the intention of visiting places with rude and / or funny names. Some of the more printable waypoints on his trip include Dull, Pity Me, Titty Ho, Booze and Shitterton. There are others. Paul is raising money in memory of his friend who died from cancer. Paul is a hero.

A row has broken out on Holy Island / Lindisfarne after a new mode of transport was installed to take visitors from the car park to the C16th castle. 9000 signatories feel that “Larry Landtrain” is not an appropriate addition to one of the holiest sites in the UK. It feels like a plot from Father Ted (of which I watched the complete box set again the other day and it is still brilliant).

Finally, a lot of sadness this week at the untimely death of comedian Sean Lock. I saw him do stand-up at the Edinburgh Festival many years ago and he was absolutely fantastic. Like all properly funny people, he made the business of making a room of 300 people helpless with laughter look effortless. To him, it’s likely that it was. Channel 4 have made a nice compilation of some his funniest moments here.

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