What History Books Have Taught Us About the Afghan Quest

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BOOK REVIEW: Afghan Quest

By Joyce Dunsheath and Eleanor Baillie / Bhavana Books & Prints (1960)

Reviewed by Nick Fishwick, Former Senior Member, British Foreign Office

The Reviewer – Cipher Brief Expert Nick Fishwick CMG, retired in 2012 after nearly thirty years with the British Foreign Service. He was posted in Lagos, Istanbul and Kabul. His responsibilities in London included director of security and after returning from Afghanistan in 2007, he served as director for counterterrorism. His final role was as director general for international operations.

REVIEW — When I served in Afghanistan fifteen years ago, one of the rare pleasures of the job included a visit every now and then to the Shah Book Shop. The shop knew its market – foreign aid workers, diplomats, journalists, and the like – and you could find all sorts of books by and about their equivalents in the 19th century – travellers, spies, military officers, traders, empire builders, empire dismantlers and so on. Knowing its market, the shop charged high prices. We were as it were, a captive market.

One book that looked likely to have relevance sooner or later, was Lady Sale’s, A Journal of the Disasters in Afghanistan, featuring the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842. Gun-running and the Indian North West Frontier by Arnold Keppel, written in 1911, also somehow seemed very relevant a hundred years later.

But the book that will always most intrigue me, is Afghan Quest, written by two middle-aged members of the English Ladies Alpine Club in 1960, Joyce Dunsheath and Eleanor Baillie. The “quest” was a journey of these two women into Afghanistan, via the Soviet Union and Iran, for a spot of mountaineering in Afghanistan and out again via Pakistan including what seems to have been an uneventful night in a place called Abbottabad.

The tone of the book is relentlessly cheerful. There is not much interest in politics. A few recipes are passed on (“How to cook gandum: Find a suitable flake of rock that will cover the top of your dung fire…”). The Afghans encountered are described in a very 1960, white British middle-class way: some are primitive, some are shifty, some are charming, some are thieving, most are kind, but they are all – well, really different from “us”.

Be clear about one thing – these respectable English fifty-somethings were tough as old leather. They may have had a network of chums in embassies and businesses to help out with some parts of their trip, but they knew that they would be facing some extraordinary risks alone. Not much was known about Afghanistan and some friends, before they set out, helpfully warned Dunsheath and Baillie that sexual molestation and murder could be waiting for them. And they weren’t just hanging around Afghanistan for a bit of sight-seeing; they were there to scale 20,000-foot mountains in the Hindu Kush. Extraordinary women, then.

So, in 1960 it was quite possible for these women to travel around Afghanistan by bus and stay, for example, in a hotel in Kandahar for a few days enjoying the beauty of the city. Dunsheath and Baillie occasionally note that Afghanistan has some way to go before it reaches western levels of civilisation, or “civilisation”; they note with surprise that “in the cities the veiled woman is still the rule rather than the exception”. There is the odd regretful reference to the failure of King Amanullah’s Ataturk-style efforts to modernise Afghanistan in the 1920s. “Outside influences” retard the country’s progress, but they still hope that the Turkish narrative will apply to Afghanistan too.

When I first read this book in 2006, there weren’t many English women travelling around Afghanistan by bus, climbing mountains in the Hindu Kush or relaxing at hotels in Kandahar. British troops were getting clobbered in Helmand and bombs were going off in Kabul. You got to Kandahar not by bus but by C-130. Still, for me, and for thousands of other foreigners who spent time in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, our mission wasn’t just about making sure another 9/11 couldn’t be planned from Afghanistan. It wasn’t about making the country an ungoverned space that was no longer safe for terrorists. It was about helping it to become a country that wasn’t an ungoverned space anymore. A country where tough middle-aged foreign women could ride around by bus, stay in Kandahar hotels, and climb mountains.

We now survey the ruins of this dream, and Lady Sale in 1842, and Arnold Keppel in 1911, are much more relevant to Afghanistan than the Alpine Ladies Club of 1960. As I write, Afghanistan is collapsing. And it is no one’s fault. American presidents had to deal with the problems they faced in 2001, in 2010, in 2019, and now. They faced different political realities and who can condemn them for the decisions they took? Afghanistan, as Afghan Quest seems to note, was a fairly fragile country even in the 1960s, and from 1979, it had its guts ripped out by the Soviet invasion and civil war. It’s not Karzai or Ashraf Ghani’s fault that Afghanistan has been unable to unite against the Taliban. It’s no one’s fault that corruption and the drugs trade have been the only activities to flourish consistently since 2001. You can’t pin the blame on anyone.

And that is the problem. No one is accountable, in a curiously democratic sense. The west intervened in 2001, driven by what seemed an imperative to drive terrorism out of Afghanistan, and a hope that seemed entirely realistic of helping Afghanistan develop into a decent and successful country. We have now reached the point where the west cannot even spare a few thousand troops to preserve at least some of the gains of the past 20 years. We have betrayed Afghanistan, but it is no one’s fault.

I hear friends say, “sooner or later we’ll have to go back into Afghanistan, all over again”.  Another terrorist attack or some such event will force us to intervene, they think. I wonder.

One lesson drawn by western leaders, as they turn their backs on Afghanistan, will be in future to keep boots off the ground. A deeper lesson is that democracies with elections every four years or so are not fit to see through long-term projects of the sort we took on twenty years ago. The smart people realised that at the time.

All these decades later, Afghan Quest earns a prestigious four out of four trench coats.


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