Photojournalist Andrew Quilty had been thinking about writing a book about Afghanistan since late 2020. The Doha agreement had been signed in February 2020, thousands of Taliban prisoners had been released, and the Americans were pressuring Kabul to take more responsibility for ‘active defence’ so that the US troops could withdraw as planned. In this book that he imagined writing, he intended following the theme that he’d been following for several years in his reporting: that the US refusal to deal with the Taliban had ignited the insurgency, as it had in Iraq. He would follow the lives of rural Afghans, who had experienced a very different war from that experienced from Kabul, and bring their experiences to attention.
But then August happened, and that book was put aside and this one written instead. Biden had specified a withdrawal date of 31 August, but as the Taliban took Kabul, the date was brought forward. By mid August foreign embassies were closing, expatriates were being brought home, and crowds of people desperate to escape the return of the Taliban surrounded the airport, standing in a canal of sewage, clinging to the undercarriage of airplanes. We all saw it, but the sheer press of humanity turned these people into a ‘mob’. Andrew Quilty gives them back their individuality.
The book is written chronologically in three parts, with each chapter set at a different location, with some locations appearing in all three parts. Part I is set in early August, as the rumours of the return of the Taliban become stronger; Part II is set in mid-August as the government falls apart; and Part III is set in late August as the Taliban take Kabul and those who can, try to flee. In Part I in particular, he captures some of what he intended in his earlier planned book, interviewing soldiers protecting the Antenna Post in Maidan Wardak Province, but also the villagers who, because of their own conservative beliefs and lifestyles, saw no threat from the returning Taliban. In the later sections he focuses his attention on Kabul, not only because the provinces are now Taliban-dominated and thus less accessible to him, but also because it is city-dwellers and those who had assisted the US and other foreign troops who have more to fear and more to lose as a result of the return of the Taliban after two decades.
The journalistic leanings of the author are clearly visible. Each chapter is written almost as an object of long-form journalism, with interviews and stories of colleagues and antagonists interwoven with each other. It reflects my own cultural blinkers, I know, but I did become a little confused between characters whose names seemed very similar to me, and I would have appreciated a list of characters with an identifying paragraph at the start of the book. However, the index was very useful, and most of the acronyms were spelled out in the index as well. I was bemused, though, by his insertion of a chapter of historical background which appeared in Chapter 8, two-thirds of the way through the book. I would have thought that it would have been more useful earlier.
And I don’t know if it is because I am a woman, or whether the recent closure of universities and NGO jobs to women in Afghanistan has heightened our awareness, but I responded most to the stories of women, in particular Nadia, whose oppression within the family became more suffocating as the Taliban approached. It was as if her brother was emboldened within the family home by the appearance in the streets of the Taliban perched on their jeeps, bristling with guns. The power of her older brother within the family is frightening, as he cajoles his father into stricter discipline of his daughter, and her mother averts her eyes. Then there is Hamed, a presidential staffer, who watches as all the framework of government melts away as men decide to look to their own safety first by taking advantage of opportunities of escape that were not available to those crowds surrounding the international airport. Quilty takes us to those people at the airport, some of whom manage to get inside and escape to a new, if uncertain, future and others who after days of heat, dehydration, crowding and sloshing through that foul canal of sewage decide that it is futile and return home.
There are many dangerous places in the world, but surely the most perilous time must be as one regime gives way to another. If you have made a commitment to either side, all traces need to be expunged without hesitation or sentimentality, and it becomes clear where the limits to loyalty lie. And now, as the Taliban reneges on its promises about women and as the world struggles with how to deal with this inexorably hardline government, I wonder what happened -and will happen – to the people that Andrew Quilty has brought forward into Western consciousness.
My rating: 8/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library. Read because I read a review of it somewhere.