I read an article from Rolling Stone the other day – ‘Last Tango in Kabul‘. It wasn’t bad, as far as it went; decently written, and a mildly interesting insight into a world that isn’t normally accessible.
It took me a few minutes to put my finger on what bothered me about it. And then I realised what it was. I think it’s the fact that in the story, very few Afghan people … exist, I guess? Aikins describes attacks on foreigners, isolated incidents that reflect the turmoil in the world outside their bubble
Of course, in the rest of the country the war was getting more and more violent, and the dead, mostly Afghans, were piling up. But it was easy to ignore it inside the Kabubble, as we called it. There were occasional, brutal intrusions like the attack on a pair of guesthouses in 2010 that killed 16 people, 11 of them foreigners, but normalcy returned quickly. Maybe it was the constant turnover, the fact that most people came and went after a year or so, but we were like a city of amnesiacs.
Aikins does tell a story of an Afghan and his family, killed in a safe location within the expat bubble. And later, he says
Kabul had finally lost its sense of distance from the war …
For all the schools and health clinics, it sometimes feels like the U.S. has managed to prop up only a polite veneer of democracy stretched over a naked and brutal landscape of power, the product of decades of warfare, gangsterism and the Pentagon’s cynical expediency in choosing its allies. Instead of real commitment to the rule of law, we’ve had ad hoc responses that careened from crisis to crisis, each time tearing up the common playbook of laws and norms that form the basis for mature democracies …
The days of the Kabubble are over, and for those who have watched the Surge come and go, it’s hard to feel nostalgic for an imperial misadventure whose participants were more concerned about their bank accounts and careers than the people of this country.
It’s this part that gets me. To write about death in a place that has been as decimated, as brutal a struggle as Afghanistan, and to only focus on the deaths in the expat bubble and not those outside, seems like ignoring the enormous elephant in the room. This is a context where thousands have been killed, and drone strikes seem to be reasonably common, from the little I understand.
It’s not that I don’t think the change in situation Aikins is writing about isn’t interesting, and possibly even important. It’s part of the context of what’s happening for people on the ground in Afghanistan, and for decision makers, and it may mark a turning point in an important conflict. But to write about it without even acknowledging the enormous tableau of death behind it seems obtuse in the extreme.