Blood Washing Blood: Afghanistan’s Hundred Year War, by Phil Halton, Dundurn Press, 2021, 392 pages
It was moving to read Blood Washing Blood during the epic events of the autumn: Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15th, 2021 and less than a month later the last bastion of resistance to their rule, the Panjshir Valley, also fell. Throughout these disturbing events, I was made painfully aware of the insights from Afghanistan’s past which commentators in newspapers and television should have known, but did not. While most Afghans understood this distressing history, pundits and broadcasters displayed woeful ignorance.
Halton’s tome recalls immense torment in its description of the first airlift from Afghanistan in 1929, directed by the British. That airlift followed the seizure of Kabul by a ruthless, violent, emir who ruled for nine months—a former Tajik bandit, Habibullah Kalakani.
Kalakani, much like the Taliban who sparked the airlift of late August 2021, came to power from an armed insurgence. Its popular support was based on the manipulation of prejudices against women, caused by the central government’s lifting restrictions on their rights. The government was then headed by a talented ruler who was responsible for restoring the independence of Afghanistan, Amir Amanullah.
Halton’s vivid portrait of Amanullah counters the stereotypes of Afghans and violence which are soaked in media treatments. He restored his nation’s independence without firing a shot by adeptly managing negotiations with the British government. Amanullah’s peaceful victory contrasts vividly with the two famous Afghan wars won by Great Britain. These bloody conflicts reduced the ancient civilization of Afghanistan to that of a British-supervised Indian princely state such as Kashmir, now divided between India and Pakistan.
The marriage between Amanullah and his consort Queen Soraya, whom Halton describes as an “intelligent and strong-willed woman”, is one of modern history’s great and tragic love stories. Amanullah abolished slavery, which was of great benefit to the Hazara, a Persian speaking minority. The reform, however, that Kalakani manipulated on his road to power was a decree declaring requirements to wear the veil as tribally based, not religious.
Halton reports that traditionalists were “shocked” by Queen Soraya’s leadership in the Women’s Protective Association. It was one of many advocacy groups that flourished in the doomed government from 2001 to 2021, declaring its role as “to encourage Afghan women to report any abuses they suffered, and to organize women’s protests in favour of women’s rights.”
When Kalakani seized Kabul on January 16, 1919, he promptly closed all schools, libraries, and the national museum. Looting caused the British government to undertake the “Kabul Airlift.” This, Halton notes, was undertaken by the Royal Airforce “to take internationals out of the capital” and was “the first large-scale air evacuation in history.
Given the recent triumph of the Taliban, it is disturbing that the press has been silent about another transport mentioned in Halton’s moving book. The dismayed American soldiers defeated by the Taliban call it “Operation Evil Airlift.” The government of India protested against it. That airlift allowed 5,000 Taliban, Pakistan security forces and foreign terrorists to escape justice.
Halton exposes how the Evil Airlift emerged out of a phone call between the President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf and the President of the United States George Walker Bush. He reveals that Musharraf was worried that “hundreds of Pakistani officers and soldiers who had been advising the Taliban” were trapped, and that their “capture would prove highly embarrassing for Pakistan.” Bush then approved the airlift into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which also rescued key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. Those airlifted who are still alive and in good health a decade later are among the elite now governing Afghanistan.
That significant Evil Airlift was repeated twenty years later. The Taliban elite and their Pakistani advisers running the country were flown from the airfield at Kunduz shortly before its capture by troops Afghanistan’s government, which at the time was recognized by the United Nations. They were joined by other foreigners, such as members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Arabs allied to Osama bin Laden, the architect of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States.
Democratic India, which had been aiding the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan for several years, was outraged by the airlift and sent formal notes of protest to the US government. The American government had secured an air corridor from Kunduz to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to facilitate the flights, which India estimated involved around 5,000 persons. Some of these, after landing in Kashmir, became involved in terrorist operations in India. Three weeks after the airlift, suicide bombers attacked the Indian parliament in Delhi, which was repulsed only at the cost of death to several Indian police.
Canadian troops, supporting the elected government of Afghanistan, managed to capture Taliban fighters, but they kept hearing this simple refrain: “You may have the watches, but we have the time.” This defiant chant makes sense in the context of the Evil Airlift, which occurred while memories of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks were still fresh. In languages of Pashto, Arabic, and Uzbek, those on the flights could be reassured by hopes that became realities—that in twenty years the United States would forget about September 11th. They would return to power and be running Afghanistan again.
One area where Halton’s book sadly chooses drama over careful analysis is its subtitle, “Afghanistan’s Hundred Year War”. Since independence was restored in 1919, there have been some periods of peace in Afghanistan’s history. The most recent of these is described in Chapter Nine, “The Last Amir”. It describes the period between 1963 and Zahir Shah’s overthrow in a military coup of a few hundred soldiers in 1974.
Apart from a few turbulent protests at the University of Kabul, typical of the 1960s, Afghanistan was remarkably peaceful in the 1960s. Zahir Shah’s first achievement was to negotiate a peace with Pakistan. Next he initiated the process for a liberal constitution, which did see protest channeled into political parties instead of armed rebellions. Widespread popular nostalgia for this peaceful period caused Zahir Shah to be honored as “the father of the nation” in Afghanistan’s 2002 constitution.
The most hopeful part of Halton’s tome is his seventh chapter called “Pashtuanistan.” The Pashtuns, who speak Pashto, account for 75 percent of Afghanistan’s 40 million people. Halton illustrates the importance of a Pashtun friend of Gandhi, Bacha Khan, who, contrary to stereotypes of the “warlike” nature of Pashtun culture, was able to create a highly disciplined, nonviolent army of activists. This was the Surkh Posh, which challenged British colonial rule in what, after independence in 1949, became the Pashtun-dominated Northwest Frontier province of India (now named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa).
One, albeit minor, weakness in Blood Washing Blood is its failure to examine the positive impact today of the heirs of the Surkh Posh (Red Shirts) in Pakistan. This is the Awami National Party, whose President is the grandson of Bacha Khan, Asfandyar Wali Khan. Its principled, nonviolent, social democratic, and secular politics is one of the best hopes for both Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Reviewed by John Bacher, an environmental and peace activist based in St. Catharines, Ontario