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  Books   30 Mar 2024  Book Review | Nayanima’s testimony of Kabul’s fall has a few what-ifs, some caveats

Book Review | Nayanima’s testimony of Kabul’s fall has a few what-ifs, some caveats

Published : Mar 30, 2024, 9:27 pm IST
Updated : Mar 30, 2024, 11:46 pm IST

Two days before Kabul fell to the Taliban the journalist proposed to write a despatch predicting its imminent takeover

Cover Photo of 'The Fall of Kabul Despatches From Chos' by Nayanima Basu. (Image by arrangement)
 Cover Photo of 'The Fall of Kabul Despatches From Chos' by Nayanima Basu. (Image by arrangement)

On August 13, 2021, two days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, journalist Nayanima Basu who was reporting from ground zero proposed to write a despatch predicting the imminent takeover of the Afghan capital, but her editor shot it down saying that the opinions of internally displaced rural Afghans, albeit those returning by the drove to their native villages that they had evacuated, and that of a desperate local reporter who had requested her for an Indian visa were not enough. If she could corroborate her ‘story’ with military and government officials, it had a chance.

Unfortunately, the Ashraf Ghani government was planning a subterfuge and, at that very moment, the then President was recording a video address to the nation in which he would be making tall promises of a remobilisation of Afghan national security forces and a possible pushback to the Taliban. It would be aired to the media the next day when he himself had flown out of Afghanistan, throwing his countrymen, of course, to the wolves. So the then foreign minister, Md Haneef Atmar, who followed in his boss’ footsteps, actually denied her an audience, and his aide fobbed her off when she asked the
question, labelling her interest frivolous and asking her to go sightseeing in the city. Former President Hamid Karzai and chief negotiator at the Doha talks Abdullah Abdullah who had earlier indicated willingness to be interviewed by her also fell silent. The imams of the Blue Mosque at Mazar-e-Sharif believed Taliban to be their “own” and some of the educated class she spoke to she found actually open to giving them a second chance. The Indian diplomats and embassy officials, in their turns, coaxed Nayanima to leave whenever she tried to obtain their responses, and an American journalist at the hotel in which she was staying grandly declared “nothing would happen” until August 31 and, when told to show reason behind his confidence, laughed her query off. Right up until the actual event, the Western media remained awash with misleading reports hinting at a government resistance in the works while the Indian media somehow felt obliged to showcase the so-called achievements of said government. A WhatsApp call with a Taliban leader the next day confirmed her hunch but by then it was too late. Suffice to say that the takeover had fallen on everybody’s blindspot.

During her nine-day stay from August 8 to August 17 in Afghanistan, Nayanima Basu paid witness to the fall of Kabul in real time. She had incredible experiences out in the streets walking with guntoting civilians when the city was being overrun, running away from Taliban gunfire at the airport while those around her fell to bullets and later negotiating with the Taliban henchmen her safe passage to the Indian embassy. She even travelled in Mazar-e-Sharif, the province which put up the stiffest resistance. The anti- Taliban fighters there had forced the Taliban forces to retreat, depleting them
to the point that they had to recruit from local tribes.

Nayanima did get in some interviews as well, with Ata Md Noor, the brave governor of Balkh who fought the Islamist insurgents, and with former Mujahideen leader who was Afghan Prime Minister twice in the 1990s and who still harboured political ambitions, Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar. She became the only Indian to have interviewed Hekmatiyar. ‘The Butcher of Kabul’, Hekmatiyar, told Nayanima that the United States made its greatest mistake in not supporting or investing in the popular figures who fought the Taliban locally. And that investing in unpopular figures [like Ghani] was the major
reason for the government’s collapse. In her own news analysis, however, Nayanima herself may have been somewhat guilty of conflating the role and politics of the former Soviet Union with that of the Tsarist Russia from Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game. But what if India had helped Noor when he petitioned the Narendra Modi government for forces to fight the Taliban? Her account makes one ask this question.

Nayanima interacted with a wide section of the Afghan population, including drivers, teachers, kebab sellers, painters, activists, journalists and diplomats, aside from Kabul’s famous beauty industry professionals who “do a better job than their counterparts in Delhi”. Her reportage presents a lively sketch of Kabul with its ring of mountains, fruit sellers, meat-based cuisine and bread. The man on the street is comfortable around her even if the majority of Afghan women keep indoors. But independent women are also a significant presence; indeed Afghanistan had a 25 per cent female labour force participation which is larger than that in India today. The role of many Indians around her is most appalling, instead of praising her for setting an example before her son and
other children, they continue to guilt-trip her for putting herself in harm’s way; is this why India does not have more war reporters?

The quality of this book, though, could have greatly improved had it gone through proper developmental and copy editing, because not only does the finished product contain preposition errors and inappropriate tense in some sentences but it also could have benefited from some structural interventions.

The Fall of Kabul: Despatches from Chaos

By Nayanima Basu

Bloomsbury India

pp. 256; Rs 599

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