Book: ESCAPE FROM KABUL: THE INSIDE STORY
Author: Levison Wood and Geraint Jones
Publication: Hodder & Stoughton
Price: Rs 899
It had happened earlier in Vietnam. The same scenes were witnessed in Afghanistan. A military invasion by the United States of America, a brutal and ugly fight, and a humiliating retreat after two decades. President Joe Biden explicitly ordered that he did not want the scenes witnessed in Vietnam, where some staffers had to be lifted off the embassy’s rooftop by US military helicopters, being repeated in Kabul. But that is what happened in August 2021.
This is the story of the last-minute evacuation of foreigners and desperate Afghans, who had worked with the Westerners against the Taliban, from Kabul. Levison Wood and Geraint Jones are former soldiers of the British army who served in Afghanistan and have since emerged as popular writers on subjects they have expertise in. A product of their background, experiences and understanding of the world, Escape from Kabul only captures a slice of everything that occurred during the West’s final abdication in Afghanistan.
Wood and Jones focus only on one episode after the Taliban’s sudden takeover of Kabul as US-led forces were leaving Afghanistan. It is the evacuation of people from Kabul by the US and British governments, mainly from the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The scenes were chaotic, the situation desperate, the Western response inadequate, and the human tragedy horrible. The authors start with a background chapter, which fails to mention Pakistan, absolving it of any responsibility of promoting Islamist extremism and violence in its northern neighbour. The support that the West gave to the so-called mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union in the 1980s is also ignored. The book is rather charitable about the Taliban, depicting them as the ‘sons of the soil’ of a popular uprising. The sketchy political history seems to be etched to paint all politicians in a poor light for pushing soldiers into a tough situation.
The book comes into its own in Chapters 5, 6 and 7, which deal with the episode proper. Even as the scenes are harrowing, the narrative is gripping. The farcicality of American and British forces working in close coordination with the Taliban, under their protection in some sense, after having fought them for two decades is difficult to miss. The incongruity hits hard when the British colonel recounts that “One day, I sat down with this Taliban commander. We were both knackered and dehydrated. We shared a look like, this is hard work. You expect to share that moment with another soldier, but not with a Talib.”
It is also hard to forget such scenes as a mother leaving two of her dead children behind, telling her husband and the remaining children to go back and not bother about them anymore; or desperate parents wanting to hand over their children to anyone who has crossed over to the side of evacuation; or the numerous deaths due to crushing by crowds and a suicide bomb attack because the Western countries had mismanaged the evacuation; or a patriarchal Afghan male ill-treating his exhausted, pregnant wife even as an RAF personnel tries his best to stop him.
In reporting the scenes, based on first-person accounts of participants, the authors keep the lens on the British military and, to some extent, on the US military. Diplomats and politicians barely have a walk-on part in the screenplay, which is meant to showcase the heroism of the British soldiers. The Kabul airport, a soldier says, was "like a village of multiple tribes, many chiefs, and none of them talk to each other.” But the narrative of Escape from Kabul is tribal and talks to no other. Its gaze is solely British — exclusively of a serving or a retired British soldier. This diminishes the value of the book, which adds little to the reader’s understanding of the tragedy that continues to engulf Afghanistan.