I think it was 1988 or thereabouts. I was getting on an overnight flight to Africa and bought a book at Heathrow. It was called ‘In Honour Bound’, by Gerald Seymour – a former ITN journalist who had restyled himself as a writer of thrillers. They were pretty one-dimensional books for the most part, and this one was no exception. It was set in Afghanistan, a place my 14-year-old self knew nothing about, but even at the time I recognised that the place was getting a pretty superficial coverage in the book. It featured a murky plot by British intelligence to have a Captain in the SAS called Barney Crispin (I suspect Mr Seymour chose the first names of his two best mates for that one) cross the border into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in the company of a group of mujahideen and several Stinger missiles. Their mission was to shoot down a Soviet helicopter – not just any helicopter, but the MI-24 ‘Hind’ gunship, which had been turning the tide of war in the Soviets’ favour. The mujahideen were outgunned and so murky intelligence types sought to sway the balance – not for any great geopolitical strategic aims, but to get their hands on the components of a downed MI-24. This last bit happened to be true – the British (and Americans) were very interested at the time in the helicopter, and dearly wanted to get hold of one.
Well, Captain Crispin’s initial mission failed dismally. The group of mujahideen he chose were gunned down and the operation aborted. But so outraged is he privately at Soviet atrocities that he decides to go back on his own, to launch a private war. And it works. He meets up with an American Vietnam veteran living in a cave (conveniently, since the locals are heavy going for small talk), and they shoot down some helicopters. It’s hard to say exactly how the Afghans are portrayed in all this; there’s an ambiguity. On the one hand they are described as little more than hairy savages with a disconcerting and incomprehensible penchant for getting themselves martyred (in this, Mr Seymour unwittingly gets rather close to the truth about how they were, and indeed are, portrayed by much of the western press). On the other hand they are heroically brave figures, who manage to humble even the emotionally cataleptic Captain Crispin with their determination. And what’s more they are opposed to the real baddies, who were of course the Soviets, or Communists, or frequently just Russians generally. My enemy’s enemy is my friend, goes the old saying. Well it’s terribly difficult to keep track of who is friends with who sometimes. Especially in Afghanistan.
Around this time, a British documentary maker called Peter Kosminsky made a truly remarkable documentary. It was called ‘Afghantsi’, and showed the war in Afghanistan from the Soviet perspective. Kosminsky got himself embedded with Soviet troops, flying into remote mountain outposts and getting access to units of the 103rd Airborne Division. He interviewed wounded soldiers in a Kabul military hospital, and also travelled to Russia to interview the relatives of soldiers who had been killed. It was extraordinary access for the time, and the film ought to be required viewing at NATO headquarters, as well as by the politicians of all countries who have sent troops to Afghanistan. Because watching it now, one is left with a very stark conclusion: nothing has been learned. Nothing. You can watch it here:
The music at the beginning sounds, to a western ear, vaguely eastern. I would suspect that most western Europeans would not recognise it as being European at all. It might be Afghan for all they know. It is highly atmospheric. In fact it is a folk song from Bulgaria called Pritouri se Planinata, and the lyrics go like this:
“The mountains shook and buried two shepherds, two friends. The mountains said: “Oh you poor shepherds, one of you has a new love that will mourn until noon, the other has a mother that will mourn to the grave.”
And here it is in another context – an old socialist film from Russia, which pretty much speaks for itself.
I want to stick with Balkan folk music for a moment because of an interesting connection. In 1992 another British filmmaker with an eastern European name, Pawel Pawlikowski, made a very interesting film about the war in Yugoslavia, following the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. It was called ‘Serbian Epics’ and told the story from the Serbs’ perspective – how they felt an ancient historical sense of injustice dating back centuries, and which continued to fuel the war, long after the siege of Sarajevo was over, moving the battlefield into Kosovo. And that, in the end, prompted NATO intervention. Anyway, here is a group of Serbian soldiers singing a very old song, in the hills overlooking Sarajevo during the siege. And towards the end of the clip you can see a civilian, who is a Russian writer called Eduard Limonov, firing a heavy machine gun into the besieged city. Well, he was a writer. Today he is the leader of the political party ‘The Other Russia’ and he intends to run for president against Vladimir Putin.
You can see the whole of ‘Serbian Epics’ on Pawel Pawlikowski’s site here:
In 1990 National Geographic featured an article on Yugoslavia with the subheading: “A House Much Divided”. The signs had actually been there even a couple of years earlier, with increasingly restive minorities such as the Kosovo Albanians and growing Serb nationalism. In 1988 Slobodan Milosevic, then the Serb Communist Party Leader, mounted a stage at a packed political rally in Belgrade and raised the crowd to fever pitch with nationalist sentiments, declaring that Serbia was surrounded by enemies. You can see an excerpt of that speech here, in the opening stages of a very good BBC documentary, ‘The Death of Yugoslavia’.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan made the big screen in the form of ‘Rambo III’, starring Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam vet John Rambo this time venturing alone into Afghanistan to rescue a former comrade. Rambo manages to be even more emotionally constipated than the previously mentioned Captain Barney Crispin, despite being American. The mujahideen take on their previous role with gusto, being brave, self-immolating and generally incomprehensible. Rambo III was shot largely in Israel, although one bazaar scene was filmed in Peshawar, Pakistan, and saw box office takings of $189,015,611. Here is a trailer, to spare you having to watch the whole thing:
The mujahideen had made a previous appearance on the big screen the year before, in the James Bond film ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987), starring Timothy Dalton. Bond is captured and flown to a Soviet airbase in Afghanistan (these days I suppose we would say he experienced ‘extraordinary rendition’). He escapes, freeing an imprisoned mujahideen leader, who shows his gratitude by having the base attacked by his men on horseback. It’s all terribly exciting. In a nicely ironic twist it turns out that the Russian baddie is using Soviet funds to buy opium from the mujahideen. Bond disapproves of this sort of thing, so decides to blow up the plane carrying the opium, perhaps in a precursor of NATO drug policy in Afghanistan today. I’ve found a trailer for the film which is characteristically exciting. Sharp-eyed viewers may spot that the soldier manning the checkpoint who manages to shoot Bond with blanks is in fact wearing an SAS beret. Perhaps it is the monosyllabic Captain Crispin on another mission:
While all this nonsense was going on, creating a dominant narrative in the minds of western cinema goers at least, an American filmmaker called Jeff B. Harmon was making a proper film about what was really going on in Afghanistan together with cameraman Alexander Lindsay. In fact he made a trilogy, and they are extraordinary. The clip below is from ‘Afgan’, and features a catchy pop song by the German band Modern Talking – the track in the background is called ‘Who will save the world?’
Harmon, like Kosminsky, followed Soviet units, and ‘Afgan’ is told from the Soviet perspective. He gained extraordinary access, including going on operations with Spetsnaz – Soviet special forces, or their equivalent to the SAS. The films are owned by Journeyman Pictures and are available to hire for a small fee, but there is a 10 minute clip here:
The other films in the trilogy were ‘Jihad’ and ‘The Warlord of Keyhan’. ‘Jihad’ followed mujahideen in the areas round Kunar and Kandahar. Practically for the first time viewers in the west were able to see who these people were – not have them portrayed as one-dimensional savages on horseback, incomprehensible and yet somehow on ‘our’ side. ‘The warlord of Keyhan’ tells the story of Sayed Jafar Naderi, who had previously been an employee of McDonalds in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and who had played in a heavy metal band in his free time, before heading to Afghanistan to become a provincial governor and head of a private army 12,000 strong. The clip below is from ‘Jihad’, and has a rather worthy style of commentary:
The term ‘Balkanisation’ was coined in the aftermath of the First World War to describe the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire and consequent creation of numerous smaller states in the Balkans. It’s not the only geographic term to describe a political outcome: there is also the rather interesting term Pakistanisation, to describe a partitioning along religious lines – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pakistanism . There is a school of thought that suggests that Afghanistan is so fundamentally partitioned already along ethnic and social lines that it is in many ways not a viable entity as a state at all, and that perhaps it could split into separate states, much like Yugoslavia did, in a kind of combination of Balkanisation and Pakistanisation. Afghanislavia?