Reflections on Afghanistan

It rained every afternoon on the island. A short sharp blast of torrential rain followed by a return to the heat. Avoiding the downpour, I had made my way to the lounge area of the resort. There was a TV which once a day showed a half hour of CNN. This was my only real access to any news from the western world. I wasn’t really that disappointed to be cut off from the familiar. I was happy to be away from it all and resting. The news was talking of an assassination in Afghanistan. It mentioned a bizarre plot involving a fake TV interview with a camera packed with explosives. Then it mentioned a name I recognised, a name I’d heard many times. Ahmad Shah Massoud had been killed, probably by the Taliban and probably under the planning of Osama bin Laden. It was 10th September 2001, the day before the world changed but it was still a crazy place before 9/11.

Ten months earlier I started my job at the Home Office. I was to be a ‘Removals’ caseworker (which basically meant ironing out cases so that the people they related to could be removed from the UK). I found though, that due to a backlog in asylum seeker cases, me and the others starting with me would be helping to interview asylum seekers and decide whether they could stay in the country or not. It should be obvious that I was not what we might call a fully formed anarchist at this stage. I wasn’t naïve enough to believe I could solve everything from the inside but I did feel as though I could help.

The dehumanising of asylum seekers began almost immediately and it’s an issue I want to focus on throughout this article. We were trained, correctly I think, that the United Nations rules on granting refugee status expected us, as caseworkers, to interview the applicants for as long as necessary, to fully understand why the person has fled their country of origin. Then we were told that we had 30 minutes per interview. “How you reconcile what the United Nations expect and what your employers demand is up to you”, said the trainer, tongue in cheek. I took it to mean that 30 minutes was the minimum but occasionally it could be quicker than that. Sometimes people just told me that they came to the UK to get a job (not really a reason for granting refugee status). Those cases were easy. Short and simple, get the letter written and get the file off your desk. There was an old guy sitting opposite me in the office. Well, he seemed old when I was 24. He had arrived to be our sounding board, with years of experience. A few days after he arrived two large filing cabinets were levered into position behind him. They followed him around like ghosts. I heard him talking about these files. They were the cases that he’d never resolved. With each new ruling he’d handed the asylum seeker, they’d come back with fresh evidence. A senior manager told him he had to get through them. He was an example of what not to do. Our sounding board, indeed. I watched him every day with a determination not to become him.

More dehumanising came quickly as we got used to the job. The Home Office would book interviews for us in two week blocks. They conducted this by nationality, two nationalities at a time. This meant that for any given fortnight, you would interview people from just two countries. We had access to a government dossier on each country and also the US government equivalent. To pass the time I would often read the US assessment of the UK, in which it criticised the UK police for ‘extra-judicial killings’. It passed the time. In focusing on people from particular nationalities for weeks at a time, caseworkers quickly found patterns to cases. They would come back from an interview and declare that the case was pretty simple. “It was a typical Tamil case” they might say. There was talk of the ‘typical’ a lot. The individual was often lost in office discussions amongst all the ‘typical’ Sri Lankans, Iraqis, Somalis and, of course, Afghans. People had very quickly lost the requirement to understand the individual in front of them.

It was on the US country info database, and through interviewing people from Afghanistan, that I came across the name Ahmad Shah Massoud. I have been trying to remember the circumstances of the cases, and the individual people I met and interviewed, for why his name was so prominent. The dehumanisation of the process, and the length of time, means that I cannot remember a single of the dozens of cases I must have processed from Afghan citizens. The internet tells me that the US-installed president Karzai named him a national hero. He had been prominent in fighting the USSR in the 1980s and he was one of the last people resisting the Taliban.

Back in the Indian Ocean, a day after the assassination, a crowd of people were huddled around the 30 minutes of CNN and witnessing the events of 9/11. The news and the way it was presented was grotesque. There was immediate talk of war and Afghanistan was named exceedingly quickly, without what seemed like a justification at the time. I looked forward to getting home to where the news is a bit more toned down. Britain wouldn’t follow the US example surely? “You could just stay here”, said a waiter. “We don’t really have much crime and when we do, we just send the criminal to an uninhabited island with a fish hook and let them get on with it.” I politely declined but the idea of being away from politics and the news was appealing.

The last few weeks has brought all of this into sharp relief again. I got home to find the UK had changed in my absence. The Labour government was fully behind the US and would shortly get bogged down in a war in Afghanistan. Iraq was already starting to be discussed as well. My anti-militarism far pre-dates my anarchism. No war but the class war and all that. As a general rule I do not agree and never have agreed with war between nations. My heart sank as the UK talked up conflict.

More dehumanising. Just as in casework, also in warfare. Very quickly it became clear that this war included huge levels of ‘collateral damage’. It included large levels of civilian death. It was war waged not on a traditional battlefield but in towns and cities, street to street, house to house. In the UK, once the war got going, we only ever heard of British soldiers dying. We never heard of the victims of the British, the dead piling up from the UK armed forces.

This dehumanising has set the scene for much of the last few weeks. From the media and politicians (some of whom actually went to Afghanistan as trained killers and now get applauded) there is a prioritising of those that ‘deserve’ support and those that don’t. You would think that the people who worked as interpreters for the British in Afghanistan were somehow more human than the people crossing the channel on small boats. Some people are lesser human beings in their eyes and it comes down to a mixture of economics and obligation. These two messages are simple. On the one hand, there is something noble in helping those that have helped the UK. On the other, there is something economically sensible about resisting people reaching our shores “illegally”. That is the two take home messages on how we should show pity. We can add to that the pity we are told we must feel for UK veterans of the war, with the focus on the pain they’ve been through. Note, there is no acceptance that these people have contributed to the killing of uncounted numbers of people. The UK veterans are simply victims and they cannot be discussed in any other way.

20 years ago, I watched in horror as colleague after colleague fell into using dehumanising language. I feel terrible about the fact that I interviewed hundreds of people that I simply can’t remember. And now I see an entire national discussion unfolding with gaping holes in it. The UK has trouble talking about its own faults. It seems to have trouble recognising all the victims of its actions. It seems too busy lamenting its fallen place in the world. We have an obligation to develop a fuller picture. Freedom recently published a piece by an anarchist from Afghanistan, which helps aid this. In the UK we should note the holes in the mainstream discussion, critique them, and present a fuller truth.

Jon Bigger


Image: evacuation of 823 people out of Kabul on 15 August, by Air Mobility Command Public Affairs, Public Domain.