The remarkable Princess Gulbadan, flower of the Mughal court

In 1587, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, himself illiterate but with grand vision and even greater ambition, commanded his courtier Abu’l-Fazl to write an official history of his reign and dynasty. An order went around Akbar’s court that anyone who was ‘gifted with the talent for writing history’ should put pen to paper and record the events that had shaped their times. Unusually for a male-dominated society, this included the emperor’s aunt. The 64-year-old Princess Gulbadan was well placed to provide a first-hand description of the creation and consolidation of the Mughal empire, for she was the beloved daughter of the Emperor Babur, who founded the dynasty, and the half-sister of

Operation Save Big Dog and the real scandal of Boris’s leadership

There is a theory which states the primary reason for Boris Johnson’s political longevity is that there are simply so many scandals that the latest infidelity drives the last one from public consciousness before it really has time to sink in. ‘Who paid for his wallpaper? Meal delivery? He had a party while forcing the country into social isolation and atomisation? How many parties— what do you mean the police are investigating him?’ At this point, it seems like the revelation most likely to do him in will be the discovery that, at some point in the last two years, Boris Johnson sat quietly in a room and diligently worked

The Foreign Office isn’t fit for purpose

Now that the dust from the choppers has settled, we are left with two abiding images of the West’s adventure in Afghanistan. The first is an American Chinook hovering over its embassy, rescuing staff in a botched evacuation. This debacle unfolded just weeks after president Biden promised the world there would be no parallel with the fall of Saigon, and ‘no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy’. The second is a plane taking off from Kabul laden with 150 pets. The general success of the war in Afghanistan never came down to British policy. It’s for Washington’s post-mortem to confront the difficult truths about

Life under the Taliban’s charm offensive

The Taliban Cultural Commission sounds a contradiction in terms but for all foreign journalists it’s the first stop in the new Afghanistan. There, in a dusty office on the first floor of the old Ministry of Information, I was handed a letter which allowed me to go anywhere in the country, except Kabul airport or military installations. In a neighbouring office I met Anamullah Samangani, a Taliban commander from the northern province of Samangan. He’s an Uzbek, resplendent in crisp white shalwar kameez, black waistcoat and black and white silk turban. He told me he has read one of my books. ‘Do you feel safe in Kabul, have you had

Pakistan is relishing its role as kingmaker in Afghanistan

The details of engagements involving the head of MI6 are, unsurprisingly, usually kept secret. But not so Richard Moore’s meeting with the head of the Pakistani army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Officers from Britain’s intelligence service are also said to have met the Taliban, both in Kabul and Qatar. How do we know? Because hours after Moore met Bajwa, the news was plastered all over Pakistani media, much to the dismay and horror of British officials. Pakistani leaders have spent much of the past fortnight basking in the Taliban’s triumph. Imran Khan lauded the Taliban for breaking the ‘shackles of slavery’. The Pakistani prime minister’s office made special social media banners to advertise calls received from world

The descent of Afghanistan

The bomb attacks at Kabul airport were what US and allied commanders overseeing the mass evacuation had most feared. In so far as they could be, they were prepared. They had, it appears, received very specific intelligence — perhaps based on a trial run by the bombers — that such attacks were in the offing. They warned people to stay away from the airport. Guards were doubtless on extra-high alert. And yet the perpetrators got through. More than 60 civilians were killed along with 13 US marines. Dozens more were injured and taken to already overburdened hospitals in Kabul. The carnage of 26 August was the costliest day in the

The terrible cost of the tragedy at Kabul airport

America’s frantic, confused exit from Afghanistan was a humiliating shambles even before Thursday’s terrorist attack. Now, it is something much worse. It is a deadly tragedy, leaving victims dead and injured and trapping thousands of Americans and friendly Afghans in a lethal environment, where terrorists roam free. There will be a huge political price to pay for this disaster, and President Biden will pay it. This deadly fiasco didn’t just happen on his watch. It happened because of his decisions, a series of fundamentally bad ones, taken by the President himself. Only a month ago, President Biden privately told his Nato allies that Kabul would be stable during the exit Gone

What will happen to those left in Kabul?

The Afghan evacuation is feared to be entering its final hours, and with it a new desperation is building among people trying to get out of the country and those helping them. On the ground, troops are warning that Kabul airport could be overrun by people who are ineligible to leave but desperate to do so nonetheless. Embassy workers are trying to process visas, ministers are being bombarded with requests to look at cases where vulnerable Afghans have been overlooked or cannot make it to the airport safely. I have heard from people who waited until their children couldn’t stand and have stopped speaking due to the trauma Boris Johnson

My love for old Kabul

They say the city you most fondly remember is the one you grew up in. In my case that’s Kabul. I spent my formative years in the Afghan capital in the mid-1960s. It was a very different time and Afghanistan a very different country. But the Kabul that’s imprinted on my mind belongs to that decade. It was a happy city. No other description does it justice. Of course, it was poor, conservative and hierarchical but people were always smiling. They were warm, welcoming, courteous and generous. This was most obvious in their attitude to children. Everyone called me ‘bacho’. When Mummy took me out, shopkeepers would slip Hershey’s chocolates

The Taliban’s lightning victory was no surprise

As the debacle in Kabul unfolds, in Washington and London the mud slinging about who is to blame is beginning. British Generals are blaming ‘spineless Johnson and Biden’ and the ex military MP, Tom Tugendhat, contends that we should have stayed put. That the spectacular ending of Afghanistan’s brief interlude in ‘Western Liberalism’ appears to have been such a surprise only underlines the utter delusion of the last twenty years. I worked for an aid agency in Kandahar at the height of the Taliban regime and remained in Afghanistan until just prior to the British deployment to Helmand. I travelled around the country working on electoral and justice issues, as

How did US intelligence get Afghanistan so wrong?

It may well go down as the understatement of the year. In a quite extraordinary address to the nation after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, the US President made this admission: ‘The truth is this did unfold more quickly than we had anticipated. So what’s happened? Afghanistan’s political leaders gave up and fled the country. The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.’ If this were the only intelligence failing of recent years, then maybe a little indulgence could be shown More quickly? Than we had anticipated? As recently as 10 August, US intelligence said that it would take the Taliban up to 90 days to take

The hitch with Hitchens

It hasn’t taken 20 years to work out that Christopher Hitchens was a dud, but this week’s collapse of Kabul obliges us to reexamine the Hitchens back catalog — because Hitchens had an outsized influence on debates about the supersised errors of post-9/11 foreign policy. The briefest of looks exposes the deficits of the neoconservative mind. An even clearer picture emerges of the hubris that led American policymakers, and the West in general, to justify the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the spread of liberal enlightenment, rather than subjecting them to the tests of Realpolitik. Never trust a man whose favorite sport is politics. For Hitchens and the neocons who adopted

David Patrikarakos

Pakistan is the true winner from the Afghan debacle

‘Everyone is getting out – and fast’, the man tells me over a crackling line. He is tired, clearly subdued. A UN staff member, he was in Afghanistan until very recently and is still trying to process what happened. ‘We knew this was going to happen,’ he continues, ‘but everyone was caught by surprise at the speed of the Taliban advance.’ UN staff are now being evacuated to Almaty in Kazakhstan, from where they will make their way to their respective countries. But what about the local Afghans that worked with them? ‘Our Afghan colleagues were given letters of support for country visas in the region: Iran, Pakistan, and India. Some

Boris faces a backlash from Tory MPs over Afghanistan

After the Taliban took over Kabul and announced victory in Afghanistan, a scramble is underway by diplomats and many Afghans to flee the country. There are videos overnight of distressing scenes at Kabul airport where crowds have assembled in an attempt to get out. The US embassy has since issued an advisory to American citizens and Afghan nationals not to travel to the airport until notified. As the chaos unfolds – and both UK and US estimates on the likely speed of the Taliban advance prove embarrassingly wide of the mark – anger is building among MPs over the government’s handling of the situation. Dominic Raab has flown back from

A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

‘Everyone knows the Alexandria in Egypt,’ writes Edmund Richardson, ‘but there were over a dozen more Alexandrias scattered across Alexander the Great’s empire.’ By the early 19th century, though, very few had been identified. Moreover, the prevailing scholarly view was that there remained ‘not a single architectural monument of the Macedonian conquests in India’ — let alone in Afghanistan, which had, ‘for more than 1,000 years… been a blank space in western knowledge’. So finding one would be ‘a world-changing achievement’. At dawn on 4 July 1827, Private James Lewis of the East India Company’s Bengal artillery walked out of the Agra fort and into history — or at any