One nil to the Taliban: the flag and the farce
It was clear we’d arrived outside the wrecked shell of Kabul International Airport rather ahead of any other forces – armed or not.
By that stage of events Nazeer, our translator, had acquired an AK47 “just in case,” as he delicately put it.
I was glad of this now. The Talibs seemed to have fled in their Toyota Landcruisers – but whatever was coming after had clearly yet to pitch up.
So we stood there, unsure quite what to do, in the quiet of this ruined, dusty place, surrounded by stands of tough, but stunted, pine trees, and Nazeer turned to me:
“The flag Alex, the flag, can I?”
I nodded. Alarmingly he handed me the gun, safety catch off I noted, and flicked to automatic, and he was off, climbing inside the ruined control tower.
Within moments, we were filming as he removed the Taliban flag from the roof of the tower. Returning, I wondered if he would stamp it into the dust, burn or otherwise abuse it? Far from it, he folded it carefully and, as far as I know, still has it today, an emblem of the ousted Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
“You like the flag?” I’d asked him, surprised about the care he was taking, folding it almost reverentially.
“It is Koranic verses. It is holy,” he explained without looking up as he put it carefully into he rucksack.
He hated the Taliban, but the white flag with black verses upon it, was not to be tampered with.
Nearly twelve years later and all of this comes to mind, with the tumult over the past 24 hours which turned possible diplo-triumph over “peace talks with the Taliban” in Doha, into anger, farce and egg upon face.
Because of that flag.
Before Kabul knew what was afoot the Taliban in Doha were doing a ribbon-cutting with senior Qatari government officials in tow. Cameras were rolling.
To Kabul’s cold horror the sign on the office said ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ – the name of the regime ousted by the Americans more than a dozen years ago when Nazeer de-flagged the airport.
Worse, that same flag flew again for the cameras. If it quacks with feathers and walks like a duck – it’s a duck. This looked just like what it was then: an embassy of a ‘government in exile’ – now legitimised by Barack Obama, hapless on the banks of Loch Erne in Fermanagh.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai was on the phone in minutes, tearing up a security agreement with the US. Kabulis looked on appalled, screaming treachery at the Americans.
Eventually, the sign came down in the West Bay office in Doha. So did the flag. Too late. The images had whirled around the world, the Talibs had coolly sent their message – their day was coming.
So today – first day of scheduled US-Taliban talks, there will be no talks at all. Mr Karzai remains radioactive with anger, shouting about how talks must move to Kabul.
Obama has been wrong-footed. The Taliban, wafting around in white robes and black beards, have had quite a day in the sun. And talks are stalled before they’ve started.
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