October, late Autumn in Afghanistan, and the mountains that surround – in fact seem almost to strangle – Kabul were not yet fully encased by snow. I can recall my first breath of Afghan air; putrid enough to feel the pollutants crawl down my throat, but also crisp and fresh in that way mountain air always is. It was 2015 and I was a Lieutenant in the Australian Navy stationed in Dubai as the Aide-de-Camp – military speak for executive assistant – to the commander of Australian forces in the Middle East. At the time, Australia had about 2,500 troops spread across the region performing a variety of roles: training troops in Iraq, dropping bombs on ISIS, and chasing down seaborne smugglers in the Gulf of Aden. By far the best part of the job was visiting these outposts, not least because it gave me an opportunity to escape Dubai, a place most notable for having achieved a hitherto undreamed-of artificiality. Wherever the commander went, I went; usually taking notes, liaising with hosts and trying my best to ensure that things ran with military precision – which, as it turns out, is rarely very precise. Some of these trips brought me to Afghanistan, to Kabul, home to the NATO headquarters.
Apart from the imposing backdrop, little else differentiates the headquarters in Kabul from other bases throughout the region. It is protected by a seemingly impenetrable series of fortifications beyond which lies a world few foreign troops ever experience; except perhaps through the lens of a surveillance drone or down the barrel of a gun. But occasional glimpses of Kabul can be found among the endless concrete blast walls, sprawling food-halls and row upon row of armored vehicles. Little vignettes of a city that lies just out of reach. Very often these avatars take the form of a carpet guy.
It might be one of the least known, and certainly least advertised, facts about the war in Afghanistan that apart from being a place of imminent danger it is also a great place to indulge in that most western of activities: shopping. Although it is surely true that wherever armies have ventured through history so too have opportunistic merchants, the combination of troops on combat pay and the exoticness of Afghani wares makes for a special kind of consumerist paradise. And here, the carpet guy is king. The most important link in an ancient supply chain, beginning among remote tribal communities where designs and techniques are passed from generation to generation and ending here – in the developed world – upon our lounge or dining room floors.
This hard countenance – which could rupture quickly into the most expressive smile – gave me the sense that I was the fortunate recipient of a unique, perhaps even slightly forbidden, privilege.
I remember a steely nonchalance, almost a weariness, on the face of the particular carpet guy I frequented during my half dozen or so trips to Kabul. This hard countenance – which could rupture quickly into the most expressive smile – gave me the sense that I was the fortunate recipient of a unique, perhaps even slightly forbidden, privilege. The inside of the store offered a peek into a hidden world of color and ceremony. First came the mint tea and an unhurried discussion of who we were, who we knew, and what type of rug – size, color, motif – we were looking for. With the formalities over, carpets were flung open upon the floor like the wings of a predatory bird, each a flash of color visible for only a moment before being covered by the next. The carpet guy stood and watched, waiting for a hint of interest in my eyes, no words were needed, he knew immediately what I liked. He knew exactly the carpet for me.
The war in Afghanistan is approaching the end of its second decade. Now soldiers too young to remember how it all began are being sent there to make peace, to defend against an unseen enemy and to almost certainly fail at both. The prospect of finding an honorable way out – an ‘exit strategy’, to use the euphemistic military phrase – seems largely beside the point now. The world has moved on, attentions fixed on great power rivalries, the threats du jour: China, Russia. Afghanistan seems like a kitsch hold-over from a more innocent time when enemies were implacably evil and wars suitably irregular.
Hopes have risen slightly in recent months as peace talks with the Taliban show promising signs of progress. But it’s hard to quieten feelings of doubt. After 18-years of conflict (the longest in US history) and dashed hopes aplenty, there are few reasons to believe things will be any different this time. And as the disconnect between these developments and the ever-hastening, ever-plunging news cycle increases, few seem able to muster the emotional energy needed to care, despite the loss of life, despite the sunken treasure.
Both Obama and Trump promised a withdrawal, both delivered more troops and more indecision. Obama at least had the sense to change his strategy, calling for an end to major operations in 2010. Thousands returned home yet the date planned for the final extraction was postponed and then postponed again as the insurgents, predictably, refused to yield. And territory that had only a few years earlier been claimed and held at the cost of coalitions lives fell almost perfunctorily into the hands of an ever-strengthening Taliban.
Western powers have stayed the course to validate these sacrifices, to hold back an irreversible tide, and, because of an arrogant belief that technological omnipotence endows us with supremacy over the hearts and minds of people we hardly bother to comprehend. And daily we hear of fresh attacks; more violence, more killing. Reminders of just how much harder it is to end a war than it is to start one.
The resonance carpets have for their weavers, and the economic lifeline they provide for their communities, is a world apart from their status in the developed world as decorative items for conspicuous consumers. We walk daily across these carriers of cultural meaning, we see them, but rarely – if ever – do we pause to consider where they came from or the wide – and widening – chasm between our lives and the lives of those that made them. If the objects we surround ourselves with shape our identities then it says much about our own society that we furnish our homes with items made in faraway places by almost implausibly different people; people we seem more inclined to drop bombs on and make decisions for than actually understand. Perhaps it is a good thing that so many carpets have made their way to the west, carried in the duffle bags and footlockers of our returning troops. Perhaps they will act as silent reminders staring up at us from below our feet that there are limits to what we can achieve in the world. And that something as commonplace as a floor covering might hold within it layers of meaning that no brilliant stratagem or smart bomb could ever fully unravel, let along alter.
When I look upon my own carpets – beneath my coffee table, next to my bed, outside my kitchen – I remember my time in the Middle East and the people I met. I think about the mountains of Kabul in their various snow-covered states, and I remember the rotten air – always the air.
Peter Waring is a senior researcher at Ridgeway Information where he focuses on non-proliferation and regional security, primarily in the Middle East. He holds an MA in Strategy and Security from the University of New South Wales and an MA in Geopolitics, Territory andSecurity from King’s College London. Before moving to London, Peter spent over a decade as an officer in the Australian Navy during which he served in the Middle East, Antarctica and South-East Asia.