In Distant War, Robert Nickelsberg and the international experts invited to contribute to the work offer a subtle analysis of the latent conflict that has devastated Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and whose consequences have been felt well beyond the country’s borders. In the space of 30 years, Afghanistan has become the center of a complex network that international negligence has allowed to take root, exporting and importing conflicts in a spiral of violence and social devastation.
Jon Lee Anderson makes reference to the “distant war” in the preface of the book, while Ahmad Nader Nadery speaks in harsher tones: “The people guilty of inflicting suffering have enjoyed immunity from justice. The international community quietly watched the suffering of Afghans, especially women and children, at the hands of regional proxy groups in a regional proxy war. The process gave birth to Al Qaeda, which enjoyed safe haven for almost a decade.”
In fewer than two decades, a benign cell has become an entity that controls 80% of the country, the lead player in a game of influence and regional power struggles that has upset the global balance.
Aware of the exponential ramifications of the conflict and being careful not to draw a partial or caricatured portrait, Robert Nickelsberg patiently followed and captured the events that have marked his 25 years of reporting, while at the same time compensating for the lack of photographic representation of Afghanistan: wars, voting, attacks, political meetings, but also negotiations, traditions and the impact of different governments on the conditions of life and the local population. Nickelsberg visited hospitals, schools and prisons, went on rides with the police and local army, spent time in different clans, toured training camps and met with farmers, since they, too, are fighting in this shadow war. Deeply saddened, he remarks at the end of the book: “It is very difficult to pull aside the people who are not in favor of the Taliban but who live with them.”
Working with a high journalistic standards, he documented everyone involved in conflict, from persecutors to victims: Soviet and American soldiers, Mujahideen, Taliban and Uighurs, moving throughout the vast, hostile landscapes where Afghans suffer violence and famine, as Steve Coll bitterly reminds readers in his essay.
Throughout the country, the years are measured by the casualties. There is fatigue is some photographs, as in one where an American soldier, weary, his head bowed, walks past the bodies of two Taliban soldiers. This photograph, taken in 2006, introduces the final chapter, the final period, since the author could only approach this story chronologically, the crisis having settled in over time, insidiously.
His investigation is aided by a superb photographic style that is sometimes metaphorical, as in one picture of a wounded American soldier who seems to be holding up his IV bag in the air like a trophy. At a time when international troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan, the work invites readers to think about the future. The most recent photograph is dated May 2013. It is a view of a lively Kabul street where the chaotic traffic can be read as a sign of an ill-defined path forward. While Ahmad Nader Nadery speaks hopefully about the country’s future, Steve Coll fears more dark days ahead, where an obsession with killing leaders instead of stabilizing the countryside, and developing the economy and infrastructure, leaves the local population in turmoil.
Afghanistan – A Distant War
Photographies de Robert Nickelsberg
Textes de Jon Lee Anderson, Ahmad Nader Nadery, Steve Coll, Ahmed Rashid, Tim McGirk et Masood Khalili