Resurgence of Afghan Taliban ‘like pulling spitting cobra out of top hat’

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The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan could be regarded as one of the best conjuring tricks of modern times, according to veteran journalist Sandy Gall.

The former television news presenter, renowned for his passionate interest and involvement in the country, described it as “pulling a spitting cobra out of the top hat instead of a rabbit” as he addressed the Yorkshire Post Literary Lunch in Harrogate yesterday.

So how could it happen, he asked, when at one time there seemed to be a certain level of security and organisation? “One reason is corruption, which seems to grow and grow,” he said. “But the main reason is Iraq. Any general or senior officer will tell you that all the attention and resources were switched to Iraq and Afghanistan was left out on a limb.

“We didn’t see the Taliban coming back because we weren’t looking. Many were living in Pakistan doing ordinary jobs; the ISI – the country’s military intelligence – suggested they go back, with their help and support. So they did.”

Mr Gall’s latest book, War Against the Taliban, is a comprehensive analysis of the current situation in Afghanistan and draws on hundreds of interviews with politicians, businessmen and ordinary people.

“There is reason for some optimism,” he concluded. “Everyone realises that at some stage there must be political settlement. Northern Ireland is a good example – it seemed unsolvable and yet suddenly there was an agreement in place.

“Is that the case in Afghanistan? I’d hope so. I’m told there is some sort of progress. We all know how many British soldiers have been killed during this conflict – nobody wants more.”

Also speaking was Matthew Hall, a Bafta-nominated screenwriter, producer and former criminal barrister. The Flight, his latest book to feature coroner Jenny Cooper, is centred on a plane crash in the Severn Estuary and was born from Mr Hall’s own fear of flying.

“I’m the one who listens to the safety briefing, who checks out the nearest emergency exit is – and works out who I’d need to fight off in my rush to get out!” he said.

“I’ve collected in my mind a sort of catalogue of air disasters and decided I should probably use it.”

The third speaker, Richard Davenport-Hines, spoke about Titanic Lives, an exploration of the lives of the passengers and crew on board the doomed ship.

“The Titanic symbolised a class-led society,” he said. “That remained true even in death. When the corpses were recovered, those from First Class were put into proper coffins while those from Second and Third class were placed in canvas bags.”