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A War in Images-- Robert Nickelsberg's Afghanistan

The Foreign Policy Institute hosted veteran photojournalist Robert Nickelsberg for his book talk here in Washington, DC. Nickelsberg’s presentation, was unconventional in two ways: firstly, because it was about a war that looms large in US policy circles, but yet, ironically, and conspicuously, remains absent from most discussions on Massachusetts Avenue, and secondly, because it presented a visual narrative – letting, as they say, the pictures speak a thousand words, while the author added his insightful captions to guide the audience through the images.

Nickelsberg’s book Afghanistan – A Distant War, caps a tremendous career, and in a way presents a shared journey of a journalist and a country in 117 beautiful, and at times, devastating photographs.

robert nickelsberg

It all started, as Nickelsberg would say, when he moved to New Delhi as a photographer for the Time magazine. Soon enough, in 1988, he landed in Afghanistan on assignment, thus beginning his decades long relationship with one of the world’s most complex, tumultuous, and misunderstood regions.

To really grasp the gist of Nickelsberg’s narrative, one must start at the end and then look back to the beginning to see how history remains with both Nickelsberg and Afghanistan – as a living and potent indicator of what may come next. After his captivating talk, in response to the first and perhaps the most obvious question from the audience, “What do you see happening in Afghanistan after the withdrawal?” Nickelsberg gave the following response:

“I see some of the outer lying provinces turning over to the Taliban, particularly along the Pakistan border, and I see people jockeying for position but I don’t see Kabul turning back to the Taliban.” He was frank in his judgment as he continued, “this is going to be a matter of time how long they can withstand this friction and drama in the outer provinces once soldiers leave. They’re already cutting deals in the rural areas. The government can’t maintain control without the airpower and the expertise of the Americans.”

Further delineating the Afghan political-economy, Nickelsberg said that, “It is not a country based on central rule. Things are done on a provincial, regional level. Afghans don’t really want a central government. They just don’t understand it. They feel threatened by it. They’d rather decide locally what happens.”

His response was telling, in that it reflected his pessimism but was nevertheless pragmatic, in effect being the result of intimate contact with the region and its people spanning nearly twenty six years.

Now looking back to where Nickelsberg began his narrative, it is easy to notice how prone Afghanistan is to repeating its bloody history over and over again. In the late 80s, South Asia was a journalist’s paradise. There was relative calm, and access for foreign journalists was much easier. Martial law was in effect in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, India was still asleep, and Afghanistan was under the Soviet occupation. This, in a way, was the calm before the storm. A million Afghans would be killed in the ensuing war with the Soviets, millions would be sent into exile in Pakistan and Iran, and the brutal rule of the Taliban would follow soon thereafter. The rise of al-Qaeda, instability in neighbouring Pakistan, and then, 9/11 and the American invasion – a familiar story. Nickelsberg, however, peels through these events to show what went on on the ground. The ethnic rivalries, the so-called great game, and the constantly shifting alliances between Ahmed Shah Massud, General Dostum, Gulbuddin Hekmetyar, and Burhanuddin Rabbani are painted in a most captivating manner by Nickelsberg. There are plenty graves, funerals, dead bodies, refugees, and carnage. And then he reminds the audience, time and again, about the intractable and ubiquitous presence of Pakistan in Afghanistan’s modern history. “In order to understand Afghanistan” he says, “you have to understand Pakistan, and to understand Pakistan, you have to understand India, fully."

Nickelsberg’s narrative was not without its shortcomings though. His objectivity was painful at times. He suggested blame, but did not place it on anyone’s shoulders. It almost felt like a Hollywood movie, the good guys and the bad guys were too easily discernable – which is not always the case in international politics. Moral ambiguity is part and parcel of modern conflicts, and the nuance to capture that was missing from Nickelsberg’s photos.

From his final trip to Kabul, Nickelsberg came back with both hope and a reality check. “On the last day that I was there [in Kabul], May 16th of 2013, I had paid my hotel bill and heard on the news 9 o’clock that morning that two car bombs had gone off in downtown Kabul and sure enough this was a Chevrolet Suburban SUV carrying four army trainers... Six US army trainers were killed and ten Afghans, sixteen people, and they were off on a training mission up in this area here but they’d obviously been followed and expected. They were rammed by a car carrying a suicide bomber. So, again, we’re back to the loss of life. This begins the formal withdrawal; it’s going to go on for many, many months.”

The last two pictures he showed were of school children, boys and girls, crossing a street, and that of a busy market place. Nickelsberg spoke of signs of recovery, return to normalcy, and of aspirations for a better life amongst the new generation of Afghans, saying that this “for me represents what Afghanistan wants to be: A thriving market, everyone able and at liberty to go about their business, shops open, noise, chaos, gridlock, something the Afghans and many people in the third world are accustomed to and without it they don’t feel right… Japanese cars, trucks, no policemen, total pandemonium, but that’s what they like and that’s what they want. Free of violence.”

Afghanistan – A Distant War, by Robert Nickelsberg, Prestel USA (October, 2013), 192 pp.

This book presentation was held under the auspices of the Foreign Policy Institute on February 5, 2014 at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Bernstein-Offit Building, Room 500, 1717 Massachusetts Ave, NW

(Photo Credit:

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