I’ve seen plenty of fear in Afghanistan since I started reporting there in 1980: people frightened of Russian helicopter gunships; of President Najibullah’s secret police; of the warlords who fought their vicious battles regardless of the lives of ordinary people; of Taliban vigilantes who blew up girls’ schools and beat people for trivial breaches of its obsessive codes. But I’ve never seen anything like the fear I witnessed on a recent trip: the fear, shared by the majority of Afghans, of starvation.
When the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, Western powers froze $10bn of Afghan financial assets and imposed a raft of sanctions. The aim was to ensure the group didn’t return to its ultra-extremist ways. But the result was the collapse of Afghanistan’s fragile economy. The national bank can’t function, and the government can’t pay wages. An unprecedented 97 per cent of people are at risk of slipping below the poverty line. Those who once lived comfortable lives now subsist on bread and water. “I can’t sleep at night for worrying,” a former security guard called Noor told me and a BBC crew. He used to earn $500 a month – good money. Now he lives on odd jobs and the miniscule profit he gets from buying a couple of dozen oranges wholesale and selling them individually. He and his family of five have had to move to a few dank rooms in the Kabul slums. Fortunately, his landlord is understanding. If he starts demanding the back rent, Noor’s family will be on the streets.
The Taliban transformed
It’s possible that the economic measures imposed on Afghanistan are affecting the way members of the Taliban behave. The group certainly seems different from the outlandish extremists of 1996-2001 who hung televisions from lamp-posts and searched homes for pictures of any living creature. Now, no vigilantes roam the streets. Girls’ schools still operate, though most are only half full because people are scared that their daughters might be punished in future for being educated. There have been revenge killings, and many who worked for the Western forces are still in hiding. But the full savagery of old hasn’t returned. It’s hard to know how much this is due to the actions of the West. What is certain is that the sanctions are causing immense suffering.
We were filming in a desolate village outside Herat, where the drought of the past four years has been particularly devastating. Dr Qadir Assemy of the World Food Programme (WFP) had travelled from Kabul to oversee the distribution of flour and oil. “I feel terrible for my people,” he said. “It’s so sad to see how dependent and desperate they are.” Qadir is one of a small group of senior aid agency officials who are keeping Afghanistan afloat. Others include Fiona McSheehy of Save the Children, Shelley Thakral of the WFP, and Vicki Aken of the International Rescue Committee – strong, experienced, articulate women who tell you privately how they feel about the disaster confronting Afghanistan. “There’ve been times when I just thought I couldn’t bear to see these things any longer,” said one. “But if we give up, what’ll happen to the people here?”
Playing the blame game
If you write for the British press, you mustn’t read the online comments under your article. But when I wrote for one newspaper about the Afghanistan disaster, there were so many replies – a thousand or so – that I wanted to know what had stirred up this response. After 56 years as a broadcaster I’m phlegmatic about hostile reaction, yet I was knocked back by the rage. Some was about me and the BBC, and how “woke” we were, but most of it was anger against Afghans. They deserved to be hungry, because they were Muslims and had too many children, and because they hadn’t resisted the Taliban takeover – as though unarmed, hungry people could have fought a war-toughened organisation strengthened by weaponry the Western forces had abandoned in their flight. It was obvious I was telling people what they didn’t want to hear: that Britain, the US and the others had scuttled out and left Afghanistan to hunger and extremism. One man wrote that he’d always liked my books, but that my article had annoyed him so much he was taking them down to the skip.
What we have done to Afghanistan has seriously damaged how we view ourselves. We walked out on a country we’d undertaken to protect for the long haul. Still, this is all in the past. Now we’ve got to build a new relationship with the Taliban, not just chuck Afghanistan in the skip.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His film on Afghanistan for BBC One’s “Panorama” airs on 7 February
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under