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17 August 2021

Afghanistan Diary: The fall of Kabul was predictable – if you were there

Living in Afghanistan’s capital the week before the Taliban captured the city, I found a reality at odds with US intelligence.

By Bruno Maçães

A week ago, the Washington Post published a scoop that US intelligence officials had revised their assessment of Afghanistan to say that Kabul could fall in 90 days. The assessment was later revised a second time to suggest the city could be isolated within 72 hours. A day later, Kabul had fallen. Could anyone have predicted it? Actually, yes.

During my week in the capital, everyone I met was certain that the Taliban would arrive within days. Predictions were extraordinarily accurate: one day after Mazar-i-Sharif, the last major city in northern Afghanistan, was taken. I relied on highly precise intelligence from local businessmen and even foreign journalists to schedule my departure flight. The question is: why did the intelligence community fail so miserably at something that seemed so easy for anyone with knowledge of local realities? The answer is that intelligence work is no longer about local realities but about data, theory and analysis.

In the safe house

On the one hand, Serena is the safest hotel in Kabul and one of the safest places outside the green zone, where embassies and government buildings are situated. On the other, leaving the hotel is a distinctly uncanny experience. You pass through an armoured gate, then a winding corridor inside one wall, then an open lane after that wall, then a guard armed with a Kalashnikov opens a very narrow door and the light from the street falls on your eyes. Nodding to the guard, you step out. Five seconds to the car, but they seem to last forever. Reminds me of those fun fair shooting galleries. Serena is a strange place. It scores high on every security protocol because of its safe basement, but no one ever shows you the directions to it.

At the Serena, there are hushed conversations everywhere. In the café, by the snooker table, in the vast and perfectly manicured garden, even in the pool and spa. I prefer the café. As he munches on a plate of French fries, a former Afghan high official tries to make me understand the logic behind events. “Imagine I am Afghanistan,” he says, “the waiter there is China, that guy is Russia, that maybe India. You are America. What do you do?” Like an unprepared student, I stare at him blankly. Eventually, I manage to say: “You create trouble?” I seem to be on the right track. “Yes, you create trouble. You have already screwed up in Afghanistan, so how do you use that? You create total chaos, so that your adversaries have to deal with it. Later, if necessary, you might even create some Uyghur cells in the north to operate inside China…”

The stories we tell

Like so many of the buildings in Kabul, the main and most noble entrance to the National Museum of Afghanistan has been closed and a new and more secure one created in the back. On the day I visit, it feels rather nice. You have to walk through an empty field. I must be the only visitor, but inside the building there is a flurry of activity. Some rooms are not exhibition halls but restoration ateliers. I pretend to be lost and attempt to peek inside a couple, but the artisans quickly rush me out, before returning to their treasures.

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The museum was repeatedly bombed and looted in the past four decades, with artworks from Afghanistan’s glorious history showing up in private collections worldwide. More recently there has been an effort to return those works to their rightful place. The Japanese government deserves particular praise. There is now a Japan room in the museum, but it is not devoted to Japanese art. What you find inside are the stolen artworks recently returned from Japan. Once again, the Kabul Museum can be considered one of the greatest in the world. Will its treasures survive the return of the Taliban?

One day, I put on Afghan clothes and take a long walk in the Kabul bazaar. Finally, no longer marred by blast barriers, the city comes alive. There is no better way to discover how large Kabul really is and how vibrant its economy has become. I have been to bazaars in Lahore and Tashkent. I am not sure this is smaller. A long street is entirely devoted to electronics. There are streets for clothes, shoes, automobile parts, the usual cloth bags full to the brim with spices and seeds. And above all, there is the bird market, a narrow alley lined with stalls selling birds. Pleasure birds, prized for their plumes and singing. A small boy walks by and the sun shines directly on the knives attached to a chain that he carries in his hand. We are approaching Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, during which Afghan men cut open their own backs with knives attached to chains.

Sliding doors

I am waiting for my flight to Istanbul in the departure lounge of Kabul International Airport, two days before the Taliban took over the city on 15 August. There is no one at the door of the small business lounge so I feel tempted to sneak in, but the room is crammed with Americans vociferating into their mobile phones. I take a walk around the souvenir shop instead. It is empty. Almost all passengers are Afghans leaving Kabul, perhaps forever. The airport is full and there are no seats left on my flight. But there is calm. The children are excited, not afraid.

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This is the same airport that just two days later will become a scene for indiscriminate shooting, with Afghans clinging to the wheels of the departing military aircraft and falling to their deaths. I cannot but think how easy it is to perish because you overlooked some advice, or happened not to meet someone who could have given you a crucial piece of information that might have saved your life.

Bruno Maçães was the Portuguese Europe minister from 2013-2015 and is the author of the forthcoming book “Geopolitics for the End Time: From the Pandemic to the Climate Crisis” (2021).

[See also: Witnessing the last days of Ashraf Ghani’s Afghanistan]