“This is not a drill,” trumpets a recorded voice in American-accented English, floating over the rooftops of central Kabul. “Duck and cover. Get away from the windows and await further instructions.”
The sound – slightly chilling, I confess – emanates from the US embassy. In the BBC house, my colleague Duncan Stone and I run upstairs to the roof. He sets up his camera and tripod, waiting to see what happens. Nothing does. It’s just another false alarm.
Every few days, we get warnings of threats that are supposed to be imminent: suicide attacks on the police or government ministries, rocket-propelled grenades aimed at the US or British embassies or the presidential palace. They never seem to come to anything. Conversely, there don’t seem to be any tip-offs about the car bombings that do occur.
There have been several in the past month or so. This isn’t to suggest that Kabul is anything remotely like today’s Baghdad, which endures frequent and savage bomb attacks that British newspapers scarcely bother to mention any longer. People here aren’t in daily fear for their lives but they suffer from the dull, grinding, gloomy sense that things are never going to get better.
The Taliban have been focusing their attacks on Kabul, with far-reaching results. The repeated bombings of August have persuaded thousands more people that there is no alternative but to head out and try their luck as refugees. Afghans are now the second-largest group of migrants to Europe.
“How do we persuade them to stay?” asks Afghanistan’s charming, quiet-voiced chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, in the garden of the prime ministerial office. He is being rhetorical but there is a note of resignation. He realises that addressing the problem will require years, perhaps decades, not just the introduction of a few quick policies. “We must make things better here. Security, jobs . . .”
A helicopter clatters by and it is too loud for us to carry on filming. Nowadays, visiting grandees, government ministers and the residual US, UK and other foreign troops are ferried around at 500 feet. It’s quicker, given the chaotic state of the city’s traffic, and it’s also more secure.
Abdullah stops, understanding that we will have to switch off our TV camera until the engine note is merely a growl in the distance. “Of course, there’s a lot of dissatisfaction here,” he says when it is running again. “But events on the ground haven’t been easy. The threat of Da’esh [Islamic State] has affected us. We should have done better but the legacy we faced has been challenging.”
He is too diplomatic to say so but Barack Obama’s clunking announcement four years ago that US troops would pull out by the end of 2014 has done serious damage to Afghanistan’s economy and to its chances of breaking away from the past. But when did an American president care more about the fate of a distant country than about the reaction at home? The immediate effect was to persuade foreign investors that after the Americans left, the Taliban would quickly take over again. The Afghan army, however, is doing pretty well (the Taliban have captured six districts from the government so far, while the government has captured five from the Taliban), although that has escaped the notice of much of the outside world.
I have been coming to Afghanistan since 1980 (if you call the briefest of strolls across the border in January that year into newly Soviet-occupied territory a proper visit) and have seen Kabul in dozens of different moods: resignation and secret defiance under the Russians, growing despair under the chaotically corrupt rule of the mujahedin, utter paralysis under the brutal government of the Taliban and the slow growth of something like prosperity since 2001. In those 14 years, I have seen the streets of Kabul change from silence and darkness, where the barking of packs of stray dogs was the biggest noise at night, to what we have today: appallingly loud traffic, too many shiny banks and dodgy company offices from Pakistan, India and central Asia, too little trickle-down from the rich to the grindingly poor. And far too little confidence in the uneasy duo of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani as president and Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive, opponents lashed together because the Americans thought (perhaps rightly) that they would be better off together than battling each other politically.
A year ago, before Ghani took over from Hamid Karzai, I went to see him at his modest villa. He was deeply impressive, his kindly-seeming face thrust forward in his effort to show me how clear the answers were to Afghanistan’s problems. Corruption would be stamped out by weekly meetings that he would personally chair to decide on the government’s procurement of equipment and services; violence would be ended through the intelligent pursuit of peace with the Taliban. Ghani seemed a bit like a tougher, more worldly Gandhi. And he had been a top figure at the World Bank: he must know what the answers are . . .
So far, the answers have been slow in coming – and there are new problems. A sudden split has opened up in the Taliban following the stunning discovery that its leader Mullah Omar had been dead for two years and that the movement had hidden this. His deputy, Akhtar Mansour, a supporter of peace talks, has claimed the succession but a sizeable group supports Mullah Omar’s son Mullah Yaqoub. The split will make it harder to reach a peace agreement with the movement as a whole. So the bombings continue.
The whole time I’ve been writing this, I’ve been listening for the all-clear from the US embassy. But the further instructions we were told to wait for haven’t come. Somehow in Afghanistan they never seem to.
John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News
This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War