Richard North, 16/07/2021  

Only a couple of days ago, I was complaining of the paucity of coverage on Afghanistan in the British legacy media. At that point, though, I hadn't reckoned with the BBC.

As the situation develops apace, seemingly about to come to a head, yesterday's offering from the BBC is a video report from correspondent Yogita Limaye. She had travelled to the "strategically vital Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan" where she spent much of her time in a grotesque form of "disaster tourism", interviewing refugees in a camp and showing off war victims in the local hospital.

The most we got of the general strategic situation was that there had been "intense fighting" on the fringes of the provincial capital, Kanduz – 150 miles from Kabul. Standing in a street in the capital, she pointed vaguely up the road to a bridge, saying: "On the other side, there is the territory controlled by the Taleban". There was no way for us to tell what was happening just a mile from here, she added.

However, that Yogita Limaye might have difficulty finding out what was going on could have less to do with the uncertainty of the situation and more to do with Ms Limaye and the way she is being deployed by the BBC.

Based in the BBC News bureau in Mumbai, India, as correspondent and presenter for India Business Report, her normal beat is to report on the latest business news stories from India. But she has also covered key socio-economic issues such as food security, rural employment and poverty.

She reported on the northern Indian floods in 2013, and the Nepal earthquake in 2015 which she regarded as her most memorable moment. She was also an integral part of the BBC's news coverage on the issue of women's safety in India following incidents of gang rape in Delhi and Mumbai.

As to her background, she is high caste Brahmin, having enjoyed a comfortable, upper-class upbringing before taking a degree in software engineering. Unable or unwilling to pursue this as a career, she switched to journalism after a year, working for CNN and then the BBC.

Her forays into Afghanistan seem to have been infrequent. Two years ago (almost to the day), she reported from Kabul on "The sex scandal at the heart of the Afghan government". She was there to tell us of "allegations of sexual harassment at the highest levels of government", hearing from "women who describe a culture of abuse".

Then, on 15 January this year, she authored a short "stream of consciousness" report headed "Afghans fear Taliban return" in which she reported fears that the Taliban would come back to power, saying that, "Women in particular are worried about what rights they would have".

This, then, is hardly the experienced, hardened reporter familiar with the insurgency in Afghanistan able to report on latest developments. She does not speak the local languages, has never been based in the country and is clearly reliant on the BBC's Kabul-based producer, Mahfouz Zubaide, who must have done all the donkey work for this current piece.

The point here, of course, with crucial events unfolding in Afghanistan, is this is that the best the BBC can do? Despite astronomical salaries paid to its stars, with Gary Lineker – on £1,360,000-£1,364,999 a year, Huw on £425,000-£429,999 and Emily Maitlis getting £325,000-£329,999, local sources suggest that correspondents employed locally by the BBC are paid between £7-10,000 per annum. It is not, therefore, the case that the Corporation could not afford one, or even two, full time correspondents based in Kabul aiming to keep us informed.

One can understand the sensitivity of the BBC having in April 2018 lost a local stringer to a targeted suicide bombing. But while the BBC might be cautious about sending journalists chasing after hard news, it seems to have no problems exposing Yogita Limaye to risk in pursuit of "stream of consciousness" human interest stories about refugees, despite the Islamic State in April of this year having claimed responsibility for killing three female journalists in eastern Afghanistan.

The worst of it all is that Limaye's report finishes with an interview of a UN official, telling us Afghanistan needs more aid. Yet, even if this could happen, it would be unlikely to do any good, given the latest developments.

To discover this, a more sensible approach might have been to review that events on the ground, and try to make sense of them. Here, unlike 1994, when the Taliban captured ancient city of Kandahar – the historic capital of Afghanistan – and then moved on to Kabul which they failed to take, the insurgents appear to be adopting different tactics.

Instead of going for the main population centres, their main focus has been on capturing the outer regions and taking control of border posts. According to the Iranian AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA), this concentration is not accidental.

Firstly, the border guards are more vulnerable than other forces nearer the centre, as they are devoid of rigorous assistance and logistics for their distance from the central government. Secondly, losing the borders is heavy for Kabul politically and psychologically.

As much to the point, the Taliban know from experience that capture of the capital is difficult as it is the centre of concentration of the government forces and can draw foreign sensitivity.

But in what could well be the most important reason, with control of the borders in the hands of the Taliban, the government will lose its revenue sources and imports and the gates for foreign military and logistics assistance.

Certainly, the largest single source of government revenue (apart from foreign aid) is customs fees and tariffs, perhaps amounting to as much a 50 percent of the central government's income.

At the end of the road, says ABNA, interrupting this source of revenue will cut the government's power to run its administration and meet the society's necessities. On the other hand, the Taliban will be financing its insurgency with tax revenues which were previously paid to Kabul.

On this basis, with 250 out of the total 398 districts, accounting for 85 percent of the country's territories, having fallen to the Taliban, we are approaching the end game. If the Taliban's strategy is sound, Kabul will fall without a shot being fired – after reports of a limited cease-fire in Western Afghanistan.

Thus, according to the Guardian - which has been streets ahead of the BBC – is reporting that Afghanistan's neighbours "are stepping up efforts to prevent the country sliding into a full-blown civil war".

The paper says there will be a meeting in Uzbekistan, opening on Friday, when more than a dozen leaders and foreign ministers from regional powers will gather with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and senior American diplomats including the top US envoy for peace, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Officially, we are told, the gathering is to discuss "regional connectivity", but the Guardian says the focus in breakout sessions and bilateral meetings is expected to be the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan's president, Imran Khan, and the Russian, Chinese and Indian foreign ministers are said to be among those attending.

Other sources, however- such as this - are stating that we a looking at a fully-fledged Afghan Peace Conference on 17-19 July, to be held in Islamabad hosted by Pakistan, with indications that the Pakistanis and the Taliban are working together at a strategic crossing point.

Talks are then expected to travel to Doha, Qatar, under the leadership of the head of Afghanistan's national reconciliation council, Abdullah Abdullah, to discuss with Taliban leaders ways to advance the peace process.

Nothing of this, though, will you get from the BBC, which seems more concerned with endless streams of consciousness than strategic appraisals. No news would actually be better, which is what we are getting today.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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