Richard North, 22/08/2021  

With minimal media presence – for obvious reasons – and growing chaos at Kabul airport, it is no longer possible to discern what is happening in Afghanistan, not that it ever was. We only ever got what the media could be bothered to tell us. Anyone with any real interest in the fate of the country had to look elsewhere.

But, from the intelligence emerging, it doesn't take much to work out that events may be about to take a turn for the worse, in a way that scarcely has been predicted, but in such a manner wherein eventual salvation might lie.

A strong set of clues lies in the piece written for the Sunday Times by Christina Lamb (paywall) , headed: "We're not about to give this all up for some Kalashnikov-wielding bumpkins in turbans".

It is as well to disregard the rhetoric for the moment, and focus on the sentiment embedded in the title which conveys the singular point that the Taliban (rank and file) are the "country cousins" come to town – ill-educated primitives, unschooled in the modern world and largely out of their depth.

They have come to a capital transformed by modernity, representing a massive contrast from the Kabul of 20 years ago. When British and American soldiers arrived in 2001, they were stunned by how backward the country was, with its unmade roads, people burning tyres for heat, almost no running water, schools with no walls and minimal health facilities.

In the capital, there were almost no phone lines and when an interim government was installed under Hamid Karzai, ministers worked with satellite phones, with suitcases of cash flown in to pay wages.

It is also a much larger city, its population having ballooned from an estimated 1.5 million to well over six million in the greater metropolitan area, further swollen by a huge internal displacement from outlying districts.

With ATMs non-functioning for over a week and the banks closed, the city is on the brink of economic collapse. Food supplies are no longer arriving in anything like the quantities needed, employment has plummeted with the departure of the foreigners – the military, the contractors, the NGOs and the multiple hangers-on – and the hospital system is shutting down as its female labour force stays at home.

This level of disruption would tax a well-founded, sophisticated western government but it is beyond belief that the "country bumpkin" Taliban will be up to the task of restoring the functioning of the city. This is more the case as the aid agencies have packed their bags, foreign aid has dried up, the financial reserves have been sequestered and the currency is collapsing.

Thus, we are warned, the whole country – and the capital in particular - faces an "absolute catastrophe" involving widespread hunger, homelessness and economic collapse, far beyond the capability of the self-appointed Taliban government to deal with.

There is, as one might imagine, huge pressure to mount an international humanitarian aid effort but, in view of the uncertainties – and with the chaotic evacuation still in progress, taking the airport out of circulation – there does not look to be an immediate prospect of an action plan being implemented.

Christina Lamb's piece points to a citizenry in Kabul which is used to the freedoms in a city of shopping malls, burger and steak restaurants and espresso bars.

Hundreds of thousands of young Afghans have graduated from private and state universities that have sprung up across the country. Many are female, writes Lamb, and these women are in particular danger and among those with most to lose. There are girls’ cycling clubs, football teams and robotics teams. Women have become police chiefs, prosecutors, judges and film directors.

But, says one of the country's first female rappers – cited by Lamb - "We are not about to give this up because of some Kalashnikov-wielding bumpkins in turbans".

Such bravado tends to melt away when one is confronted with the wrong end of a loaded gun, the trigger held by an unpredictable primitive. For those unused to the experience, this can be extremely unnerving, and the cool bravery of cinema heroes is rarely replicated in real life.

What has its own dynamic, though, is a city of teeming millions on the brink of starvation, with insufficient fresh water, no cash and without electricity – a desperate population with nothing to lose.

Should it come to that point, even a few thousand "Kalashnikov-wielding bumpkins" will be hard-put to retain control and, in the ensuing chaos, one can see the balance of power shifting, with the emergence from the shadows of new figures, the names of whom are currently unknown.

To that extent, it is relatively easy to take power from a weak, corrupt central government that takes flight the moment it is challenged. But it is quite another thing keeping power, meeting all the demands of a modern state. The Taliban may have bitten off far more than they can chew.

There is another issue here which could become highly significant. In the mountainous regions of northern Afghanistan, through which any large volumes of aid must flow, the snows come early. And, as we've pointed out before, a severe winter can have a drastic effect, even without the intervention of the Taliban.

In the winter of 2007/2008 such conditions were observed, plunging the whole of Afghanistan into a humanitarian crisis. And a particular point to watch then was the explosion in the price of wheat, up 70 percent on the previous year, with neighbouring Pakistan banning the private export of wheat to its neighbour, imposing a 35 percent duty on official wheat and wheat products exports.

Nor even would assistance from the international community be an unalloyed benefit. Flooding an under-developed country with free food simply undermines the local agricultural economy. It drives down prices (who will pay for food when they can get it for free?) and thus deters farmers from growing crops – or pushes them into more profitable crops … like opium poppies. Major food shortages, therefore, could simply herald a cycle of deprivation, creating even greater stresses for a Taliban government.

Some hope that the Taliban have changed, presenting themselves as Taliban 2.0, a government that promises – as Lamb reports - to respect women's rights, forgive those who fought against them and allow Afghanistan’s flourishing free press to continue. They have said Afghans can still enjoy television and social media (they themselves are active on Twitter and have a WhatsApp group for foreign media).

But, we are told, in an ominous signal the Haqqani network has been put in charge of Kabul security, a move widely seen as putting a fox in charge of the chicken coop. Not only are the Pakistan-based Haqqanis closely allied to al-Qaeda, but their leader, Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, is on both the US and the UN terrorist list and has a $5 million bounty on his head.

If the hard men really do take over, the events of 1996 could look like a mere rehearsal for the horrors which are to come. But it is there in which the possible roots of salvation lie. The situation may spiral out of control so quickly and completely that a counter-revolution deposes the pretenders and a another new government takes over.

To borrow a Churchillian phrase, therefore, this is not so much the end of the beginning as the beginning of another end. It is the fate of that benighted country that is Afghanistan to suffer a succession of miseries, where one end simply leads to another.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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