I’ve seen a lot of fear in Afghanistan since I started reporting there in 1980: people are afraid of Russian helicopter gunships; President Najibullah’s secret police; warlords who fought their vicious battles independent of the lives of ordinary people; Taliban militiamen who blew up girls’ schools and beat people for petty breaches of its obsessive codes. But I have 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 $10 billion in Afghan financial assets and imposed a series of sanctions. The goal was to ensure that the group did not return to its ultra-extremist ways. But the result has been the collapse of Afghanistan’s fragile economy. The national bank cannot operate and the government cannot pay salaries. An unprecedented 97% of the population is at risk of falling below the poverty line. Those who once lived comfortable lives now live on bread and water. “I can’t sleep at night because I worry,” a former security guard called Noor and a BBC crew told me. He used to make $500 a month – a nice amount of money. Now he lives off odd jobs and the meager profit he makes from buying a few dozen oranges wholesale and selling them individually. He and his family of five had to move to a few damp rooms in the Kabul slums. Fortunately, its owner is understanding. If he starts claiming back rent, Noor’s family will be homeless.
The Taliban transformed
It is possible that the economic measures imposed on Afghanistan will affect the way members of the Taliban behave. The group certainly looks different from the outlandish extremists of 1996-2001 who hung televisions from lampposts and searched homes for pictures of any living creature. From now on, no vigilante walks the streets. Girls’ schools are still functioning, although most are only half full because people fear their daughters will be punished in the future for being educated. There have been revenge killings and many who worked for Western forces are still in hiding. But the full savagery of yesteryear has not returned. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the actions of the West. What is certain is that the sanctions cause immense suffering.
[see also: Tens of thousands of Afghans have been betrayed by our callous, brazen and shamelessly incompetent government]
We were filming in a desolate village outside of Herat, where the drought of the past four years has been particularly devastating. Dr Qadir Assemy of the World Food Program (WFP) had come from Kabul to oversee the distribution of flour and oil. “I feel bad 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 keep Afghanistan afloat. Others include Fiona McSheehy from Save the Children, Shelley Thakral from the WFP and Vicki Aken from the International Rescue Committee – strong, experienced and eloquent women who tell you privately what they think about the disaster facing the Afghanistan. “There were times when I thought I couldn’t bear to see these things any longer,” one said. “But if we give up, what will happen to the people here?”
Play the blame game
If you are writing for the UK press, you should not read the online comments under your article. But when I was writing for a newspaper about the disaster in Afghanistan, there were so many responses – about a thousand – that I wanted to know what prompted that response. After 56 years as a broadcaster, I’m phlegmatic about the backlash, but I was overwhelmed with rage. Some were about me and the BBC, and how ‘woke’ we were, but most were anger at Afghans. They deserved to be hungry, because they were Muslims and had too many children, and because they had not resisted the Taliban takeover – as if hungry, unarmed people could have fought an organization hardened by war and strengthened by weapons that Western forces had abandoned in their flight. It was obvious that I was telling people what they didn’t want to hear: that Britain, the United States and the rest had run away and left Afghanistan to hunger and extremism. A man wrote that he had always loved my books, but was so bored with my article that he took them to the dumpster.
Content from our partners
What we did to Afghanistan seriously damaged our self-perception. We have abandoned a country that we set out to protect for the long term. However, all of that is a thing of the past. Now we need to build a new relationship with the Taliban, not just throw Afghanistan in the dumpster.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His Afghanistan film for BBC One’s ‘Panorama’ airs February 7
[see also: “What have we got ourselves into?”: the hotel that became home to 150 Afghan refugees]
This article originally appeared in the February 2, 2022, issue of The New Statesman, Pass under