John Simpson: I’ve never seen Afghanistan as desperate as it is today

From the moment the West abandoned Afghanistan last August and the Taliban drove into town, the feeble, aid-dependent Afghan economy simply collapsed. Now, just under six months later, a staggering 97 per cent of the population have fallen into poverty. That’s a figure unmatched anywhere else on earth. Twenty-three million Afghans no longer have enough money to buy their daily food.

There is a level of fear in Afghanistan which is greater than anything I’ve seen in 40 years of travelling here. You might expect it to be fear of the Taliban, but it isn’t. The Taliban impose themselves on the population relatively little, compared with the brutality they showed when they were in power from 1996 to 2001. There are reports of revenge killings and some Islamist punishments, mostly outside Kabul, but for the most part the Taliban have their hands full just keeping the country going. To the outsider, life seems reasonably unchanged, except for the beggars. There are far more of them than there used to be.

A crowd waiting for food handouts in a sandstorm near Herat Credit: John Simpson

The first time I travelled to Afghanistan was in January 1980 – a week or so after the Russian invasion. Since then I’ve seen the country under occupation, in civil war, in turmoil of every kind. But I’ve never seen it as desperate as it is today. Now almost everyone I meet seems to share the same deep anxiety: that they and their family won’t get through the winter.

The reason is clear. The economy was 75 per cent dependent on foreign aid; when that was removed, economic activity pretty much ended at a stroke. The wealthiest and most economically effective people fled the country. The national bank can’t function properly, because the US, Britain and other Western countries have frozen Afghanistan’s $10 billion financial assets and imposed sanctions on the new government. 

The result has been appalling. Most shops are open, and there are goods on the shelves. The market stalls are still laden with fruit and vegetables. Yet there are very few customers: scarcely anyone has the money to buy anything. There are queues outside the bread shops, but they don’t form until late in the afternoon, when the bread is stale and the bakers are selling it off cheap. Again and again I’ve asked people what they and their families are living on. The answer is almost always the same: a couple of slabs of stale bread and, if possible, a pot of tea. It’s more usually water.

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Noor is a case in point. He’s in his early fifties and a former security officer for various Western companies. He earned good money in Afghan terms – $500 a month – and rented a house in a pleasant area of Kabul. He has five children, ranging from 16 to a one-year-old, and he spent his spare time working out at a body-building gym. Then, at a stroke, the company he worked for closed down. Since then Noor has sold off his weights and gym equipment, the furniture, his and his wife’s clothes. They left their old house and rented a few rooms in a slum property, which he was ashamed to show us. The lavatory was a hole in the ground. When our crew arrived, the family were putting rags on the fire to keep it going. The outside temperature often drops to minus eight at night.

The children were warmly dressed, but Noor wore nothing more than a thin grey shalwar kameez. His bare ankles were purple with cold. “I can’t sleep at night for worrying how we’re going to survive,” he said. At present the landlord is forgiving, but Noor is worried this won’t last. He does odd jobs, but scarcely anyone has the money to pay for work. So he makes a few pence by turning up at 5am every morning at a wholesale fruiterers and buying maybe 30 oranges, then selling them one by one by the side of the road. Until a month ago the family lived on five pieces of bread a day. Now, Noor says, he and his wife share one piece, and the children get two between them. Compared with the bodybuilder in the photo that hangs on the wall, Noor is skinny and his cheeks are hollow.

Noor with his youngest daughter Noor with his youngest daughter Credit: John Simpson

Another question I’ve been asking everyone is whether the Taliban are different this time around. The answer is invariably “yes”. It’s my experience, too. From 1996 to 2001, when I came here often, the Taliban rarely allowed other Western journalists into the country at the same time, and I was treated like a potential enemy. Not so now. When my team and I flew to Herat, a senior member of the Taliban team running the airport came to welcome me. “We need your help,” he said.

The Taliban believe that if people in the West see how Afghanistan is suffering, they will put pressure on their governments to unfreeze the country’s financial assets and lift the sanctions that have been imposed. So far, perhaps, the West’s measures have succeeded. If the aim is to force the Taliban to rein in their former brutal behaviour, it seems to be working.  But at what cost? Fiona McSheehy, head of Save The Children in Afghanistan, told us: “It’s really shocking that the world is allowing things in Afghanistan to deteriorate to such an extent, and at such a speed, that an entire population is at risk. It’s unconscionable to me, to be honest.”

Outside Herat, small camps appear all the time, with people flooding into the cities to find food Outside Herat, small camps appear all the time, with people flooding into the cities to find food Credit: John Simpson

I’ve made two longish reporting tours in Afghanistan over the last three months, and my feeling is growing that the Taliban have learnt the lesson of their previous five years in power, when they were the most extreme Islamist regime on earth. During those years I saw men and women beaten in the streets for wearing ‘unIslamic’ clothes; one was a man whose ankles were uncovered when the wind blew his shalwar kameez aside. I filmed in girls’ schools which had been attacked by the Taliban. At one there was blood on the walls up to head height. 

Nowadays there are no patrols checking on people’s clothes, and although there are noticeably fewer women in the streets than there used to be, they often wear quite loose headscarves. In the city of Bamian I filmed at a girls’ school which was half full of pupils.  Students and teachers told me the local Taliban had done nothing whatsoever to stop them going to school. Nor has there been any scope given to violent extremism. The Taliban have clamped down hard on the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) group, and there have been occasional armed clashes between the Taliban and ISK.

These things – a relatively relaxed atmosphere in the streets, an increasing willingness to allow girls to go to school, and a determination to counter ISK – may well be the result of the West’s stranglehold on the Afghan economy. Yet the chances are that the Taliban would have been less extreme in power this time anyway, since they have understood and acknowledged the damage their ultra-conservatism did last time. 

What’s more, 20 years of Western influence have made Afghans much more difficult to control. Nowadays they’re outspoken and aware of the outside world. And of course they know very well what they’ve lost with the departure of the Western troops. On the walls of the citadel in Herat I met a 17-year-old who told me he felt he had been cut off from all his foreign friends on the internet. “I believed I was part of the same world as them,” he said. “Now I know I’m not.” Wasn’t he worried about talking to me in this way? “Why should I be worried? I can say what I want to say.”

A crowd of several thousand outside the Iranian consulate in Herat, desperate to leave the country A crowd of several thousand outside the Iranian consulate in Herat, desperate to leave the country Credit: John Simpson

We drove to a village outside Herat. The World Food Programme has a food store there where it hands out flour and oil. To add to all the other problems, much of Afghanistan has suffered from drought for three years now. The desert is starting to take over. A sandstorm was blowing. The air was full of sand, getting in your eyes and ears and between your teeth. Patiently, silently, several hundred people sheltered under the lee of a wall for their turn to collect their supplies. The land round here has become impossible to farm. Like millions of others in Afghanistan, the people here are entirely dependent on handouts.

Shutting the door and throwing away the key to Afghanistan may satisfy some people in the West, but it is no answer to Afghanistan’s problems. Britain spent 20 years, untold millions and the lives of 457 service personnel helping to shore up the lives of people there. Then at a stroke we followed the Americans and got out. Now extraordinary numbers of Afghans are facing starvation, largely because we won’t let them have access to their own money. More and more people are wondering if it’s time we accepted that the Taliban have won, and worked out a new relationship with them. Not to mention with the people who mostly didn’t want the Taliban to take power in the first place.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor

Panorama: Afghanistan Famine is on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday February 7

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