Magazine article The Spectator

Afghanistan's New Agony

Magazine article The Spectator

Afghanistan's New Agony

Article excerpt

So many lives lost, a trillion dollars spent, yet the Taleban is resurgent

Amid all the chaos in the Middle East, the breakdown of borders and states, a new threat is fast emerging. The key strategic bulwark to stabilise the region is a strong Afghanistan. But after 15 years of occupation by western troops and a trillion dollars spent, it now appears to be going the way of the Levant.

A weak government in Kabul has proved unable to forge a political consensus. The Taleban is resurgent, while other similar groups control much of the Afghan country-side. And this -- with the potential spread factor of Isis -- means that Afghanistan is probably worse off today than when foreign forces intervened in 2001. You will read very little about this problem, because Afghanistan is now regarded by most western leaders as an old problem, one that dogged their predecessors, one that they don't want to confront. But expect to hear more about Afghanistan over the next year, because a bad situation is turning much worse.

Britain joined the United States mission in Afghanistan for a simple reason: to depose the Taleban and introduce a new, stable government. At the time, it was argued that the fanatics had managed to seize power in Kabul but there were plenty of moderate players who would, given a nudge from the West, take power again and return the nation to stability. It took more than a nudge: 456 British soldiers died during this mission and more than 2,200 Americans. The best that was achieved was the pretence of a stable government - which, it was hoped, would last for long enough for troops to withdraw.

The Taleban are now on their way back and recently captured their first city since losing the country to US forces in 2001. Kunduz, with a population of 300,000 and a strategic position on the border with Central Asia, had been under siege for much of this year, but a surprise attack by a few hundred Taleban just after a religious holiday overran its defences, and the security forces needed two weeks to retake the city.

Meanwhile, horrific bombing by US aircraft of a Kunduz hospital run by the international medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières, in which 30 people were killed (including 13 staff and three children), caused outrage around the world. The organisation rejected a US apology and demanded an international investigation. The Americans, lacking in ground intelligence, had mistaken the hospital for a Taleban compound. If such a mistake was possible, it could be repeated -- a thought that has led to a large-scale evacuation of UN staff, western aid agencies and diplomats, further disabling humanitarian relief and jobs for Afghans across the country.

So how safe is Afghanistan now? American diplomats now travel only by helicopter for meetings even inside Kabul. The Taleban control almost all the major road systems in the country, which they could shut down when they choose, thereby isolating Kabul and other cities and preventing the supply of foodstuffs and trade from six neighbouring states.

Afghans now make up the second largest contingent of asylum-seekers arriving in Europe. According to UN statistics, they constitute almost 15 per cent of the total number of 650,000 who reached Europe between January and August. Many of them are well-educated middle-class families who held down good jobs as long as foreign forces were in their country.

And what are they fleeing? The world was shown a glimpse of it this last month when footage emerged of a young woman being stoned to death on charge of adultery. Once, such tales were recounted by western leaders as reason for intervening in Afghanistan. Now they are examples of what many Afghans fear is the state to come. Afghans who can afford to leave are doing so; some purchasing fake death-threat letters from the Taleban for as much as £700. Some 160,000 Afghans are expected to emigrate by the end of this year, quadruple the number of two years ago. …

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