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Sensemaker: Failure in Afghanistan

Monday 5 July 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Chileans chose Elisa Loncón, a professor of linguistics and an indigenous Mapuche woman, to lead the drafting of their first new constitution since Pinochet.
  • Egypt released the Ever Given container ship to its Japanese owners after a tussle over compensation for the six days it blocked the Suez Canal in March.
  • A thermal imaging drone found a rare red panda in a tree in Duisburg Zoo 36 hours after it went missing from its enclosure. 

Failure in Afghanistan

There’s a pandemic on. Climate change is rampant. England’s in the semi-finals of the Euros. So when a 20-year war in Afghanistan ended with a whimper rather than a bang last week not many people paid attention. But a new civil war looms and an unraveling of everything achieved in the name of democracy and human rights since 2001 – by Afghan governments, Nato, donor governments and NGOs – is entirely plausible. 

By the numbers:
71,000 (approx.) – civilian lives lost in the conflict since 2001
69,000 (approx.) – Afghan soldiers killed since 2001
2,448 – US military personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001
455 – British military personnel killed in Afghanistan since 2001
2,997 – lives lost in World Trade Center on 9/11
2.261 – cost of war in trillion dollars
650 – US military personnel due to remain in Kabul to secure its US embassy
500 (approx) – al-Qaeda fighters now at large in Afghanistan

President Biden has alarmed America’s allies by holding to an 11 September deadline for a full US military withdrawal from Kabul. “Afghans are going to have to decide their future,” he said last month. That is true, but their recent past will help determine what it looks like. As the last Nato troops slip away, often under cover of darkness, it’s worth asking what their mission has achieved under three headings:

For Afghan security. More than a quarter of Afghanistan’s 421 districts have been seized by the Taliban since May. Taliban forces are advancing near Herat in the northwest and Kunduz in the northeast, both far from their traditional southern strongholds. In recent days they’ve taken a former US army base at Sultan Khel, 60 miles southwest of Kabul. Talks in Doha between Taliban and Afghan government representatives have all but stalled. The situation in Kabul is “beyond crisis”, a former finance minister tells the New York Times; the mood is one of “semi-panic”. Another former minister says of the government’s response to the Taliban’s advance: “There is no response. They don’t have a counter-offensive strategy.”

For global security. The rationale for invasion in 2001 was to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity to mount 9/11-style attacks from Afghan soil again. That goal has been achieved and in an agreement with the US last year the Taliban undertook to prevent al-Qaeda operating in areas under its control. But Al-Qaeda and Isis both now “have the capacity to regenerate” in Afghanistan, Sir Alex Younger, former head of MI6, has told Sky. To turn a blind eye to that risk now would be an “enormous mistake” leading to “more threat on the shores of our country and our allies”.

For women. The presidencies of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani have seen progress in women’s education, healthcare and place in the workforce, at least in areas controlled by Kabul. Women serve in the government, police, parliament and the diplomatic service. But overall numbers of girls enrolled in school peaked in 2015. Women’s security is nowhere assured – 70 schoolgirls were killed in a suicide bombing in Kabul in May and a Médecins Sans Frontières maternity hospital was attacked last year – and the Taliban has pledged to defend women’s rights to education and work only according to a strict version of sharia law. In the Taliban-held Obe district a woman was flogged in public in April for alleged adultery.

Nato still has troops in Germany three quarters of a century after World War Two and three decades after the Cold War. Was two decades in Afghanistan too much or too little? Time will tell, and it’s marching on.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Labour nationalism
The Labour Party has fired up an under-powered tank and parked it on Boris Johnson’s lawn. Manoeuvring for attention after a by-election win last week and before party conference season, it says it’ll go big on buying British (£). Ministries under a Labour government would have to lead by example, favouring British suppliers. Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, asked yesterday why only one UK firm was shortlisted for work on the HS2 rail bonanza, and why a French company is printing post-Brexit British passports in Poland. Well, maybe the British bidders came up short. It would be a fine thing for British jobs if British engineers excelled at high-speed rail, but they don’t, and that sort of expertise can’t be conjured from thin air. It would be an even finer thing if we could leave jingo-economics back in the 1970s where they belong.


New things technology, science, engineering

The Waitrose life
John Lewis is getting into housing. The partnership to which the British middle class outsources important decisions on white goods, kettles and dried shiitake mushrooms is planning to build 10,000 rental homes on – and above – land it owns. The homes will be built on underused car parks in the group’s extensive property portfolio, and in some cases above existing stores. The point is to ease the national housing shortage and help local communities, the partnership says. And presumably to spread the gospel. Tenants can choose to rent unfurnished or fully kitted-out from the John Lewis catalogue, and there’ll be a sparkling new Little Waitrose in every development. Why not turn the idea into a sitcom while you’re about it? Loglines, please.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Covid care
The third wave is building. Hospitalisation numbers are rising too, though not as fast. Despite this, and despite the impression much of the rest of the world has of Britain as a petri dish for new variants, Boris Johnson will today announce that almost all remaining Covid-related restrictions on daily life will be lifted on 19 July. This is proof if proof were needed that the economics-first wing of Johnson’s party now prevails. It does have vaccines on its side, and improved hospital care too for those unlucky enough to need it. Last week Politico produced this quietly encouraging update on what to expect in terms of oxygen, drugs and being heaved into the right position in your bed. Bottom line from Imperial’s Dr Liz Lightstone: “You are much, much more likely to survive now than a year ago.” 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Swiss sun
Switzerland is hauling solar panels up to its highest hydro-power dam to create a renewable energy package that takes advantage of altitude and compensates for falling out of love with nukes. The FT reports (£) that 320 tonnes of kit have been helicoptered up to Muttsee, mid-way between Zurich and St Moritz, to collect sunlight that generally arrives unfiltered by cloud (because it’s usually above the cloudline) and in winter is intensified by being reflected off the surrounding snow. It’s not clear from the story whether the panels are going to be floated on the reservoir or bolted to the dam itself. What is clear is that Switzerland, like Germany and Japan, has a capacity problem created by forsaking nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. Japan is having trouble ending its addiction to coal as a result, which is just another disaster. Could it follow the Swiss lead?


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

No more Moet
The French group that markets Moet & Chandon champagne says it won’t be exporting it to Russia any more now that Putin has signed a law stating that only Russian champagne deserves the name and everything else has to be called sparkling wine. It’s hard to know where to start with this one. Russian champagne is sickly sweet and revolting. It bears no more resemblance to the real thing than Babycham. The westernmost tip of Russia is about 1,000 km from the French region that gives its name to champagne because it actually makes it. And it’s not even April 1st. 

The week ahead

UK: 05/07 – Boris Johnson gives press conference on English Covid restrictions; Northern Ireland eases Covid restrictions; NHS celebrates 73rd birthday; 25 years since cloning of Dolly the Sheep, 06/07 – Met Police constable Wayne Couzens appears in court via videolink charged with murder of Sarah Everard; Andy Burnham speaks at select committee session on English devolution; Ocado reports half-year results, 07/07 – England takes on Denmark at Wembley for a place in the Euro 2020 final; anniversary of 2005 London bombings; inquest takes place into the death of serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, 08/07 – Institute for Fiscal Studies releases annual report on living standards, poverty and inequality in the UK; Dido Harding appears at select committee session on test and trace, 10/07 – Wimbledon women’s singles final, 11/07 – Euro 2020 final takes place at Wembley; Wimbledon men’s singles final

World: 05/07 – Massimo Aparo from the International Atomic Energy due to visit Iran; Jeff Bezos steps down as Amazon CEO; Earth reaches yearly aphelion, its furthest point from the Sun, 06/07 – Storm Elsa set to make landfall over Florida; High Court of Delhi hears case brought against Indian government seeking recognition of same-sex marriage; Cannes Film Festival begins; NBA Finals begin, 07/07 – OECD releases annual Employment Outlook report; Financial Stability Board releases report on climate-related financial risks, 08/07 – Scripps National Spelling Bee final takes place in Florida, 09/07 – 10 years since South Sudan declared independence from Sudan, 10/07 – former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu due to leave his official residence in Jerusalem no later than today, 11/07 – Donald Trump due to speak at Conservative Political Action Conference in Texas

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell   

Xavier Greenwood
@XAMGreenwood

Photographs Getty Images


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