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Sensemaker: Afghanistan on the brink

Sensemaker: Afghanistan on the brink

What just happened

Long stories short

– UK GDP rose by 4.8 per cent from April to June following the easing of Covid restrictions.

– Temperatures in Sicily may have reached 48.8 degrees C on Wednesday, according to local officials, in what would be the highest ever temperature recorded in Europe.

– Police in Berlin arrested a British man suspected of spying for the Russian government.

Afghanistan on the brink

Farah, Pul-e-Khumri, Faizabad, Ghazni – four cities that have fallen to the Taliban in the last few days. As of this writing, the Taliban have seized control of ten regional capitals in one week of fighting. Some fell after intense, street-to-street battles, others without so much as a fight as exhausted government forces simply gave in.

In April, Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all of the 3,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by 11 September 2021. With a month to go until that deadline, most of them have already left – and Afghanistan’s army is failing to keep hold of the country.

When Sensemaker last wrote about Afghanistan a month ago, we gave a run-down of the numbers. Here are some more:

600 – American troops left in Afghanistan

58,000-100,000 – Taliban fighters in the country

400 – Districts in Afghanistan

77 – Districts controlled by the Taliban in April 2021

232 – Districts controlled by the Taliban now, according to one estimate

390,000 – Afghan citizens displaced by fighting since the start of the year

Was this foreseeable? For the past few years, the UN Security Council’s monitoring team has been warning about the Taliban’s aim to take and hold provincial capitals. Its May 2020 report said taking a city remained “difficult for the group given the continued presence of international military close air support”. But it counselled that “the sudden or unexpected withdrawal of such support would endanger several provinces and leave them susceptible to falling to the Taliban”. 

The team’s report earlier this year was starker: “Many interlocutors believe that the Taliban have used the 2020 fighting season to further strengthen strangleholds around several provincial capitals, seeking to shape future military operations when levels of departing foreign troops are no longer able to effectively respond.”

For months, the Taliban have been assembling forces in rural areas, preparing to surround the regional capitals once the Americans left. 

What now? Some experts are concerned that the Taliban could aim for a full military takeover including Kabul. Many of the captured cities are on major transport routes connecting the capital to economic and agricultural centres in the north of Afghanistan. Their seizure chokes Kabul off from large swathes of the country and may force the government into collapse. 

US intelligence briefings earlier this summer predicted a grim timeline for the country. According to the Washington Post, officials believed that absent American support, the capital, Kabul, would fall to the Taliban in six to 12 months. That timeline has accelerated. US military sources now think the city could fall within 90 days. 

Will the Americans still leave? Despite the Taliban’s capture of these cities in recent days, the message from the top of the US administration remains unchanged: America’s war in Afghanistan will end in September. American forces may ask the president for permission to carry out more airstrikes if Kabul looks at risk, but otherwise the Afghans are on their own. 

The US rationale. Biden said on Tuesday: “Look, we spent over a trillion dollars over twenty years, we trained and equipped with modern equipment over 300,000 Afghan forces. Afghan leaders have to come together. They’ve got to fight for themselves, fight for their nation.” 

As vice president, Biden urged Obama to focus on US national security rather than Afghan nation building, and to rely less on boots on the ground than drones in the air. His gamble now is that even under full Taliban control Afghanistan wouldn’t pose another 9/11-style threat to the US homeland. It’s a big one.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

China, North America and Meng Wanzhou
China is very serious about securing the return of Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive and daughter of the company’s founder who was arrested in Canada three years ago on a US extradition warrant. So serious that it arrested two Canadians on trumped-up espionage charges in response, and sentenced a third to death for drug smuggling. His name is Robert Schellenberg and this week he lost his appeal as Meng’s extradition hearings entered their final phase in a Vancouver court. The Trump administration wanted her to face criminal charges for breaking sanctions against Iran and asked for Canada’s help in getting to her. The Biden administration hasn’t dropped the case. Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s position is that Canada won’t allow China to arbitrarily detain its citizens to get what it wants out of Ottawa. Even though there’s no explicit linkage, the Schellenberg case will test his resolve. 

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

Work from home – for less
If you work from home full-time should you be paid the same as someone who comes in to the office? That’s one of the big questions employers are asking as they look ahead to post-pandemic work life. Google has an answer, and it appears to be ‘no’. Employees in the US might face a pay cut if they choose to stay at home – depending on where they live. Geographic location has determined salaries in the past. If you worked in, say, the Milwaukee office of a business you’d probably expect to be paid less than your colleagues in Manhattan, simply on grounds of living costs. But pay cuts for remote workers are different, and they seem to be Google’s plan. Reuters says the company has produced a pay calculator showing what earnings would be for workers in different locations. Someone who reports to the San Francisco office but lives near Lake Tahoe could face a 25 per cent cut if they decide to stay in the mountains.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Boiler backtrack 
Days after Boris Johnson called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate report a “wake up call”, the UK government seems to be having second thoughts on plans to phase out gas boilers by 2035. A proposed ban was initially announced in spring 2019 and was expected to be included in this autumn’s heating and buildings strategy. But ministers tell the Times they’re worried about costs to consumers and government, which would be on the hook for subsidies for green alternatives. One said the ban should be framed as an ambition rather than a hard deadline. Delays won’t help the government hit its emission targets – 23 per cent of UK CO2 emissions come from buildings – and the broader pattern is familiar. The Climate Change Committee said in June “a pattern has emerged of Government strategies that are later than planned and, when they do emerge, short of the required policy ambition”. Not a great look with Cop 26 less than three months away.

New things technology, science, engineering

Suit up
Nasa has been working on its next generation of spacesuits for 14 years – but they still won’t be ready in time for a 2024 trip to the Moon. Funding gaps, technical problems and the pandemic have hampered the development team’s progress. By the time it’s done the cost of the programme will have reached around $1 billion for two flight-ready spacesuits. The 2024 deadline seems unlikely to be met anyway; the rocket and lunar lander aren’t ready yet either. But the green light when it comes will be a special occasion – it will be the first lunar mission to put a woman on the Moon. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The Great Blockchain Robbery
A hacker who pulled off one of the biggest ever cryptocurrency heists has given back almost half the $613 million worth of assets they stole. On 10 August, Poly Network, a platform for exchanging cryptocurrencies including Bitcoin, Ethereum and Polygon, made the theft known in a Twitter post urging the hacker to return the tokens. A day later, $260 million had been handed back. So why did the culprit do it? Two reasons, apparently: for fun, and to teach Poly Network a lesson. This seems to be the work of a “white hat”; someone who tries to improve software security by exposing its flaws. Investors and Poly Network will be relieved – but it’s too soon to say whether the hacker is completely selfless. Tokens worth $353 million are still missing.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ella Hill

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs by Getty Images, NASA, LA Times