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Sensemaker: Twenty years on

Sensemaker: Twenty years on

What just happened

Long stories short

– A 7.2 magnitude earthquake killed an estimated 1,300 people in Haiti, occurring on the same faultline as the 2010 quake that left as many as 300,000 dead. 
– Hakainde Hichilema, a trained accountant with an MBA from the University of Birmingham, won Zambia’s presidential election in a landslide after five failed attempts.
– Legendary German footballer Gerd Müller, once described by a teammate as “the Muhammad Ali of the penalty box”, died aged 75.

Twenty years on

The fall of Kabul marks the miserable end of a 20-year experiment in nation-building. It is a disaster for Afghan democracy, women’s rights, the rule of law, western foreign policy and probably global security. It was foreseen, and avoidable. It was precipitated by a US military withdrawal that was popular in principle with American voters, but ended in a humiliating dash for the airport. Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner shot by a Taliban gunman in 2012, said she was watching in shock. Tom Tugendhat MP said it was Britain’s worst foreign policy crisis since Suez. It is hard to disagree.

The dénouement. Taliban fighters entered the Afghan capital yesterday with barely a shot fired, 20 years after US and British forces overthrew the last Taliban regime and nine months after Joe Biden was elected with a promise to “end the forever wars”. His secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has blamed Afghan forces for “being unable to defend the country”, but the president’s previous statements betray a grievous miscalculation. Biden was bullish in a July press conference when asked if a Taliban takeover was inevitable. His answer was no, because “the Afghan troops have 300,000, as well-equipped as any army in the world, and an air force, against something like 75,000 Taliban”. A month on, the Afghan troops have given up and the Taliban have all their guns.

The country. The Taliban are now in full control. They started Sunday by cutting off Kabul from the east by taking control of the city of Jalalabad. They ended the day with their feet literally under the table of the capital’s presidential palace. Ashraf Ghani, the president, fled to Uzbekistan and posted on Facebook that he got out “in order to avoid the bleeding flood”. The Taliban said they would soon rename the country the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as it was known before the US-led invasion of 2001.

Saigon on steroids. Helicopters raced to evacuate the US embassy throughout the day, before the flag was lowered and removed. Blinken insisted that “this is manifestly not Saigon”, betraying obvious resonances with the departure from Vietnam in 1975. Kimberly Motley, an American human rights lawyer still working in Kabul on Saturday, called it “Saigon on steroids”. The Taliban has said it will offer “amnesty” to those who worked with the Afghan government or foreign forces. Yet a week after militants took the northern cities of Kunduz and Herat reports are emerging of summary executions, forced marriages and women being sent home from government jobs with instructions to send male substitutes.

At the airport. Chaos and panic. At least five people were killed in Kabul airport as Afghans scrambled for flights and Nato announced that all commercial flights were suspended. A video posted on Twitter showed people clinging to the underside of a US Air Force plane. One report said 1,000 people tried to board the last commercial flight to Istanbul, with seats for 300. Heroes have emerged. Along with German embassy staff, the British ambassador to Afghanistan, Laurie Bristow, stayed behind at the airport to process visas for interpreters. Bristow has been in the job for less than three months.

What has Britain done? Little of substance. Boris Johnson recalled parliament and stated the obvious: “Nobody wants Afghanistan to be a breeding ground for terror.” The government put visas on hold for 35 Afghan students awarding scholarships to study in Britain, only to change its mind after public pressure led by Johnson’s former political rival, the Afghan expert Rory Stewart. Pockets of the internet have been gripped by the ill-advised travails of Miles Routledge, a 21-year-old university student from Birmingham. He flew to Afghanistan for a holiday last Monday after Googling the most dangerous places to visit. After an alleged near-miss with insurgents, he reached a UN safehouse in Kabul. “I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” he wrote on social media.

Who leads the Taliban? Haibatullah Akhundzada (whereabouts unknown) is a legal scholar, the Taliban’s supreme leader, and ultimate authority over political, religious and military affairs. Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob, son of the Taliban’s founder, competed for the overall leadership but instead is the military chief. Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose father was a mujahideen commander and whose family are thought to have introduced suicide bombing to Afghanistan, manages a network of financial and military assets across Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan (and has a byline in the New York Times). Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Taliban co-founder, leads the group’s political presence in the Qatari capital Doha, and was part of the team working on a political deal before this week.

Who is most at risk? If the pattern emerging in the north spreads to Kabul, anyone known by the Taliban to have worked with Nato armed forces is at risk of deadly reprisals. The wider threat is to women and girls. The Taliban’s spokesman has said he wants women “to contribute to the country in a peaceful and protected environment”, but when the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan, women couldn’t work, girls couldn’t go to school, and women could only leave the house with a male escort. Twenty years of progress on women’s rights have been thrown into reverse.

Who owns this? Successive US administrations and other Western governments have a share of the blame, but the unraveling is on Biden’s watch. Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 that allowed them to rebuild their presence and involved the release of 5,000 prisoners, most of whom have swelled the fighters’ ranks. But instead of charting a new course, Biden doubled down. Crucially, he underestimated the extent to which US air support was crucial to the Afghan army, and he overlooked the inroads the Taliban had made in buying off government forces since Trump’s 2020 deal.

What has changed in 20 years? The advent of social media; the emergence of a nascent civil society in Kabul that may prove hard for the Taliban to control completely; the establishment of armed US drone coverage of the entire region.

What has stayed the same? The Taliban’s goals of eradicating foreign influence and establishing an Islamic republic based on sharia law; the Taliban’s funding model, based on opium, smuggling, extortion, donations and kidnapping for ransom.

The upshot. Biden promised to pull US troops out of Afghanistan by 11 September, the 20th anniversary of 9/11. He will be able to say he kept that promise, but how that plays at home and internationally will depend on whether the Taliban keep any of theirs. None of the signs are good. In the meantime there is an immediate threat of a refugee crisis in Pakistan as those who fear the new regime flee to its nearest neighbour.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Lebanon’s perpetual crisis
At least 28 people were killed and dozens more injured when a tank of illegally stored fuel exploded in northern Lebanon on Sunday. The country is in the grip of an economic crisis during which fuel has become so hard to find that one of Beirut’s hospitals came within 48 hours of closure. The fuel tank’s contents were likely being hoarded to be sold later at a higher price. The direct cause of the explosion is unclear, but the country’s former prime minister Saad Hariri sees parallels between this disaster and the Beirut port explosion a year ago. “If this was a country that respects its people,” he said, “its officials would resign, from the president to the very last person responsible for this neglect.”

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

Jabs for teens
All 16- and 17-year-olds in England will be offered a Covid jab or the chance to book one by 23 August. They will have a single dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to allow two weeks to build immunity before school returns in September. Teenagers and their parents have mixed views on getting the Covid vaccination due to concerns about “lack of information available for parents”. However, those aged 16 and above can make their own medical treatment decisions on the Covid-19 vaccine. The National Education Union’s Kevin Courtney still thinks additional safety measures need to continue in educational settings as “the issue of crowded schools with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation remains a problem”.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

America’s oil habit
The world is in the middle of a climate emergency, but demand for oil in the USA is on the rise as motorists take to the road again. Americans burned a record of 10 million barrels a day last month and will use an average of 8.8 million barrels of petrol every day this year – 10 per cent more than last year. That’s bad news for Biden’s climate targets. In 2020, 34 per cent of emissions from US energy consumption already came from petrol. This will have to fall if Biden is to halve the country’s emissions by the end of the decade. But will the country’s petrolheads switch en masse to EVs anytime soon? It doesn’t look like it.

New things technology, science, engineering

Ready for lift-off?
Is Elon Musk’s dream about to come true? Four of his prototype Starship rockets exploded before the SN15 model eventually took off and landed safely in May. Now Musk says SpaceX is “a few weeks” away from launching the rocket into orbit for the first time. The Starship will be reusable, and is designed to carry passengers and cargo around the Earth and to the Moon and Mars. Regulatory approval may actually take longer than Musk says, but the rocket is on target to enter orbit by the end of the year. As things stand the Japanese billionaire entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa will be the first to fly around the moon in the Starship – in 2023.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Company confidence
There’s cause for cautious optimism in British business. Half as many companies were at risk of permanent closure in July 2021 as in January. According to analysis of Office for National Statistics (ONS) data by the LSE’s Programme on Innovation and Diffusion, only one in 16 businesses are now at risk of having to close for good. That’s the lowest number since last September – likely a result of easing lockdown restrictions, increasing vaccination rates and fewer Covid deaths. But a million jobs remain at risk. With the government furlough scheme set to end on 30 September and the possibility of new Covid variants on the horizon, it could be a tense winter for workers.

The week ahead

16/08 – self-isolation no longer required for fully vaxxed close contacts of Covid cases; nominations close for Green Party leadership election, 17/08 – ONS publishes UK labour market statistics; 14-year-old boy charged with murder of James Markham in Chingford, northeast London, appears in Old Bailey, 18/08 – Pembrokeshire County Show begins in Wales, 19/08 – High Pay Centre publishes annual report on FTSE 100 CEO earnings; Department for Education publishes yearly admissions appeals figures for schools in England, 20/08 – ONS publishes UK retail sales estimates

16/08 – United Nations security council expected to discuss Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, 17/08 – South African parliament holds debate on civil unrest, 18/08 – opening statements due in trial of singer R Kelly, charged with racketeering, 19/08 – QuakeCon, described as the “Woodstock of gaming”, begins online, 20/08 – Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel meet in Moscow; one year since Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny poisoned, 21/08 – New York holds reopening concert in Central Park, featuring Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen; WWE SummerSlam takes place in Nevada, 22/08 – Hindus celebrate Raksha Bandhan, known as Brothers and Sisters Day; Russia, Iran, China and other countries host International Army Games, with disciplines including tank biathlon

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Xavier Greenwood

Ellen Halliday

Additional reporting by Sophia Sun.

Photographs by Getty Images, Zabi Karimi/AP/Shutterstock

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