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Sensemaker: It’s not over in Panjshir

Sensemaker: It’s not over in Panjshir

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett received a Covid booster shot live on television after the health ministry found a third dose significantly improved protection from serious illness. 
  • Taiwan authorities sparked a public outcry after euthanising 154 rare cats smuggled into the country and thought to have originated from breeders in China.
  • Hurricane Henri dumped record rainfall on New York City, cutting short its much anticipated comeback concert and forcing Barry Manilow off-stage in the middle of a song.

It’s not over in Panjshir

All last week the news from Kabul was that it had fallen to the Taliban along with the rest of Afghanistan. This was never quite true. There are two places still not in Taliban hands, and what happens to them next could determine whether there is a less-than-catastrophic coda to this story of abject capitulation by the US and its Nato allies. 

These places are:

  • Kabul International Airport, where Joe Biden conceded yesterday that US forces were expanding rather than shrinking their security cordon and might extend their deadline to withdraw beyond 31 August, although he still doesn’t want to.
  • The Panjshir Valley northeast of the capital, where about 1,000 anti-Taliban fighters have gathered with Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary never-Talibaner Ahmad Shah Massoud; and where the former vice president of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, claims to represent the legitimate government.

It is probably only a matter of time before both fall under Taliban control, except that:

  • Boris Johnson has said he will urge Biden at a G7 meeting tomorrow to go ahead and extend that deadline for withdrawal, and if extended once who knows how often it could happen again;
  • the deadline has led to the ambush of Biden’s entire foreign policy and the first dip below 50 per cent in his job approval ratings;
  • the Taliban is anxious not to be cut off from foreign aid and international payments systems, as could happen if it forced the issue at the airport or in the Panjshir.

Massoud has told Al Arabiya that civil war will be inevitable if the Taliban refuses to talk about a power-sharing arrangement. 

If the Taliban launches an all-out military offensive in Panjshir “they will win quickly and easily,” Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in DC tells Deutsche Welle – but that is unlikely at least in the short term because having taken Kabul the Taliban is anxious to make friends internationally and to that end has pledged to put military actions on hold domestically.

Roll your eyes at such pledges, but remember Russia. Last week’s collapse of the Afghan government and army turned the geopolitical clock back in some respects to 1979. “The situation has acquired a regional dimension,” says Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister. Translation: we’re in the neighbourhood, and we’re a player in Afghanistan again.

Moscow is offering to mediate in power-sharing talks. The former Afghan president Hamid Karzai, still in Kabul, looks likely to be involved. In the meantime don’t expect Russian support for any British-backed UN Security Council resolutions about Afghanistan. Do expect Russian mechanics to show up in Panjshir offering to keep Massoud’s handful of helicopters in the sky.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

No refuge
Turkey is building an extra 64 kilometres of border wall on its eastern frontier with Iran to prevent Afghan refugees getting in should they attempt to flee the Taliban. No new wave of refugees has materialised – yet – as a result of the militants’ takeover in Kabul, but Iran is a big country and most refugees walk across it. One interviewed by Reuters said it took him 80 days. Where Turkey doesn’t have a border wall it relies on ditches, barbed wire and round-the-clock patrols. “We want to show the whole world that our borders are impassable,” says the governor of the eastern province of Van. Turkey already has 182,000 registered Afghan migrants and 120,000 unregistered ones, and has no intention of becoming “Europe’s migrant storage unit”, according to President Erdogan. Blimey. He could almost be applying for EU membership.

New things technology, science, engineering

No sex please, we’re OnlyFans
As mentioned last week, OnlyFans is banning sexually explicit photos and nudity after pressure from payment providers. Although the site’s 130 million subscribers can access anything from yoga classes to cooking tutorials, most of its one million creators produce pornography. Many of those creators have relied on the platform as a financial lifeline over the pandemic. They’re infuriated by the ban and OnlyFans says it’s “working around the clock to come up with solutions”. But it had little choice: payment providers and investors were pushing for the removal of explicit content. There’s a lot at stake for the company’s majority owner, Leo Radvinsky, who happens to be one of the most powerful people in the porn industry and is said to be looking to cash out of the site, which had net revenues of $375 million last year and has expected revenues of $1.2 billion next year. Sex sells. Can OnlyFans function without it?

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

No vax please, we’re free
The Ozarks, in Missouri, aren’t just the location for a grimly entertaining Netflix series on left-behind America. They’re one of the least vaccinated places in the country, and the NYT has produced a must-look video op-ed on the reasons why. Misinformation is part of it, but hard-boiled libertarianism is too. A lot of the people interviewed, many through oxygen masks in intensive care units, say they just hate being told what to do. And the doctors? Faced with a choice between compartmentalising and despair, they tend to choose the former. “By the time they get here, what can you do?” one asks. “When somebody’s in a room, really really sick and can’t breathe and suffering, it’s just not a good time for a lecture.” In Ozark County, nearly 70 per cent of adults aren’t vaccinated. In one hospital visited by the NYT, half the staff weren’t either.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Nut case
Nutella fans may need to rethink the impact of their chocolate spread consumption: intensive farming of hazelnuts by Nutella’s producers – Ferrero – is damaging the Italian countryside. After scrutiny from Italian politicians for outsourcing its hazelnut production to Turkey, Ferrero announced plans to increase production on home ground. The Progetto Nocciola Italia, or Italian nut project, sets out plans to boost national production by 30 per cent to 90,000 hectares by 2025. You might have thought that farming locally and shortening supply chains would be good for the environment, but farmers say production on the scale of Ferrero’s, which accounts for 30 per cent of global hazelnut demand, hurts biodiversity. Monocultures of hazelnut plants along with the fertilisers and pesticides needed to produce at such volumes can damage the soil and remove nutrients for other vegetation. Ferrero refutes the claims.  

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Ukraine v Nord Stream 2
As Germany prepares to start using gas sent under the Baltic via the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Ukraine is wondering how to a) fill a $1.5 billion-a-year reduction in national income and b) prevent Russia holding it to ransom even more than it already does by threatening to shut off gas supplies. Angela Merkel told Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, on her last visit to Kiev as German chancellor, that she takes his Nord Stream concerns “very seriously”. She and the US have agreed that Moscow will face sanctions if it takes advantage of its new ability to sell gas to Europe without paying transit fees to Ukraine. She has earned a good deal of trust in her 16 years in power. The trouble is, Russia hasn’t.

The week ahead

23/08 – target date for 16-17 year olds to receive first dose of Covid vaccine; Extinction Rebellion begins fortnight of climate demonstrations across London, 24/08 – Boris Johnson chairs meeting of G7 on Afghanistan, 25/08 – Office for National Statistics publishes annual report on unexplained infant deaths in England and Wales, 26/08 – Children’s Society publishes annual well-being report; Unite union elects general secretary, 27/08 – Reading and Leeds festivals begin, 28/08 – deadline for Scottish Green Party members to approve power sharing deal with SNP

23/08 – 25 years since Osama Bin Laden declared war on US; Vladimir Putin takes part in Central Asian leaders’ meeting on Afghanistan, 24/08 – Kathy Hochul sworn in as New York governor after resignation of Andrew Cuomo; Hakainde Hichilema inaugurated as Zambian president; Tokyo Paralympics begin, 25/08 – sentencing for man guilty of plot to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, 26/08 – Emmanuel Macron visits Ireland, 27/08 – New Zealand national lockdown due to end, 28/08 – voting rights march in Washington DC, 29/08 – Singapore holds National Day Rally

Thanks for reading and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Phoebe Davis

Produced by Sophia Sun and edited by Xavier Greenwood.

Photographs by Getty Images