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Podcast

Asia Stream: The Afghanistan problem set

The never-ending crisis goes back many decades, but what are Afghanistan's most pressing concerns?

NEW YORK -- Welcome to Nikkei Asia's podcast: Asia Stream.

Every week, Asia Stream tracks and analyzes the Indo-Pacific with a mix of interviews with experts and original reporting by our correspondents from across the globe.

New episodes are recorded weekly and available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and all other major platforms, and on our YouTube channel.

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This week, we report on Afghanistan. What was once America's longest war is now one of the world's worst humanitarian crises. But what ails the Taliban government? What is stopping the world from saving Afghanistan's broken economy? And what about the millions who face starvation and death?

In this episode, Monica Hunter-Hart reports on Afghanistan's most immediate problems. She talks to leading experts, diplomats, journalists on the ground, and refugees who have left to escape the crisis.

Asia Stream is hosted by Wajahat S. Khan, our digital editor and executive producer, and produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt.

Our theme music is "What's the Angle?" by Shane Ivers.

Related to this episode:

Too big to fail: China eyes Afghanistan investment amid fears of state collapse, by Betsy Joles

Afghan poppy season returns in force under Taliban rule, by Moyuru Baba

TRANSCRIPT:

Theme Music in: "What's the Angle?," by Shane Ivers)

WAJAHAT S. KHAN, HOST:

Hello and welcome to Asia Stream -- where we track, report, and analyze the issues and interests of the world's largest region. I am Waj Khan.

Today's episode: The Afghanistan Problem Set. What was once America's longest war has rapidly deteriorated into the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

Just five months after the final American soldier left Afghanistan last summer, the country is in tatters this winter: millions face starvation and death, women and minorities are threatened, and terrorism is resurging. Meanwhile, international sanctions, drought and COVID have forced the country into an economic free fall.

Of course, Afghanistan's many issues go back decades, but in today's episode, we focus on three immediate problems facing the country: the humanitarian crisis, economic and governance issues, and the emerging security threat.

It's quite a show. So strap in, to understand the story of Afghanistan after America.

You're listening to the sound of Asia, streaming in your ear. 

From Nikkei Asia, this is Asia Stream.

(Theme Music out)

KHAN: The Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, but they lack the capacity for governance. The international community is engaging them without offering official recognition, and thanks to international sanctions, cannot conduct business with them. 

Neighboring countries - some of whom the Taliban are picking fights with - are wary, and have closed their borders to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are trying to flee. Meanwhile, a deadly new insurgent group, ISIS-K, is on the rise. 

To top it all off, winter has come to Afghanistan: 23 million - over half the population, faces starvation and death, as desperation, hunger and a liquidity crunch drives people to sell their furniture, their organs, even their children, for their next meal.

Last week the U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued an appeal, asking for $5 billion for Afghanistan - the largest appeal for donations from the UN for a single country, ever.

ANTONIO GUTERRES: Freezing temperatures and frozen assets are a lethal combination for the people of Afghanistan. Rules and conditions that prevent money from being used to save lives and the economy must be suspended in this emergency situation.

KHAN: Guterres' reference about releasing funds was directed straight at the U.S. and Europe, which sit atop almost $10 billion of frozen Afghan cash. Frozen, because the Taliban are sanctioned by the U.S. But even though his administration has issued exemptions to get some aid to Afghanistan, Joe Biden remains unapologetic about what many have called a mishandled pullout. Here he is, in his first press conference of the year, earlier this week.

JOE BIDEN: Raise your hand if you think anyone was going to be able to unify Afghanistan, under one single government. It has been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason. It is not susceptible to unity... Do I feel badly, what's happening to, as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do... I feel badly about a whole range of things around the world, but we can't solve every problem.

KHAN: The messy American pullout aside, Biden is right. Afghanistan hasn't been an easy country to unite or govern. The British couldn't do it. The Soviets couldn't do it. The U.S. couldn't do it. And, so far, the Taliban don't seem to be able to do it, either. 

But with the world's worst humanitarian crisis underway, deadly new terrorist groups on the rise, and a complicated geopolitical chess game that involves everyone from China and Russia to the Indians, the Pakistanis and the Iranians, the stakes today, in the Afghanistan after America, are different. They're higher.

Here's Asia Stream's Monica Hunter-Hart, investigating Afghanistan's most pressing problems. 

(ES_Nafas Joo, Instrumental Version, Mohammad Rezai in and out)

MONICA HUNTER-HART, CORRESPONDENT: Afghanistan has changed. Compared to what U.S and NATO forces left behind last summer, we're looking at a completely different country today. The Taliban are very much in charge - there's no viable opposition left. They control virtually all territory. They're not yet recognized by any of the world's governments, but those same governments are holding meetings and negotiations with them, making their authority a de facto reality.

We asked leading analysts of the region about what they see as the biggest problems facing Afghanistan today, and a few common themes emerged. The Taliban's lack of experience with governance. Their ethnically and religiously narrow vision for the country. The resurgence of ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of the Islamic State. And perhaps most tragically, a financial collapse that's led to the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

(Sound of children in)

HUNTER-HART: According to the UN, almost 23 of the country's 38 million people need immediate aid. And over a million children are at risk of severe acute malnutrition and death.

SUDDAF CHAUDRY, GUEST: From what I've heard, many of the parents in most households are going hungry, they're just feeding their children.

HUNTER-HART: That's Suddaf Chaudry, a British investigative journalist currently based in Kabul.

(Sound of children out)

(Sound of Kabul bazaar in)

CHAUDRY: The streets of Kabul, they are busy. People are trying to earn a living in whatever capacity they can. You see young children selling whatever they can in order to earn a few Afghanis.

HUNTER-HART: She explained what she's witnessing as people try to make it through the harsh Afghan winter.

CHAUDRY: The Afghans are having to live with one hour of electricity a day. Many people are burning whatever they can get their hands on. There's a lot of plastic being burned. So it's very, very hard to breathe in the city, because the pollution levels are slowly starting to rise. And the reality is people are just, are cold.

(Sound of Kabul bazaar out)

(Sound of maternity ward in)

HUNTER-HART: She described hospitals that are running short on supplies and staff who haven't been paid in months.

CHAUDRY: Very, very premature children are being born because mothers haven't [...] been fed, you know, they haven't had access to a good diet in many months. So they're giving birth prematurely and lots of children are sadly dying, because there are not the resources at the hospital for this.

(Sound of maternity ward out)

HUNTER-HART: Here's Bilal Sarwary, an award-winning Afghan journalist who was one of 667,000 Afghans forced to flee the country last year.

BILAL SARWARY: People are in great, great pain. And we see examples of such poverty, when an Afghan family tries to sell their daughter or an Afghan family tries to sell their young babies, you know, in order to survive. The pain that those parents must be going through is what I think breaks my heart, because this is a sign of desperate, desperate, desperate, you know, desperation. If someone is not that desperate, they will never sell their babies.

HUNTER-HART: Sometimes they're sold; sometimes they're just left.

BILAL SARWARY: Poverty is is so extreme that we're now hearing countless examples of people literally like dropping their baby daughters and sons into mosques, because they cannot feed them. And this is unprecedented. Even when Afghanistan had the Soviet invasion we didn't see this.

HUNTER-HART: But the story of Afghanistan after the American withdrawal isn't just a humanitarian one. It's also one of capacity and governance.

(Zabihullah Mujahid's voice comes in, then volume lowers under translation)

ZABIHULLAH MUJAHID, TALIBAN SPOKESPERSON: On the economic front, since we regained our political independence, we need to bring our economy back on its feet.

HUNTER-HART: We're going to jump back and forth now between a few of the region's top analysts. All of them agreed that the Taliban don't seem able to handle a crisis of this magnitude.

KUGELMAN: The Taliban's only experience with governance came when it was in power for a few years, end of the '90s until 2001, when essentially - swift, strict, brutal forms of justice, that's what what animated its, its governance model. You know, you don't have prudent, macroeconomic, macroeconomy experts in the ranks there to think about how to address a huge economic crisis.

HUNTER-HART: That's Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

KUGELMAN: I can't imagine the Taliban being in a position to tackle these enormous challenges that even the most experienced, well-intentioned governments would struggle to tackle. And - this is the Taliban, at the end of the day. A violent insurgency that has proven that it does not have any type of ability to, to address huge challenges like these.

HUNTER-HART: As the Taliban try to replace a U.S.-inspired presidential system with their Islamic Emirate, they're facing staffing problems due to the massive brain drain that hit the country following America's withdrawal. Here's Nikkei Asia's contributor, Zia Ur Rehman, who's based in Karachi.

ZIA UR REHMAN: Thousands of people with technical skills who were serving in various departments and ministries left the country during the airlift in August, and now Taliban leaders have been asking their former fighters and sympathizers to come from Pakistan and fill the vacancies. For example, they brought in a baker and appointed him as Kabul's traffic police chief. A medical union leader is now the health minister, and a preacher has been made into a judge.

HUNTER-HART: The image of a longtime baker working as a traffic police chief really does hammer home the staffing problem. In addition to all of that, because the Taliban are cut off internationally, their hands are also tied.

 

BARNETT RUBIN: Because of their past relationship to Al-Qaeda, and drug trafficking and other such things, the Taliban have been heavily sanctioned since 1999.

HUNTER-HART: You're hearing Barnett Rubin, a former advisor to the U.S. and Afghan governments, and one of the foremost political scientists on issues relating to Afghanistan.

RUBIN: They eventually ended up establishing a government where they have a monopoly of power, and the sanctions have transferred now to that entire government. There is virtually no normal diplomatic, economic or other activity with Afghanistan.

HUNTER-HART: When the Taliban took control on August 15, the U.S. immediately froze the $7 billion dollars in Afghan foreign reserves that were in American custody. The Europeans froze another $1.3 billion dollars, and the effect was an immediate and crippling liquidity crisis. The country went broke overnight - 40 percent of its GDP contracted almost immediately. That's almost half of the economy, just...gone.

LAUREL MILLER: The freezing of those assets has meant that there's no central bank functioning in Afghanistan now. And this is having a sort of strangling effect on the Afghan economy by cutting it off from the global financial system.

HUNTER-HART: That's Laurel Miller, director of the International Crisis Group and former envoy of President Barack Obama to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MILLER: It's not that there's no food in the country. It's that people don't have the wherewithal to buy the food that there is. Yes, there has been drought, but it's not the first time and it's, you know, not even the worst drought in recent history. But the coping mechanisms aren't there, because of this economic shock, the loss of jobs, loss of income. The state was the largest employer in the country. There were a lot of families that were dependent on income from the state.

HUNTER-HART: Here's Barnett Rubin again.

RUBIN: Teachers and health care workers and all other government employees are not being paid. The private sector in Afghanistan is also crippled. The private sector is not run by the Taliban. But the banking, banks would be able to continue to operate and to finance imports - they, people would be able to have access to the money that they have in their bank accounts. Right now, many of those bank accounts are frozen, or there are limits on how much they can draw. So the sanctions are just in place as punitive measures in effect, but the people being punished are the entire population of Afghanistan.

HUNTER-HART: It gets even more complicated. Afghanistan has relied on foreign funding for years. It doesn't even print its own money. And out of every 10 dollars earmarked for public spending in the country, between 7 to 8 used to come from international aid. But when the Taliban took over, the World Bank, the IMF, and other global donors immediately stopped sending cash to Afghanistan. 

RUBIN: From one day to the next, there was no foreign aid. So the government financing collapsed. There was no access to the foreign exchange reserves, so they could not finance any imports. And by the way, Afghanistan is dependent on imports for its food supply, even though it's often called an agricultural country. The fact is that because of the huge influx of dollars over the past 20 years as a result of the international operation, the Afghani - the local currency - has become overvalued. And, as a result, Afghan agricultural products are not competitive in the market.

HUNTER-HART: But Afghanistan does need its own agricultural products as well, and crops have been damaged this year by a drought that's been ongoing since late 2020. The drought has caused the harvest of wheat, the country's staple food, to be down by 20%. So, what in the Afghan economy HAS been working? Well, the illegal part.

NEWS BULLETIN 1: These are definitely not scenes Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers want the outside world to see. Opium being smoked and sold in broad daylight.

NEWS BULLETIN 2: A veritable sea of opium poppies.

NEWS BULLETIN 3: The Taliban says, for the moment, it cannot ban drug production because there are no alternate sources of income for poor families.

HUNTER-HART: Afghanistan is the world's top opium producer and its drug trade is flourishing. Its opiate economy was worth an estimated $2 billion dollars in 2019. It was a big problem throughout the entire U.S.-led war, and early signs indicate that poppy cultivation has only increased since the American withdrawal. Drugs have long been the country's biggest export.

RUBIN: It's not like a marginal criminal activity, it is the major sector of the economy. In addition to which, we usually think of the drug trade in Afghanistan as being the growing of opium poppy, and its, refining it into morphine and heroin for export. But most recently, a massive industry has started to grow in the manufacturing of epinephrine: basically, various forms of stimulants which are colloquially known in the West as "speed," for which there is a huge market, and which are much easier to smuggle than, than opiates. 

HUNTER-HART: So far we're painting a pretty bleak picture of Afghanistan right now. But I asked Michael Kugelman about a silver lining that was debated over the summer. With the insurgents now officially in power, didn't the insurgency end? Wasn't there a school of thought that the Taliban would bring some form of order to the country, however brutally imposed? 

KUGELMAN: You know, you don't have the horrific levels of bloodshed that you'd had - not just for the last 20 years, really the last 40 years, because Afghanistan had pretty much been in some type of war since the Soviet occupation in 1979. But, you know, what I, what I worry about is several things. One, you know, Islamic State Khorasan is the main threat of violence in Afghanistan. I mean, you could argue that the Taliban continues to pose a threat as a violent actor, because it, you know, it's a brutal force, it cracks down violently against peaceful protesters and so on. But, you know, ISK has not ended its violence for sure.

(Gunfire sound)

HUNTER-HART: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, is a branch of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It emerged from the main group in early 2015, right when the Iraqi-born ISIS was at its peak and trying to build an international presence.

KUGELMAN: It's been emboldened in a negative way by the Taliban takeover. It doesn't want the Taliban to be in power and it's going to do everything it can to try to undermine the Taliban and to try to push back against this idea that the Taliban has brought an end to the war, it's restored security and that people can now live in peace. ISK wants to, wants to puncture that narrative by carrying out attacks.

RUBIN: The Taliban are trying to convince the powers in the region that they are their ally in the fight against the Islamic State, and do not threaten them. However, most of the countries in the region, I say this from my conversations with Russians, Iranians, Chinese and others, are concerned that such an unrepresentative government will inevitably lead to instability.

HUNTER-HART: So the Taliban say they want to fight ISIS-K and would like the international community to work with them. But while foreign governments are wary of the ISIS-K threat, they're reluctant to officially conduct business with the Taliban until they form a more inclusive government. Right now, there are no members from the old regime in the new one. Very few members of the government are ethnic minorities (the Taliban are mostly Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan). And of course, there is not a single woman.

CHAUDRY: You have to explain at every checkpoints, the male guardian that you're with, how you are related.

HUNTER-HART: That's Suddaf Chaudry again, the British journalist in Kabul. She's describing a new Taliban rule that says that women can't travel long distances without a male relative.

CHAUDRY: For local Afghan women, if they cannot assure the Taliban foot soldier who's questioning them that this genuinely is her husband or her brother, or her family member, there can be serious ramifications. They would like women to remain in indoors, not go to work, not receive education past the age of 12.

HUNTER-HART: And in fact, the Taliban have shut down schools for girls over 12, although the province of Herat resisted and reopened them. A Taliban spokesperson said that the schools would reopen at some point, but there's so far been no indication that that will actually happen. Here's Toba Walizada, who works for Kabul-based TOLO News, one of the few media organizations not shut down by the Taliban. She described the toll all of this takes on her as a female Afghan reporter.

(Walizada's voice comes in, then volume lowers under translation)

TOBA WALIZADA: When I go outside, my family is continuously calling me, asking "am I okay, where am I?" In the morning meeting, it's really difficult for me to choose my story, because I'm thinking about it, if it is pro-Taliban or against them, when I go home, I can't sleep due to fear. Because I have received many calls from their intelligence. 

(Toba Walizada's voice rises again, then volume lowers under translation)

WALIZADA: When I go to outside and cover women protesting, they are hopeless about their lives. They think they are inside a cage. They don't see a bright future. They had many achievements in the past two decades. After the Taliban takeover, they lost everything.

HUNTER-HART: It's a devastating déjà vu for women who remember the Taliban's last rule, from 1996 to 2001.

PARASTO: We do not want this generation to be like the previous gene- generation of 1996.

HUNTER-HART: That's Parasto, who is withholding her full name for safety reasons. She's secretly building a network of underground schools in Kabul, both for girls who were just taken out of school and for women who lost years off their education under the previous Taliban regime. Parasto says there's a clear gap in critical thinking skills between these two groups, and she fears girls today will lose the gains they've made.

PARASTO: If you tell an illiterate person, that "this is right, this is wrong," whatever it is, they will accept that. We see that the illiterate women from 1996 generation, whatever we are telling them, even with the alphabets, however we are telling them they are accepting that. But the small girls, which are there in our schools from this generation, whatever, even the teachers are going wrong, the students are correcting them. And the young girls they're just saying that, "We do not want to have that disappointment as our mothers have." And most of them are just, like on the first days, they were just crying that we cannot go to school anymore.

HUNTER-HART: Parasto, what is it like to be a woman in Afghanistan right now?

PARASTO: Well, what it is like that most of your friends, most of your colleagues, most of your relatives were killed by the people, by the terrorists, but they are now be telling you that do this or do not do this? What does it feel for you if somebody stand in front of you while you're going somewhere to work or school and ask you that, "Where are you going?" What it is like to stand somewhere just to for for transportation and the taxi drivers are not like giving you a lift even though you are being late because you do not do not have the burqa or hijab thing? What it is like for you to have the fear of talking in the phone? What it is exactly like for you to have lots of beautiful clothes in your closet, but there is no chance for you to wear them wherever you're going? After having all the answer for all these questions, you will have the feeling of woman who currently is like living in Afghanistan.

(Music in)

PARASTO: The situation is like you're dead. You're a dead body, but you are seeing everything. And you cannot do anything about it. 

HUNTER-HART: Next week on Asia Stream...

PARASTO: If they ban one school in one area, I will build 10 schools in that area. If they ban 10 school, I will build 100 schools there. If they ban 100, I will build 1000 schools there.

HUNTER-HART: How are the people of Afghanistan resisting the Taliban? How does the international community see the way forward? And how can the Taliban be pressured to improve human rights without financially crippling the country so much that Afghans starve? This week was the Afghanistan Problem Set. Next week, the Solutions Set.

(Music out)

KHAN: Thank you, Monica. Please tune in next week when we examine some possible solutions to those very problems. That's it for Asia Stream this week.

(Theme Music in)

KHAN: As always, I encourage you to head to Nikkei Asia at asia.nikkei.com for more in-depth coverage of Afghanistan and the rest of Asia. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share, subscribe and leave us a review -- and hopefully, a five-star rating! -- on Apple Podcasts. And a reminder that Nikkei Asia is currently offering an exclusive discount for our podcast listeners: just type in code ASIASTREAM, all caps, no spaces, at checkout. This episode was produced by Monica Hunter-Hart and Jack Stone Truitt. Our theme music is "What's the Angle?" by Shane Ivers. I'm your host, Waj Khan. Let's cross streams next week.

(Theme Music out)

-- END OF TRANSCRIPT --

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