On the morning of August 15, 2021, I boarded a 9am flight from Kabul to Istanbul, thinking I would be back at work in a few days’ time at the Afghan state-owned national utility company I called the office.
When we landed in Istanbul late afternoon, the beeps and dings of cellphone notifications from people’s devices were soon replaced by gasps and cries. Within seconds, I saw grown men and women fall to the airport floor in tears. While we were in the air, Afghanistan’s elected leadership had fled and the Taliban had arrived in Kabul. I would eventually see images of Taliban fighters walking on the grounds of my old offices in the presidential palace.
Everything I had spent the past seven years working towards unravelled in the time we were in the air. In the weeks and months prior, my colleagues and I were negotiating long-term power-purchase agreements and investments in Afghanistan’s energy sector. We were discussing 10 and 25-year plans. We were developing strategies to turn Afghanistan into a regional hub for connectivity. I believed in a vision of a sustainable, self-reliant country if only the latest war would end.
The war did end, but instead of connecting Asia with the world, Afghanistan — which sits at the heart of the continent — is now isolated. Its people are without money, jobs and increasingly food, a year after the Taliban came back to power. When I returned in March to a very different Kabul from the city that I had left last August, it was as a humanitarian worker no longer focused on long-term strategies but on programmes aimed at ensuring basic survival.
A country that has seen so many political upheavals over the last five decades is in a more dire situation than it has ever been. Still, the cessation of active warfare allowed me to travel to some of the most remote areas of the country that were difficult to access under the democratic governments before the return of the Taliban.
From the earthquake zones deep in the mountains of Paktika province to Sangin district in Helmand province, I drove through riverbeds and dirt trails. After the earthquake in June, when I travelled to affected areas, we lost network coverage halfway there, with no cellphone or electricity tower in sight.
I thought back to my days in the energy sector, and how I would get upset with our commercial team when they would list Paktika as having zero revenues. There was no grid, I would argue, so why did we even need to list it in our collection reports?
Now I saw things differently. Billions of dollars of foreign aid had poured into the country, and national strategies for development had been created year after year, some of which I had directly worked on. Yet, regions like Paktika have seen little progress and remain disconnected from the rest of Afghanistan, let alone the world.
Governments have come and gone, regimes have changed, and the lives of much of Afghanistan’s population remain the same, stuck in cycles of basic survival with little to no access to any public services vital to uplift their human and economic conditions.
I sat with women in makeshift tents in Barmal, Paktika, after their mud homes were destroyed in the earthquake. They asked me what I was holding in my hand. How do you explain what a smartphone is to people who have never had electricity?
In Kajaki, Helmand, I met with community elders who had never seen a clinic in their lives: They talked about the struggles of surviving from basic ailments. I met with women in Spera district of Khost province. They spoke of their adult children having no economic opportunities as they never got an education, and their grandchildren who now face the same fate.
In Kamaa, a district of Nangarhar province, I spoke with a woman who said the only way she can feed her children is by picking food from the garbage: If she can get enough of the hair and dirt off, she brings it home. This was in a district only 40 minutes from the provincial capital, Jalalabad. Kamaa was largely spared from the violence of the last 20 years, but this woman came from a community that suffered from endemic poverty.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been progress in Afghanistan. Incredible gains have been made, particularly in the areas of public services, education, economic growth, and most critically, women’s participation across all sectors. Many of these advances are now under threat and must be protected.
However, my recent visits have revealed to me that while the Taliban introduce policies that cause trepidation, previous authorities and the international community also bear responsibility for the multiple crises Afghanistan faces. Whether it was from shortsighted Western technocratic models or the violence targeting infrastructure and development, we must come to grips with the idea that we have collectively failed the Afghan people repeatedly over the past several decades.
Only then will we realise that the way to move forward is through acknowledging the needs of ordinary Afghan citizens. The status quo cannot continue: Every single Afghan deserves to have access to basic services and an opportunity to build a life on their terms.