Geopolitics

Next In Kabul: Locals Brace For Taliban Rule

In the western part of the Afghan capital, inhabitants live in fear, but they are still not prepared to accept Taliban takeover.

A policeman walks along the site where Afghan senior government official Dawa Khan Menapal was shot dead in Kabul, Afghanistan

Ghazal Golshiri

As the Taliban entered Kabul on Sunday and President Ashraf Ghani fled Afghanistan, Reuters reported that the Islamist militants are close to taking over the country two decades after they were overthrown by a U.S.-led invasion. Over the past week Le Monde spoke with locals in the Afghan capital about their fears of what Taliban rule would mean:

KABUL — As you enter Pule Surkh cultural center's cafe in a western district of Kabul, the reality of daily life in Afghanistan hits you immediately. The entrance walls are adorned with a dozen photos of young women and men, some smiling, some wearing serious faces, eyes fixed on the camera lens.

"These are journalists killed by the Taliban," explains Shahed Farhosh, the 29-year-old who manages the cultural center. "This is Sami Faraz. He was dispatched to cover the aftermath of an attack on a stadium in western Kabul [in 2018]. He started broadcasting the images live. But the second bomber blew himself up next to him. After that, everything went black. No more pictures. No more sound."

Farhosh then points to the other pictures and tells the story of each journalist. He stops. "The photo of Dawa Khan Menapal is missing here. I am going to add it soon."


Taliban militants are seen inside Ghazni city in eastern Afghanistan, only 95 miles from Kabul — Photo: Xinhua via ZUMA Press

Menapal was killed last Friday, August 6, by the Taliban. He was a former journalist who had served as deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Two days earlier, the insurgents had vowed to carry out "retaliatory" operations against senior government officials in Kabul in response to aerial bombardments by the Afghan army.

Since May, the Taliban have been on the offensive as international forces have withdrawn. U.S. troops' departure, agreed to in the February 2020 peace agreement between Washington and the Taliban, is set to be completed by August 31. On August 8, the Taliban seized a large part of the strategic city of Kunduz in the north. The movement has now claimed several regional capitals, four of which it captured in just three days. More than half of the country's territory is now in the hands of its fighters. Never before have the inter-Afghan negotiations in Doha seemed so far from a peaceful settlement.

"Afghanistan has become the land of the dead," sighs Farhosh. "There is no way of knowing what lies ahead." Before the fighting intensified, the slender young Afghan was optimistic enough to rent this building and turn it into a cultural center. The Pule Surkh neighborhood, known for its open-minded attitude, as evidenced by the freedom with which women dress in public, is home to several lively streets filled with cafes and restaurants. It could have attracted a loyal and sizable clientele for Farhosh's community center. But the Taliban's rapid advances and targeted killings have ruined his plans.

Girls are forced to marry Taliban fighters.

Reports are spreading online about the horrors committed by the Taliban in their newly acquired land, further spreading public panic. Farhosh, who has three younger sisters, explains that just like under the last Taliban regime, women cannot go out on their own and must be accompanied by a male guardian. They can't work either. "Those who break these laws will be whipped with a cable. Some girls are forced to marry Taliban fighters," he added. "A few days after one girl's forced marriage, she came back and asked her father, 'Did you give me to one man or many?'"

In the afternoon, after work, his friends come to drink tea. But their conversations revolve around the war. "We are all in a daze. We look at each other and ask, "What should we do?" As for me, I've decided to carry on like this and keep doing what I can. If I have to, I may even take up arms. Whatever happens will happen. Even if it means death."


Activist and entrepreneur Nilofar Ayoubi — Photo: Nilofar Ayoubi Official Facebook Account

It was this resilience and desire to live in the moment that led him to join the crowds chanting "Allahu Akbar" ("God is great" in Arabic) on the Kabul streets the night of August 3. Rahmatullah Nabil, the former head of Afghan intelligence, posted on social media asking the public to show support for Afghanistan's exhausted soldiers. His goal was to boost soldiers' morale, many of whom have been worn down by the intensity of fighting, lack of supplies and authorities' poor management of the crisis.

Nilofar Ayoubi climbed to the roof of her building and sang with her neighbors. For the past few days, along with some 400 other women, this 26-year-old entrepreneur has sought out ways to change the bleak picture that is Afghanistan today. The group launched a campaign on social media using the hashtags #AfghanLivesMatter or #SanctionPakistan, before a United Nations Security Council meeting on August 6. "The goal was for the UN and the international community to react and help prevent the situation from deteriorating even more," says the tall, elegantly dressed woman.

They will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years.

Since the fall of Kunduz, Nilofar Ayoubi has begun to lose hope. "That city is my homeland, and many of my family members still live there," says the mother of three young children.

Her uncle's car was shot at as he tried to flee Kunduz with his children, leaving it riddled with bullet holes. It was her own uncle who reported to her what happened in Kunduz: the Islamist fighters set fire to many commercial centers and houses, destroying the infrastructure of the city. "If the Taliban come to Kabul, they will burn down everything we have built in these 20 years. As I look around, I wonder, what could I take with me? My three children and maybe some clothes."

Furious at President Ghani, who she sees as living "in a bubble," Ayoubi now finds herself defending the former warlords she once despised for their atrocities, opportunism, corruption and nepotism. This includes Abdul Rashid Dostum, the influential general from the north of the country, and Ismail Khan, who was able to mobilize militias in Herat to prevent the fall of the city a few days ago.

"I don't forgive them for their past, but at least today they don't disappoint us. They are fighting so that Afghanistan is not lost," says the entrepreneur. "Ghani doesn't care. He has surrounded himself with corrupt people, economically and morally. They all have foreign passports and can leave whenever they want."

Coming from a wealthy family, Ayoubi has the option of moving to Turkey or the United Arab Emirates, but is not ready to leave."We are caught between the Taliban on the one hand and the state on the other," she says. "Even if there is only 30% hope, I will stay in Afghanistan."

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Economy

Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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