In Afghanistan, Coronavirus Threatens More Than a Medical Catastrophe

Rupert Stone looks at the likely impact of coronavirus in Afghanistan and anticipates worrying consequences reaching far beyond the medical challenge


On Eid this year, a bizarre scene unfolded in eastern Afghanistan.  Government officials, led by the national security advisor, prayed at the grave of former socialist president and secret police chief, Mohammad Najibullah. Najibullah came to power during the Soviet-Afghan War as a proxy of the USSR. But the waning Soviet Union cut off funding, and his regime swiftly collapsed. Civil war ensued, and he was murdered by the victorious Taliban in 1996.

Thanks to coronavirus, the current Afghan government might suffer a similar fate. Its main foreign backer, the US, is currently withdrawing, as the Soviet Union did in the 1980s, and may accelerate its pullout due to concerns about the virus. COVID-19 has also smashed the American economy, and could lead the US government to cut off financial aid. If that happens, the Afghan government will almost certainly disintegrate.

Afghanistan is uniquely ill-prepared to cope with this pandemic. More than forty years of conflict have left the country in ruins, with crushing poverty and a desperately weak healthcare system. Given that even developed states like the US and UK are struggling to respond to COVID-19, what hope does that leave for one of the poorest countries in the world, which last year ranked 170 out of 189 on the UN Human Development Index?

So far, however, the figures seem to be mercifully low, with around 18,000 infections and 300 deaths. Afghanistan’s infection fatality rate (the percentage of those infected who die) is below 2%. Britain, by contrast, has a rate of 14%, Italy 14.3%, and France 15.2%.

South Asia has seen surprisingly few fatalities from the coronavirus. In India, for example, around 3% of those infected have died. In Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, the rate is even lower. The reasons for this are unclear. Some have hypothesized that young demographics make South Asian people more resilient to the disease. In Afghanistan, for example, 60% of the population is under the age of 25.

But the data is likely incomplete. Many people might die at home, either because they cannot afford a trip to hospital, or because widespread violence makes travelling dangerous. The cause of death in corona patients may not be identified, given that test kits are required to diagnose dead people with the virus, and there is a massive shortage of equipment in Afghanistan.

So far, Afghanistan has only tested a tiny proportion of its 37 million people, and the real infection rate is likely much higher. Indeed, a random test of 500 people in Kabul revealed that one third had contracted the virus.

The government has estimated that 25 million Afghans could eventually be infected. If even a small percentage of that number require hospitalization, the country, which has little more than 10,000 hospital beds, will be overwhelmed.

War makes Afghanistan especially vulnerable to the virus. The conflict with the Taliban has been escalating since international forces started to withdraw several years ago and now ranks as the deadliest in the world.

A peace deal signed by the US and Taliban in Doha in late February offers some hope. Under the terms of the agreement, the remaining American forces will depart gradually in the next fourteen months in return for a Taliban commitment to renounce terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and negotiate a political settlement with other Afghan political factions, leading to a ceasefire.

The US has started to remove its troops, but concerns about coronavirus spreading in the ranks are accelerating the withdrawal. American officials apparently believe that fifty percent of the Afghan security forces have contracted the disease. President Trump may reportedly pull out completely in time for the US presidential election in November this year, way ahead of the May 2021 deadline stipulated by the Doha agreement.

A weaker American troop presence could undermine the peace process. Foreign countries might cut financial assistance to Afghanistan as their own economies reel from coronavirus-related lockdowns. This would quickly annihilate the Kabul government, which depends on foreign aid for 75% of its budget.

Even before the virus struck, poverty had been increasing in Afghanistan, and 80% of Afghans now live below the poverty line. According to recent data, Afghanistan has one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, and some of the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality. Chronic medical conditions such as measles are endemic.

Afghanistan is also especially vulnerable to climate change, with recurrent natural disasters such as a severe drought in 2018-19 and flash flooding last year. Those destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods, exposing more than ten million Afghans to acute food insecurity even before corona emerged.

The pandemic has forced the UN to issue a famine warning. The country relies on imports for most of its basic food, including wheat. But supplies have been restricted, driving up prices. Lockdowns of cities threaten daily wage labourers. The World Bank forecasts a “deep recession” in 2020, after years of sluggish growth and high unemployment.

The government has found it hard to enforce social distancing. This should come as no surprise given Afghan cultural norms that include regular mosque attendance and frequent physical contact. Added to that, households in Afghanistan often contain several family members living under a single roof, increasing the risk of infection.

The country’s borders are also porous, making it easier for people to enter and spread the virus. Between 1.5 and 3 million Afghans live in Iran. Even before the pandemic, Afghans were flooding back across the border as the Iranian economy weakened. Millions of people have also been displaced internally by the conflict and recent drought.

Already this year, hundreds of thousands of Afghan migrants have returned home. There are no quarantine facilities on either side of the frontier, and few medical checks. It is no surprise that Herat, on the border with Iran, has been the epicentre of the outbreak.

Tens of thousands of people have also crossed over from Pakistan. The border was sealed initially, but the Afghan government begged for it to be opened so that stranded Afghans could return. Efforts to quarantine returnees failed.

Then there are the tens of thousands of prisoners living in filthy, overcrowded Afghan jails with inadequate medical care, making them particularly vulnerable to the spread of the virus. The Afghan government has decided to release at least 10,000 prisoners to slow the outbreak.

Weak healthcare is a major problem in Afghanistan. Hospitals are understaffed. There are 0.3 doctors per 1000 people. There is a lack of personal protective equipment. Many medics have contracted the virus, but must continue to work given staff shortages and the demands of the war. Ventilators, hand sanitizer and testing capacity are very limited.

Medical facilities have been targeted by insurgents throughout the conflict and forced to close. One of the worst attacks occurred in May, when Daesh terrorists stormed a maternity hospital in Kabul, killing mothers and babies. The hospitals that still function are becoming increasingly expensive. Only 25% of Afghans have access to quality healthcare.

The Taliban operates a shadow government in areas that it controls, including a health commission that oversees medical care. The group responded to the corona outbreak with videos and messages advertising its efforts, including a film of socially-distanced hygiene workers in white protective gear receiving instructions.

Whether the group is actually doing anything to combat the virus is another matter. The Taliban was reportedly using a fake thermometer gun to test people’s temperature, for example. The organization is very adept at employing propaganda as part of a hearts and minds campaign to win over the rural population and boost its legitimacy.

Despite all this, there are glimmers of hope. Months of political chaos following a disputed presidential election last September recently came to an end, when the two contenders, president Ghani and former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, reached a power-sharing deal. Both the Taliban and Afghan government honoured a three-day ceasefire over Eid, and more prisoners have been exchanged.

But the situation is still very precarious. The Ghani-Abdullah deal is vague and fragile. High-level members of the Taliban have reportedly been infected with the virus, weakening the group’s unity and increasing the risk of infighting at a time when it is supposed to be negotiating. Intra-Afghan talks have been delayed, and, even if they begin, progress will be slow given the volatile nature of Afghan politics and intensifying public health emergency.

The coronavirus may be with us for some time. Previous pandemics have been lengthy affairs. The Spanish Flu, for example, lasted for years, and its second wave of infection was even deadlier than the first. There is a real risk that Afghanistan will buckle under the pressure and descend into another period of civil war. One can only hope that it defies the odds and avoids such a catastrophe.

Rupert Stone


Dostum’s absence from Afghanistan – why is it important?

Sophia Nina Burna-Asefi is an undergraduate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Aberdeen. Born in London, she lived in Uzbekistan for 6 years and has been travelling extensively in Afghanistan for the past 9 years. She is a member of the RSAA.

The absence of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, first vice president of Afghanistan and leader of the Junbish-i Milli Party, poses a significant challenge to the security and stability of the Afghan state, on top of those it already faces. Sexual abuse allegations were made against him and two other members of his party earlier this year, but he has not faced trial for them as he left for Turkey in May on the grounds that he was seeking treatment there for ill-health.

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Spring in the Pamirs

Jonathan Hibbert-Hingston and his wife Beth work for Operation Mercy in Khorog, Tajikistan. Jonathan will be giving a lunch-time lecture for the RSAA about some of their experiences in September.

It was a slightly hazy afternoon when Nemat and I left our village on the outskirts of Khorog to go and look for his cows. Khorog is the principle town of the Gorno-Badakshan region of Tajikistan and our village sits at the base of the mountain range that divides the Ghund and Shogdara valleys. Everyday Nemat takes his cows across the Ghund river and lets them graze freely on the other side. In the late afternoon he goes back over the river to collect them.

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Afghanistan, Tajikistan

Following the Heroin Trail of Tajikistan

Malgosia Skowronska is a graduate of the War Studies Department of King’s College London, and the producer of Narkomen, an independent film on the problems faced by heroin addicts in Tajikistan.

The day comes to an end. The sun had almost gone down behind the surrounding peaks of the Pamir Mountains. Mirzo, with his slow and exhausted voice, lets me know that he no longer had the strength for conversation, for memories. He needs another dose. Mirzo, like many from his village of Porszniev, situated deep in the mountainous region of Tajik Badakhshan, has been struggling with heroin addiction for almost two decades.

Mal 1

Mirzo with his mum in their house in Porshniev. Photo: Malgorzata Skowronska

Heroin took its toll. Mirzo talks about his youth, about his friends and classmates, among whom only a handful have managed to escape addiction. “Once, 30-40% of young people in the village took heroin. Most of them are already gone. They even did not live half of their life.” He counts everyone one by one: three sons of the neighbour, two doors down another three brothers, he and his younger brother. The list of those affected by addiction seems to have no end.

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Afghanistan, Balochistan, Guest blogger, Iran, Pakistan

Balochistan through the Afghan back door

Karlos Zurutuza is a freelance reporter who contributes to a number of media channels including Al-Jazeera. Here, he writes on the complexities of covering one of the most off-the-radar conflicts worldwide: Balochistan.

It had been four years since I last met Mr Purdely. The chain of uprisings in northern Africa and the Middle East that started in 2011 had kept me away from Central Asia, but I was finally back in Kabul last September, sitting down over a cup of green tea with Afghanistan´s best known Baloch intellectual.

A former MP during the rule of Mohammad Najibullah (1987-1992), Purdely is a professor and a writer. Among his several books one can also find those being used by the Afghan Baloch schoolchildren in Nimroz Province.

That far-flung spot in the country´s southwest had been the main goal of my trip to Afghanistan in 2010. It´s not just the only the area where Afghanistan´s little known Baloch minority constitute the majority. Nimroz is also the place where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran collide. If there is a “black hole” in Central Asia, that is certainly Nimroz.

“There are three schools in Nimroz where Balochi – their language – is being taught, which you may want to visit,” said Purdely, after proudly producing the whole set of school books he had released over the last four years. The normalisation of a long neglected language, however, was just one of the stories I wanted to cover during my trip.

Back in 2009 I had travelled to the Baloch populated areas bordering Nimroz in Iran and Pakistan. In retrospect, I have to admit that during the first trip to West and East Balochistan, as Baloch nationalists put it, I was barely familiar with the Marris, the Mengals, the Bugtis and the rest of the clans that make up the Baloch tribal fabric. But I did have a unique chance to detect the fear among regular Iranian Baloch of being hanged by the Iranian regime, or the appalling poverty in Pakistan-controlled Balochistan. Thanks to the help of local activists, I met victims of torture and abuses by the Pakistani security service, relatives of the myriad of missing Baloch –around 20,000 according to local sources. I also spoke to senior tribal leaders such as Khair Bux Marri or Attaullah Mengal, as well as to a few among those fighting in the rugged mountains of Pakistan´s southernmost province.

The outcome of that first visit to the troubled land of the Baloch would be a set of stories for several media wires which would eventually shed some light on this obscure conflict. The collateral effect for me would be a travel ban for Iran and Pakistan. To make a long story short, foreign journalists are prevented from entering the region, deported if they´re caught inside, and eventually beaten. Needless to say it´s far worse for the local reporters, forced to choose between “self-censorship”, according to Ahmed Rashid, or finding their names in the list of “killed and dumped”.

Paradoxically, Afghanistan had turned into my “safest” option to keep reporting on the Baloch and their conflict.

The Wild Southwest

The Taliban insurgency has made it impossible to travel overland across Afghanistan, except for a few spots like the legendary Panjshir valley, which works for a nice day-trip from Kabul. Flying is mandatory when it comes to moving around the country, and air connections between Kabul and Nimroz had slightly improved since my last visit in 2010. Back then, flights to Zaranj -the provincial capital – only departed from Herat, but last September there was a weekly flight from Kabul operated by a newly-established airline.

So I travelled there, met the Baloch teachers, the journalists who run a radio programme in Balochi and many other local activists struggling to revive their long-neglected language and culture. But there was obviously much more Afghanistan´s remotest province could offer to a freelance journalist. Nimroz is literally overrun by migrant Afghans bound for Iran, and it´s also a main hub for all sorts of smuggling: heroine coming from neighbouring Helmand province goes out, weapons come in…

In the country´s southwest I also came across dozens of Pakistani Baloch, either political dissidents or ordinary civilians, fleeing the war at home and seeking shelter in Afghanistan. Another striking story was that of the local Baloch who have found themselves living under the shadow of a border wall erected by the Iranians almost overnight. Many cross-border family ties were cut, and survival based on smuggling goods or growing crops was on the brink of collapse. Local villagers have left in their hundreds, leaving their mud houses behind. Among those who had not yet followed suit, it was not difficult to run into people who have been shot by the Iranian guards.

Officials at the water supply department in Zaranj told me that Iran is to blame for diverting and storing water from the Helmand River and also responsible for Nimroz´s endemic drought. But accusations went beyond interference in the water supply. The Iranian presence is overwhelming, something which is visibly evident in Zaranj´s massive bazaar area, with hundreds of stalls loaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran. Moreover, locals are highly suspicious of Iranian NGOs.

“This is a nest of spies,” could be read in graffiti on the walls of The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation´s headquarters.

Somewhere in the Mountains

My next stop on my Baloch tour across Afghanistan was Kandahar, so I was forced to fly back to Kabul. A first attempt to leave Zaranj ended up with the aircraft swerving violently across the runway after one of the engines collapsed during take-off. I had experienced something similar during my 2010 trip, so although it was pretty scary, it came as no surprise.

The flight was delayed until 5:00 a.m. the following day but I´d still be in time to fly to Kandahar at 1:00 p.m. Unlike Nimroz, Kandahar is not Baloch land as such but it hosts a significant Baloch community, which includes both Afghan and Pakistani Baloch. The Baloch Language Department at Kandahar´s university and the large number of families that have settled there after fleeing Pakistan´s south would definitely help me complete my stories on culture and refugees. However, there was another powerful reason behind my visit.

Contacts in Kabul had arranged a rare interview with Baloch insurgents from the Balochistan Liberation Army. The meeting point would be “somewhere in the Sarlat mountains”, a rocky massif on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was a long drive, after which came a long hike. BLA commander Baloch Khan was waiting for me at an undisclosed location, escorted by three fellow fighters. They had walked for 12 hours from the other side of the border.

“Taliban presence in this border area is at its peak but they use their own routes and we stick to ours so we hardly ever come across them,” commander Khan told me. I found his words reassuring, kind of.

The 41-year-old guerrilla told me he felt very close to the Kurds, “as their land is also stolen by their neighbours”. He even admitted ideological parallels between his group and the Kurdistan Workers Party-PKK. Their enemies were seemingly sticking to similar tactics, yet in different degrees. While Ankara has been sending Islamic extremists into areas under the control of the Syrian Kurds over the last three years, Khan insisted that Islamabad was following a similar strategy to tackle the Baloch issue:

“Until 2000 not a single Shia was killed in Balochistan. Today Pakistan is funnelling all sorts of fundamentalist groups, many of them linked to the Taliban, into Balochistan to crush the Baloch liberation movement,” stressed the commander.

Apparently, there are around half a dozen Baloch armed groups operating in Pakistani Balochistan. One of them is the Baloch Liberation Front, a group led by Allah Nazar, a former physician, who today leads his fighters in the southern coastal region of Makran. Obviously I couldn´t travel that far without a visa but I did chat over the phone with Nazar to get his assessment of Pakistan´s alleged support for Islamic extremists. He spoke about the Taliban, and even gave me the coordinates of “at least four training camps”, where members of the Islamic State are reportedly receiving instruction with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services.

“The Islamic State is overwhelmingly present among us. They even throw pamphlets in our streets to advocate their view of Islam and get new recruits,” the former gynaecologist told me, visibly disturbed.


Back in Kabul I met Purdely again to compare notes on “Afghan Baloch language and culture”. We both hoped we didn´t have to wait for another four years to see one other again. I also had to say goodbye to the rest of the Baloch who had backed me with info and logistics during my trip. One of them was Guljam, an exile from Pakistan who had been calling me on a daily basis to make sure I was always sticking to the right people.

During my first days in Kabul I had been meeting Guljam at the same coffee shop in a shopping mall to make the necessary arrangements before my departure to the country´s south. Dressed in his shalwar kamiz, the 38-year-old could walk completely unnoticed across the city. He could pass for an Afghan and, like them, he was also familiar with war. Yet his is another war, unfortunately one we barely ever hear of.




Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Marble Trade – interview

Matthew Leeming is an RSAA member who works in Afghanistan with Milio International to develop Afghan marble mines and the country’s capacity to process and export the stone. He is also co-author of the Odyssey Companion and Guide to Afghanistan. Here, he answers questions from the Asian Affairs Weblog: 

  1. What is the state of trade for marble in Afghanistan? Is there the infrastructure and capacity to mine it, and if so, can it actually be processed in Afghanistan?

Well, there is now a factory in Herat which was recently sold for $20 million. It is equipped with Italian machinery and can apparently cut to western standards.

  1. Herat is well known for tile-work (we only have to think of the Friday Mosque and Gazergah). What has it got to do with marble?

Nothing (at the moment). My only knowledge of Herati marble was a carved pillar I saw in the Art Institute in Chicago years ago, a beautiful floor in the Herat Transport Department and a piece of carved white marble at Gohar Shad’s mausoleum which could have been originally the same piece as the Chicago carving that I assumed was a grave marker. It was presumably broken in 1885 when the British blew up the madrassah and minarets at Herat to give a better line of sight against invading Russians – who never came. There certainly was a tradition of stone carving in Herat – the mausoleum of Gohar Shad contains five stunning calligraphy panels which someone tried to steal that were originally used at the bottom of the minarets, according to Jolyon Leslie.

  1. What is so special about the marble coming out of Afghanistan? Are there any special artistic or craft traditions on top of the quality of the marble itself to be aware of?

It is very high quality. The stone for the Taj Mahal was apparently quarried near Jalalabad and we have just had two 25 tonne blocks quarried there that we are getting cut in the Gulf.

  1. What are the challenges facing people in the trade? Is it really worth the bother of trying to excavate and export it, when one might just stick to somewhere safe like Italy?

The major problem is getting orders in a foreign market. I am going to Baku in Azerbaijan in the New Year to look at a processing plant there that Milio may invest in. The figures for the Azeri economy are mind-boggling: there was 35% economic growth in one single year; they have loads of money from oil (even down to a crude price of $50 per barrel); they are building on an Old Testament scale including a new Tower of Babel 3,500 feet tall; and are decorating the buildings in onyx and marble. I am currently in Dubai trying to sell marble for four hotels and a palace and we are just about to take on a salesman to do this properly.

  1. What’s the export market for Afghan marble? Who wants it outside the country? Can it compete?

The economics are driven by the cost of transport which can cost as much as the stone itself. So you want to be selling it near Afghanistan which means central Asia and the Gulf is the best market. Plus marble is very heavy and you lose 20% of it in cutting so you want to cut near the quarry. To begin with, at least and despite its high quality, Afghan stone is going to have to compete on price.

The obvious export market is Turkmenistan which is very close to Herat and is building new ‘white cities’ from white marble to honour the former President, Turkmen-Bashi. Afghanistan did one shipment but did something so depressingly familiar to anyone who works with Afghan export industries that it has its own name: the Idar-Oberstein trick. Idar-Oberstein is a town in Germany which is the centre of the European emerald trade. The Afghans got an order for emeralds from the Panjshir and shipped them. The first lot were excellent but the subsequent ones complete rubbish, so bad that the Germans now refuse to look at any stones from Afghanistan.

  1. How are you going to prevent a repetition of the Idar-Oberstein trick?

By rigorous scrutiny of the process at every step. We are not just supplying Italian Fantini chain saws to improve the rate of extraction but also cutting the blocks into slabs with Italian machines and rejecting anything sub-standard. That is the only way that we can establish Afghan stone in foreign markets.

  1. What impact is the trade having on Afghanistan and/or Herat?

According to Melissa Skorka, an ISAF counterinsurgency adviser, it is having a beneficial effect already: Afghans in and around Herat are now so usefully employed making money that they are not interested in blowing up themselves and ISAF convoys. This is apparently such a major new discovery that they are trying to repeat it in other places. We just did two 25 tonne loads of onyx from Lashkar Gah to Verona and Lash is of course one of the Taliban hotbeds in Helmand and I haven’t heard of any insurgent attacks there since, but correlation is not the same as causation.

Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Boundary Commission 1885 – quest for photographs

During the work of the Anglo-Russian commission, which, with the agreement of the Amir, settled Afghanistan’s north-western border with the Russian Empire in 1885-6, a series of photographs were taken. Paul Bucherer, the Director of the Afghanistan Institute in Switzerland, has compiled a catalogue of these photographs, with copies displayed on the Institute’s Phototheca Afghanica website: A printed volume of them has been donated to the Society’s library. In spite of extensive searches, such as in the British Library archives, some of the 167 photographs, that are known to have been taken, are missing.  He would like to hear from anyone who has knowledge of the existence of any complete copy of the album of photographs from that Afghan Boundary Commission:  / Afghanistan-Institut, Brühlstrasse 2, CH-4416 Bubendorf, Switzerland.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, RSAA member

The Peshawar School Attack

Dr Robin Edward Poulton, an RSAA member who has lived amongst Afghan villagers, offers a heartfelt response to the recent Taliban attack on the Peshawar Army Public School in Pakistan:

Taliban butchers are Pashtun cowards

by Robin Edward Poulton[i]

If you sit of an evening beside a fire in the Pashtun heartlands, you will hear tales of bravery, honour and generosity. You will hear stories about how the Pashtuns were never defeated: not by Alexander the Great, nor by Genghis Khan the Mongol, nor by the British Empire, nor even recently by the Soviet and American imperial armies despite their fighter bombers and their helicopter gunships. All these great military conquerors passed through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but they never ruled the mountain passes where the Durrani and the Ghilzai Pashtuns herd their goats and fight their blood feuds. Just as NATO forces are pulling out in 2014, so too the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and the British pulled out in 1842, and in 1880 and in 1919: the 1st and 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Afghan wars all ended with retreat by the exhausted invading army, like the Anglo-American invasion we have been watching since 2001.

In the Pashtun evening light, you will drink your tea flavoured with cardamom and suck sugared almonds, while lounging on your tushak thick mattresses or lying on your charpoy wooden bed on the veranda of the guest house: for the first rule of Pashtun life is hospitality, melmastia. If you listen under the silence of the stars, you may hear young girls singling inside their qala, the fortified house inside which no stranger can ever venture. They will sing ballads about the bravery of their young warriors, recite poems calling their heroes home for a wedding with their sweet and loving bride, or to see their first-born son who will one day take the place of his valiant father to defend his family’s honour, nang. Like their ancestors before them, young boys take their turn in the watchtower built above the qala, watching for enemies and strangers: in these wild mountain passes that have seen so many aggressors, the assumption is always that a stranger may be an enemy. Hindus came in the 1700s and decapitated Pashtun warriors; conquering Persian armies came from the West; and countless Turco-Mongol hordes swept down from the Steppes of Central Asia.

But after the Taliban attack of December 16th 2014 on a school in Peshawar, what will the Ghilzai ladies be singing this New Year inside their fortified qala? Will they be singing glorious bravery of the men who slaughtered 7 and 8 and 9-year-olds in their classrooms – or will they keep silent in face of this cowardly butchery of innocent infants?  Will they compose ballads to praise the honour of the Taliban Ghilzai who shot unarmed and elderly teachers in front of their students – or will the Ghilzai women feel shame?  Pashtun women remember those brave warriors who defeated the British armies of the 19th century, but how can they compare battles in the mountains to the butchery of 100 children in a school in Peshawar?

Ah! How are the Ghilzai fallen!  Most Taliban are Pashtuns – and many, like Mullah Omar, are Ghilzai jealous of the Durrani presidents Hamid Karzai and Abdul Ghani. How did Pashtun warriors shrink to become the butchers of small children? What Pashtun maiden will compose poems for the coward who shot an unarmed, 15-year old called Malala Youssoufzai, and her friends in a school bus? Aiyee! Alas! The noble Pashtun have crumbled into a state of dishonour! While Malala (now 17) has been elevated to the status of Nobel Peace Laureate.

The Pashtun tribes have been Muslims for twelve centuries. The Arab expansion reached Afghanistan within 50 years of the death of Mohamed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him and upon all the Prophets). Afghanistan and Pakistan are 99% Muslim. If you sit for hours – or indeed for months, as I have done – in an Afghan village, talking through the evenings with your village neighbours, you can pretty well know that 40% of the conversation will concern the economy (the price of wheat, the value of sheep, the quality of karakul Persian lamb skins); 10% will be gossip about the village or about stuff that someone heard in the weekly market; and 50% of the conversation will be related to religion. Village life is dominated by Islam. Not that Afghan villagers are very knowledgeable about their religion: most of the rules that govern Pashtun life come from the ancient Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali, and have nothing whatever to do with Islam: but villagers will assure you that these are the rules that the Prophet (PbuH) followed.

And where, you may well ask, did the Prophet recommend that Muslims should kill school children? Indeed, He did not. One of the Prophet’s most famous – and most profound – sayings was this: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  The Prophet was in favour of education, including education for women. Most Taliban do not know this, because they are profoundly ignorant of the meaning of Islam, Very few of them can read or write, and most of them have no idea of the meaning of the Arabic sentences they recite in their prayers.

If you remind the Taliban about surats from the Holy Koran that tell Muslims never to kill another Muslim, how will your brave Pashtun slaughterer-of-children reply? He will get angry, because he has no answer. He will tell you that the people he killed were infidels. But he is wrong: it is the Taliban who are infidels, for they no longer respect the religion they profess to practice.

And if you remind them that a brave Pashtun warrior is committed to defend children and not to slaughter them? Then your Taliban will become angry again, because they know that they have violated the sacred Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali.

They will try to justify their attack on a military school in Peshawar, by calling on the rules of blood feud and vengeance: for badal is a sacred Pashtun duty, to avenge any insult to your family’s honour. But their speech will be weak, for they know that there is no badal in the slaughter of school children – they will speak lies, and they will know it.

The Taliban have sunk so low on the scale of humanity, that they are no longer Pashtuns: for a Pashtun respects the the Pashtunwali and will die for the honour it implies. The Taliban have no honour.

Worse, the Taliban are no longer Muslims. Everything they do is so alien to the religion of the Prophet Mohamed (PbuH), that these are men without religion. The Taliban have brought the Pashtun lands back in time to the jahiliya, the pagan days when tribal elders worshipped idols and there was no One God in their lives. The Taliban have no God. They worship only idols: their Kalashnikovs and their RPG rocket launchers, and the religion of Violence. Never in the history of this great warrior people, have Pashtun men sunk so low. They and their Arab and Chechen fellow-jihadis have become ignorant  butchers who know neither honour, nor God.

[i] Dr Poulton is President of V-Peace, the Virginia Institute for Peace and Islamic Studies, and an Affiliate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He co-Chaired a peace conference at VCU in September 2013

Dr Poulton wrote his PhD thesis on village economic systems in Afghanistan.