The Future of Humanity in Afghanistan: A Conversation

with Ex-Diplomat, Author and Journalist Robbert van Lanschot

By Anna Illing and Katrina Sproge International | February 1, 2023

Cover Illustration: Robbert van Lanschot. Simon Ordonez / The Amsterdammer 

International reporters Anna Illing and Katrina Sproge sat down with ex-diplomat, author and journalist Robbert van Lanschot to discuss his experiences traveling through Afghanistan and his current project to provide financial support for girls’ schools in Northern Afghanistan.

Robbert van Lanschot’s affection for culture, history and humanity is evident in the way his face lights up as he begins the retelling of his travels around the world. As a Dutch diplomat, Robbert served the government for over 30 years in places many only dream to visit yet dread to live in. A few of these places are Ethiopia, Congo, the Soviet Union prior to its collapse and South Sudan. Robbert’s life in the latter country, which also sounds like a chapter out of a best-selling travel novel, turned out to be a decisive moment in his career: “At a certain age, you feel like, I don’t want to work for a big organization anymore. I want to decide for myself what I’m going to write, where I’m going to travel and what I am going to do. That moment came for me when I was in South Sudan.”

The ex-diplomat, with his colleagues, was posted in Eck in South Sudan. The local Guerrilla Army had withdrawn deep into the Nile marshes to make it impossible for the North of Iran to attack. All foreign diplomats, as well as politicians of South Sudan, were living in small huts. Robbert’s mode of transport was a bicycle, “I would go to various people, then sit under the mango tree and wait for Riek Machar (first vice president of South Sudan) to wake up. And then he would come and tell me what was going on and within one hour, I’d have a message to The Hague. It was beautiful (laughs).” Van Lanschot left the Ministry and became a writer and journalist, “If the Ministry would post me to, say, Copenhagen or Stockholm – nothing after South Sudan could compare to it. It would always be less.”

Robbert van Lanschot. Simon Ordonez / The Amsterdammer

How and why did you end up traveling through Afghanistan?

Islam had interested me for a while, but not extensively. At one point I ended up in Istanbul where I discovered the stories about prophet Mohammed and his relics and decided to write a book about them (De tand van de Profeet, 2022). I traveled to Syria, to its border with Jordan, following in the prophet’s footsteps from the past and I realized I had to ultimately travel to Afghanistan for research. I told the embassy I wanted to go to Afghanistan and asked if I could get a visa. The ambassador said that it depended on where I wanted to go because the country was very dangerous. I was allowed to go where I wanted, the city of Kandahar, but nowhere else in the country. It helped that the ambassador happened to be the former governor of Kandahar. 

Why such limits? 

It was not easy to travel around. The western lines didn’t make a lot of noise about it, because they wanted us to think things are going well for NATO in Afghanistan. As if the Western Alliance and the government had practically taken over power in the country, but that was not the truth. I think 80% of the country was consistently controlled by the Taliban. They never really caved in and that’s what made it so easy for the Taliban to take over 100% after the Western Alliance left.

You were in Afghanistan before and after the Taliban took over?

Right. In 2018, I was only in Kandahar, with the Taliban surrounding it everywhere except for Kandahar itself. I returned two times this year. 

Did you see any differences between Afghanistan under the US administration’s control and Afghanistan under Taliban control?

The US administration was considered horrible and terribly corrupt. Now, this whole corruption thing has evaporated. Nonetheless, the Taliban inherited and kept the old state employees and ministries, very much needed to manage hospitals, passports and similar things. You’ll still find that they try, but they’re very careful because they know that if they are exposed they’ll be heavily punished. So, they’re not completely out of the woods as far as growth goes, but the Taliban themselves are non-materialistic but rather idealistic. 

Did you see any bad things once you were interacting with the Taliban? 

I have had no negative experiences with them. I’m not in any way going to defend them, but what I see happening as far as the economy is concerned is that the country is ready for takeoff. Even the air is now helping the economy via flight rights revenues; according to Voice of America, paid overflight permissions have shot up.

What are the differences between the portrayal of Afghanistan in the West and the reality of the situation?

What struck me was the portrayal of the economy of Afghanistan. The economy is going to do very well, contrary to reports. It has its problems, of course, but in the bigger picture, many areas are very promising. And people cannot believe it because it’s like a mantra that Afghanistan is on the brink of economic collapse. First, if you look at what happened with the local currency, the Afghani has been stable, vis-a-vis the Euro over the past eight months. If your economy is going to collapse, you’d be desperate to sell Afghani, but it’s not happening. Why? Because there is no collapse. Since the takeover, Afghani has been gaining 25% versus the Euro. Second, there are coal exports from the north of Afghanistan. Hundreds of trucks travel every day towards Pakistan where they use coal in eastern towns and power plants – the exports have increased, and the price of coal has also increased. Nobody talks about it. Third, the talc mountains and the white mountains. The talc is exported for a very good price to Pakistan. And there it’s used for the production of baby powder, even Johnson’s Johnson’s products. 500,000 tons of talc are exported on a yearly basis. Fourth, because trucks are free to go in places considered too dangerous 20-30 years ago, you get completely new streams of transport. Many areas were closed off before, but now, trucks are free to go in places considered too dangerous 20-30 years ago. It is a signal of new business opportunities. Fifth, I’ve traveled around Afghanistan for six weeks total – neither in the day nor at nighttime did I hear one gunshot. It’s safe. This new freedom creates potential for new businesses that people haven’t even thought of. Sixth, there’s a development project for a gas pipeline through the west of Afghanistan, which means renting flat areas to Pakistan and India. It’s going to be a huge project. Afghanistan is going to profit enormously. The Taliban, however, is not interested in money. They’re interested in money as far as needing to manage the country goes, but not for themselves – I have not ever seen, let’s say, a Talib carrying a big box of a Samsung television. 

Closing schools to girls in Afghanistan is considered one of the greatest tragedies that have followed the Taliban’s takeover. Do you have any insights or updates on the situation regarding these schools?

Very few people knew that they never closed the girls’ schools in the north. In the three provinces, which, even before the northern alliance was present, in some respects were the enemies of the Taliban, the schools were open, and the Taliban never closed them. 

Who is responsible for the management of these schools?

The schools themselves; they have their own school board. When I heard about it, I immediately felt like this is maybe an initiative that should be helped. If there are schools that are open, let’s give them a premium. Let’s give them some help as encouragement to show the rest of the country that if your schools are open – foreign support may come. What is more, the Taliban pays the salaries of the school, the teachers and the directors. 

Are the schools you saw the only ones open for girls in Afghanistan? 

In the west of the country public schools are closed, but girls’ private schools have remained open. 

Why do you think Talibs are letting the schools stay open?

I think that they made an exception for the north because for them it is a difficult area; the former Northern Alliance area. In the nineties, when there was fighting between Northern Alliance and the Taliban – that was not just an ideological conflict, but also a tribal one, more difficult to control. The Taliban are Pashtun and the Turkmen, Uzbek and Tagi; completely different. They know they have to be careful with those provinces. My interpretation is that the reason that those schools are open is that the Taliban did not want to create trouble for those three provinces. Particularly because there is now a new sort of offspring of the Northern Alliance, the Northern Resistance Front, which is already to some level infiltrated in Afghanistan and the Taliban doesn’t want to generate, directly or indirectly, extra support for that front line. 

Do you have a plan on how the Netherlands would start financing these schools? How would it work in practice? 

My idea was to have 1 million euros. And before saying anything else, compare this to the 250 million euros that Holland spent on police education in the Afghan province of Kunduz. It was a complete failure and we lost a quarter of a billion dollars. The project could start with say 30/40 schools that would receive 15,000 euro. If it doesn’t work out you lose 300,000 euros, but compared to the quarter of a billion, I would say – take the risk. The Taliban would not have the power to approve or disapprove, the money from Holland would be channeled directly to the schools themselves, in small portions. Every school has a “shura”, a local council, composed of the director of the school, a representative of the parents, some of the pupils themselves and one or two local notables. This council would decide how to spend the money. They would only be given some guidance on the main areas they could use the money – heating, books, furniture, sanitary facilities – but within those areas they may choose themselves what to do.

Why one million? 

Because if you say, how about 20, 50,000, it’s nothing. Anything below 1 million is sort of like “no, we don’t have time for this”. You need to place a substantial amount. And I think 1 million is a serious amount without giving any financial serious risk to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s a balance between what’s needed and what can be given. 

How would the money be transferred? Are there safety concerns?

In Afghanistan there is no banking system, everything is done through “Hawala”, an informal money market which works very well. The average of the money coming in and out of this market is one hundred million dollars a day. It is said to be composed of approximately 1000 traders who work through Whatsapp groups. The commission fees are very low, around 3%. The money from Holland would not be sent in one tranche, but in rounds throughout a longer timeframe, allowing the Netherlands’ government to stop at any moment if the money is not spent well, if the schools become too focused on religion, or if anything else goes wrong. Nonetheless, I don’t think that these schools will become more religious because they need people that know mathematics, medicine etcetera.

Do you see any risk of corruption? 

Technically, it could happen and somebody could run away with it. But I also think that the risk is very low. If you want money, you go into business, you don’t become a school director. As people working in schools are very committed, I think that the chances are slim. Also, you have to think that theft in the Taliban setting is heavily punished, one risks his or her hands being cut off. 

Would the money transfers and the results be checked? 

Communication is incredibly easy. I can call anyone and they would share that information. So what is needed is simply direct telephone contact with a few people from every school. In regard to money transfers, the person receiving money would have to send a copy of his or her passport. So you have a little file on each transfer made. And random checks could also be organized. Additionally, I had a conversation with a UNICEF representative who claimed to be very happy with the idea and that as an association they could get involved, for instance by checking what is going on.

What caused you to organize this project? 

The atmosphere of the schools when I visited them; it was such a wonderful experience and I could hear all these happy voices. I just thought that this was something we have to do. 

What’s the local take on your proposal? 

I went to the Taliban and to the local commissioners for education and I asked what the reaction would be if Holland helped the girls’ schools they were also financing; would it be a trigger to close them? I was told that we would be most welcome to do that, they would not interfere, but merely ask to be kept informed, which I think is reasonable. What I noticed is that the Taliban by far prefer that we support public schools over private ones. 

Then maybe the same project should be implemented in the rest of the country. 

No, it’ll not be permitted. 

And you also proposed all this to the Dutch minister of Foreign Affairs?

Yes, and I wrote an article on this on De Groene Amsterdam. I sent a copy of this to all parties in both chambers. 

Can you describe the reaction? 

I don’t know yet if the minister is convinced. I know that the people in the ministry are very sceptical about using the “Hawala”. But there still are people associated with the Dutch military in the country who need money, and how do they get it if not through the “Hawala”? Another argument was the girls’ safety. But I saw girls asking explicitly for support for their education; they are not worried [about safety], they just want to graduate. 

Do you think there’s a possibility that it might be done? 

It is of course a deeply political decision. I don’t know if the topic has been discussed in parliament though. I think if it were purely stuck at the level of the administration it would not happen. But there is a parallel story going on. An agricultural college in Kabul has received Dutch support, a college closed to women. The government did not contest this closure on the idea of not endangering the girls, but the girls themselves started claiming that they were safe and just wished to go back to school. So questions have been asked on this topic, but there is still no answer from the minister. I tried to create a link between this case and one of the schools in northern Afghanistan, and to suggest to the people involved to keep the latter in mind when discussing the sending of money to the agricultural college. 

Were you questioning whether the western countries should get involved in the politics of  Afghanistan again?

In a way, yes, you are getting involved in the politics of the country. But the same goes for food aid. And that food aid is necessary, no doubt about it. So should we stop food aid? I think that if this helps the poorest people, maybe we should do it. Do the schools absolutely need that aid? No, because they’re there, open and functioning. But the Taliban have little extra money to spend on improving those schools. At the school I visited, there are tents, plastic tents where those girls get an education. The money coming from the Netherlands could be used to build a proper place to study. 

Do you think it would be seen as controversial?

I think that many people would not see it as controversial. I’ve had a number of people suggesting that if the ministry does not proceed, society should participate in a joint action of crowdfunding. They would ask me how they could help if they could send books or money. I’ve not come across anyone who thought this is bad. But I still think these kinds of things, it’s better that they are done by the minister rather than private initiatives.

Do you think that providing girls’ schools with this fund would encourage the Taliban to widen the education system as a whole? 

I don’t think so because it’s very ideological; but who knows?

And this touches on the issue of how long the Taliban have in power. 

They’re now not very inclusive and in the long run, that’s going to be a big problem for them, because not just the area of the Northern Alliance, but also the heart of Afghanistan has its peculiarities and minorities, the Hazara for example.

Do you see the Netherlands as a leader of a wider program? 

If it could be a pioneer? Absolutely, if other countries would want to join that would be great.

Do you think that this kind of funding should be provided to countries that are also facing humanitarian crises, for instance, Yemen? What is your opinion on the EU being supportive of Ukraine but not of other countries, including Afghanistan, that are facing a humanitarian crisis? 

I think that, in a way, in Yemen, we are probably much more free to provide assistance and that we provide lots of humanitarian aid, either directly or through NGOs United Nations in many countries. I see my project as one very small thing. I think that each country has its own issues and generalizing does no good. I understand that Holland now gives very high priority to Ukraine as it’s close by and we think we understand it [the country]. I, personally, don’t think we understand it in reality. 

What will the future of these schools look like; if they get the funds or not?

The Taliban will still keep them open because they need women with higher education. They probably will not be allowed in every work field, but at least, to name one, in medicine. We would not save the schools. Even if the schools don’t [receive the funding from Holland], they will still continue.

Robbert van Lanschot. Simon Ordonez / The Amsterdammer

Anna Illing and Katrina Sproge are university students in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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