Last week, our programmes on Times Radio were dominated by coverage of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. On Sunday 15th August, I was broadcasting from 1pm-4pm, as Kabul - the capital city - fell under the control of Taliban militants again, some 20 years after they were beaten back by the UK and US. The words of Aisha Khurram, a student in Kabul and former UN Youth representative, have stuck with me since, as we watch Afghanistan descending into the darkness of despair. She said to me on that Sunday afternoon that “everyone is thinking about how to escape - and how to stay alive.” She said this is the “cruellest form of betrayal by the USA.” Progress that has been made in Afghanistan has been halted, abruptly, by the audacity of Taliban militants, who have breezed to a military victory, to rule a country of nearly 40 million people. Aisha told us that immediately upon their arrival, a message came from the militants that “women should stay safe at home.” She spoke calmly in the face of uncertainty, eloquently in the face of chaos and boldly in the face of tyrants and despots.
The Taliban have been given license to pick up exactly where they left off 20 years ago. Sure, their PR campaign suggested they may have relinquished some of their desire to inflict the dark ages on society, but they have not really changed. Aisha, a young female student at university, would now stay at home just days before she was due to graduate in international relations, because the oppressors were back, and are stealing from women the rights that they have fought for and won over the last 20 years. Aisha described the withdrawal of soldiers by the west as the “greatest betrayal” of her generation. It’s hard to disagree.
We spoke to another man whose dog started barking during our interview. “Sorry, that’s my dog barking at gunfire…” he said casually. The dusty roads of Kabul were once again filled with militants with guns, rocket launchers and an appetite for power. Who can predict what difficulty awaits.
This weekend I stopped in at the Diddly Squat Farm Shop - famous, of course, because it’s owned by Jeremy Clarkson - famous, of course, for driving cars quickly and shouting things loudly and provoking controversy whenever suits him. He showed up at the shop while
I visited - the first time I’ve seen him in real life. He was relaxed, amiable, executing a well-polished amble through the crowds, mouthing niceties and pointing out things of interest - such as a helicopter that flew overhead that he said belonged to the
person who owns JCB. He’s a man made famous by the BBC who gave him the platform to “do his thing” for a worldwide audience, many of whom are utterly infatuated with him. He’s now carefully curated by Amazon for The Grand Tour - where he’s joined by James May and Richard Hammond to lark about in various modes of transport around the world - and Clarkson’s Farm - his series where he takes on the task of farming his 1,000 acres initially by himself, hence: the farm shop.
He drew a tidal wave of farm-shop-going fans in his wake as he moseyed around the area which was captivating even as a spectator sport. Everyone knew him; he knew no-one other than his girlfriend and the few members of staff on site. For a while the world was Jeremy Clarkson and it suited him and fans alike. Clarkson has been very supportive of our work at Times Radio, which is always nice from someone who has the influence to draw hundreds of people to a farm shop in the middle of the Cotswolds, who are then willing to stand for nearly three hours just to buy some milk. What a coup.
We’ve witnessed an entire country fall to tyrants before our eyes, and the future of a generation has been snatched away. Then, I stood faced with a different dusty road - one driven over by thousands of fans keen to line up and buy things inspired by the man they love. I’m a fan of Clarkson’s - he’s a brilliant entertainer and I’ve watched just about everything he’s ever made. He’s a brilliant entrepreneur, too, as his farm shop tills churn pounds upon pounds each day. I thought of Aisha, who was now confined to looking out a window at her dusty road, such was her fear of what would happen to her if she dared venture outside. Over the last 20 years, she and many others like her campaigned and fought for rights, progress and advance - and it all evaporated in a matter of days.
Where are the crowds of supporters driving miles for her, her campaign and the progress she inspired? The difficulty she faces contrasted with that of a comfortably rich farmer in the English countryside. It is fair to say that of these two people that I encountered for the first time this week, Aisha’s first impression will last for longer and count for unquantifiably more.
(Calum presents Early Breakfast on Times Radio, Monday-Friday from 5am. It's your essential morning news briefing. Listen live or on demand via the Times Radio App, or go online to times.radio.)