Afghanistan abandoned

Aunohita Mojumdar on right talking to farmers in a field in the village of Haibat Khel in Parwan province in 2008. Photo: ANNE FEENSTRA

Gut-wrenching images and stories have flooded the media sphere over the last few days. Hundreds flocking to the airport, clinging to the undercarriage of aircraft in desperation, journalists in hiding or seeking visas to leave, people in streets and in camps fleeing the violence that has preceded the fall of province after province to the Taliban. 

The rapidity with which the Taliban have been able to take control over the entire country has surprised everyone including the Taliban themselves. However, while the speed may not have been foreseen, the collapse of the government had seemed inevitable for some time, especially after the steps taken by the US in rapid succession since the Doha deal they struck with the Taliban in 2020. 

Ironically called the ‘Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan’, the deal ensured the unconditional withdrawal of American troops. Desperate to leave, the US administration acceded to the Taliban insistence of talks without the presence of the elected Afghan government -- thus de-legitimising the leadership that President Joe Biden is today blaming for the collapse of the government.

So what of the 20 years of international support? The entire nation-building project led by the Americans, regardless of what President Joe Biden now says, was based on an American view of what a liberated Afghanistan and Afghans should look and sound like, often with little understanding of the ground reality. 

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Unfortunately, American military and financial power outstripped that of other nations several times over and coupled with the belief in American Exceptionalism this ensured their overweening dominance. More nuanced approaches were run rough-shod and complex perspectives that could address the complicated realities were jettisoned in favour of the black-and-white you ‘are with us or against us’ approach. 

While there is much to blame on the Afghan government and the leaders, it is worth looking at how the security paradigm and the political leadership were instituted. In the initial period following the 2001 invasion, the US prevented the expansion of NATO in order to keep complete control of the security sphere, and subsequently blocked all attempts at allowing even the negotiated surrender of the Taliban leadership, thus driving them underground. 

Over the years, international forces killed a large number of civilians, an unacceptably high rate of ‘collateral damage’ that turned a significant portion of the Afghan population against them as well as against the Afghan government they were supporting. While ‘introducing democracy’ to Afghans, the US railroaded Afghans into accepting a governance structure that concentrated all powers in the presidency -- far more extreme than any presidential style of governance in existence -- and also forced an electoral system that kept out political parties -- the building blocks of any democratic polity. 

Leaders of militias were rearmed and empowered despite the fact that some of them had a track record of extreme brutality and predation on the local population. In later years, groups directly under the control of the US --and outside the ambit of the local army and police forces -- were armed, often with little checks and control resulting in more for violence against civilians. 

Finally, in order to meet an artificial timetable of ‘Afghan owned’ security, an Afghan army was built in a hurry despite obvious evidence of its weaknesses: the lack of adequate command and control structures, and inadequate training. Reports of high rates of recidivism, and drug addiction in the ranks were ignored in pursuit of the goal of filling the numbers. 

Over the years the Taliban regrouped and began to expand its footprint, enabled in some measure, by local discontent, access to safe spaces across the Pakistan border and the ‘live and let live’ deals struck in many areas.

Farewell, Danish, Navesh Chitrakar

In the past several years large parts of the country have been under the control of the Taliban or only nominally under the control of the government. In many areas, deals had been brokered for a holding pattern whereby neither side would engage in operations, thus leaving the local population the space to lead relatively peaceful lives. 

All of this was known to the US administration as it prepared to leave. What they had not counted on perhaps was the speed with which the government would fall. A more convenient gap would have allowed them to distance themselves from the disastrous political fallout a little better, and made their efforts to gas-light an entire country appear a little more tenable.

As it is, the rapidity of events has left the emperor with no clothes, its usurpation of Afghan airspace to remove its own citizens while holding Afghan civilians at bay at gunpoint is now the last lingering image.

What next

The uncertainty that has come with the Taliban taking power is fearful, and the fears very real. But the truth is that no one yet knows what kind of governance will emerge under Taliban 2.0 Will women be allowed in the public space? Will they have to adopt diktats on a dress code that will force them back into burkha? Will independent media be allowed to function? Will the Taliban seek to replicate the image of the state that they created between 1996 and 2001 when they controlled almost the entire country? Will they, as they have stated publicly, respect the rights of women  ncluding their right to education? 

Already these rights are being caveated by talk of ‘within Islamic law’ which is open to wide interpretation. What will the Taliban attitude be towards the minorities, especially the Shi’a Hazara communities some of which were massacred when they were last in power?

For a section of the media, ‘the terrorists have arrived’. And while the desperate images from the airport tell an important part of the story about the arrival of the Taliban in power they do not tell it in its entirety. Most Afghans did not want the return of the Taliban, but many urban, educated Afghans used to freedoms are staying on, deliberately and consciously, willing to consider and find ways and means of navigating the new realities. 

They are willing to unpick the issues and tackle them to try and create the space for living their lives, and all of us should be doing that too rather than treating Afghanistan and its people as a lost nation, or the situation as ‘game over’. The Americans have abandoned Afghanistan and the Afghans. It is time we in the region abandon the American approach towards Afghanistan as a nation to be lost or won, to be inducted into the empire of allies or rejected as an ‘enemy’ country.

With the fall of the Afghan government and the takeover by the Taliban, much of the strategic discourse in the national media of the neighbouring countries has been an accounting of winners and losers, a zero-sum game that tallies the increasing influence of one country and the reduction of another’s. One popular narrative suggests that the return of the Taliban will lead to an Afghanistan-China-Pakistan nexus and that India has lost out.

It might be more pertinent from the viewpoint of strategic policy to look not just at the convergence of interests but also at the divergences. China would like to see stability that will allow it economic engagement with Afghanistan. It has already invested heavily in the country’s mineral wealth and has been waiting to reap it. 

Neither China nor Russia would like to see unrest on their borders/near borders. China’s boundary with Afghanistan borders Xinjiang, and China has been critical of the way the US has withdrawn troops rather than happy about the exit of its strategic competitor. Russia has been deeply concerned about the problem of drugs flowing from Afghanistan, and even collaborated with the US in counternarcotics measures. 

Iran and Pakistan will both bear the brunt of the exodus of refugees from Afghanistan and while Pakistan has provided safe sanctuary to the Taliban, allowing them to grow in strength and capability from the safe havens, the Taliban in power in Afghanistan may make it more difficult to operate against their own home-grown terror networks.

Until now, regional political power has been exercised at the behest of the Americans with countries it considers to be inimical kept out of the way. That template will have broken down with the American departure, and political change in Kabul. 

But a regional approach based on common interests, short, medium and long-term can be found only if the countries do not look for the zero-sum approach. And, what about all of us in the region? Can we leave it to our governments? 


Afghans and Afghanistan are us

“We are not Americans,” the young Afghan man told me angrily, and, I thought, patronisingly. It was 2004 in Kabul and we were in the middle of a fierce debate on independence of media and women’s rights, the two issues which have come to the fore in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Kabul. 

The young man, R, was insistent that all this talk of rights was an American imposed program, alien to the culture of Afghanistan. “Nor am I American,” I answered, emphasising that my footprint was firmly in the region. 

My shift to a regional paradigm changed the tone of the conversation that day, and we were able to have a discussion based on substance rather than on stereotypes. I was to find this again and again as I navigated through the complex space of a country emerging from years of isolation, one, which seemed, then, to be on the brink of a more hopeful future. 

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To me it seemed as though the complexities of the country and the opportunities, its strengths and its problems mirrored ours, different certainly in scale and acuteness but nonetheless familiar and tractable. 

The problems facing Afghan women had not disappeared with the removal of the Taliban. Some areas experienced much greater freedom, and some faced more problems. The most brutal interpretation of Sharia was gone, but it still took presidential diktat to save an Afghan from execution for perceived blasphemy. 

Over the eight years that I lived there, I also saw a growing erosion of support for women’s rights. An Afghan woman activist was denied appointment as a minister by the parliament because her work for safe houses for women was considered immoral. Women were still being incarcerated in Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul for the crime of running away from abusive homes. 

They were guilty since, as possessions of the family, they were considered to have committed a theft against their family by running away. Women ran radio stations and became TV anchors. In some places they were also forced to leave the radio stations they had joined as their voices on air were considered unbecoming by their families. 

The space which had opened up after the removal of the Taliban was full of possibilities. It was also full of struggle. It also felt familiar, the way it did in many parts of India where many women like me had many more rights than others did. It felt familiar the way it did in the villages of Haryana where I had reported from homes where Hindu women observed deep purdah as many Afghan women continued to do. 

In Kabul I wore the same head covering I had worn in many villages in India on my reporting trips and received some lectures from western women journalists on how I was supposed to show the way to Afghan women by discarding it. When some of the women’s rights started being eroded under the growing clout of the ultra-conservative militia leaders they had put in power, western diplomats started to talk about cultural relativity. I found myself asserting that I came from a similar culture but that the rights to life, liberty and safety were neither relative nor negotiable. 

The reigning narrative of the Taliban was one of oppression of religious minorities. Except that in the popular narrative it was oppression of non-Muslim minorities - the Hindus and Sikhs. What I found in Afghanistan was different. One of the first de rigueur interviews as an Indian journalist was with the leaders of the Sikh community in Kabul’s Karte Parwan area. 

The Sikh leader complained about the deterioration of security after the departure of the Taliban. They said their religious rights had not been impinged upon by the Taliban whose focus was on making Muslims observant of all the religious practices. 

I thought about that today when I heard the Indian government had decided to discriminate on religious grounds, and offered help only to the Hindus and Sikhs of Afghanistan. I thought about the outcry over independent media in Afghanistan today when I read about journalists in Srinagar being thrashed while reporting on the muharram procession.

I knew about the outrage of the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan. When I travelled to Bamiyan valley I also saw the areas where communities of Hazaras had been massacred around the same time, with much less international comment. 

I had gone to live in Afghanistan in 2003. In 2002 I had marched in the streets of Delhi and organised meetings after the state-assisted massacres of Muslims in Gujarat. I would not have been working in Afghanistan had the Taliban still been there and I could see the young Afghans I worked with and met amazed at the opportunities.

They would show me their ID cards from the Taliban times, long bearded and morose, laughing at how much older they had looked then – but it also felt familiar, like the struggles of much of our region against femicide and infanticide, against horrific dowry deaths and religious discrimination, against the use of state power to brutal ends. It didn’t feel like another planet the way it seemed to do to some westerners. 

The truth is that long before the Americans abandoned Afghanistan, we in the region, had relinquished our claims to a shared kinship based on geography, history and culture, looking at the country as a mutation of our worst fears, and one can draw a line, perhaps not straight, but jagged, from there to what we see today. 

But now, perhaps, it is time. It is time we in the region not leave it to our governments, and to claim Afghanistan and Afghans as one of us.

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Aunohita Mojumdar is a Southasian journalist. She lived and worked in Kabul for 8 years.