Narges and Hasina – not their real names – are 15-year-old best friends I met recently in Kabul. Narges told me about her dreams of studying for a degree in maths, and Hasina gave me a painting of a girl gazing into the faint purple of a dawn sky, a shooting star streaming over her head. They had the giggly, shy enthusiasm of teenagers with their life opening up ahead of them. But they also have relatives living in areas that recently fell under Taliban control. And as I left their aunt asked me in a low voice: “So what do you think – is Kabul at risk?
The militants have swept across Afghanistan in recent weeks, seizing territory including places that were once anti-Taliban strongholds, and besieging major cities. In areas they control, Taliban commanders are already barring girls from attending school. Women are flogged for “adultery”, a sweeping label that covers all sex outside marriage, including rape. Should they try to defend themselves in a Taliban court, a judge told the Observer, their testimony is worth only half that of a man.
I thought of Narges and Hasina when I read a prominent American academic describing the departure of foreign troops amid the Taliban’s lightning advances as a “chance [for Afghans] to find a long-term stability of their own”. I thought of them again, and of Afghan friends, when Joe Biden shrugged off questions about Afghanistan’s future, ahead of the day his own officials had said the last US troops would leave. “I want to talk about happy things, man,” he said irritably to the journalists.
Afghans too would like to talk about “happy things”. For many, particularly educated professional women with an extremist militant group on their doorstep, that is all but impossible. There is a callousness about these discussions of Afghanistan, and its future, that is deeply disturbing. It is treated as an abstract geopolitical problem, to be solved or perhaps shelved, not a country of 38 million people, with lives, loved ones and dreams, wondering desperately about their future.
Criticising the nature and timing of the US military departure from Afghanistan is often equated with advocating for a permanent foreign presence, or ignoring a disturbing track record of death, abuses and festering corruption left by western troops. But you can spend years being deeply critical of how a war is conducted – I’ve reported on abuse and failings for over a decade now – and still feel that the way it is being ended is reckless and cruel.
This race for the exit is likely to have disastrous human fallout even beyond any human rights abuses under the Taliban, with the resurgence of militias and increased violence almost inevitably meaning more civilians killed and injured, and aid funding collapsing amid a catastrophic drought. It may well also prove to be irresponsible from a security perspective. It is unclear if the Taliban has kept a promise to sever ties with al-Qaida , and Islamic State’s Afghanistan franchise is thriving. The chaos of the brutal civil war that followed the retreat of the Soviet Union helped give birth to the Taliban, who offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.
Many of the generals and politicians who have run the Afghan war since 2001 showed a startling disregard for the lessons of history, buoyed up perhaps by a confidence in American exceptionalism. This was a campaign sold on the promise of justice for the 9/11 attacks on America, but fought as a mission of vengeance. The rapidly defeated Taliban sued for peace and wanted to negotiate two decades ago, when it had been toppled by US special forces in alliance with its old enemies. It was ignored by an American establishment that thought it could easily rebuild a country in its own image, a hubris fuelled perhaps by America’s wealth relative to Afghanistan’s poverty – who doesn’t want to better their children’s lives? – and by the awesome power of its military force, deployed against a rag-tag guerrilla army.
I first came to Afghanistan in 2009, when President Obama’s troop surge was underway, and I spent much of my time pushing against an official delusion that things were going well in security terms. Generals and diplomats had their catchphrases. “The Taliban are losing their momentum”, they would tell us at briefings, as thousands of new forces flew into and around Afghanistan. They batted away our questions about why a diminishing threat needed an expanding force to counter it.
Biden’s team originally chose 4 July, one of America’s biggest national holidays, as the day for the country’s last troops to leave. It was a baffling choice, suggesting that what much of the world sees as a humiliating retreat, they considered a victory of sorts (although as the Taliban advance gathered speed, the administration backed away from this date, and the last troops will now be out in August).
Some who back Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan as fast as logistically possible argue that there are many places in the world where women or minorities suffer treatment as brutal, perhaps more brutal, than what Afghans face under the Taliban. America does not intervene there. But that is to ignore the 20 years that have taken Afghanistan to this point. The country America and its allies are leaving is one they have shaped.
Corruption that has festered throughout the system has lined Afghan and western pockets. Warlords who originally helped the US oust the Taliban were cemented in power and past abuses ignored. Americans relied on and promoted younger commanders with track records of torture and extrajudicial killing, when they considered them effective. The warnings of human rights groups, that this violence just fuelled a cycle of civil war, were largely brushed aside.
But in these two decades there has also been relative peace and stability in Kabul and other major cities, and a generation has grown up, educated themselves, started families, created businesses, and fought for better lives. Nearly two-thirds of Afghans are aged under 25, so they never experienced, or can’t remember, the years when the Taliban’s extremist ideology controlled the whole country.
A recent survey of Afghan women in rural areas challenged the idea that the work of feminist activists fighting for education, freedom of movement and other rights are an isolated elite; these are goals shared with their sisters in even the most conservative parts of the countryside. As the Taliban closes in, those of us in other countries who support their struggle, must find ways to continue to support Afghan women. There are still opportunities if the international community cares enough to use its diplomatic capital on this.
We need to make sure we continue funding services for, and activism by, women, listening to their voices, and agreeing that whatever territory they may take no government that treats women and girls as the Taliban continues to will ever enjoy international legitimacy.
Emma Graham-Harrison, Journalist.
This article was originally published on The Guardian. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.