I know, I know. It’s the last thing you want to hear about. Twenty years of American carnage in Afghanistan was plenty for you, I’m sure, and there are so many other things to worry about in an America at the edge of… well, who knows what? But for me, it’s different. I went to Afghanistan in 2002, already angry about this country’s misbegotten war on that poor land, to offer what help I could to Afghan women. And little as I may have been able to do in those years, Afghanistan left a deep and lasting impression on me.
So, while this country has fled its shameful Afghan War, I, in some sense, am still there. That’s partly because I’ve kept in touch with Afghan women friends and colleagues, some living through the nightmare of the Taliban back again and others improbably here in America, confined in military barracks to await resettlement in the very country that so thoroughly wrecked their own. And after all these years, I’d at least like to offer some thoughts on the subject, starting with a little history that most Americans know nothing about.
So be patient with me. War is never over when it‘s over. And it would be wrong to simply leave Afghanistan and its people in the dust of our disastrous departure. For me, at least, some thoughts are in order.
A Little History
News about America’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan was swift, ugly, and then all over and largely forgotten. The news cycle moved on to the next sensation. But consider me behind the times. I’m still lost in remembrance of the years I spent in Afghanistan and the tales I was told of earlier days in a proud and peaceful land. Afghan history is so much longer and more complex than we know. But let me take you back for a moment to what may still prove to have been the last best days of Afghanistan.
Muhammad Zahir Shah, the final king of that country, ascended to the throne in 1933. He was only 19, but already planning Afghanistan’s future. He didn’t want the country to be communist — or capitalist. He didn’t want Afghanistan to become a servant of the Soviet Union or of any of the other large, overbearing countries in its vicinity. He wanted it to take its place in the world as a modern social democracy and so proposed a new constitution, an elected parliament, egalitarian civil rights for men and women alike, and universal suffrage to sustain just such a democratic state. He even enrolled Afghanistan in the international League of Nations.
British India, France, and Germany had already built and staffed modern-language high schools in Kabul, including one established in 1921 for girls. King Zahir Shah then built a modern university with faculties of medicine, law, science, and letters. After 1960, when the entire university became coeducational, American universities helped it establish yet more fields of study, including agriculture, education, and engineering. Photographs exist of its young students, women and men alike, clad in modern European garb, seated together on the campus lawn.
During the 1960s, Afghanistan became the most popular stop for European and American students traveling east along the world famous Hippie Trail. In southern Afghanistan, U.S. engineers and their families settled in to conduct an American aid project. Working with Afghans, they built dams and irrigation systems to bring the arid land of the South to life. Such developments were filmed in black and white and clipped into newsreels shown in American movie theaters, so that moviegoers could feel good about what their country was doing around the world.
Then, in 1973, while King Zahir Shah was on a trip to Italy, his cousin, brother-in-law, and former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, suddenly declared a new Republic of Afghanistan and named himself president, prime minister, foreign minister, and minister of defense. And so ended the Afghan monarchy and a 40-year-long peace in a remarkably progressive Afghanistan.
One coup begets another. Five years later, Daoud himself was shot and killed to launch the Saur (April) Revolution. He would be replaced by a newly minted communist leader, Noor Mohammad Taraki, the founder of the Marxist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Some of the party’s modern ideas, especially education for girls and women, had already been well established in the capital, but in the countryside they were met with violent opposition that split the party in two. A more conservative communist party, Parcham, arose to battle the revolutionary PDPA. Thousands of Afghans would be killed in the struggle. Exiled King Zahir Shah said sadly that his decision to send some outstanding young Afghan men to be educated in Moscow had been “a great mistake.”
But it was Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, who, as Chalmers Johnson revealed long ago, provoked the Soviet Union to send the Red Army in to clean up the mess. That was the first misstep in the USSR’s 10-year-long unwinnable war in Afghanistan against mujahideen guerillas, both local and foreign. By then, Washington had shifted its attention from irrigation to espionage, sabotage, and what was euphemistically termed “special interest.”
When an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Afghans had been killed and it appeared that the Russians were going to fight until the last Afghan was dead, CIA Director Stansfield Turner questioned America’s incitement of what had clearly become an apocalyptic war. He asked whether it was right to “use other peoples for the geopolitical interests of the United States?”
By the time Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a peace treaty with the Afghans in 1988 and the last Soviet soldiers fled the country in February 1989, some two million Afghans had been killed. And even then, the U.S. didn’t stop meddling in that country’s affairs, prompting yet more conflict among factions of the Afghan mujahideen. By the time the U.S. abandoned the country in 1992 after the Soviet Union had collapsed, the U.N. reported that nearly two million more Afghans had been killed and another 600,000 to two million maimed.
In that period, more than six million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran, becoming the world’s largest population of refugees from a single country. Another two million sought refuge in other countries, while two million more became internal refugees. The Afghan casualties of that period of seamless wars added up to about half the population of prewar Afghanistan, a country that, by the way, is about the size of Texas.
Only four years later, the Taliban (“students”) rose up from the south and, propelled by Pakistan, captured the capital, Kabul, proclaiming the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. A new, more primitive Afghanistan steeped in the Taliban’s hard-boiled brand of Deobandi Islamic fundamentalism would then be created.
Women were confined to their homes, girls kept from school. Zahir Shah, still in exile in Italy, must have regretted his second truly bad mistake as king: he had sent another group of young Afghan men to Egypt to study fundamentalist Islam. The graduates, hiding out in Pakistan during the Afghan war against the Soviets, had formed seven radical groups, seven militias, all supported by Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and — because America chose godliness over democracy — the U.S.A. It was then (and still remains) past time to raise Stansfield Turner’s question again: Was it ever right for Washington to “use other peoples for the geopolitical interests of the United States?”
A Personal Story
I opposed the American war in Afghanistan.
The assault upon America’s military-industrial-congressional complex that smashed the Pentagon, brought down New York’s twin towers, and aimed (via a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania) for the Capitol had not been launched by Afghans, but by suicidal Saudi Arabian hijackers carrying out the plan of their Saudi mastermind Osama bin Laden, who happened to be living in Afghanistan then. The Taliban government tried to negotiate with George W. Bush’s administration to bargain for time — perhaps to hand over bin Laden, or even to surrender themselves.
In that context, the hasty, knee-jerk vote of Congress, supposedly a “deliberative body,” to “authorize” military force seemed to me a reckless display of mindless, macho muscle-flexing by men who knew they would not be required to fight in the war they were about to bring upon this country and the innocent people of Afghanistan. Only Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California had the courage to vote against the mob. For her principled stand, she was reviled and threatened by Americans who did not hesitate to offer opportunities for heroism to other people’s children.
Initially, a trigger-happy administration in Washington didn’t even bomb bin Laden’s compound in rural Afghanistan. Instead, it bombed Kabul, among other places, until there was truly nothing left to bomb. President Bush proclaimed victory. Laura Bush delivered a radio address, declaring that America had liberated the women of Afghanistan almost as if they had thrown off their burqas and become “free.” For his part, Bush paid off a posse of Afghan strongmen to search for bin Laden — predictably they didn’t find him — while he himself, along with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warmed up for yet another prefabricated war, this time against Iraq.
I arrived in Kabul in early 2002 after the bombing had stopped, as a volunteer with a small NGO run by and for women. From my frigid room on the second floor of what had once been a house, I looked down upon a bungalow next door: the windows still painted white to prevent people from staring at the women confined there and to prevent the women from looking out. It seemed, whatever Laura Bush might have imagined, that they had not been set free by America’s bombs.
In fact, it took both time and courage for women in the capital and other Afghan urban centers to find one another and begin to make common cause. From 2002, I worked with some of those women for years, not so much teaching or leading them, as merely answering questions, offering friendship and assistance as they worked together to make their own way out of those confining burqas and into a new world of greater confidence.
They chose their own projects, their own strategies, their own compatriots. Then they entered public life, denouncing violence against women, backing women candidates for the new legislature, and publicizing their work. They developed ways to help widows, child brides, new mothers, rape victims, battered women, incarcerated women, and the raft of girls who had tried and failed to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire.
“Night Letters,” as they were known, were nailed to the gates of our office compound, threatening us with death and worse. But the women, many of them very young, tore those letters up and just kept on working. They worked in hospitals, courts, jails, schools, and government ministries. They supported women and girls who were becoming athletes, musicians, and singers, as well as reporters for newspapers, radio stations, and TV. With the support of fathers, brothers, and husbands, women and girls, in the cities at least, were making the world anew. At the same time, the so-called International Community, led by the United States, carried its war, and its bombs and Hellfire missiles, into the heartland of the country and the strongholds of the Taliban.
Among an older generation of urban women were the well-educated former teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, judges, and others from that older, better time, capable of helping rebuild a peaceful and improved society. With the support of international NGOs, urban Afghan women, young and old, set out to do just that, although many would be murdered along the way. Still, the success of their work could be seen — until last August — in a new post-Taliban generation: the young women and girls who walked fearlessly to work or school dressed in clothes of their own devising, long loose shirts, pants, and bright headscarves, the uniform of a brave new world.
But that new world had not reached the 70% of the country that remained “rural.” As Anand Gopal recently reported movingly in the New Yorker magazine, Afghanistan’s “other women” living in the countryside had not been visited by progress or peace. They had instead been plagued by the assaults of foreign forces, of American-trained Afghan soldiers, and of murderous American “air support.” If the lives of rural women as the chattel of the Taliban were grim, they were made much worse by American forces carrying out their own ill-conceived sense of duty.
And now, the Taliban has predictably come again for the women of the cities. None who survived Taliban rule had forgotten what life was like then. Not after spending five years confined to the house, venturing out only with a male keeper, half-blinded by a wretched burqa, fearful of the punitive squads of men from the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice who patrolled the streets, bearing their corrective whips.
Those were the same sorts of whips today’s Taliban were seen using again in August on the women of Kabul. That’s when they changed the name of Afghanistan’s Ministry for Women’s Affairs back to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Suddenly, we were once again back in the previous century.
In mid-August, women activists in Kabul fortunate enough to have passports checked their documents, packed essentials, and made their way carefully to that city’s airport. They came with colleagues, husbands, children, babies, and parents, with families large and small. Some — the lucky ones — waited at the airport for hours. Many more waited for days. Many were turned away for lack of “papers.” One of my friends and her family passed the documents test, waited two or three days inside the airport, and then boarded a plane already inexplicably crowded with Pakistanis.
Friends who made it onto flights to the U.S. now speak of grief, terror, exhaustion, impatience, fear, chaos, hope, gratitude, and sorrow. All hearts are broken. One is a lawyer I met almost 20 years ago when, as a teenager, she came to work at a German-sponsored women’s organization. She rose over the years to lead the office, then left it for law school and a new role as an advocate for women in the courts. Now, she’s confined with her husband and sons, along with 13,000 other Afghans, at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Another friend, a founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, once summoned to Washington to meet Hillary Clinton, among others, is now detained at Fort McCoy with nine members of her family, including a brother and a sister confined to wheelchairs by debilitating afflictions that seem to have no English name.
Both of these friends, as English speakers and leaders, have been called upon to attend management meetings at Fort McCoy to help with tough questions like: “What do Afghan people eat?” Meanwhile, thousands of “rescued” Afghans, half of them children, are daily standing in very long lines, waiting for food they hope they might recognize.
My two friends are exhausted, but they don’t complain. They say that the officers there do listen, that the food does look a little more familiar, and that the long lines move a little faster. They also speak of other colleagues left behind: women and their families who couldn’t get inside Kabul airport, as well as others who did get in but were never able to board a plane, or made it onto a plane only to be thrown off again. My friends say sadly, “We are the lucky ones.” But no one knows when they will be released from Fort McCoy or where they will be sent.
In the meantime, the phone is their lifeline (and mine, too). It’s also a lifeline to Afghanistan where, for instance, I often talk to my wonderful friend Mahbouba Seraj, about whom I’ve written for TomDispatch before. She has long been an American citizen. Her prominent family fled the murderous Communist regime when she was a girl, but she’s lived and worked in both countries all her life. Now, she’s chosen to remain in Kabul. A founder of the Afghan Women’s Network, she now cares for about 40 women who have sought refuge in its Women’s Shelter.
Mahbouba Seraj is passionate about her homeland and scornful of the Big Men, past and present, foreign and domestic, who choose to inflict their second-hand ideas by force. This time around, the Taliban first stole her vehicles, then came late at night demanding to see the women in the shelter. She spoke to them firmly about the importance of good Afghan manners, such as respect for the privacy of women and warned that, if they carried on as they were doing, no one in Kabul would have any respect for them. Then she invited them to call at her office in the morning to discuss their business, as is the Afghan custom, over a cup of tea. They left and some days later, miraculously enough, they returned her vehicles.
Outspoken and brave as she is, Mahbouba Seraj is sought after by visiting journalists. Frontline broadcast a riveting account in mid-October of the abrupt American exodus from Afghanistan. It included two interviews with Seraj, identified correctly as “one of the most influential women in Afghanistan.” She surprises the reporter — himself an Afghan-American — by saying that she wants to “really talk” with some Taliban leaders. A second interview is interrupted by a woman seeking Seraj’s help. She fears the Taliban may have taken her daughter. Seraj sends her gently home, saying there’s nothing she can do. The reporter asks: “Can’t you protect her?”
“No,” Seraj says, “I cannot protect any woman.” The stunned reporter persists: Can’t she call someone? She replies that, of course, she used to be able to call influential people, mentioning men in the offices of past Afghan presidents, but “now there is no one to call.” At the moment, though the Taliban have indeed taken control of Kabul, there simply is no real government. There is, in fact, no indication that the Taliban will be able to construct such a thing as a government, and certainly not a government that represents the people.
No one is in charge of anything really. There’s no hierarchy among the Taliban, and the American habit of naming certain Talibs as Number 1 and Number 2 doesn’t make it so. Any member of the Taliban or the rival Haqqani Network seen one day as Number 1 may never be seen again. And yet here they are, after 20 years of America’s Afghanistan, already not one but two rival hyper-religious and violent factions, the Haqqani Network aligned with Pakistan and the Taliban with their god.
Who actually won the war is already a matter of dispute.
The Frontline reporter seemed baffled by the vehemence of Mahbouba Seraj. Then, referring to her inability to save the lost daughter, he asked, “Does this make you sad?” She took a breath, as I know she does when she finds an interlocutor is missing her point. Then she replied fiercely, “No, it makes me angry. This is no time to be sad. Now is the time to be angry.”
I’m thousands of miles away in a kind of safety Mahbouba Seraj has repudiated. But I’m angry, too. Especially because, for decades, now, I’ve seen, sometimes first-hand, the damage done by America’s toxic militarism — not only to the Afghan people but to our own misguided soldiers as well. The only “winners” in the long Afghan war are the members of America’s military-industrial-congressional complex, who continue to be funded as if they were the ultimate winners of everything. PolitiFact reports that the Pentagon has handed more than $100 billion to military contractors alone, while the generals who ran our losing wars join corporate boards of military industries, give remarkably well-paid speeches, and “consult.” So many thousands of Afghan civilians and American and allied soldiers died for that.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.