AS news organisations report on the rapid territorial gains by the Taliban in Afghanistan, a lot of debate around the issue focuses on power politics and very little on the impact a Taliban win will have on the lives of the Afghans.
Just a few weeks ahead of President Biden’s announcement, confirming his predecessor’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, and then the dramatic, unannounced overnight pullout emptying the massive Bagram military base, I was watching a vlog.
It was by one of those vloggers who go travelling around the world on different airlines, rate and report on the carriers and the services they offer from check-in to inflight meals. Our particular vlogger happened to be in Kabul.
He reported he’d been invited to the Afghan capital by an airline to travel on an ‘all-woman crew’ return flight to the western city of Herat. Lo and behold, when he boarded the Boeing 737, a women cabin crew welcomed him aboard and not a single male crew member was present.
‘This means I am going to lose … everything my father and I and my whole family have worked for.’
The crew members the vlogger talked to belonged to different parts of the country and had taken up their profession over the past decade or so. Each said they loved their work and the travel opportunities and the independence it provided them.
Then the vlogger entered the flight deck and both the captain and the first officer were women. The captain was an experienced Ukrainian and her deputy a young Afghan. They both talked of their passion, flying, and during the more relaxed phases of the flight discussed various aspects of their job.
Being the proud father of two daughters myself, my eyes turned misty when the first officer told the vlogger that flying was all she ever wanted to do and getting to live her dream was great but what was even better was that ‘young Afghan girls can see if I can do it, so can they,’ a little before she executed a perfect touchdown at Kabul airport.
Earlier this week, I watched UK’s Channel 4 News TV interview another Afghan woman, this particular one ran an NGO for young girls’ education in Kandahar, who described the Doha talks as “selling us out ... that was ‘let us go out, let the elite and the posh people get out, let us sell the people of Afghanistan, the civilians of Afghanistan’ … for us there is no way out”.
“This means I am going to lose my … everything my father and I and my whole family have worked for, every girl has worked for, every person has worked for in the last 20 years. This means losing your houses, losing your dreams, your goals, your ambitions, your identity as Afghans. Everything.”
The brutal Channel 4 presenter, aware that the Taliban were already at the gates of Kandahar, from where the staggeringly articulate and inspirational young woman was answering his questions live, asked: “What are you going to do if there is a bang on the door?”
Her forlorn face answered the question better in the moment of silence that preceded her words. She heaved a huge sigh and said: “Pray. Pray, probably. It is going to be the last thing I am going to do but it is the only thing I can do. I don’t have anything else to do,” the presenter shifted awkwardly in his chair as he thanked the woman whose expression was no less than a stab in the heart.
So, yes while you read ‘analysis’ ie partisan accounts of who exactly is to blame for the Afghans’ dilemma today, spare a thought for the young airline pilot, for the equally brilliant young woman whose despair and desperation will haunt me for weeks on end. And countless others like them.
In pictures: The human cost of the Taliban's gains
Pakistan is concerned that it may be ‘scapegoated’ and left to shoulder the blame by itself, even isolated, for giving sanctuary to the Taliban leadership and fighters, as others, while they were being hunted down by US-led forces in Afghanistan. There is no escaping that blame.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The US forces arrived in Afghanistan to degrade and destroy Al Qaeda that had launched ‘spectacular’ terror attacks on the US mainland, striking at the corporate heart of the country and also at the core of its near-mythical, unchallenged military power.
The US spent a reported $1.5 trillion (I don’t know how many zeroes are in that, do you?) over the 20 years its forces were present on the ground and largely believes that Al Qaeda is no more the threat it once was.
The US hand was guided by its own security interests not concerns for the Afghan nation. It is that simple. No higher purpose, principles were involved. The Afghans were let down more than anyone else by their own elite, if you ask me.
Yes, Pakistan was duplicitous inasmuch as the Taliban were concerned owing to its own security concerns; the West was acting in self-interest too ie the security threat posed by the international terror group Al Qaeda even if it was born out of an earlier folly, the anti-Soviet ‘jihad’.
What about the billions poured by the West into the Afghan defence forces? Just weeks before the Taliban advance began, the number of Afghan troops was put at 300,000. From the evidence on the ground the real number was one-tenth of the claimed figure, if that. It seemed largely a ghost force.
Of course, the West has more or less walked away and the Afghan elite, that siphoned off funds meant for bolstering the defence forces and meaningful structural reform, will be on planes out of the country before the final humiliation inflicted by the Taliban. The rest have nowhere to go.
My thoughts are with those Afghans today. Particularly women, so many of whom are demonstrably much worthier in intellectual terms than their male compatriots whose material greed and lust for power has left their country at the mercy of an armed, intolerant and obscurantist militant group.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, August 15th, 2021