Saddened but not surprised

By Maya Evans

As someone who has visited Afghanistan ten times over the last ten years, I’m surprised that the world is so surprised by what is happening.

For over a decade I have been giving talks, writing articles and running campaigns about Afghanistan. When I tell people about my work, the most common response would be: “Is there still war in Afghanistan? I thought it was over.”

Even without four decades of war, Afghanistan is a desperately poor country which is barely coping, grinding along on a hand to mouth subsistence existence. The cultural norm is NOT to make long term plans. It’s an Afghan joke to say people plan their weddings the day before. Underlining that joke is the sombre awareness which every Afghan carries every day when leaving the house: they do so with the grim expectation that they may not return.

Being in Afghanistan is intense on every level. Emotionally you love and care for friends with an understanding that life is precarious and every single one of them has experienced levels of tragedy unimaginable. Every Afghan has lost a family member to war, every Afghan has a horrifying story, every Afghan has witnessed brutal violence, every Afghan will have a family member who has fled the country – every Afghan has had enough and wants out. The feeling of your own helplessness to help, as well as the feeling of hopelessness of your friends is a hard partnership to mentally process.

The desperate and saddening scenes from Kabul airport are not uncommon. I’ve seen and felt the levels of that desperation in Kabul refugee camps. The kids will cling to outside visitors, sensing that they are someone who has the potential of lifting them out of one of the worst places in the world.

Afghan refugee camps are some of the most appalling, exacerbated by the extreme poverty, lack of basic infrastructure and a completely failed aid system. Kabul is the only major city in the world to still have an open sewer; conditions in refugee camps are anything but sanitary. I regularly visited the Charman-i Barbak camp in Kabul. The stench of raw sewage was disabling. At present there are at least 4 million internally displaced within Afghanistan. Over the last 20 years, Afghans have been the second biggest group of refugees within Europe. The crisis will inevitably get worse.

During the last few weeks, I have thought about the people I have met and interviewed, the ordinary women who were often illiterate, widowed, single mothers with children who are working on the streets. I think about Mariam, mother of street kid Hamza, widowed with six children after her husband was killed in a suicide bomb attack on a mosque. He had been standing outside selling oranges from a cart when a bomb exploded. She now lives with her six children under a piece of tarpaulin fastened to the side of a dilapidated house.

Six years ago, she told me her story while quietly weeping under a burqa, a dress code which was forced upon her by male members of her family. At the time her 10-year-old son was the main breadwinner of the family, working the streets of Kabul with his weighing scales.

The current mainstream narrative describes Afghan women since the 2001 invasion as ‘liberated’. Indeed, it was no longer law for women to wear the burqa, but for many, like Mariam, the choice to wear a burqa was not an option.

A year later I saw Hamza again, he had spent the best part of nine months in a Madrassa just outside Mazar-i Sharif. His Talib uncle had made him attend. Apparently this particular school focused on Jihad – Holy War. His spark had faded a little. I asked him about the school, he just shrugged his small shoulders, looked down and said “fine”.

I think about an elder charismatic woman Shakira, head of the seamstress co-op which was operating out of a side room at the peace centre. She was forever altering my clothing, and I would commission her to dress me in garments which would help me ‘fit in’. She would measure me up and laugh at my keenness to look more Afghan. An open and honest woman, she would come into the peace centre and show us bruises sustained from her husband.

During endless glasses of green tea around a woodburning stove, all the seamstresses spoke of domestic violence; for them it was the status quo. The daily stress they felt would exhibit itself in depression, headaches, body aches – as a result, many of them were taking some sort of painkiller or anti-depressant, desperate to block out the violence of everyday life.

The 2009 Elimination Against Violence to Women Law was never properly implemented, and for a government serious about women’s rights, it was strange to even consider Article 26, which would have forbidden members of the family from testifying against perpetrators of domestic violence. For these ordinary Afghan women, illiterate and poor, it was hard to see what 20 years of foreign occupation had done for them. Sadly, for the majority of women, mainly living in the rural provinces, or poverty within Kabul, their lives saw little to no improvements. In some way life was more difficult, as they also had to contend with war.

Occasionally we would visit professional women who were lucky enough to become academics, doctors, lawyers. They were always incredible individuals, very smart and super-articulate. Their secured compounds were like another world; granite flooring, fine Persian rugs, leather sofas, servants bringing snacks and green tea. It was a glimpse into another world which seemed a million miles away from refugee camps which were sometimes just round the corner.

They were generally fortunate enough to come from families who could afford to educate them, who were progressive enough to allow them to attend school, and then take up work. In the main, theses women were extremely grateful for foreign occupation; their lives had noticeably improved. These are often the women who are now appearing on TV news channels, the women who will likely, and understandably, be prioritised for evacuation.

The parliamentary debate seemed to have key themes, one of them being that the invasion and occupation were not a waste of time, the lives of 457 British service personnel were not given in vain – understandably politicians were keen to acknowledge the lives of brave soldiers who put their lives on the line for what they were told was the defence of their country. Without a doubt, British service personnel have shown bravery and honour. It is in no way a reflection on them that the war was an utter failure. We should feel angry that they were lied to by politicians and military generals. 

Most British politicians insist the invasion of Afghanistan was justified, as it “stopped Al Qaeda from committing acts of terrorism on the streets of Britain”. Firstly, it took ten years to capture Bin Laden – does that mean that after he was captured and assassinated in May 2011 the streets of Britain were then safer? And what of our streets during the ten years he was still at large?

Secondly, and generally always glossed over, Bin Laden was a Saudi Prince, while of the 9/11 hijackers, 15 out of the 19 were from Saudi Arabia – if any country were a “breeding ground for terrorists” surely it is Saudi Arabia? However, Britain continues to sell millions of pounds worth of weapons to an authoritarian, women-oppressing, journalist-murdering, Islamically conservative country, while our politicians and members of our royal family regularly make state visits and smile cheerfully with their ruling elite.

It’s always worth noting that not even one of the 9/11 hijackers were Afghan or members of the Taliban. And why were Al Qaeda even in Afghanistan? International Jihadists such as Bin Laden had answered the call of the Mujaheddin who were fighting the ‘godless Soviets’ in a ten-year war which Gorbachev later described as “the war which broke the Soviet Union”. Some Al Qaeda operatives even claim that they were armed and trained by the CIA who, in the 1980s, were fighting a proxy war against Communist Russia.

It’s true that the Taliban provided hospitality to Al Qaeda out of a sense of ‘payback’; however, they were willing to negotiate with the US and hand Bin Laden over weeks after 9/11, if the US provided evidence of his involvement. The US refused to pursue the route of diplomacy, and instead, unknowingly, committed themselves to the longest war in their history. Some political analysists assert that Afghanistan was always a ‘stepping stone’ into the real target – Iraq and its oil fields. Afghanistan was supposed to be a lightning war which cemented a narrative which justified a global ‘war on terror’.  And as the ironic yet repetitive ‘cycle of violence’ comes full circle again, the Taliban are now ‘in talks’ with Russia, who bizarrely may become an ally or at least a key trading partner.

Afghans consider themselves ‘fighters’, mainly due to the frequency of having to fend off invaders wanting to control the most central point of Asia, strategically a buffer zone, as well as a launch pad to invade other Asian countries. In fact Britain alone has invaded Afghanistan four times in the last 200 years.

Bagram, now famed for being a notorious US prison camp, was once a key trading post along the Silk Road with many found artifacts stretching back thousands of years and ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. Every invader leaves a remnant. Russian tanks still litter the landscape, a reminder that the Soviets also fled quickly, exhausted and truly beaten.

At this stage, the international concern for Afghan women feels disingenuous. Where was the concern during the two years of peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, when the final agreement mentioned nothing about safeguarding the rights of women? Where was the concern to ensure women were proportionately represented at every round of talks? The concern was not there. ‘Liberating the Afghan woman’ was a key motivator for invading 20 years ago, yet it was barely an afterthought at the peace talks, while the US and NATO countries remained mute on the matter.

An accepted explanation for the current chaos in Afghanistan is to blame President Biden and his exit strategy. It would be more accurate to blame Vice President Biden for his endorsement of the US drone programme under President Obama. It hasn’t been the last month which has been the disaster: it’s been the last 20 years. How can anyone seriously expect to win a nation after two decades of relentless aerial bombings, the deliberate targeting of wedding parties and funerals, drone strikes, detention and torture, night raids, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, the Nangarhar ‘Mother of all bombs’? A regular comment I heard during trips to Afghanistan was, “The US military are the number one recruitment agency for the Taliban”.

Vivid footage of young Afghan men crammed on US Humvees brandishing AK47s looted from abandoned US bases or Afghan Army stores have flooded our screens. I objectively look at the smirking faces of men in their 20’s; they’re wearing traditional Pashtun clothing coupled with dark shades and sandals. They look immature, and in a strange way, innocent. With 50% of the country now under the age of 18, I doubt many of them have a memory of life under the Taliban 20 years ago. Why are these young people who have lived under 20 years of a $143bn reconstruction project still drawn to join the Taliban – what has the $2.26tn spent on ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and the strategy to ‘win hearts and minds’ done to these men?

Who the Taliban are at this stage is somewhat unclear. Some will be motivated by a misogynistic extremist interpretation of Islam, others would have experienced a loved one killed by foreign occupiers and want to get rid of outside military, and see the Taliban as a national resistance movement. Some will identify with IS/Daesh, while others, in the same way that ‘gang mentality’ or even the military works, signed up because that’s what their friends were doing, and there was little else going on.

The Taliban in Doha are saying all the right things: “Women can still access education, women are our sisters, they can participate in elections.” On the ground it’s a different story with reports of Taliban generals already using force and violence, especially against the Hazara ethnic minority. My friends tell me house to house searches have started in Kabul; apparently the peace centre my friends ran peace projects from is on their radar and they are looking for paperwork.

Certainly, the upper echelons of the Taliban have made great efforts to improve their communication messaging, not wanting to be a pariah state. They have already been in talks with China about mining contracts. It is likely the Taliban will want to assume a position similar to Saudi Arabia – an influential and respected global player which is considered a ‘friend’ of the West, with an international acceptance of its conservative interpretation of Islam.

Already there are news reports claiming that the Taliban’s income has been gained via the production of opium. To what extent that is accurate remains to be seen; however, one thing is for certain, opium is the thing we should all fear over international terrorism. Already in towns such as Hastings, Blackpool and Norwich, the home office has funded a multi-million-pound scheme ‘Project Adder’, to counter the surge of crack and heroin on British streets. Without a doubt, the high-quality cheap opium flooding this country will be from Afghanistan.

Britain has a direct line of responsibility over the recent quadrupled production of opium. Firstly because, at the 2001 Bonn Conference, Britain was put in charge of counter- narcotics in Afghanistan, and secondly, a huge proportion of opium production takes place in Helmand province, the area Britain was in charge of. Today our politicians talk about the biggest threat coming out of Afghanistan being terrorism, when in reality, it’s heroin.

I was not especially surprised by the speed of the Taliban takeover in the last few weeks. For years there have been shadow Taliban governances in many provinces. Over the last two years of peace talks, the Taliban have been inching power across the country, knowing full well they completely controlled the talks and a ceasefire on civilian targets was not necessary. As 20-year-old Kabul resident Imsha said in February 2019: “I don’t think the negotiations are for peace. We’ve had them in the past and they didn’t lead to peace. One sign is that when negotiations are going on people are still being killed. If they’re serious about peace, then they should stop the killings.”

The Taliban rapid takeover is a reflection of how embedded they are within Afghanistan, as well as being a reflection of corruption and incompetence of the Afghan ‘puppet’ Government. A few years back I was in Kabul during one of their elections – many of my friends were not going to vote as they felt there was no difference between corrupt politicians. 25-year-old Zainab commented in 2018: “I don’t vote because I understand that it is America who will choose our president.”

So, is it any surprise the government fell so quickly? The 2001 Afghan Government was hand-picked by the US, with Hamid Karzai being deemed to have all the right credentials – part of the Afghan elite, Pashtun, an influential family and moreover, willing to work with the US. It was considered perfectly acceptable to invite individuals such as General Dostum to be part of the government, an Uzbeki warlord who is infamous for the massacre of Hazara people during the civil war. The 2001 US-installed Afghan government was the equivalent of overthrowing the government of Italy and appointing the Mafia.

The surrender of the Afghan Defence Security was also predictable. Due to government corruption, much of the army were waiting to be paid. Training and equipment were often inadequate, and moreover, the army and police were drawn up along ethnic lines, recruiting mainly from the Hazara, Tajik and Uzbeks communities – deepening and cementing the ethnic division between those minorities and that of the Pashtun ethnic majority, who also make up most of the Taliban. The foreign occupiers ignored centuries of ethnic division. There was no strategy to tackle this division; instead it was exacerbated.

The last time I visited Afghanistan was in 2019. I left the country thinking, “How can it get any worse for this poor country which has the misfortune of perpetually being invaded?”

Driving through Kabul, it is commonplace to see refugee camps every few blocks, large groups of men huddled under bridges lost to opium, street kids at every corner trying to sell you something, dry rivers which were once a key source of food for local residents, water now a scarce commodity due to climate change and the failing snows, plus the extra drain on water supplies owing to the irrigation of opium and the intensive water requirement for copper extraction.

Seeing the news unfold over the last few weeks has been saddening but not surprising. As a regular visitor I always embedded myself into working class communities. I have witnessed public floggings carried out by the police, brutal fights breaking out in the street. I have heard nearby bomb explosions. I’ve seen deep desperation in refugee camps. I’ve held friends as they weep in desperation of the situation. A cancelled meeting meant I missed a mass shooting in a restaurant whereby everyone was killed.

Upon returning from visits, I have always been deeply disturbed by what I’ve seen and the stories I have heard.

If the world is shocked by the last week of news footage coming out of Afghanistan, taking a more detailed look will leave people even more horrified at the reality of the bigger distressing story. The fear of the Taliban is real, the unknown and uncertainty are harrowing. The situation is dangerous for all who worked with foreigners, but it’s also unsafe for millions of other people who won’t be lucky enough to be airlifted out.

Every Hazara in Afghanistan faces persecution. All women are in danger. Being in a refugee camp is a death sentence. Reparations are now the debt which the US and NATO countries must pay to Afghanistan. Those reparations should come in the form of things like landmine clearance – there are an estimate 10 million landmines.

Iodine is needed for the 55% of children who are malnourished and experiencing stunted growth; immediate humanitarian relief to the 4 million plus internally displaced refugees; rehab centres for the million opium addicts.  

Reforesting, agricultural replanting, repairs to the irrigation system, clean water, healthcare… Since 2001, the UK government has spent around £27.7 billion on military operations in Afghanistan. Over the same period, it has spent approximately £3.8 billion in aid. Imagine what the country would be like had those spending budgets been flipped.

As many of us knew 20 years ago, war and violence will not work. I hope decision makers will finally accept that humanity is the way forward.

Maya Evans has been an international peace activist for the last ten years, visiting Kabul and working with youth activists. In 2005 she was the first person to be criminalised under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act for a peaceful protest which remembered the Iraq war dead by reading aloud the names of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians who had been killed in the ongoing conflict. Maya is now the Hastings Borough Council Cabinet lead member for Environment and Climate Change Strategy.

Image: Street kids and an old man, courtesy of author.

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