On the other Afghanistan – Anand Gopal in The New Yorker:
‘Late one afternoon this past August, Shakira heard banging on her front gate. In the Sangin Valley, which is in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, women must not be seen by men who aren’t related to them, and so her nineteen-year-old son, Ahmed, went to the gate. Outside were two men in bandoliers and black turbans, carrying rifles. They were members of the Taliban, who were waging an offensive to wrest the countryside back from the Afghan National Army. One of the men warned, “If you don’t leave immediately, everyone is going to die.” Shakira, who is in her early forties, corralled her family: her husband, an opium merchant, who was fast asleep, having succumbed to the temptations of his product, and her eight children, including her oldest, twenty-year-old Nilofar—as old as the war itself—whom Shakira called her “deputy,” because she helped care for the younger ones. The family crossed an old footbridge spanning a canal, then snaked their way through reeds and irregular plots of beans and onions, past dark and vacant houses. Their neighbors had been warned, too, and, except for wandering chickens and orphaned cattle, the village was empty.’
‘The longest war in American history ended on August 15th, when the Taliban captured Kabul without firing a shot. Bearded, scraggly men with black turbans took control of the Presidential palace, and around the capital the austere white flags of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan went up. Panic ensued. Some women burned their school records and went into hiding, fearing a return to the nineteen-nineties, when the Taliban forbade them to venture out alone and banned girls’ education. For Americans, the very real possibility that the gains of the past two decades might be erased appeared to pose a dreadful choice: recommit to seemingly endless war, or abandon Afghan women.
This summer, I travelled to rural Afghanistan to meet women who were already living under the Taliban, to listen to what they thought about this looming dilemma. More than seventy per cent of Afghans do not live in cities, and in the past decade the insurgent group had swallowed large swaths of the countryside. Unlike in relatively liberal Kabul, visiting women in these hinterlands is not easy: even without Taliban rule, women traditionally do not speak to unrelated men. Public and private worlds are sharply divided, and when a woman leaves her home she maintains a cocoon of seclusion through the burqa, which predates the Taliban by centuries. Girls essentially disappear into their homes at puberty, emerging only as grandmothers, if ever. It was through grandmothers—finding each by referral, and speaking to many without seeing their faces—that I was able to meet dozens of women, of all ages. Many were living in desert tents or hollowed-out storefronts, like Shakira; when the Taliban came across her family hiding at the market, the fighters advised them and others not to return home until someone could sweep for mines. I first encountered her in a safe house in Helmand. “I’ve never met a foreigner before,” she said shyly. “Well, a foreigner without a gun.” Shakira has a knack for finding humor in pathos, and in the sheer absurdity of the men in her life: in the nineties, the Taliban had offered to supply electricity to the village, and the local graybeards had initially refused, fearing black magic. “Of course, we women knew electricity was fine,” she said, chuckling.’
‘In 1979, when Shakira was an infant, Communists seized power in Kabul and tried to launch a female-literacy program in Helmand—a province the size of West Virginia, with few girls’ schools. Tribal elders and landlords refused. In the villagers’ retelling, the traditional way of life in Sangin was smashed overnight, because outsiders insisted on bringing women’s rights to the valley. “Our culture could not accept sending their girls outside to school,” Shakira recalled. “It was this way before my father’s time, before my grandfather’s time.” When the authorities began forcing girls to attend classes at gunpoint, a rebellion erupted, led by armed men calling themselves the mujahideen. In their first operation, they kidnapped all the schoolteachers in the valley, many of whom supported girls’ education, and slit their throats. The next day, the government arrested tribal elders and landlords on the suspicion that they were bankrolling the mujahideen. These community leaders were never seen again.’
‘In 1989, the Soviets withdrew in defeat, but Shakira continued to hear the pounding of mortars outside the house’s mud walls. Competing mujahideen factions were now trying to carve up the country for themselves. Villages like Pan Killay were lucrative targets: there were farmers to tax, rusted Soviet tanks to salvage, opium to export. Pazaro, a woman from a nearby village, recalled, “We didn’t have a single night of peace. Our terror had a name, and it was Amir Dado.”’
‘The first time Shakira saw Dado, through the judas of her parents’ front gate, he was in a pickup truck, trailed by a dozen armed men, parading through the village “as if he were the President.” Dado, a wealthy fruit vender turned mujahideen commander, with a jet-black beard and a prodigious belly, had begun attacking rival strongmen even before the Soviets’ defeat. He hailed from the upper Sangin Valley, where his tribe, the Alikozais, had held vast feudal plantations for centuries. The lower valley was the home of the Ishaqzais, the poor tribe to which Shakira belonged. Shakira watched as Dado’s men went from door to door, demanding a “tax” and searching homes. A few weeks later, the gunmen returned, ransacking her family’s living room while she cowered in a corner. Never before had strangers violated the sanctity of her home, and she felt as if she’d been stripped naked and thrown into the street.
By the early nineties, the Communist government of Afghanistan, now bereft of Soviet support, was crumbling. In 1992, Lashkar Gah fell to a faction of mujahideen. Shakira had an uncle living there, a Communist with little time for the mosque and a weakness for Pashtun tunes. He’d recently married a young woman, Sana, who’d escaped a forced betrothal to a man four times her age. The pair had started a new life in Little Moscow, a Lashkar Gah neighborhood that Sana called “the land where women have freedom”—but, when the mujahideen took over, they were forced to flee to Pan Killay.
Shakira was tending the cows one evening when Dado’s men surrounded her with guns. “Where’s your uncle?” one of them shouted. The fighters stormed into the house—followed by Sana’s spurned fiancé. “She’s the one!” he said. The gunmen dragged Sana away. When Shakira’s other uncles tried to intervene, they were arrested. The next day, Sana’s husband turned himself in to Dado’s forces, begging to be taken in her place. Both were sent to the strongman’s religious court and sentenced to death.’
‘The family, penned between Amir Dado to the north and the Ninety-third Division to the south, was growing desperate. Then one afternoon, when Shakira was sixteen, she heard shouts from the street: “The Taliban are here!” She saw a convoy of white Toyota Hiluxes filled with black-turbanned fighters carrying white flags. Shakira hadn’t ever heard of the Taliban, but her father explained that its members were much like the poor religious students she’d seen all her life begging for alms. Many had fought under the mujahideen’s banner but quit after the Soviets’ withdrawal; now, they said, they were remobilizing to put an end to the tumult. In short order, they had stormed the Gereshk bridge, dismantling the Ninety-third Division, and volunteers had flocked to join them as they’d descended on Sangin. Her brother came home reporting that the Taliban had also overrun Dado’s positions. The warlord had abandoned his men and fled to Pakistan. “He’s gone,” Shakira’s brother kept saying. “He really is.” The Taliban soon dissolved Dado’s religious court—freeing Sana and her husband, who were awaiting execution—and eliminated the checkpoints. After fifteen years, the Sangin Valley was finally at peace.
When I asked Shakira and other women from the valley to reflect on Taliban rule, they were unwilling to judge the movement against some universal standard—only against what had come before. “They were softer,” Pazaro, the woman who lived in a neighboring village, said. “They were dealing with us respectfully.” The women described their lives under the Taliban as identical to their lives under Dado and the mujahideen—minus the strangers barging through the doors at night, the deadly checkpoints.’
‘The U.S. had swiftly toppled the Taliban following its invasion, installing in Kabul the government of Hamid Karzai. Dado, who had befriended American Special Forces, became the chief of intelligence for Helmand Province. One of his brothers was the governor of the Sangin district, and another brother became Sangin’s chief of police. In Helmand, the first year of the American occupation had been peaceful, and the fields once again burst with poppies. Shakira now had two small children, Nilofar and Ahmed. Her husband had returned from Pakistan and found work ferrying bags of opium resin to the Sangin market. But now, with Dado back in charge—rescued from exile by the Americans—life regressed to the days of civil war.
Nearly every person Shakira knew had a story about Dado. Once, his fighters demanded that two young men either pay a tax or join his private militia, which he maintained despite holding his official post. When they refused, his fighters beat them to death, stringing their bodies up from a tree. A villager recalled, “We went to cut them down, and they had been sliced open, their stomachs coming out.” In another village, Dado’s forces went from house to house, executing people suspected of being Taliban; an elderly scholar who’d never belonged to the movement was shot dead.’
‘This posed a challenge, though, because there were hardly any active Taliban to catch. “We knew who were the Taliban in our village,” Shakira said, and they weren’t engaged in guerrilla warfare: “They were all sitting at home, doing nothing.” A lieutenant colonel with U.S. Special Forces, Stuart Farris, who was deployed to the area at that time, told a U.S. Army historian, “There was virtually no resistance on this rotation.” So militias like the Ninety-third Division began accusing innocent people. In February, 2003, they branded Hajji Bismillah—the Karzai government’s transportation director for Gereshk, responsible for collecting tolls in the city—a terrorist, prompting the Americans to ship him to Guantánamo. With Bismillah eliminated, the Ninety-third Division monopolized the toll revenue.
Dado went even further. In March, 2003, U.S. soldiers visited Sangin’s governor—Dado’s brother—to discuss refurbishing a school and a health clinic. Upon leaving, their convoy came under fire, and Staff Sergeant Jacob Frazier and Sergeant Orlando Morales became the first American combat fatalities in Helmand. U.S. personnel suspected that the culprit was not the Taliban but Dado—a suspicion confirmed to me by one of the warlord’s former commanders, who said that his boss had engineered the attack to keep the Americans reliant on him. Nonetheless, when Dado’s forces claimed to have nabbed the true assassin—an ex-Taliban conscript named Mullah Jalil—the Americans dispatched Jalil to Guantánamo. Unaccountably, this happened despite the fact that, according to Jalil’s classified Guantánamo file, U.S. officials knew that Jalil had been fingered merely to “cover for” the fact that Dado’s forces had been “involved with the ambush.” The incident didn’t affect Dado’s relationship with U.S. Special Forces, who deemed him too valuable in serving up “terrorists.” They were now patrolling together, and soon after the attack the joint operation searched Shakira’s village for suspected terrorists. The soldiers did not stay at her home long, but she could not get the sight of the rifle muzzles out of her mind. The next morning, she removed the rugs and scrubbed the boot marks away.’ (…)
‘Nasrullah ultimately returned home, but some detainees never made it back. Abdul Wahid, of Gereshk, was arrested by the Ninety-third Division and beaten severely; he was delivered to U.S. custody and left in a cage, where he died. U.S. military personnel noted burns on his chest and stomach, and bruising to his hips and groin. According to a declassified investigation, Special Forces soldiers reported that Wahid’s wounds were consistent with “a normal interview/interrogation method” used by the Ninety-third Division. A sergeant stated that he “could provide photographs of prior detainees with similar injuries.” Nonetheless, the U.S. continued to support the Ninety-third Division—a violation of the Leahy Law, which bars American personnel from knowingly backing units that commit flagrant human-rights abuses.
In 2004, the U.N. launched a program to disarm pro-government militias. A Ninety-third commander learned of the plan and rebranded a segment of the militia as a “private-security company” under contract with the Americans, enabling roughly a third of the Division’s fighters to remain armed. Another third kept their weapons by signing a contract with a Texas-based firm to protect road-paving crews. (When the Karzai government replaced these private guards with police, the Ninety-third’s leader engineered a hit that killed fifteen policemen, and then recovered the contract.) The remaining third of the Division, finding themselves subjected to extortion threats from their former colleagues, absconded with their weapons and joined the Taliban.’
‘In 2008, the U.S. Marines deployed to Sangin, reinforcing American Special Forces and U.K. soldiers. Britain’s forces were beleaguered—a third of its casualties in Afghanistan would occur in Sangin, leading some soldiers to dub the mission “Sangingrad.” Nilofar, now eight, could intuit the rhythms of wartime. She would ask Shakira, “When are we going to Auntie Farzana’s house?” Farzana lived in the desert.
But the chaos wasn’t always predictable: one afternoon, the foreigners again appeared before anyone could flee, and the family rushed into the back-yard trench. A few doors down, the wife and children of the late Abdul Salam did the same, but a mortar killed his fifteen-year-old daughter, Bor Jana.
Both sides of the war did make efforts to avoid civilian deaths. In addition to issuing warnings to evacuate, the Taliban kept villagers informed about which areas were seeded with improvised explosive devices, and closed roads to civilian traffic when targeting convoys. The coalition deployed laser-guided bombs, used loudspeakers to warn villagers of fighting, and dispatched helicopters ahead of battle. “They would drop leaflets saying, ‘Stay in your homes! Save yourselves!’ ” Shakira recalled. In a war waged in mud-walled warrens teeming with life, however, nowhere was truly safe, and an extraordinary number of civilians died. Sometimes, such casualties sparked widespread condemnation, as when a nato rocket struck a crowd of villagers in Sangin in 2010, killing fifty-two. But the vast majority of incidents involved one or two deaths—anonymous lives that were never reported on, never recorded by official organizations, and therefore never counted as part of the war’s civilian toll.’
‘In response, the coalition shifted to the hearts-and-minds strategy of counter-insurgency. But the foreigners’ efforts to embed among the population could be crude: they often occupied houses, only further exposing villagers to crossfire. “They were coming by force, without getting permission from us,” Pashtana, a woman from another Sangin village, told me. “They sometimes broke into our house, broke all the windows, and stayed the whole night. We would have to flee, in case the Taliban fired on them.” Marzia, a woman from Pan Killay, recalled, “The Taliban would fire a few shots, but the Americans would respond with mortars.” One mortar slammed into her mother-in-law’s house. She survived, Marzia said, but had since “lost control of herself”—always “shouting at things we can’t see, at ghosts.”’
‘The Taliban call their domain the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and claim that, once the foreigners are gone, they will preside over an era of tranquil stability. As the Afghan government crumbled this summer, I travelled through Helmand Province—the Emirate’s de-facto capital—to see what a post-American Afghanistan might look like.
I departed from Lashkar Gah, which remained under government control. At the outskirts stood a squat cement building with an Afghan-government flag—beyond this checkpoint, Kabul’s authority vanished. A pickup idled nearby; piled into the cargo bed were half a dozen members of the sangorian, a feared militia in the pay of the Afghan intelligence agency, which was backed by the C.I.A. Two of the fighters appeared no older than twelve.
I was with two locals in a beat-up Corolla, and we slipped past the checkpoint without notice. Soon, we were in a treeless horizon of baked earth, with virtually no road beneath us. We passed abandoned outposts of the Afghan Army and Police that had been built by the Americans and the Brits. Beyond them loomed a series of circular mud fortifications, with a lone Taliban sniper splayed on his stomach. White flags fluttered behind him, announcing the gateway to the Islamic Emirate.
The most striking difference between Taliban country and the world we’d left behind was the dearth of gunmen. In Afghanistan, I’d grown accustomed to kohl-eyed policemen in baggy trousers, militiamen in balaclavas, intelligence agents inspecting cars. Yet we rarely crossed a Taliban checkpoint, and when we did the fighters desultorily examined the car. “Everyone is afraid of the Taliban,” my driver said, laughing. “The checkpoints are in our hearts.”’
‘Travelling through Helmand, I could hardly see any signs of the Taliban as a state. Unlike other rebel movements, the Taliban had provided practically no reconstruction, no social services beyond its harsh tribunals. It brooks no opposition: in Pan Killay, the Taliban executed a villager named Shaista Gul after learning that he’d offered bread to members of the Afghan Army. Nevertheless, many Helmandis seemed to prefer Taliban rule—including the women I interviewed. It was as if the movement had won only by default, through the abject failures of its opponents. To locals, life under the coalition forces and their Afghan allies was pure hazard; even drinking tea in a sunlit field, or driving to your sister’s wedding, was a potentially deadly gamble. What the Taliban offered over their rivals was a simple bargain: Obey us, and we will not kill you.’
‘In the course of a few hours in 2006, the Taliban killed thirty-two friends and relatives of Amir Dado, including his son. Three years later, they killed the warlord himself—who by then had joined parliament—in a roadside blast. The orchestrator of the assassination hailed from Pan Killay. In one light, the attack is the mark of a fundamentalist insurgency battling an internationally recognized government; in another, a campaign of revenge by impoverished villagers against their former tormentor; or a salvo in a long-simmering tribal war; or a hit by a drug cartel against a rival enterprise. All these readings are probably true, simultaneously. What’s clear is that the U.S. did not attempt to settle such divides and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one mired in endless conflict, the other prosperous and hopeful.’
‘… if U.S. troops kept battling the Taliban in the countryside, then life in the cities could blossom. This may have been a sustainable project—the Taliban were unable to capture cities in the face of U.S. airpower. But was it just? Can the rights of one community depend, in perpetuity, on the deprivation of rights in another? In Sangin, whenever I brought up the question of gender, village women reacted with derision. “They are giving rights to Kabul women, and they are killing women here,” Pazaro said. “Is this justice?” Marzia, from Pan Killay, told me, “This is not ‘women’s rights’ when you are killing us, killing our brothers, killing our fathers.” Khalida, from a nearby village, said, “The Americans did not bring us any rights. They just came, fought, killed, and left.”’
Read the excellent article here.
The US and its Western allies worked together in Afghanistan with ruthless killers, local mafia bosses and fighters who were as extreme as the Taliban or maybe even more extreme.
This article makes clear why many Afghans supported the Taliban in the nineties, because they ended cruel and bloody anarchy, and why many Afghans especially outside the big cities welcomed the Taliban again in 2021.
Also, once again we should not confuse tribal traditions in countries like Afghanistan with the Islam itself.
Clearly there was no political strategy, but the military strategy was a disaster as well.