Nine years ago, I spent a month reporting from Afghanistan. At once beautiful and brutal, this troubled nation got under my skin, and I’ve yearned to go back ever since. At the time America was only about halfway through its longest war, and there was already fatigue and cynicism but also hope — most evident in the streams of girls seen flocking to school every morning. Since then, several of the local journalists I met on my trip have been killed by the Taliban, and the schoolgirls are again targets of deadly bombings. Now the U.S. is cutting its losses after 20 hard years and pulling troops out. In today’s Daily Dose, you’ll learn what’s next for this oft-invaded country at the heart of the Silk Road and its long-suffering people.
Kate Bartlett, Senior Editor
1. Taliban Returns
This is the worst-case scenario. Unfortunately, it’s the one experts are betting on. The group, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, wasted no time in launching a major offensive in Helmand province as soon as the U.S. troop pullout began on May 1. Since then, they have negotiated the surrender of 26 government positions and bases, including four district centers that serve as local seats of Kabul’s authority. The Sunni Islamists have promised to “respect human rights,” but for a group that imposes strict sharia law and bans girls from school, that seems unlikely. Pakistan could be kingmaker after the U.S. departure, having long been accused of backing the Taliban, but officials in Islamabad maintain that they’re not helping the group return to power. Meanwhile, the Taliban have warned neighboring countries not to let Washington use their territory to stage continued military forays into Afghanistan.
Even if Pakistan is to be believed, the U.S. exit provides a valuable opportunity for other great powers to fill the void. Enter the dragon. Beijing officials have made conflicting noises about President Joe Biden’s decision to get all remaining troops out by Sept. 11. At first they criticized Washington for leaving an unstable country on China’s doorstep, but later the foreign ministry said it supports the troop withdrawal and looks forward to playing a role in its volatile neighbor’s future. A lot is at stake for China, which is Afghanistan’s largest foreign investor and now wants to extend its Belt and Road Initiative to pass through the territory. Beijing, having made overtures to the Taliban in the past, also worries the group might shelter China’s own Islamic extremists.
This is the glass half-full version. Some experts argue that neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government has the ability to subdue the other and therefore will inevitably have to work together. The U.S. has also indicated it won’t stand by and let the country become a terrorist haven, and the European Union will not want a wave of refugees at its borders again like it saw with Syria. Last month Afghan President Ashraf Ghani penned a piece in Foreign Affairs laying out his plan for peace and saying “a political settlement and the integration of the Taliban into society and government is the only way forward.”
4. Islamic State Expansion
The Taliban have been helping to keep Islamic State militants at bay and part of President Joe Biden’s reckoning in withdrawing U.S. forces has been that the wide-ranging, terror-fomenting group poses little threat now to the West. However, some experts worry that in any chaos following the withdrawal of American and NATO troops, this extremist group forged in the Middle East may stage a return. Washington blamed them for several recent deadly attacks, including one on a maternity hospital last year. As analyst and author Colin Clarke notes: “It was the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 that provided the opportunity for the rise of the Islamic State.”
Right now about 27 percent of Afghanistan’s parliamentary seats are reserved for women. One of the bravest and most outspoken members of Parliament is Fawzia Koofi, who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban last year. Despite that, the 46-year-old is among those MPs in stalled negotiations with the group, which she sees as a necessary evil. “I think it [would have been] better if President Biden’s troop withdrawal announcement could happen after a political settlement was reached,” Koofi told OZY, explaining that the militants see less point in negotiating a power-sharing deal now that victory seems at hand.
Some 3.5 million girls out of about 9 million students are now enrolled in classes. But as an attack on a Kabul school last month that killed 90 people has shown, this progress is precarious. Koofi says she visited some of the hospitalized girls and was inspired by their resilience, explaining, “Even in the hospital, they were reading books and they said they’d go back to school.” While Afghans long for an end to decades of war, many dread losing hard-won gains. “There is a girl from one of the remote provinces who told me that she now goes to school and . . . on the way, there are days that there are rocket attacks,” Koofi says, but the girl would rather take that risk than have to stay at home.
Donate here to help Koofi educate orphaned teenage girls in Afghanistan.
3. Women at Work
After being practically invisible in the Taliban era, during which they were often married off young and brutally punished for the smallest infractions, women are now able to participate in civic life in Afghanistan. But, as Koofi notes, they are a prime target, even with the U.S. in the country. “Since February , more than 400 women were killed through targeted killings . . . women like judges, journalists, all of these strong professionals that are prominent,” she says. A lot of women feel betrayed by the troop pullout, she adds, knowing it will make them even more vulnerable.
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The most candid interview yet with one of the most experienced public servants in the country: Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state who was the first female national security adviser. The political scientist and Soviet expert is now director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Don’t miss her surprising takes on the Trump presidency, why she considered running for office, her relationship with President George W. Bush and why education reform is “the civil rights issue of our time.” Why does she say the Jan. 6 Capitol storming was both “the most frightening and the most affirming” thing to have witnessed in her life? Watch now to find out.
In its mission to win hearts and minds and fight militants, successful or not, American and allied forces relied heavily on their Afghan translators. For 20 years, these brave men and women supported the U.S. project in Afghanistan at great personal risk and saved countless lives. Should the Taliban retake power, they could be the first targets. Washington now has a moral and ethical obligation to settle these people — something the Pentagon’s top general affirmed last week. There’s a visa program for them, but it takes an average of three years for a visa to be processed, and there are currently 18,000 Afghans awaiting approval, while Britain is also scrambling to rescue its interpreters. Once foreign troops are gone, one translator told journalists, the Taliban “will slaughter us.”
Minority rights also look set to suffer under a Taliban return. Before the Taliban government was ousted in 2001, ethnic Hazaras were persecuted and in some cases massacred. Last month’s horrific attack on schoolgirls took place in a predominantly Hazara community in Kabul, although the Taliban blamed the Islamic State group for that carnage. Theocratic militants from either group view these Shiite Muslims as heretics, and anxious Hazaras are now forming a militia in the mountains of Wardak province, noting that they have no choice but to take up arms if the Americans leave. Ethnic minorities currently enjoy protection under the constitution, but like the U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria who were abandoned by the Trump administration in 2019, the Hazaras now face a bleak future.
3. Refugee Surge
One result of the foreign troop withdrawal is sure to be a new flood of desperate Afghans seeking asylum abroad. They are already the second largest group of asylum-seekers in Europe, with some 2.6 million Afghans displaced worldwide. And they’ve had an even tougher time than their Syrian counterparts: European governments have been repatriating thousands of asylum-seekers to Afghanistan, sometimes with deadly consequences. But many more are in Pakistan and Iran than Western countries, and sending refugees back now, as troops withdraw, will only add to the country’s woes. Meanwhile, a new influx of refugees to the West will deprive Afghanistan of the educated and experienced people it sorely needs to rebuild.
During my weeks in Afghanistan, I sometimes felt I was driving through a landscape unchanged since Alexander the Great passed through. Mules pulled ramshackle carts, children played outside mud houses, burqa-shrouded women lay prostrate and begging in the middle of dusty roads. The Taliban had tried hard to turn back the centuries in the country, where at one point in the 1970s it was common to see female students and professors in universities, and wearing the burqa was made optional. If there are two things the Taliban don’t like, it’s educated women and technological advancement. Somaya Faruqi is an example of both. The 17-year-old led the country’s Girl’s Robotic Team to develop ventilators when they started running short last year as COVID-19 ravaged her nation. Faruqi is a strong proponent of girls in STEM fields: “I want Afghanistan and the whole world to shift their mindsets and acknowledge that girls are equal to boys and can use science and technology to innovate.”
2. Ali ATH
Dr. Dre and Jay-Z. Those are two artists Kabul-based rapper Ali ATH cites as influences. Music was banned under the Taliban as “un-Islamic,” but in the 20 years since the U.S. invasion, rap and other genres have become increasingly popular. Ali ATH makes money from his rap videos on YouTube, which have a fair amount of expletives and don’t mince words about governmental or religious authorities. However, he worries that with the pullout his days could be numbered. “If the Taliban find out I make music, they could kill me. I don’t even want to think about it,” he said.
Not one change-maker, but a movement. In what many saw as an overture to the ascendant Taliban — who recently refused to attend peace talks in Doha — the Ministry of Education earlier this year moved to ban girls who’ve reached the age of 12 from singing at public events. In a sign of just how much things have changed in 20 years, the reaction was outrage as girls and women took to social media under #IAmMySong with videos of themselves singing in protest. Chastened officials have since said they’re reassessing the move.
4. Shahrbanoo Sadat
It would have been unthinkable under the Taliban, which stoned people for adultery. Now this female millennial director has made a taboo-defying film that’s been dubbed Afghanistan’s first rom-com. The millennial’s new movie is Kabul Jan, which is already generating interest internationally. It follows the story of a woman who falls in love with a married man. “You rarely see a comedy or a musical coming from war-torn countries. There’s this idea that your stories have to be about suffering — and yes, one side of life is full of tragedies. But there are also so many things to laugh about,” Sadat says.
5. Rashid Khan
Cricket might be a national obsession in India and neighboring Pakistan, but in Afghanistan under the Taliban it was banned for being “un-Islamic.” Kabul’s national sports stadium was instead used for executions. After the group’s ouster, the country’s national cricket team was established and this Gen Z bowler has since become an international superstar with several heavy-hitting teams competing for his talents. The 22-year-old grew up as a refugee in Pakistan but in a remarkable rags-to-riches story went on to become Afghanistan’s first Indian Premier League millionaire.
6. Roya Mahboob
This businesswoman and tech entrepreneur first discovered her love of computers as a teenager in Herat province but, as a girl, wasn’t even allowed into the local computer shop. Now Mahboob’s Afghan Citadel Software Company fosters tech jobs for university-educated women. She’s also helped get computers into classrooms and believes STEM education is the future for Afghan girls and women in the globalized world. The Dreamer Institute, the first STEM school in the country, is supposed to open next year — if whoever is in charge by then allows it to happen.