I can’t help watching again and again the video showing some poor devil clinging to the undercarriage of a US Air Force C-17 as it takes off from the chaos and violence of Kabul airport. He hangs there for a few seconds until his grip inevitably gives way and he falls to his death. What an image that is for Afghanistan after 20 years of Western involvement: the plane packed with people oblivious to everything except the relief that they’re on their way out; the stowaway so panicked by the victory of the Taliban that he thinks it’s worth risking everything to escape. And I can’t help rereading a line from a newspaper article written by an Afghan woman graduate: “As an orphan I [wove] carpets just to get an education… Now it looks like I have to burn everything I achieved in 24 years of my life.”
Many people who know and love Afghanistan would, I imagine, like to freeze-frame that video and print out that quotation, and nail them to the walls of Donald Trump’s Florida hideout and Joe Biden’s Oval Office. The empty agreement that Trump reached in Doha with the Taliban’s political leadership in February last year, and that Biden meekly decided to go along with, led directly to the fall of the stowaway and the destruction of the young woman’s dreams, and to everything else that is likely to follow in Afghanistan.
The Doha agreement may turn out to have been the 21st century equivalent of the deal reached in 1842 between the doddery General Elphinstone, commander of the British occupying force in Afghanistan, and the Afghan warlord Wazir Akbar Khan, to allow the British army to withdraw peacefully from Kabul to Jalalabad. And we know how that ended: Elphinstone’s troops were massacred.
In Doha the Taliban’s political leaders were prepared to promise anything in the way of peace and reconciliation, but the fighters on the ground controlled the outcome. And from the moment the Americans announced their departure, with the British and others obediently following (however much they now try to distance themselves from the policy of abandonment), the victory of the Taliban was assured.
Last gasp: around 600 Afghan refugees pack into a US Air Force plane leaving Kabul, 15 August. Picture credit: Defense One / Reuters
The only question that matters to Afghans is how the Taliban will behave in future. Are its members still the same primitive backwoodsmen who captured Kabul from the moderate mujahedin government in 1996, also within a matter of hours, and started imposing seventh-century laws and mores on the country? In their first press conference, on 17 August, the chief Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, was determined to give a moderate impression. I have a soft spot for Mujahid: he once insisted on continuing a television interview with me even though an American drone was hovering overhead, trying to track him down. He knows exactly what Western journalists want to hear, and he’s good at delivering the right sound-bites. But he said that women would have to work “within the frameworks of our Islamic laws”, without going into any detail. What presumably will happen now is what happened under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 – everyone in authority will get to interpret the laws as he (and it will always be a he) chooses.
Those five years of ultra-Islamist rule reduced Afghanistan to a barter economy. The government eventually didn’t even have the money to buy fuel oil. I have a powerful recollection of wandering round the centre of Kabul during the final weeks of Taliban rule in 2001. Most of the inhabitants had fled. At night, the brightest lights were the candles in people’s windows and the loudest noise was the barking of marauding dogs abandoned by their owners. In the day, vigilantes armed with staves would stop passers-by, checking that women were fully covered by their burkas and had the written permission of their husbands or fathers to be out of the house. Any woman whose covering they faulted, and any men caught wearing even a single item of Western clothing, would be beaten savagely.
I made a number of trips to Afghanistan for television during the five years of Taliban rule, each of them deeply stressful and complicated. The capturing of any image of a living being on camera was illegal. I had endless debates with our Taliban minders about, for instance, shots of empty streets: if a bird flew through the frame, did that mean the entire sequence would have to be deleted? Empty girls’ schools, usually smashed up in a fury by Taliban soldiers, could only be filmed in secret. Interviews with ordinary people were impossible for their own safety.
Still, different government ministers interpreted the rules in ways to suit themselves. The flamboyant minister of health, Mullah Balouch, decided that if we showed his head and shoulders this would not constitute his full image; and on camera he complained that the International Red Cross had refused his appeal to send qualified surgeons to cut off the feet and hands of convicted thieves. “That means I have to do the job myself,” he said, with a certain pride. The Taliban’s regime was always ludicrous as well as brutal.
The extreme interpretation of Islamic doctrine and rules is key to the Taliban’s strength and self-image. It is hard to think that, having captured control of the country by its own ferocity and speed – God’s will, it would say – the group will now meekly allow the kind of freedoms and rights that it has in the past found unacceptable.
It’s certainly true that in Doha and elsewhere individual Taliban figures talked about women’s rights in ways that were meant to sound relaxed and favourable, and one member of the leadership, in particular, has spoken approvingly of “children’s education”. The US team in Doha decided to interpret this as meaning the education of girls and young women. If, as an American negotiator, the president of the United States is breathing down your neck, you will seize at anything as a positive sign. Personally, I suspect that nothing the Taliban said or agreed to in Doha before it captured power will necessarily mean anything.
Yet the Afghanistan of 2021 isn’t the Afghanistan of 20 years ago. Despite the enduring poverty in the countryside and the all-pervasive corruption, it’s a much more effective economy. People have had 20 years of relative peace and relative prosperity. And there’s another major difference: the Taliban reportedly has the ear and the support of China. In 1996 its only real friends and allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, preferred to keep quiet about the relationship. The Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping doesn’t suffer from that embarrassment. It knows that Afghanistan’s mountains and plains are packed with useful and valuable minerals, and it never seems bothered by how grossly the governments that China supports abuse the rights of the locals.
Still, maybe China’s backing would make a certain difference to Afghanistan: not in the rules the Taliban imposes on people, but in the way the economy is run. It’s a good deal less likely this time that the power will be cut off or that the streets will be taken over by wild dogs.
Following the abject collapse of the government forces in the face of the Taliban’s aggression, the old argument has naturally resurfaced that Afghanistan could never be controlled by foreign invaders, and that it was always obvious that at some point “the Afghans” would rise up and throw them out.
Back in town: Taliban fighters are driven through the Afghan capital Kabul on a Humvee, 15 August 2021. Picture credit: Jim Huylebroek/New York Times/Redux/eyevine
Yet the support the Americans gave to the Afghan Northern Alliance in 2001, when the Taliban was booted out of Kabul as fast and decisively as it has now re-entered it, was never an invasion – certainly nothing like the full-scale American and British takeover of Iraq in 2003. The international support for the democratically elected governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani cost Western lives and money, but on nothing like the scale of the Iraq operation, and the benefits to ordinary Afghans were far greater and more obvious. Over the years after 2001 it gave me immense pleasure to visit girls’ schools, seeing the neat rows of pupils learning maths and history and English, or hearing about the progress of young Afghans on scholarships to British universities. Or simply to wander the streets of towns and cities, observing the growing prosperity: their clothes, their food, their housing.
Even with the money the Western presence brought to Afghanistan, it was still at the bottom end of the world’s prosperity table. But Afghans knew that through hard work they could improve themselves, like the orphan girl who made carpets and paid her way through school and university. They could live the lives they wanted – not the lives that an ultra-conservative reading of the Koran imposed on them.
Weirdly, I caught a glimpse of the reality of life as women under Taliban rule knew it before and may well know it again. In September 2001 the Taliban announced that it would execute any foreign journalists who tried to infiltrate the large swathes of Afghanistan it controlled. My cameraman and I decided to cross the border from north-west Pakistan and see how far into Afghanistan we could get. We persuaded a gang of cross-border smugglers to take us through the Khyber Pass and into Taliban territory. The smugglers would only agree to do it if we put on burkas and pretended to be women. It worked.
As burka-wearing women, we simply ceased to exist; it was like having Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility. The little patch of thick lace through which we had to peer made it very hard indeed to see where we were going, and it took an immense force of will to persuade our smugglers to take us where we wanted to go. For them, too, we had become women, inferior beings without a will or even a character of our own.
The past is now the future that seems to face every woman and young girl in Afghanistan, if the Taliban remains true to the principles that swept it back to power. Maybe its ferocity and misogyny will be tempered by something else: the influence of coalition partners that the Taliban leadership might agree to take on board, perhaps; or of Pakistan, which supported the Taliban movement in the first place; or of China, which will likely be the Taliban’s paymaster in the years ahead. But the hope is a faint one.
In the emotional backwash of the West’s decision to escape Afghanistan at all costs, it’s hard to get rid of the memory of the man who was so scared of the Taliban that he preferred to grab on to the undercarriage of an American aircraft until he fell and died; or the woman who worked throughout her childhood in order to get an education – only to find that’s the one thing her new political masters hate most in the world.
As I’ve been writing this, a friend of mine has passed me a message from a well-known Afghan woman broadcaster: “God willing that Afghan women should not be tortured again,” it reads. “Allow them please to shine and rise again like the sun.”
This article appears in the 18 August 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Betrayal