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2 September 2021

Yalda Hakim’s Kabul notebook: Two faces of the Taliban, a violent new chapter, and why the Afghan War is not over

With Isis putting the lie to assertions that the terrorist threat has been dealt with, the West may soon discover that Afghanistan is not so easy to leave behind.

By Yalda Hakim

The frantic calls began the night before the city fell. “We are hearing the Taliban are at the gates of Kabul,” said one. “Please, help get us out,” said another. Whether by phone, WhatsApp or Signal, a career’s worth of contacts were suddenly reaching out to me, desperate for escape.

For as long as I had known Kabul, fear had never been far from the place. It was a city whose people quietly understood that at any moment, the routines of daily life could be shattered by some grotesque act of violence. This was usually a faint feeling – discomforting yet tolerable. Now it had congealed into something else. This was terror.

My friends betrayed

In the end, the Taliban did not need to eject the Afghan government from the seat of power; in fear and confusion, it simply ejected itself. As the realisation spread that the Taliban was on the cusp of being back in control, thousands of Afghans fled to the Hamid Karzai International Airport. Gut-wrenching images ensued: of children crushed in stampedes; of mothers handing infants over barbed wire; of Afghans clinging to the undercarriage of a US military aircraft, then falling to their death, one by one, as the plane took off. 

I have been reporting from Afghanistan for more than a decade. I also have a very personal and deep connection with this nation. It is the country of my birth. My family fled Afghanistan in 1983 in the dead of night, four years after the Soviet invasion. My parents locked up their home in central Kabul, promising never to return to a country descending into a war that would go on to claim millions of lives. I was just six months old, strapped to my mother’s back.

I returned to the country for the first time as a reporter in my early twenties. Over the years I came to know many Afghan journalists, judges, activists, artists, parliamentarians and students who made Kabul a vibrant, even cosmopolitan place. Many had become good friends. Now they were all repeating the same word to me: betrayal.

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[see also: Lyse Doucet’s Kabul notebook: A dystopian airfield, and the Afghans leaving everything behind]

A world transformed

The idea of a 9/11 generation for Americans evokes a cohort who have grown up knowing only a world in which their military forces have been deployed in distant battlefields against shadowy terrorists. But for Afghans, the 9/11 generation is one that has only known the freedoms and opportunities made possible by a US presence in their country. Now, they were telling me, they felt cast aside by the very democratic world they considered themselves part of. They had no desire to stay in a country where they felt their most fundamental values and beliefs would no longer be tolerated. Without crossing any international border, they had become refugees in their own society.

Taliban 2.0

Six weeks before the Afghan state collapsed, I was in Doha, where the Taliban had established a de facto embassy to the outside world. The skyscrapers, lined like dominoes along the Qatari corniche, felt centuries removed from the medieval rule evoked by the Afghan insurgents. Could 20 years out of power, and protracted exposure to a society like Qatar that had reconciled its Islamic identity with the benefits of modernity, have changed the Taliban for the better? As a journalist, my responsibility is to be sceptical. Yet listening to the Taliban’s spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, I began to wonder if some sort of moderation had taken place.

Shaheen acknowledged that mistakes had been made when the Taliban last governed Kabul, stressed to me the importance of girls’ education and promised to create an inclusive, modern state. Yet the counterpart to this beguiling vision came just a few days later when I was back in Kabul, meeting a Taliban field commander who had snuck into the city from the front lines of Helmand province. Mawlana had been to prison three times, including a five-year stint during which he claimed his teeth had been extracted under torture. “We are fighting for a return of strict sharia law in this country,” he told me. “Everything has been clearly stated in our scriptures and holy book. Stoning of women who commit the crime of adultery, public executions for murder, amputating hands and feet for theft.” This was the Afghanistan that my friends in Kabul were convinced the Taliban’s return would bring. So which vision will prevail – Mawlana’s ruthless Islamic code or Shaheen’s promises of modernity? Perhaps the Taliban itself does not yet know.

Lack of closure

For two weeks the world has watched the US’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even if it had succeeded in bringing out every Afghan it decreed was entitled to resettlement in the West, the US would still have left a population of 38 million people behind – many of whom feel as though a dark curtain is being drawn on them.

In Washington, that is the point. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, announced in April, was intended to bring closure to the US’s longest war, enabling the country to turn its attention elsewhere: to nation-building at home and the intensifying challenge of a rising China. Yet with hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees coming to the US in the months ahead, the Islamic State swiftly putting the lie to assertions that the terrorist threat has been dealt with, and the US’s lurching exit raising wider questions about its capacities as a world leader, the West may soon discover that Afghanistan is not so easy to leave behind.

On 26 August, a suicide bombing at Kabul airport left at least 170 Afghans and 13 US service members dead. The finger of blame was pointed at Isis-K, Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan and a common enemy of both the Americans and the Taliban. Questions are being asked about the next phase of this war. Will the Taliban work with the US on counter-terrorism? Far from a tidy ending, August 2021 may instead mark the beginning of a new, more difficult phase of history for Afghans and the West alike. 

Yalda Hakim hosts “Impact” on BBC World News

[see also: Why Joe Biden got everything wrong in Afghanistan]

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This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future