Partha Chakraborty is an Indian-born immigrant; a naturalized US Citizen since 2018. Educated in India and at Cornell University, Partha is currently an entrepreneur in water technologies, Blockchain, and wealth management in the US and in India. The views expressed are his own.
Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwala (“The Man from Kabul”) was my first introduction to Afghanistan beyond geography texts. In the story, Rahamat (Rehmat means mercy), the Kabuliwala, immediately after his release from eight years in a Kolkata prison for felony, goes back to visit his old friend, a little girl named Mini. Rahamat finds Mini is little no more. Shared private jokes about in-laws fall flat as Mini is about to begin her own journey to her in-laws’; it is in fact Mini’s wedding day. At that moment Rahamat wakes up to another apocalypse that is much closer, yet so far. He last saw his own daughter, of Mini’s age, in Kabul before he even met Mini. Nobody knows how she is, and if she is there. Rahamat must build a completely new acquaintance with his own daughter as if that is even possible. He drops to the floor, his mind somewhere in the arid terrains of Afghanistan, and on his hand is a grimy piece of paper that has traces in burnt charcoal of a tiny hand, his daughter’s, that he always carries close to his chest deep inside his baggy shirt. The world has turned away from him as he rotted inside the prison.
Last few days’ news makes me feel that the world has left the people of Afghanistan far behind, at least we in the United States surely have.
This evening I am thinking about Zarifa Ghafari, 27, Mayor of the town of Maidan Shar waiting with resignation for fate that she knows already. “I am sitting here waiting for them to come…they will come for people like me and kill me”. Ordinarily, she is not the one to leave things to fate. Ms. Ghafari survived numerous attempts on her life as she walked a path of public life in a country still getting used to it. In the end they came for her father, a Colonel of the Afghan Army, in Kabul last November, probably as a warning to her, she did not stop. She was upbeat as recently as three weeks back – “Younger people are aware of what’s happening. They have social media. They communicate. I think they will continue fighting for progress and our rights. I think there is a future for this country”. That was three weeks ago and today she is waiting for the merchants of the macabre knock on her door.
Nadia Ghulam Dastgir saw those evil forces up close. In 1993 her home was bombed, killing her brother Zelmai and severely hobbling her dad with PTSD. Ms. Dastgir herself spent two years in different hospitals treating injuries from the blast. At age 11 she decided to dress exclusively as a boy and took the identity of her dead brother so she could go to school – Taliban had prohibited access to schools for girls – and earn a living for her family; she continued this for ten years. As a “boy” she studied Koran and even became an assistant at a mosque, all under the nose of the Talibs. Finally in 2003, with Taliban gone, her story became known and she could relocate to Spain where she is today.
For every Nadia, there are thousands, even tens of thousands, stories that never see happy ending. Mahbouba Seraj has been listening to them ever since she came back in 2003 after 26 years of exile. Ms. Seraj is a tireless advocate for women and girls, founder or key member of a number of NGO’s; she also hosts a radio program called “Our Beloved Afghanistan”. She comes to you with an attitude of a woman who has nothing to lose, except everything she ever stood for. She vows to continue working for the people who are truly behind an iron curtain, listening to them no matter who comes knocking. At the same time, she cannot but contain her disdain for the international community for having thrown her, and her sisters, daughters and mothers over as fodder for the brutes in beard.
Salima Mazari, one of only three women governors in the country, is matter-of-fact about what’s in store. “In the provinces controlled by Taliban, no women exist there anymore, not even in the cities. They are all imprisoned in their homes”, she said before her town fell. Barely 72 hours of fall of Kabul, Taliban is out beating and whipping people on the streets. Nobody, repeat nobody, inside Afghanistan believes a single word of Taliban spokesman when he promises women’s rights (“within Sharia”) or blanket amnesty of people who opposed them. Already people are hiding books, buying burqas, wrapping up television and satellite boxes in the attic. On Kabul streets Talibs were seen taunting women outside of a women’s school that they should go and cover head-to-toe next time they come out and prepare to be their brides, beauty salon operators are already whitewashing their displays so that it does not offend Talibs’ perverted sense of decorum. Elsewhere in the country Taliban soldiers are going from door to door extracting child brides, shutting down women’s schools, enforcing their diktats with summary executions.
Taliban does not need to govern, it just rules – with mass hangings, flogging and amputations, incarceration and beatings at any pretense; this time is no different.
As I watch last vestiges of civilized life fall before our eyes inside Afghanistan, I cannot but question the framework of “forever wars” that seems to have guided our decision. One can argue that US presence outlived its stated goals by 2011 when Osama Bin Laden was killed. One can also argue that mission is ongoing – there is every possibility that Taliban will provide safe haven to terrorists and US intelligence has repeatedly warned us about it. Most Afghans would agree that US had to leave at some point lest it be deemed an occupier, but they would immediately add that time is not right, that US mission is not yet complete. What gives?
To everyone on the ground in Afghanistan and thousands who went back, US mission was always about peacekeeping and mercy. Most people in Afghanistan wanted Taliban, or worse Al Qaeda, just as much as we did – nada. So they welcomed US for driving the baddies out, and providing hope for the civil society – a society that grew slowly but surely thereafter. Afghanistan operates its own Satellite, Afghanistan 1, almost all of the country is covered under mobile telephone, way back in 2016 Afghanistan had 32 million GSM connections and about 400 thousand other connections while population was just north of 35 million. Back in 2000, 47 percent of Afghan men were literate while literacy for women was a paltry 15%. In the most recent survey, female literacy rate for youth (ages 15-24 years, the most relevant comparison cohort) jumped to 56% (the number for males shot up too to 74%). Primary school enrollment for females as % of the female population in the age group shot up from 0 in 2003 to almost 70% by 2005, and now over 80% even if almost two and a quarter million of Afghan girls are still out of school. All of these developments happened in the last 20 years, and none of these could be imaginable under Taliban.
These changes were organic. Outside of military expense, and salary for Afghan soldiers and police US hardly paid anything for infrastructure for Afghanistan. Much of the initiative was taken by expat Afghans returning home with expertise and capital. Other friendly countries came in and lent or built infrastructure as a goodwill gesture. For example, India has invested over USD 3 Billion in 400+ projects over the last twenty years, including a 218-kilometer artery near Iran border and a hydropower project known as Salma Dam, Afghanistan exports almost half a billion dollars of goods to India every year, mostly dry fruits. Overall, Foreign Direct Investment varied widely affected by insurgency, but it did shoot up to USD 250 million in 2005 after staying at Zero since 1980’s. Overall, aid dependency is down at 21.9% in the most recent period, it was at an astronomical 49.3% even in 2011. Afghanistan made progress internally, even if headlines we received only talked about strife.
To me these last two decades were one shining example of exporting American ideas and ideals to a very volatile region. In the first press conference of the new Taliban government, a courageous Afghan journalist asked if Taliban is sorry for the lives it cost the country. The next day there were women protesters on the streets of Kabul holding signs attesting to their opposition to the new regime. Courageous and exemplary as they are, they did not happen in a vacuum. They all saw glimpses of a free world, and imagined an Afghan version. What US presence was doing was providing a backbone to the civil society. Just like US presence was doing to Afghan military.
Call it peacekeeping, mercy mission even. US presence had long transitioned into a phase with the long-gestation period. By reneging on that promise, we made ourselves look – and be – small. Small in the eyes of freedom-loving people in Hong Kong, or Xinjiang, North Korea or Russia, among a laundry list. We made Afghanistan hitch a ride on us and then ditched them – spectacularly and unceremoniously. If Afghan people survive a second Taliban regime, do not blame them if they run to everybody but the US for a little hand up.
When we turn a mercy [Rehmat] mission into apocalypse [Quayamat], we seed a post-American world. I am not ready for that. Are you?