It’s rare to flinch looking at your phone these days. After landing in Qatar on 15th August, a bullet point on the BBC’s live coverage noted that the crew of an American cargo plane had discovered human remains in a wheel well.
Crammed with 640 people—the largest number ever to be squeezed into a C-17 hangar bay—the plane tore from the tarmac through panicking crowds that had spilled past perimeters for the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The world is now painfully familiar with the footage of civilians falling from the fuselage after take-off. One was a 17-year-old teenager. His body was eventually found by a relative just outside the airport perimeter, arms and legs missing.
Empty evacuation planes leaving Kabul landed on social media feeds, interspersed with heartbreaking pictures of hollow-eyed refugees crammed against the airport’s thick checkpoints. In scorching heat, knee-deep in sewage water, they begged, brandishing emails, passports, babies. A toddler—the daughter of a former American interpreter—was trampled in a stampede.
The following week a member of the terror group ISIS-K murdered 170 people who were among those thronged around the entrances to the complex. Yet the carnage barely registered; within hours, hundreds returned to the blood-stained spot.
16 August 2021 People climb atop a plane as they wait at Karzai International Airport to depart. Credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
On 31st August 2021, the western presence ended in the country. “The stunning meltdown”, “a moral disaster” —for once, the red-topped world was not indulging hyperbole. Weeks before that fateful date, while Taliban fighters were drawing up kill lists and going door-to-door, dragging children as young as 12 to become sex slaves, President Joe Biden criticised Afghans who “did not want to leave earlier”.
Perhaps if American helicopters that were never going to lift off from the United States embassy, which was never going to fall in less than three months to militants whose capability was not “remotely comparable” to the Vietnamese nearly fifty years ago, had prepared for that outcome; perhaps if an intelligent disengagement in the winter had been selected, one reflecting the realities of Afghanistan’s fighting season instead of the platitudinal 9/11 calendar, the Afghan military would have had weapon systems and air power that functioned; perhaps if the Special Immigrant Visa Program actually worked, then the Afghan people would have had the luxury of leaving earlier.
Clues to a systemic American exodus were there.
"The pre-2001 reality of the Taliban is within living memory. It has haunted the shadows of the roughly one in four Afghans born after 9/11."
“In one night, they lost all the goodwill of 20 years by leaving the way they did, in the night”: Naematullah, was one of hundreds of Afghan soldiers who, on the morning of the 2nd July 2021, stumbled upon the American withdrawal from Bagram—the largest military base in Afghanistan. In the middle of the night, the friendly greetings by Afghan forces for the airfield handover were met by a silent, looted landscape. American forces had been gone for hours, leaving behind over 8,000 vehicles; they hadn’t bothered to leave the keys.
The pre-2001 reality of the Taliban is within living memory. It has haunted the shadows of the roughly one in four Afghans born after 9/11.
“I used to lead the student association at the university in Kabul and I tried to speak to the Taliban” said Dr Mohammad Haqmal, a public health director and academic who lived under the regime. “Life under the Taliban was like living in a graveyard. I remember a playground was built for children and the Taliban just tried to break all the equipment.”
23 August 2021 A satellite image shows dense crowds gathered outside a gate to the international airport in Kabul. Credit: 2021 Maxar Technologies
"The long-term efforts in Afghanistan have given hope to the untold numbers shielded from the intolerable costs of maintaining the pre-2001 status quo"
Afghanistan today is not the medieval torture chamber it used to be.
GDP per capita has exploded, almost doubling since 2005. The infant mortality rate has dropped by almost 50% while rates of child malnutrition, which in 2004 stood at almost 60%, have been in free fall ever since. The Taliban never bothered to document the country’s literacy rate but from 2011 to 2018, this figure among young Afghans grew from just shy of 47% to over 65%.
Unmeshed, fewer women every year were treated like chattle. According to the information available, prior to 2002, less than one million students—no girls—attended general schools. As of 2016, more than nine million children were enrolled, an estimated 39% of which were female. In 2015, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education reported more remarkable figures; “the annual number of secondary graduates [had] risen from about 10,000 in 2001 to more than 266,000 in 2013 and [was] estimated to [have] reach[ed] 320,000 in 2015.” Data has been scarce since, but it's safe to say that shy of a decade down the line, those numbers have only continued to increase.
Divorce rates have also seen haphazard increases. In a male-run society still dominated by barbaric attitudes toward sex and gender (let alone sexuality)—attitudes tolerated by coalition forces—this is a significant metric. It suggests that increasing numbers of Afghan women have felt able to reclaim agency, and to do so within an official justice system which, to date, has been unable to exorcise the rotten customs and practises which routinely legitimise honor killings and imprison women for ‘moral crimes’ if, for example, they are caught fleeing an underage marriage, or report being raped.
The long-term efforts in Afghanistan have given hope to the untold numbers shielded from the intolerable costs of maintaining the pre-2001 status quo. That was a hill of foreign policy to die on. Thousands have.
20 August 2021 People gather on the streets of Kabul. Credit: Victor J. Blue/The New York Times/Redux
I don’t want to hide behind a curtain-like cloth. If I wear the burqa, it means that I have accepted the Taliban’s government
For the last three election cycles, Kabul has been the swindle capital of the world. Afghans were abandoned. From printing presses to pockets, corrupt political leadership rigged ballots in broad daylight and funnelled millions of dollars of international money into the pockets of political favourites and luxury Dubai apartments. But corruption does not lead to state collapse. If that were true we’d all be in trouble. A banana republic was sanctioned by the complicity of the UN and US missions in Kabul, leaving a fledgling democracy to be terrorised by CIA-sponsored clandestine killings amidst the rocket strikes of the Taliban.
Little breath needs to be wasted on President Ashraf Ghani, other than the reality that he is, in fact, still breathing, while his two predecessors, suspiciously, are too. The last time the Taliban toppled a presidency, the incumbent was dragged from a UN compound, tortured, executed, and before the eyes of international media, hung from a traffic light pole. It’s unlikely former Afghan presidents Hamad Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah would have stuck around without some backdoor assurances from the Taliban, but any hopes they may have nurtured of a return to politics under the new regime look to be off the cards.
And yet, despite such an abysmal liberal democratic backdrop, Afghans headed to the new polling stations and schools, to open newsrooms and to judicial courts. To watch television or to play football. It is this persistence in the face of terror, of losing a limb or your life for daring to vote, of children butchered in classrooms and women executed for daring to feel the sunlight; in the blood-soaked gloom of decapitated police stations or the shell-blasted remains of the Bamiyan Buddhas, this makes the West’s failure to secure Afghanistan’s future the ultimate betrayal.
For twenty years we have placed the sacrifice and bravery of Afghans on a pedestal; this year the West turned its back on all that good, for good. And Suhail Saheen, the spokesperson for the Taliban's newly respectable façade, was capable of asking Afghans to help ‘rebuild’ the country with a straight face. Would you?
“I don’t want to hide behind a curtain-like cloth. If I wear the burqa, it means that I have accepted the Taliban’s government” says Habiba, a 26-year-old university student in Kabul, who spoke to The Guardian after the fall of the capital. “I have given them the right to control me […,] if I accept the burqa, it will exercise power over me. I am not ready to let that happen.”
As the national of three NATO powers, how can someone like me ever hold the gaze of someone like Habiba? And how is it that women’s rights activists on my social media feed evapourate when millions of people like Habiba champion the most basic of feminist principles, the right to show your face, to go to school, the right to look your fellow citizen in the eye? Western opinion—American in particular—has abandoned Afghanistan.
"Biden’s actions will have single-handedly delivered the worst regression in women’s rights in Afghanistan for twenty years."
This hypocrisy isn’t surprising. An isolationist alliance between the Republican Right, glad to be rid of America’s tiresome geopolitical responsibilities, and the supposedly ‘progressive’ wing of the Democratic Party, freed from the need to squirm over America’s humanitarian obligations, has muted domestic backlash to the consequences of Afghan collapse, for Afghans. China, American credibility abroad, the state of the presidency, the Afghan refugee security risk—this news cycle has become the norm. Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham pondered to her viewers on America’s most watched news channel, “Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?”
In the same breath as “commend[ing] [the president] for the clarity of purpose of his statement…and the actions he has taken”, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a stern command to Afghans and the international community to ensure women’s rights are protected. The Taliban must be terrified. Of course by removing the tiny American military presence and contractor support for their Afghan allies (last year there were just 4,000 US troops in the entire country, compared to say, the 30,000 odd in South Korea), Biden’s actions will have single-handedly delivered the worst regression in women’s rights in Afghanistan for twenty years.
Bamiyan, Central Afghanistan A view over the stunning Bamiyan Valley showing the hollow niches in the clifface where the Bamiyan Buddhas once stood. The UNESCO site was destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. Credit: Bahir Ahmad Salehi
You don’t need to look far to find the oracles—smug, invertebrate—who sigh while they dust off Chapter 21 in ‘The Graveyard of Empires’, or the pseudo-bigots who claim ‘western’ values, like consenting to sex or daring to be educated, don’t work where the cave-dwelling Tuscan raiders live.
There are also the heartless and self-satisfied, those masquerading modern-day Fanons who relish the chance to shoehorn another case study into a neo-colonial critique, even as the fall of New Afghanistan bolsters the ranks of the wretched of the earth.
"The Western savior narrative vis-à-vis Afghanistan is a framing of Afghanistan as in need of Western help, as dependent on Western help —rather than as a Western-exploited and Western-ravaged people and land," argues Shabana Mir, an associate professor at American Islamic College.
This kind of commentary scratches all the right itches—hell, what’s not to like? Mir even treats us to a ‘vis-à-vis’. But rarely is an Afghan perspective represented in these critiques.
However well-intentioned, these perspectives cannot fathom a context in which power exercised by any western actor could ever, conceivably, be good (yes, 'goodness' is a whole other fraught conversation). No doubt, history does provide a depressing track record for western engagement in the world. It is typically problematic or exploitative and, inevitably, inconsistent. But this isn’t concrete— contexts and historical situations aren’t fixed, no matter how tempting it is to straightjacket ideological frameworks onto crises and board the fashionable bandwagons which tolerate healthy skepticism about western foreign policy hardening into dogma.
If there ever was a blueprint for what a society should under no circumstances look like, it is the fiefdom that is run by the Taliban and its Al Qaeda lap-dogs, and this is precisely the fate we have delivered to erstwhile allies, 113,425 of whom died alongside the 7,954 NATO troops, journalists and aid workers lost to the conflict since the World Trade Center attacks in 2001.
The West now does not have the luxury of the ethical high ground; it cannot continue to stonewall the Taliban. That position has been bottled and discredited; to persist is to indulge a moral backbone that crumbled like a pretzel when it counted most. Afghan people need food, sanitation, they need a functioning economy. Western sanctions must be dropped. The progress made in the country must never be dismissed but it is the principle and success of New Afghanistan which has made its fall that much more depressing.