Afghanistan Falls to the Taliban

16 August, 2021
Taliban fighters take control of the Afghan presidential palace after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani flees Kabul, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021 (photo: AP/Zabi Karimi).
Tal­iban fight­ers take con­trol of the Afghan pres­i­den­tial palace after Afghan Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani flees Kab­ul, Sun­day, Aug. 15, 2021 (pho­to: AP/Zabi Karimi).

Hadani Ditmars

As I watch Afghanistan fall to the Tal­iban, in the flick­er­ing blue TV screen light of my liv­ing room in Van­cou­ver, I’m remind­ed of anoth­er sum­mer offen­sive. While many com­men­ta­tors have evoked mem­o­ries of Saigon, it’s the fall of Mosul that springs to my mind.

It was sev­en years ago that ISIS invad­ed Mosul to no one’s great alarm, with Iraqi army forces seem­ing­ly dis­solv­ing into the ether against an oppo­nent they out­num­bered, just as 50,000 Tal­iban have over­whelmed 300,000 Afghan troops. In both cas­es, resis­tance to “insur­gents” was mit­i­gat­ed by con­tempt for a cor­rupt regime. And in both cas­es, aer­i­al bom­bard­ment by nation­al armies — aid­ed and abet­ted by West­ern allies — in attempts to root out insur­gents result­ed in untold suf­fer­ing for cap­tive civil­ian populations.

“Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.”

— Rumi

But the game of spot the dif­fer­ence doesn’t stop there. In both instances it was and still is women and reli­gious minori­ties who bear the brunt of both extrem­ist vio­lence and gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion and inep­ti­tude. And both Iraq and Afghanistan were once mod­ern peace­ful nations before decades of dis­as­trous inva­sions, wars and for­eign inter­ven­tions made the sepia-toned images of 1970’s Kab­ul and Bagh­dad seem like far away dreams. The Tal­iban of course were large­ly a cre­ation of the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI, with their jihadist text­books print­ed in Nebras­ka; and ISIS was the mon­strous love child of the 2003 inva­sion, for­eign fund­ing and an increas­ing­ly dis­en­fran­chised civil­ian pop­u­la­tion wracked by sec­tar­i­an wars and ram­pant corruption.

Now, as thou­sands of civil­ian lives hang in the bal­ance in Afghanistan and a sense of betray­al by the West haunts fam­i­lies hid­ing out in their base­ments, I am remind­ed that the only thing worse than being an ene­my of the US is being a for­mer ally. Just ask the ghosts of Sad­dam Hus­sein, the Shah of Iran or Manuel Noriega.

We’ve seen this movie before, and it always ends bad­ly. As I watch the sur­re­al images of Tal­ibani in the pres­i­den­tial palace, and news of Prime Min­is­ter Ashraf Ghani aban­don­ing his coun­try, I feel a dizzy­ing sense of freefall. Its veloc­i­ty must be 1,000 times greater for my Afghan friends. The social media pleas of film­mak­ers like Sahraa Kari­mi to help save her coun­try, fol­lowed by a video of her try­ing to save her­self, evoke pure ver­tig­i­nous ter­ror as she runs through the streets of Kab­ul cry­ing, “They are com­ing to kill us!”, sirens blar­ing in the dis­tance and Tal­ibani on tanks in the streets. She tweets lat­er, “The sky of Kab­ul, which was silent in the evenings at night and the sum­mer evening breeze forced you to open the win­dow and leave your face in the cool breeze of liv­ing at home, is now full of the sound of heli­copters, war­planes. This is the side of the shoot­ings that breaks people’s hearts,” she added. “We are sold.”

Destroyed Armenian church in Mosul, Iraq (photo: Getty Images).
Destroyed Armen­ian church in Mosul, Iraq (pho­to: Get­ty Images).

In her breath­less video, I notice, amidst her pan­ic, her del­i­cate fea­tures, and the red stone ring she wears on her right hand. As in Iraq, there is always room for beau­ty — and poet­ry — in the midst of hor­ror. Sad­ly, in both places, it’s often the poets they come for first.

While I’ve been report­ing from Iraq since 1997, I some­how nev­er made it to Afghanistan. Iraq after all, was more than enough to keep me occu­pied — men­tal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly. And yet the fates of both nations seem inter­wo­ven, their people’s strug­gles often con­flat­ed, for bet­ter or worse. The pre­text for the US inva­sion of both coun­tries was to “root out ter­ror” and both had their pat­ri­mo­ny destroyed by for­eign fund­ed extrem­ists. The West­ern out­cry at the Taliban’s destruc­tion of the Bud­dhas of Bamyan was uni­ver­sal­ly con­demned, while out­rage about the destruc­tion of Iraqi and indeed world her­itage (not to men­tion the fate of Iraq’s peo­ple) in the wake of the 2003 inva­sion was under­whelm­ing at best. It picked up again just in time for ISIS’ war on ancient sites, and their sale of antiq­ui­ties on the black mar­ket to fund their “caliphate” — now in promi­nent collector’s liv­ing rooms in Lon­don and Geneva.

For my Iraqi friends, also watch­ing the freefall and the ter­ror from flick­er­ing screens in their own liv­ing rooms, this is déjà vu all over again. An Iraqi fem­i­nist friend in Bagh­dad posts on Face­book about the fate of Afghan women, using the image of the Afghan girl immor­tal­ized on a Nation­al Geo­graph­ic cov­er in 1985, then a refugee in Pak­istan after the Russ­ian inva­sion, now per­haps to be a refugee again. She writes of the US with­draw­al, “Why would the Amer­i­cans regret their actions? They have done every­thing they planned to destroy and con­trol the entire region one way or another.”

A Chris­t­ian friend in the Nin­eveh Plain tells me he is hav­ing flash­backs about the night ISIS invad­ed his town of Qaraqosh in August of 2014, destroy­ing church­es in their wake. I am remind­ed of my recent inter­view with the Ortho­dox Arch­bish­op of Mosul, who told me, “I can’t believe that the great pow­ers — coun­tries who have satel­lites every­where — didn’t see ISIS when they came to Mosul. They stayed for two months, and no one did any­thing and then they came to our vil­lages in the Nin­eveh Plain, and they let them do what they want. But when they tried to come to Erbil, they stopped them. When they killed al Bagh­da­di, they fol­lowed him by satel­lite, and they found him, and they killed him. That means when they want to do some­thing, they can do it. But when they don’t want to, no one can push them to do it.”

An Afghan fem­i­nist friend in Van­cou­ver mes­sages, “Don’t for­get us in your prayers! A coun­try that hasn’t seen peace for over 40 years. We deserve to be known for our cul­ture, not our pain.”

Tal­iban sur­round­ed Kab­ul, I were to bank to get some mon­ey, they closed and evacuated;

I still can­not believe this hap­pened, who did happen.

Please pray for us, I am call­ing again:

Hey ppl of the this big world, please do not be silent , they are com­ing to kill us. pic.twitter.com/wIytLL3ZNu

— Sahraa Karimi/ صحرا كريمي (@sahraakarimi) August 15, 2021

Although I nev­er went to Afghanistan, Afghanistan came to me. Cana­da, after all, has the sec­ond biggest North Amer­i­can dias­po­ra after the US — at almost 100,000 — most of them refugees, includ­ing Maryam Mon­sef, our Min­is­ter for the Sta­tus of Women. As I went back and forth between my home in Van­cou­ver, where almost 10,000 Afghans reside, and assign­ments in Bagh­dad, I fell into a rela­tion­ship with Sohail, an Afghan-Pak­istani-Cana­di­an man, whose triply hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ty spoke to the com­plex­i­ty of Afghanistan (a nation like Iraq), which in spite of its fre­quent stereo­typ­ing in the West as some kind of mono­lith­ic place, is home to many dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties, faiths, cul­tures and lan­guages. Both Iraq and Afghanistan boast cities that were once silk route cross­roads, before the Great Game and cold war real poli­tik, fol­lowed by dis­as­trous inva­sions, occu­pa­tions, extrem­isms and cor­rup­tion, bled them dry.

Sohail’s moth­er, Aquila, was from an old Moghul fam­i­ly in Del­hi, a cousin of the Sufi writer Idries Shah, and a descen­dant of Afghan nobil­i­ty. His father was a Pash­tun from the bor­der area between Afghanistan and Pak­istan. Long after the allure of her son wore off — I recall a breakup wor­thy of a Shah sto­ry, run­ning out of petrol in his car in the mid­dle of a bridge, just as he was lec­tur­ing me on some divine man­date that gave men domin­ion over women — my friend­ship with his moth­er remained strong. Aquila would take me to Afghan fam­i­ly par­ties and pass me off as a cousin. When I protest­ed that I was Cana­di­an — albeit with Syr­i­an Chris­t­ian ances­tors — the rel­a­tives took me for an Afghan deny­ing her iden­ti­ty. So even­tu­al­ly I just gave in and accept­ed my new “nation­al­i­ty” — much as I did in Iraq, where police would reg­u­lar­ly try to stop me from return­ing to my hotel full of for­eign­ers, not quite believ­ing my Cana­di­an pass­port. As I flew back and forth between Van­cou­ver and Bagh­dad on assign­ment, I would return to Afghan-Cana­di­an feasts of kab­u­li palau washed down by car­damom-spiked sweet chai.

Through Aquila, a Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Karachi, I learned about the sto­ries of Mul­lah Nas­rud­din, record­ed by Idries Shah in books like Tales of the Dervish­es. I also learned about the for­mi­da­ble strength of Afghan women, as Aquila recount­ed how she was able to con­vince vil­lage head men in Peshawar to intro­duce birth con­trol and mod­ern gyne­col­o­gy for women there, in the 60’s. Where West­ern soci­ol­o­gists had failed, she won them over with her knowl­edge of trib­al and Islam­ic cul­ture as well as humor and even some Mul­lah Nas­rud­din sto­ries. Aquila regaled me with tales of Kab­ul in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when it was an exot­ic tourist des­ti­na­tion on the hip­pie trail and when Afghan Islam was more about Sufism than Wah­habist influ­enced, CIA backed ter­ror. Rumi, after all, was born in Balkh.

I think of Aquila now, as her coun­try faces fresh new ter­ror, and of her Iraqi name­sake, Aquila al-Hashi­mi, one of three Iraqi women in the post inva­sion Iraqi Gov­ern­ing Coun­cil, and the Sor­bonne edu­cat­ed for­mer French trans­la­tor for Tariq Aziz. The Iraqi Aquila was assas­si­nat­ed in Sep­tem­ber of 2003 in the chaos of post inva­sion vio­lence that made the streets unsafe for women, while I was there research­ing my first book on Iraq. When I first heard the news, I imme­di­ate­ly thought of Aquila, the moth­er of my friend. As reports come in now of pub­lic exe­cu­tions in sta­di­ums and door to door search­es for those who worked for West­ern forces, what is in store for Afghan women, who like their Iraqi coun­ter­parts, have seen their hard won free­doms con­tin­u­al­ly betrayed?

Mosul’s ruined Al Tahera church (photo courtesy Hadani Ditmars).
Mosul’s ruined Al Tahera church (pho­to cour­tesy Hadani Ditmars).

I remem­ber meet­ing the Afghan Sufi singer Ustad Fari­da Mah­wash at a Van­cou­ver per­for­mance in 2003, short­ly after the Iraqi inva­sion. Once a star of Radio Kab­ul, the “voice of Afghanistan” was forced to flee to Pak­istan in 1991 when she was caught between two war­ring fac­tions who both want­ed her to sing for their cause, or face assas­si­na­tion. Now she lives in Fre­mont, Cal­i­for­nia, a San Fran­cis­co sub­urb home to some 60,000 Afghans, known as “Lit­tle Kabul.”

I remem­ber meet­ing Malalai Joya in Van­cou­ver in 2010, the coura­geous Afghan par­lia­men­tar­i­an who had the chutz­pah to call the Afghan war­lords installed by the US, well, a bunch of war­lords. For this she was in con­stant fear for her life.

“Deals were made, it has been done,” a friend in Kab­ul writes me now, with a ter­ri­ble final­i­ty. Amer­i­cans cer­tain­ly had no prob­lem mak­ing deals with the same Tal­iban they invit­ed to Texas in 1997, to dis­cuss build­ing a pipeline across Cen­tral Asia with the oil com­pa­ny, Uno­cal. Zal­may Khalilzad, who had served as a State Depart­ment offi­cial when Ronald Rea­gan was pres­i­dent and bro­kered the lat­est “peace deal” with the Tal­iban, worked as a con­sul­tant for the now-defunct com­pa­ny. In an op-ed for the Wash­ing­ton Post in 1996, he defend­ed the Tal­iban, writ­ing: “The Tal­iban does not prac­tice the anti‑U.S. style of fun­da­men­tal­ism prac­ticed by Iran — it is clos­er to the Sau­di mod­el,” adding, “The group upholds a mix of tra­di­tion­al Pash­tun val­ues and an ortho­dox inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam.”

With­in a year, nego­ti­a­tions over the pipeline would col­lapse, when Al-Qae­da — offered safe har­bor in Afghanistan by the Tal­iban — bombed two U.S. embassies in Africa. Now that same deal may again be in the off­ing, two decades, tens of thou­sands of lives and three tril­lion dol­lars lat­er.

I  con­sid­er the cost of things as I reach into my jew­ellery box and pull out an antique Afghan sil­ver bracelet set with a gar­net stone. It was giv­en to me by Aquila and the red stone looks like the one in the ring Sahraa wears in her ver­tig­i­nous video. I have kept it all these years as a kind of tal­is­man for pro­tec­tion, wear­ing it even in Bagh­dad. In addi­tion to its mar­kets for opi­um, oil and weapons, Afghanistan is rich in gem­stones, like emer­alds from the Pan­jshir Val­ley, and rubies from the Soro­bi region, between Jalal­abad and Kabul.

I gaze at an old Iraqi tourist guide from the ‘70s I picked up on Mutannabi Street, now com­mand­ing a spe­cial place on my desk. It opens with an image of Caliph al Mansour’s round city, and the title, Bagh­dad, City of Peace. My eyes turn to the flick­er­ing com­put­er screen, and a pop­u­lar image of women at a Kab­ul uni­ver­si­ty in 1972, smil­ing and laugh­ing, books in hand, dressed in mini-skirts.

I remem­ber that, long before Afghanistan was a haven for war­lords and extrem­ists, it was the cen­tre of silk road trade. I learn that, “Even before that, around 2500 BC, lapis lazuli was export­ed from Afghanistan to Iraq for the harps buried with the kings of the ancient city of Ur, some of which can now be seen in the British Museum.”

Grow­ing tired of the tele­vi­su­al night­mare unfold­ing on my screens, my eyes turn to the dog-eared copy Aquila gave me of Shah’s Car­a­van of Dreams. I turn to a page with a sto­ry called Whose Beard?

“Nas­rud­din dreamt that he had Satan’s beard in his hand. Tug­ging the hair he cried: “The pain you feel is noth­ing com­pared to that which you inflict on the mor­tals you lead astray.” And he gave the beard such a tug that he woke up yelling in agony. Only then did he realise that the beard he held in his hand was his own.”

It seems a fit­ting one for Afghanistan.

And then I remem­ber a poem by the Iraqi com­mu­nist poet and Sufi-influ­enced Abd al-Wah­hab al-Bay­ati, whose pol­i­tics made him flee Sad­dam Hussein’s ear­ly ‘70s CIA-backed purge (“My rela­tions with Iraqi gov­ern­ments were nev­er con­cil­ia­to­ry. I belong to the Iraqi peo­ple,” he said) — a poem that would be equal­ly at home in Bagh­dad or Kabul.

The Con­ver­sa­tion of a Stone

A stone said to another:
I am not hap­py in this naked fence
My place is in the palace of the sultan.

The oth­er said:
You are sen­tenced to death
Whether you are here or in the sultan’s palace
Tomor­row this palace will be destroyed
As well as this fence
By an order from the sultan’s men
To repeat their game from the beginning
And to exchange their masks.

AfghanistanBaghdadIdries ShahIraqKabulTaliban

Hadani Ditmars has been reporting from the Middle East on culture, society, and politics since the '90s. She is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman’s Journey Through Iraq and a former editor at New Internationalist. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Sight and Sound, the San Francisco Chronicle, Haaretz, Wallpaper, Vogue, and Ms. Magazine, and broadcast on CBC, BBC, NPR, and RTE. Her book in progress, Between Two Rivers, is a political travelogue of ancient and sacred sites in Iraq.

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