April 2022

Building a place called freedom

Even as they face crushing poverty and an oppressive regime, the people of Afghanistan stillhold out some hope for the future of their country. Tanya Vatsa reports, with Kanika Gupta from Kabul

Francis Fukuyama’s End of History accorded supremacy to liberal democracy as the ideology which stood victorious by the end of 20th century. Little did the world know that importing and imposing this Western idea of governance in the global East and Middle East would plunge several former prosperous countries into political chaos and humanitarian catastrophe.

One such victim of Western idealism is Afghanistan, a landlocked country located at the crossroads of Central and South Asia.

With a history of foreign invasions, political instability and difficult land terrains, Afghanistan has witnessed numerous conflict sat the behest of a new global power trying to establish its ideological dominance in the region. After the Soviets came the Americans, under the garb of fighting terrorism, who stayed to make Afghanistan democratic like the West. Ironically the terrorists they were fighting, the Taliban, were created by the covert support of the CIA and ISI to resist the Soviet expansion. The Islamic Fundamentalist outfit ruled Kabul post-Soviet invasion from 1996-2001, when the US decided to invade in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. The Taliban took back control last year as the Americans retreated and the plight of Afghanistan, as Shakespeare would put it, descended from ‘smoke to smother, from a tyrant Duke to a tyrant brother’.

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The perpetual suffering of the Afghans continues as fickle global attention conveniently moves on to new issues. The Taliban has made promises to usher in a more liberal regime this time, with freedoms‘ within the Islamic framework’. Yet the people of Afghanistan have been left to fend for themselves. Massive wartime losses have crippled the country’s infrastructure. Pervasive poverty and unemployment have made most of the population dependent on humanitarian aid. Women and children who have lost their male family members to the war are at the mercy of this extremist regime. 

Herat’s Bibi Khan is an example of one such woman. Bibi cannot recall precisely for how long she has been alive; she says her age maybe around early 40s.  Her husband abandoned the family due to wartime penury and now the only earning member of the large family is her 15-year-old son. The family belongs to Badghis province. When asked if they manage to make ends meet, she replied: ‘Most days and nights we sleep on an empty stomach. Sometimes neighbours hand over some food. The money he [her son] earns is barely enough to feed half the family.’

Pervasive poverty has made most of the population dependent on humanitarian aid

Bibi has been surviving on one kidney for over three years now.  Her son met with an accident and they had no money to cover the operation and medication bills for his recovery. Upon being asked why she sold an organ and how she has been since, she replied, ‘We had nothing left to give. There was no money, no belongings. It was our last option. The operation was done in Herat and no medical documents or assurances were given. I have been very weak since and there is a consistent crippling pain.’ Astonishingly, the village in Herat where she resides is peculiar for people surviving on a single kidney.  This one-kidney village is a glaring example of the heart-rending economic distress the country is enduring.

A young women’s rights activist, Ruqqaiya Begum (name changed on request) was a foreign languages teacher for 12th grade in a girls’ school in Kabul. She was one of the many young women who had been promised a democratic Afghanistan with equal rights and opportunities. But the school has now been shut and she is currently unemployed.

‘The Taliban doesn’t want women to participate in society and in political decision making,’ she says. ‘They want to confine us to our homes. They do not allow women to travel outside without a Mehram (male chaperon). The girls’ school I taught in has been shut since Taliban took over and now I am struggling to make ends meet.’

Women took to the streets to protest against the curtailment of their rights, but these demonstrations were met by heavy firing and violent beatings by the Taliban. The absurdity of clamping down so brutally on peaceful protests has cowed the initial zeal of the working female community. When asked what she sees herself doing next, Ruqqaiya Begum stated: ‘We have no guns and arms to fight against our oppressors. We only have our voices and we are trying to amplify the voice through social media and mainstream media. We need the world to recognise our plight. We don’t want to be forgotten sufferers of brutal persecution.’

Bibi Khan

Can tyranny turn to benevolence?

It is amply clear that no global power is willing to overthrow the Taliban. The world is making its peace with a new ‘terrorist’ regime that has assumed national leadership.

But can this repressive organisation right any wrongs enacted by foreign powers and previous administrations? Can it modernise to some degree? Some of its young members seem to think so.

Sarhadi is a young Talib of 24, employed as a guard at the Afghan-Iran border. When asked why he joined the Taliban he told us, ‘I have been with the Taliban for almost five years now. I joined them because of the situation in my country. The Ghani government had wronged the people. With all power concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and the well-networked, deserving people were losing employment and their chance at political participation. When I went to a government office, I was not even allowed inside. Common people were not treated well. Today if you go to a government office you can walk in and meet the man in charge. We are working to serve our people and not just the rich.’ 

To the question of how he wishes to improve the current regime he replied: ‘Several improvements are needed but it is the right place to serve the people. People should actively join the Taliban if they want to see improvements in the situation of the country.’ 

He admitted that his work documents had not been processed and hence he was yet to receive his salary. However, since he had many brothers, one of whom is a doctor, his economic situation was better. He admitted that no one works with the Taliban for the money, but to serve the Afghan people who have suffered massively under foreign dominance.

Bilal Karimi, the deputy spokesperson for the Taliban, acknowledges the economic crisis staring Kabul in the face. He told us: ‘For the past 20 years, our Jehad was to remove international forces from Afghanistan and bring peace. Now that peace is established and security is available, our Jehad is to improve the economy, to build Afghanistan in terms of trade, economic development and structural development.’ He added that ‘the security situation is very good. Most of the accidents have come down to zero. In fact there are days when there is no news about any such incidents.’ 

On the need for global aid for economic development, Karimi said the frozen Afghan assets are hindering their capacities.He urged world powers to draw a distinction between humanitarianism and politics to enable supplies to reach the people.

Abdul Qahar Balkhi is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Taliban. In our conversation with him he said that the ‘Taliban urges all Afghans, especially academics and experts in the field of science, technology, health and others, to return and contribute to the development of their homeland, but naturally, they are hesitant because of the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the US. We remain optimistic that as the sanctions are waived, the Afghan diaspora will return to serve their country as patriots.’

Taliban urges all Afghans, especially experts in science, technology and health, to return and contribute to the development of their homeland

Can retention of educated patriots rebuild Afghanistan?

Adib Sharifi is a young Tajik who works as a financial accountant in a national organisation. He graduated in Business Administration in India, and returned home in 2014. According to him, ‘the situation in Afghanistan was much better during the Hamid Karzai administration. There were plenty of jobs and employment was merit-based. After Ashraf Ghani rose to power, the economic condition of the commons deteriorated. The brain drain started then. Educated and skilled individuals were neither given deserving jobs nor sufficient political opportunities to work for the nation.’ He says he did not flee the country because he did not want to be treated as a third-class citizen elsewhere. Also, he would have no honour if he left his land when it is in dire need of reconstruction.

World Food Program food distribution in Kabul

His father still works in the Chamber of Commerce for the current government. Sharifi says that the greatest setback for him, his community and other ethnic groups in Afghanistanis the loss of their true identity under decades of foreign dominance. While he had his reservations about positively contributing to the Taliban regime, he profoundly wished to participate in rebuilding his homeland.

Similarly, a young girl pursuing a Masters in Public Administration in Iran and simultaneously working for an international organisation has promised to come back to her country after she graduates. According to her, educated, employed Afghans might not get the same respect in other nations and hence it is best to give back to their homeland.

Where is Afghanistan headed?

Drawing conclusions and forming analyses from remote parts of the world without listening to the real stakeholders on the ground is an art mastered by the global intelligentsia. Like most countries, Afghanistan is a land of diversity. People come from various backgrounds and walks of life. But they share a desire not to witness any more destruction. The people of Afghanistan have lost enough to the raging battles between various factions. They long for peace and togetherness, and deserve food, shelter and employment. Despite the weariness born of a lengthy battle, the Afghan youth seems optimistic about the times ahead, now that the war is over.

‘We have yearned for peace and security, especially as citizens of a country which has fallen victim to numerous proxy wars,’ says Amena Safi, a 24-year-old resident of Jowzjan Province. ‘Five years from now I am expecting a healthy and prosperous life. I am an optimist and I wish my country will see better days soon.’ A 26-year-old Bilal from Ningarhar adds that war is destruction, with no victor or vanquished. He admits he prefers the relative peace that prevails now and wishes to continue his education to contribute to the reconstruction of his homeland.

Talibs lining up outside a government office

Road ahead

The Taliban which rose to power in 1996 is the forerunner of the current regime, though the table at the world leadership forum has risen considerably higher since then and a place there would require progressive reforms to the Taliban’s longstanding ideologies. The group’s deputy spokesperson insisted that engagement with and investment from the international community is detrimental to Afghanistan’s development as an independent nation. But any such development will demand a transformation, not only in the ruling regime’s attitude towards gender, ethnic and caste biases, but also in its capacity to compromise, so that it can integrate into an interconnected global economy.

The only way forward for all stakeholders is to enable a stable, prosperous Afghanistan. Since it has been demonstrated that all attempts at regime change have only drained the coffers of the West, it is time to put good old diplomacy in place. The current sanctions are fuelling horrendous poverty in Afghanistan. World leadership should demand freedom for women and minorities, in return for pumping money into the Afghan economy. Minimum thresholds for female participation in the workforce should be established and their liberties restored, in return for work and education visas for the Afghan diaspora.

It is clear the Taliban cannot govern in isolation. For a country as deeply wounded as this, it will take decades of rebuilding and recovery. Peace should be the first pillar and the world must build on it collectively thereafter.

Tanya Vatsa is a law graduate from National Law University, Lucknow, and a former assistant advocate. Her writing on international relations has been published by the Diplomatist, International Policy Digest and The Kootneeti

Kanika Gupta is a multimedia journalist from Delhi, India, who is currently working out of Kabul. She writes about human rights, women’s rights, and culture stories from conflict zones