My friends in Afghanistan are disappearing. They are scraping themselves off the face of the earth, terrified that if any trace is left behind, the Taliban will find them and kill them. In the very short time since their country fell into a deep, dark pit of despair, many of the Afghan people I know have simply ceased to exist. They have removed themselves from the world.
In the few days since the Taliban descended upon Kabul and the government and all security and hope for the future evaporated, Afghanistan’s people have retreated from the modern world. They have removed themselves from the platforms of modernity, fearful that the identities they have built there will be their undoing. On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, on all social media, Afghanistan’s people are receding from the light, just as fast as the country itself.
The Taliban came into Kabul on Sunday 15 August. They said they wouldn’t, but they are liars and so they did. They have lied about a lot of things over the years since they came into existence, a band of ill-educated, overzealous, religious fanatics who offered peace after many years of horrible, seemingly endless war in the Seventies and Eighties. But theirs was a violent peace and only the foolish believe them now. There are few fools in Afghanistan when it comes to the Taliban.
But it seems that there are many fools outside Afghanistan. We can start with the former president of the United States, Donald Trump. He did a deal with the Taliban that enabled him to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan and appear to the voters of his country as though he had kept his word to end the so-called “forever war”. The Taliban promised to end its relationship with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations. Which they didn’t. The then-insurgents also promised not to attack any American military in Afghanistan. Which they did. The drawdown proceeded apace, nevertheless.
The government of Afghanistan, and therefore its people, were not permitted a say in any of this. They were just expected to accept it, go along with it, shut up about it, and be happy that peace was a’coming. Except it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And it hasn’t. And it just might not. The guns may have fallen silent, but the undercurrent of violence, hate, fear, uncertainty, tension and terror endures. There are leaders of ethnic and religious groups forming up militias and getting ready to fight, swapping places to become the new insurgents as the world prepares to recognise whatever excuse for a government the Taliban and their amoral supporters cobble together. We are looking at a civil war in the making. Hasn’t Afghanistan had enough of war? The people are exhausted, traumatised, terrified. When is enough war enough war?
For the past three months, I have been on the ground reporting on the demise of the democratic experiment in Afghanistan that cost two decades, trillions of pounds, and tens of thousands of lives before coming to an ignominious end in Kabul in the early hours of Sunday 15 August 2021. Almost 20 years to the day since the attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda – helped extensively by the Taliban who were giving them food, shelter and wives at the time.
Those attacks, it is difficult to forget, were followed within weeks by a military assault on Afghanistan – which I witnessed and reported on – led by the United States, with Britain scurrying along behind in its own military-macho mini-me way. These days, the British military bleats impotently about the folly of leaving Afghanistan; the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, one of the Trump fold of fools, cries on air because the country’s meltdown is just so “sad”. The head of the British Army, General Sir Nick Carter, another fool, says the Taliban have changed – they are different, more reasonable now, he said ahead of a five-hour parliamentary debate in words that have made my blood boil and my head swirl. Former soldiers lobby in favour of a brain drain instead of political, diplomatic and economic pressure to ensure the safety, not only of the select group of people they are trying to extract from their country, but of the entire population.
It’s all so topsy-turvy. China’s dictators (no fools) rolled out the red carpet in early August for the putative dictators of Afghanistan, a country they are intent on pillaging of its natural resources and crisscrossing with railroads so they can get their manufactured stuff to European markets faster than they do now, by sea. The Taliban leaders have, of course, promised to help them do it, and to keep quiet about the slow strangulation of China’s own population of Muslims.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic people who are being incarcerated in specially built prisons in the deserts of Xinjiang, not far from China’s border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. It’s been recognised as a genocide. But the Taliban don’t mind. They’ve been happy to have Uyghurs fight and die for their cause, which has been dressed up as a religious crusade against the infidel Westerners who unjustly invaded and occupied their sacred land. They are also happy to promise the godless fascisto-commies of Beijing that they won’t complain about the institutionalised murder of a people who share that faith. Business, after all, is business.
And what business they do. Billions of dollars earned annually from drugs. We all know, or should by now, that the Taliban are the world’s biggest drugs producing and trafficking cartel. Anyone who doesn’t know just hasn’t been paying attention. They control the flow and the price of heroin worldwide, and are now branching into methamphetamine. A kilogram of Made in Afghanistan meth is worth US$700,000 on the streets of Australia. If you order a batch of Taliban brand heroin, they’ll throw in a sampler of meth to get you started. This is how they funded their insurgency, this is what they have been fighting for, this is why border crossings into the landlocked country have been so important. Control the production, control the supply, control the transportation, and just watch the money roll in. I wonder what foolish General Sir Nick thinks about that, if he does at all.
Soon after I arrived in Kabul in May, I wrote an article for Tortoise about the feeling of “final days” that pervaded the chokingly filthy air of the city. And so they were. When I left Kabul on 15 August, I was on the last commercial flight to lift off before the Taliban arrived and the airport closed to the sounds of gunfire and screams.
I spent these three months travelling to differently perilous parts of the country, with my friend and colleague, Afghanistan’s Pulitzer prize-winning photographer Massoud Hossaini. We visited frontlines before, during and after the Taliban had been through. My reporting and Massoud’s photography brought us a lot of hate mail from the Taliban and their army of trolls and sympathisers, many of whom are based in Pakistan, the movement’s principal supporter and strategist for the past two decades. But we were right, we knew it, and truth prevailed.
We reported on sex slavery and other abuses of women. On the closure of media outlets and the threats to and murders of journalists. On battlefield atrocities. On the funding of militias that the government of the former president refused to support even though they were successfully pushing back the Taliban in many regions. I wrote about the Taliban’s expansion from smack to meth. I wrote about corruption in the military and police so entrenched and brazen that frontline fighting men were not receiving food, let alone weapons and air support, and had to buy their own uniforms. I was called all sorts of things, by all sides. I was abused and threatened. Massoud has been abused and threatened for a lot longer than I have. Every time I got into the passenger seat of his car I had to look at the bullet holes from that time, in 2017, when he was ambushed on a Kabul road and almost killed. We are relieved to no longer be in Afghanistan and believe we got out in the nick of time. But we are very, very sad to have left. Massoud has left his country under extreme threat. He doesn’t know when, or if, he will be able to return.
And now we fret for friends and colleagues – and in Massoud’s case, family – left behind. We do what we can. But as I write, Kabul’s airport is still closed, all commercial flights are cancelled, and only emergency military airlifts are going ahead. Even people who are eligible to get on evacuation flights are having trouble reaching them as the road to the airport is now patrolled by Taliban thugs and thugs disguised as Taliban. They stop cars, they search luggage, they take passports and they burn them. The thugs just rob the people. Some of my friends are hiding in basements with their families. Some are moving location daily. Some are staying offline in case they are traced. Some I haven’t heard from. I am worried sick. This is a reign of terror. And yet there is a deafening silence from the international community – as there has been since the Taliban’s vicious, venal, well planned and unstoppable advance across Afghanistan began a few months ago. My friends are trapped, in fear for their lives, and no one can hear them scream.
So what happened? The collapse of Afghanistan’s government was, I believe, planned and orchestrated by a small handful of senior political figures working with their old friends in the Taliban leadership. They wanted Ghani out. They wanted the war to end and they saw Ghani as an obstacle to peace. The troika behind what is now happening in Afghanistan are: former president Hamid Karzai, installed by the US-led coalition that invaded and occupied in 2001; Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, deputy to Ghani and head of the former government’s peace talks team; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a busted-flush of a warlord known as the Butcher of Kabul since his civil war days in the early Nineties. These three men worked with the Taliban leadership to ensure a military and then a political victory for the world’s biggest organised crime gang, including its most notable protagonists and founders such as Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, now back on Afghan soil.
As Taliban gunmen go door-to-door in Kabul looking for and killing their enemies – as they have in all districts and cities that have come under their control in recent months, Karzai, Abdullah and Hekmatyar have formed themselves into a “coordination council” they believe will guide Afghanistan to peace and stability. A “golden opportunity,” as it was described to me by a friend in Kabul. They have sold the country to murderers, liars, misogynists, drug dealers. People are being killed, disappeared, forced from their homes, their jobs, intimidated, beaten up. Bodies are being dumped in open ground. Women are being forced into hijab and their homes, girls’ schools are being closed. The Taliban are collating lists of women and girls to be married off to their fighters, the sex slavery and ethnic cleansing that they call the spoils of war. The so-called spokesman for this gang held a victory press conference on 17 August in the government media and information centre, which was built with millions of dollars of international funds. Until a couple of weeks ago, it was run by a man called Dawa Khan Menapal. He was shot dead in the street by the Taliban as he left Friday prayers.
As world leaders like Boris Johnson dither and embarrass us, I predict that the Kabul troika and the killers they call friends will merge seamlessly and emerge for their photo ops patting each other on the back, self-assured of a legacy as peacemakers. While in the hills, an insurgency against their rule will grow and will seek revenge. And the cycle of civil war, of killing, dying, and crying out for peace, will continue in Afghanistan. Take a bow, President-in-Waiting Baradar.
Photograph by Rahmat Gul/AP/Shutterstock
Lynne O’Donnell is a journalist, author, and analyst. She was Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.
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