The Americans are leaving, are Afghans fearful of the Taliban or is there something else?
An Afghan reflection on America’s longest war.
On September 10 2001 Afghanistan was a forgotten country in the heart of Asia. As the world looked ahead to the future, this country and its people were still paying the price of a great game that was played here between the then two superpowers of the world, the USSR and the USA. There was a war going on between two factions who both had recently fought a religious war against the USSR. Regional countries like Pakistan, Iran, Russia, India, each had their fingers in the pie.
The Afghan people lived a miserable life either in Afghanistan or as refugees in Pakistan or Iran. The diaspora was not made up of all poor people. Some Afghans were rich, but the majority of them were poor struggling to make ends meet. The rich were rich either because they had played a prominent role in the fight against the USSR and acquired the illicit wealth, or were involved in drug trafficking, or were running NGO’s local charities getting funds from the foreign donors and providing the much-needed healthcare or schools for the Afghan people due to the absence of any state.
As Afghans were not officially allowed to work in Pakistan and Iran, the educated Afghans had no choice but to work for the rich Afghans. The rich took advantage of their desperation and inflicted such psychological pain on them that they either just put their heads down and endured or would risk their life and travel to Europe on foot. For those without education, they either grew poppies on their small plots of land or would send their sons to serve as soldiers for different factions fighting the war.
After the tragic terrorist attacks of 9/11 in America, Afghanistan was finally in the headlines. The fire that had burnt Afghans for years had finally been noticed by the world. When the USA decided to attack Afghanistan and get rid of the Taliban regime, the desperate Afghans against all patriotic rules were happy to allow a foreign power to invade their country. They were tired of the rich Afghans exploiting them. They were tired of the Taliban and Northern Alliance fighting to rule the country and they were tired of the regional countries especially Pakistan and Iran exploiting their pain. The optimism was that the American presence will give this country and its people a chance to build a government by the people and for the people, such as they have in their own country. Justice will be served. Those who destroyed this country and made its people suffer will be held to account.
The Afghans thought that just like in the fight against the USSR, where America had helped the oppressed against the oppressors, this time around they will stand with the Afghan people against the rich Afghans involved in the civil war, the warlords, the drug traffickers and also Pakistan and Iran who had done everything to keep the flame of the war alive in their country. Unfortunately what the ordinary Afghans didn’t know was that the Americans could not feel their pain because they had not been through the same experience. The American intervention in the last twenty years has made the oppressors stronger and the oppressed more oppressed. The billions of dollars brought invested in this country made the rich into billionaires, the Karzai family is now a real estate tycoon. Warlords like Dostum, Atta Noor etc have billions of dollars and have raised a second generation to continue their legacy.
The influx of dollars to the country has resulted in hyperinflation. Kabul is one of the most expensive cities in the south and central Asia. The rich have built high rise buildings often with no respect to safety standards and are selling apartments for hundreds of thousands of dollars, making them more expensive than similar properties in an American or European city.
Rents have skyrocketed. The mafia controlling the real estate market demands rents in dollars and requires tenants to pay six months in advance. The system is biased against the tenants, they pay the rent in advance but will not receive any service or support from the landlord when something goes wrong in the property. The absence of a lending system in Afghan banking means there is no way to get a mortgage to get on the property ladder.
The endemic corruption in the country means that whenever residential schemes to help the poor or middle class are completed, the majority of the properties are bought by the real estate mafia to keep the property market saturated and to invest their illicit wealth.
Their wealth gives them the upper hand in running and winning in the presidential and parliamentary elections. Once in power, they have no interest in solving the problems that give them the opportunity to get so strong and powerful.
In 2002 I was travelling by taxi from Kandahar to Kabul. The 250 km journey took a day and a half because years of war had turned this major road into a dirt track. We left early in the morning while it was still dark. As we reached the last district in the province of Kandahar we were stopped by a police checkpoint. The soldier asked questions like where we were heading etc and then said if we can help with some money so he can buy some cigarettes. I gladly gave him some money as I was sitting in the front seat with the taxi driver. As we left the taxi driver told me, “Be thankful for the B52s flying in the sky”, I was shocked and asked him why? He said, “If not those bombers he would have taken everything we had by force and no one would have stopped him”.
The Americans are leaving and they are rightly tired of the not changing situation in Afghanistan. In the last 20 years, they have invested trillions of dollars and in the country trying to make it stable, with no visible improvements. Different points are being made in the media like Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan is a fragmented society and not a nation, Afghans never welcomed foreigners, Afghanistan is ungovernable etc. For us Afghans, none of this represents reality.
The American intervention of the last twenty years has brought some improvements but it has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. It has made the warlords into billionaires. It has made the Taliban the victors of a second jihad this time against the all-powerful USA. Billions of dollars have been paid to Pakistan, which has got away with housing Bin Ladin and Taliban and is now a Chinese ally. Iran has become a regional power they have skillfully exploited the desperate Afghan refugees to raise Fatamion, a Shia militia force made of Afghan Shia refugees. Fatamion is a brigade of battled hardened fighters who have fought on the side of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in the Syrian and Iraqi wars.
As the US forces prepare to leave the fear of ordinary Afghans is increasing, they feel like a lamb waiting to be slaughtered, the blades are sharper, the butchers are more emboldened and there is nowhere to escape. Ten years ago Malalai Joya an ex Afghan parliamentarian who was a strong critic of the warlords and then US presence in Afghanistan, in an interview with the BBC said that the Americans should leave Afghanistan because their presence has pushed ordinary Afghans from the frying pan to the fire. Back then it didn’t make sense but thinking about it now I guess she was right, if they had left then at least the blades would not have been so sharp and the butchers not so emboldened. We Afghans are waiting for a blood bath but the biggest pain is that unlike 2001 this time there is no hope that the internal community will come to help.