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In Search of Afghanistan: An Interview with Ali Abdi

Three women walk by an ancient site in Bamyan, a city in central Afghanistan with a Hazara and Shi’a majority. The rock-cavity in the background contained one of two 1,500-year old Buddha statues that the Taliban destroyed in 2001. Photo by the author.

To offer our readers an inside look at contemporary Afghanistan, we have conducted an interview with Ali Abdi, a researcher who has been living there since 2015 and working with a queer community in Kabul.

The Taliban’s speedy takeover of Kabul last week surprised many political observers. Yet, this is exactly what many in Afghanistan feared for months. Could you walk us through how we got to this moment, and why is it so significant?

It was indeed surprising, but perhaps not only for political observers. Not many Afghans inside the country were expecting the Taliban to have such a quick takeover of the capital either. I remember that after the Taliban assumed the control of the two major cities of Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif in early August, which had historically been among the anti-Taliban resistance camps in the west and the north respectively, the general idea among those residents of Kabul with whom I was in touch was that their city would have a different fate. Very few in the capital had imagined that in the course of a few days the political system would collapse and that Taliban fighters would sit behind the desks of the Arg, the presidential palace, and pose for group-photos in front of Al-Jazeera TV cameras. If one reads in between the lines of the speeches of top Taliban figures over the past week, it seems that even they were/are taken by surprise. More than two weeks have now passed since their military march into Kabul, but we still do not know who the future leaders are, what forms of government or coalition they imagine for the country, or what laws and decrees they seek to adopt and impose. The heartbreaking and calamitous scenes at Kabul airport suggest that perhaps no one had been prepared for this.

The significant question, as you’ve rightly brought up, is how we got to this moment, and what may explain the quick turn of events. Before broadening our scope to include a wider historical context, let me begin by saying that the US-backed Afghan government was a deeply corrupt and incompetent institution with very little support among ordinary Afghans and with an ethnic bias in favor of its Pashtun constituents when it came to distributing resources and opportunities. Ashraf Ghani, a once-Finance Minister and with years of experience at the World Bank, came to power in 2014 after a fraudulent election and only after the US directly intervened in the process to appoint him as the president much to the dismay of his Tajik rival Abdullah Abdullah. Similar to his predecessor Hamid Karzai (and perhaps similar to all other Afghan rulers since the rise of the Afghan state in the late 19th century), Ghani’s administration was fragile and largely dependent on (or was kept dependent on) foreign aid. Only in 2020, more than 80 percent of the Afghan government budget was paid by the US and its allies, a large portion of which was spent on equipping and sustaining Afghan military and security forces. The exigencies of a war economy meant that Afghanistan had become a heaven for American and transnational security companies, arms industry contractors, weapon dealers, security advisors, risk-assessment consultants, and “anti-terrorism experts” who made a fortune against the backdrop of the ‘war on terror.’ When the US sidelined the Afghan government in its Doha talks with the Taliban, it was not surprising that the Afghan government did not have much bargaining power. It had by then sold its soul and integrity to the US empire.

In the years prior to the fall of Kabul, the security and economic situation was already appalling—with more suicide attacks in urban centers, with more territories under the Taliban rule, and with more than sixty percent of the population earning less than a dollar a day. It was perhaps after the US and the Taliban reached a deal in the early 2020 that the fall of the Afghan military and political establishment found a new pace. The Afghan army had been largely dependent on the US air support and its logistic instructions. When the US halted its cover operations (which in many instances had in fact targeted and killed civilians), the Afghan soldiers on the ground felt increasingly disconcerted if not betrayed. On top of this, for many Afghans the political leadership in Kabul was not trustable anymore. Aside from being inherently corrupt and incompetent (to the extent that even the soldiers’ monthly share of food and salaries were regularly stolen), the Ghani’s administration had for years alienated and marginalized various non-Pashtun populations. Following Abd al-Rahman Khan’s model of governance in the late nineteenth century (r. 1880–1901), Ghani was in favor of centralizing power in Kabul, or more precisely in the presidential palace where he used to spend hours with his group of advisors, most of whom were double-passport-holder Pashtuns with remarkably high salaries and with little or no sense of accountability to local communities. The Hazaras and Uzbeks were rarely included in the national security decision rooms, for instance, and the safety of Hazara- and Shi’a-populated areas was arguably not among the priorities of the government. By the time Ghani and his close advisors escaped with millions of dollars, the Afghan army had already lost its motivation and will to put up a good fight.

The Taliban, on the other hand, had a much more unifying ideology and objective: they wanted the ‘infidel-occupiers’ out of Afghanistan and sought to re-establish the Islamic Emirate along Salafist lines. Since the first Anglo-Afghan war in the mid-nineteenth century (Afghans fought the British three times, leading to their independence from being a British protectorate in 1919), resisting infidel-occupiers or jihad has been among the most powerful rhetoric for social and political mobilization in Afghanistan. It was the same mobilizing discourse that the US, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia exploited and profited from when they funded and trained various factions of the Afghan mujahideen (including the Taliban) against the Soviet occupation in the peak of the cold war in the 1980s, which eventually led to the rise and military dominance of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. In the years that followed their removal from power in 2001, the Taliban’s then-fractured leadership found a sanctuary in Pakistan where they re-organized and recruited new members from thousands of Deobandi religious schools and refugee camps. The ISI, or Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Directorate, itself a US- and NATO-ally, harbored and equipped the Taliban as a means to both keep the Afghan government weak and to obstruct the influence of India that many in Pakistan continue to view as an existential threat. Note that since the partition of India and the establishment of Pakistan as a nation-sate in 1947, no Afghan ruler has ever recognized the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan—or the Durand Line—as a legal border.

And it is clear by now the Taliban had in recent years found the upper hand in maneuvering local and tribal politics and expanding its network of allies around Afghanistan—not only in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the south and the east that border Pakistan and is home to a majority of Taliban militants but also in northern and western areas with a non-Pashtun population. Before the fall of Kabul, the Taliban assumed the control of many villages and towns without firing a bullet but simply by reaching out to tribal leaders, community elders, and men of influence, many of whom did not have to think twice to side with the Taliban or to surrender to them. After four decades of war, many Afghans do not have a keen interest in the ideology of the person who sits inside the presidential palace in Kabul. They instead ask if they are provided with security, shelter, food, and a decent job. The war economy requires locals to sensibly switch sides if they seek the survival of their communities. 

And this is where we are now. As you mentioned in your question, this is a significant moment in the history of Afghanistan as well as that of the wider Central and Southwest Asia. The militarization of this region since the Soviet occupation in 1979 has taken millions of lives, dislocated millions of families from their homes, caused unprecedented suffering and trauma, considerably polluted air, water, and natural resources, and ended in the triumph of particular groups of Jihadists whose version of Islam is very different from the way Islam had been realized and practiced for centuries in this region. And this is not the unique story of Afghanistan. We have seen comparable and related events happening in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The war on terror has bred more terror and tyranny.

You’ve left Afghanistan only a few weeks ago after spending several years living and researching there. We’re now over a week into the Taliban’s takeover of power. What is the situation on the ground? What are you hearing from your friends and contacts who are still in Afghanistan in terms of immediate needs, fears, and coping with the new regime? 

For many Afghans, these are not easy days. Almost all the friends I talked to over the past week continue to experience strong senses of fear, confusion, helplessness, and frustration. Banks are still closed, the internet is not working in many areas, credits for mobile phones are unavailable, and government offices are not operating. It is perhaps a little early to discuss the ways people find to cope with the new regime, as many Afghans who do not have much in common with the Taliban are still in disbelief. Every Afghan I know has lost a relative or a friend in the war, and in many instances the Taliban have been involved in the crime. It is inexplicably distressing to now see the killers of your loved ones roaring outside your home. The fear is real, so is the danger and unpredictability of the Taliban. This is especially so for urban dwellers, women, and ethnic/religious minorities. The past and present behaviors of the Taliban leave them with little hope for their immediate future.

We know that upon seizing power in the mid-90s, the Taliban introduced and imposed a set of draconian rules, ranging from banning different forms of entertainment to stoning and public execution of dissenters. Most notably, in the name of protecting female chastity, the Taliban profoundly restricted women’s mobility and access to public space. They shut down schools for girls; barred women from nearly all positions of employment; and prohibited women from leaving their homes unless in the company of close male family members. There is not much evidence that the Taliban’s attitudes towards women have considerably changed since then. In many of the areas under their control, girls are currently not allowed to go to school. In Herat in western Afghanistan, they have ordered female college students to stay home until further instructions. In Kabul, female employees in various sectors, including female teachers and university professors, are barred from entering their workplace. Nearly all high-schools for girls are now shut down. There are credible reports from Kabul that the Taliban have raided the houses of female journalists, women’s rights activists, and anti-Taliban figures and confiscated their belongings. If this is happening in the capital where the international media is still present and at a time the Taliban seek international recognition, it is highly likely that the situation is worse in other provinces and will get worse when the Emirate is fully established.

The Taliban’s long-time hostility towards Hazaras is also a major concern. Since the rise of the Afghan state in the late 19th century, Hazaras as a religious minority (they are mostly Shi’a Muslims) have persistently faced persecution and mistreatment. They were enslaved and systematically harassed by both Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) and his successor Habibullah Khan (1901–1919)—the founding fathers of the modern Afghan state—who massacred more than half of the total Hazara population and impounded their fertile lands. Throughout the twentieth century, Hazaras were among the most marginalized ethnic groups, working as seasonal laborers, daily-wage workers in cities, or farmers on other people’s lands. Under the Taliban’s rule in the late 90s, Hazaras saw their own farms and houses on fire, which made hundreds of thousands of them seek refuge in neighboring countries. Until recently, the Hazara neighborhoods in western Kabul were among the main targets of the Taliban and ISIS: their hospitals, schools, training centers, and even gyms and sports facilities regularly came under suicide attacks. This larger history is important if one wants to relate to the generational trauma Hazaras have endured and why many of their more outspoken figures are now in hiding or on the run.

Let me tell you about a friend, Layla, for instance. I am changing her name here to protect her identity. She is a Hazara woman who used to run a cafe in western Kabul. Her feminist politics and strong character had made her cafe a safe space for many young Afghans in that neighborhood (and beyond). She was a successful entrepreneur with a small cafe, for the growth of which she had invested both emotionally and financially for years. She was an independent woman and had developed her business on her own without receiving any substantial funds from international organizations or western embassies. As a Hazara, she had also seen the death of some of her close friends in the aftermath of suicide attacks. Her cafe is closed now, and she’s considering leaving her homeland. You can imagine how difficult it is for people like her to watch all their efforts gone in the course of a few days.

There is also a wider picture that seems to be neglected in the conversations that are now happening around Afghanistan. Over the past two weeks, the attention of the media has been on the Kabul international airport and the evacuation efforts. But Afghanistan is facing a more severe humanitarian crisis that goes beyond the airport or the rescue of the social and the political elite. According to the World Food Program, more than a third of the Afghan population—around 14 million people—are today hungry and need food; more than 2 million children are malnourished; and around 4 million Afghans are now internally displaced. More than 40 percent of the country’s crops have been lost to a massive drought this year, and the pandemic continues to take lives where the health system is currently dysfunctional. This means that we’re facing a human catastrophe in an unprecedented scale. After Aug 31st which is the final day of evacuation, Afghanistan needs the attention of the world even more than before.

Twenty years ago, George Bush and his administration used Afghan women’s ‘liberation’ as a justification for war and occupation. In response, Afghan and other feminist activists across the world decried the racist instrumentalization of Afghan women’s lives in the service of imperial politics. More recently, Afghan feminists have warned about being left out of ‘peace negotiations’, and today many feel betrayed and left behind. Can you unpack this loaded position that Afghan women are forced into, and its associated gender politics?

As you mentioned, the Bush administration instrumentalized and exploited the genuine sufferings of Afghan women to provide a moral excuse to wage war on Afghanistan. In order sell the Afghan war to the American public, the Afghan women’s predicament found new champions among US senators, congress members, think thank representatives, and pundits in the media, who rarely had any first-hand experience of life in Afghanistan. Even some liberal feminist organizations in the Global North fell for the call and praised the Bush administration for saving Afghan women from the shackles of a ‘patriarchal culture.’ Justifying the US military assault on Afghanistan with a recourse to the Afghan culture was not an original tactic of war, though. Colonial powers had historically been employing a similar rhetoric to present their colonial conquests as a legitimate and humane undertaking. When we look into the history of British and Russian colonial administrations in Central and South Asia (that neighbor Afghanistan, but this is also true elsewhere), we see that it was for them a common practice to insist on the ‘barbarity’ and ‘backwardness’ of the culture of the colonized people—of Indians, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Tajiks, and others—to downplay and explain away the political and economic exploitation that was integral to colonialism itself. One may say that the US empire inherited that orientalist legacy from its predecessors. 

Since 2001 and in the aftermath of the US and NATO invasion, two images of Afghan women found a high currency in various platforms on the global stage, and I think these two forms of representation will continue to shape many of the conversations around Afghan women in coming years: that of a woman with chādarī (a head to toe garment covering the entire body and head with only a mesh square in front of the eyes), often with no specified name and with little or no agency of her own, who was introduced to us as the victim of Afghan patriarchy; and that of a ‘liberated’ and resilient woman, often without a veil and with agency to decide for her appearance and life-style, introduced to us as a symbol of the ‘progressive’ Afghanistan. Until recently, the former image was a reminder that the US-led occupation still has the moral responsibility of “saving brown women from brown men” (if one uses Gayatri Spivak’s apt phrase for another context), and the latter was meant to highlight the success of the US and its allies in bringing about changes to the lives of many. Now that the Taliban is back in power, the chādarī woman is the quintessential marker of Taliban’s misogyny, while the ‘modern’ Afghan woman has by now escaped the Taliban terror and arrived in countries where ‘freedom’ is granted to her. We see that the bodies of Afghan women and what they wear continue to lie at the heart of a discursive field in which the binary and oppositional categories of modern/traditional, westernized/Islamic, unveiled/veiled, and resistant/victim are persistently negotiated and reified. Such ahistorical and binary understandings do not tell us much about realities on the ground, though.     

Afghan women’s fight for equality did not begin with the US and NATO war in 2001 and it will not end with the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. The collective efforts of Afghans for gender equality perhaps goes back to a century earlier, beginning with what led to substantial reforms in family and marriage/divorce laws and the establishment of first schools for girls in the 1920s when Amanullah Khan (r. 1919–1929) and Queen Suraya were in power. In decades that followed, and amid the forceful opposition of more conservative factions of the Afghan society, we saw a gradual but significant progress in women’s social and political participation—they attained the right to vote, ran businesses of their own, and became government ministers, senators, and university professors—though many of those changes were admittedly Kabul-centered and did not comfortably cut across class and ethnic lines or to rural areas where a majority of Afghans continue to live. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the ensuing military uprising were serious setbacks to what women had achieved, and the male-dominated scenery of war with its associated politics of violence and masculine cruelty made many women leave the country or, if they were not privileged enough or did not have the means to do so, made them leave their workplaces and stay home. But even after the rise of Islamists and under the rule of the Taliban, women persistently found ways to organize underground schools for girls, establish support networks in their neighborhoods for the poor and widows, or confront the Taliban on the streets of Kabul. This brief background is important because, as some Afghan feminists would tell us, the changes in women’s lives over the past twenty years (even if such changes were more tangible only in cities) were rooted in more than a-century-long struggle and sacrifices that Afghan women of several generations have made.

For a majority of young women I knew in Kabul, resisting patriarchy was not centered around veil. It instead lay in the many conversations they had with their family members for their basic freedoms, in the everyday and seemingly mundane decisions they had to make how not to violate their family’s honor and reputation and at the same time how to stand their own ground, or in saying no to street harassment and discriminations at workplace. We also know that since 2001, Afghanistan has witnessed the rise a significant number of NGOs that included ‘gender equality’ and ‘women empowerment’ in their agendas. They provided work opportunities for a group of educated and middle-class women living in cities, especially in Kabul where western embassies and international organizations were located, and women’s rights advocates benefited from these organizations as a political leverage to put pressure on the government that was dependent on foreign aid. But, again, those initiatives did not profoundly change the life condition for a majority of women around the country. If we move away from the capital, we see that women’s access to education and even healthcare facilities is limited in areas that are far from provincial centers. This is especially so in the south where the rates of female illiteracy and maternal mortality remain high.  

I provided this larger context to underline the challenges that those Afghan feminists with progressive and ethical stances have been facing for years. They had to fight on several fronts, including opposing war and occupation, rising up against local patriarchs, and reaching out to more vulnerable girls and women living in areas where tribal relations are strong and predominant. In a context where advocating for women is easily dismissed as another ‘western’ agenda to corrupt the minds of Afghans and to take away their Afghan/Islamic identity, it is not an easy undertaking to raise your voice for feminist causes. The political scene in Afghanistan is overwhelmingly dominated by men, many of whom are ex-mujahideen fighters, local strongmen, and warlords. The ascendancy of the political economy of war in Afghanistan meant that the perpetuation of war had become an end in itself and that the use of violence had become a legitimate means to sustain economic profits and political power. When violence and cruelty determine the rules of a game, women are rarely among the winners. It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, that women were largely sidelined in peace negotiations. In the absence of an independent and forceful grassroots women’s movement that could mobilize women around Afghanistan, the content and direction of ‘peace negotiations’ were mainly determined by the war economy. 

We perhaps need to wait and see what the Taliban envision for half of the population, but it is also clear that the situation for women cannot easily go back to the 1990s. Even over the past two weeks, there have been protests by women in Kabul and in Herat in western Afghanistan where they have demanded the right to work and study. The result of the national university exam was also just released, and the top scorer is a girl from Kabul. The Taliban faces a different generation than what they ruled over twenty years ago.

Apart from the US, several regional actors have been instrumental in shaping Afghanistan’s history and contemporary international relations. This include not only recently active Arab Gulf countries, but also key historical events such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (a) What is your appraisal of the Soviet intervention’s legacy and its connection to today’s politics? (b) And what role do you see regional neighbors (Pakistan, Iran, as well as UAE and other Arab Gulf states) to play in the future of Afghanistan?

We may have discussed this earlier in our conversation. But, in brief, it seems that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had at least four major consequences that are directly connected to today’s politics. First, it appointed a cruel government in Kabul that killed thousands of political dissidents and made more than a million Afghans leave the country. The mass migration and the refugee crisis that has continued to present times began with the Soviet war. Second, the Soviet occupation led to the rise of anti-Soviet mujahideen who over the years gained incredible power and wealth through the support they received mainly from the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and UAE, but also from Iran and China. They became regional strongmen and warlords who later occupied the seats of power in the post-2001 period. Even though many in Afghanistan view them as corrupt, almost all the key negotiators with the Taliban in recent talks were either from among ex-mujahideen leaders or had family or organizational ties to them. Third, as the Saudi Salafists poured money into the anti-Soviet war, Afghanistan also attracted a range of transnational jihadists who hoped to bring about Islamic revolutions in the Sunni Arab world and beyond. There are reports that non-Afghan organizations such as Al-Qaeda still hold camps and train their personnel inside Afghanistan while keeping a close relationship with the Taliban leadership. And fourth, the Soviet invasion disrupted Afghanistan’s economy that was based on agriculture and pastoral farming, consequently making Afghans dependent on imported food aid. The spread of violence to rural areas meant that the old elite of landowning khans handed their power to young military commanders who could offer protection to their communities simply because they had guns. The transformation of the Afghan economy benefited a few strongmen and their business partners but hurt almost every other Afghan, leading to the current human catastrophe and food shortages that we alluded to earlier.  

In response to the second part of your question, we may need to wait and see how inclusive the future Afghan government is and what reaction it brings about in the international community. One thing is clear, though. Afghanistan is facing a human crisis and is largely dependent on foreign aid. The Taliban have already asked both international organizations and foreign states to help with the reconstruction. The Taliban may have been resilient fighters at war under the name of jihad and resistance, but they now need to run a state for which they need technicians, engineers, doctors, managers, and teachers who may not be willing to fully cooperate with the new regime.

Pakistan is now perhaps the most content in the region as they eventually see a Pakistan-friendly government over the northern borders. Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan, even praised the Taliban for breaking what he referred to as “the shackles of slavery” and making Afghanistan free of the US and Indian influence. But Pakistan is also concerned about Taliban’s close links with Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or the Pakistani Taliban, which is an armed Islamist student group and is responsible for suicide attacks inside Pakistan. China has already promised the Taliban that it will be an economic partner provided that extremism is not exported to China through the Xinjiang region that shares a border with Afghanistan and where China has suppressed the Uyghur Muslims. Iran, similar to China and Russia, is pleased that the US military bases in Afghanistan are now shut down, but the Iranian Shi’a government, now controlled by hardliners, is not in favor of the rise of an extremist Sunni group in Kabul, especially that that would increase the threat on Iran’s eastern borders. Saudi Arabia and UAE are long-time funders of the Taliban with whom they share an overlapping ideology. They are also Iran’s regional rivals and may increase the presence of their proxies near Afghanistan’s western borders that neighbor Iran. Russia has maintained a good relationship with the Taliban leadership for long, and it was among the first countries that facilitated intra-Afghan dialogues. As long as Afghanistan does not host and equip Islamist fighters from Central Asia and Chechnya, the relationship should stay stable. 

A few years from now much of what we discussed may change. But it also shows how unstable and volatile the situation is in Afghanistan. The global and regional rivalry between Russia the US, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Pakistan and India have largely contributed to shaping the political and economic situation there. And China is a new player. As Afghans would tell us, the war would have ended way earlier if it was an Afghan-issue-only. 

What is the best way to support Afghans today from feminist and/or leftist positions? (Given our readership is predominantly leftists Eastern Europeans, any connections you can make with any legacy of the Soviet intervention would be welcome. But also, of course, concrete suggestions on what feminist leftists in Eastern Europe can do).

Before thinking about how to support Afghans — or before joining any other good cause — perhaps there should be an invitation to recognize and explore the ways in which we are involved in creating the kind of world in which we live. What roles does each of us have in perpetuating a global economic and political system in which inequality is created and sustained to this extent—in a way that the inhabitants of a land in today’s Central/South Asia have been experiencing a war for forty years while some others have been benefiting from it. The world history is interconnected; so are different forms of injustices around the planet. We may not be able to neatly separate the current situation in Afghanistan from, say, the political scene in Europe where anti-immigrant sentiments have further benefited and given rise to reactionary and conservative politicians. We may need to hold our governments accountable if they have sold weapons, ammunition, or surveillance and security technologies to Afghanistan or its neighbors and their proxies that have altogether led to the increasing militarization of the region since the Soviet occupation. We also may need to put pressure on political parties and state representatives to keep borders open towards Afghans (as well other vulnerable populations) and to introduce policies that provide refugees and immigrants with what they need to begin a dignified life. We may get involved in community support efforts, including trauma-informed and culturally relevant initiatives to support asylum seekers. Perhaps no one can teach us about Afghanistan better than Afghans themselves. Now that tens of thousands of Afghans have left Afghanistan—and they are activists, leaders, artists, students, researchers, writers, poets, and journalists—there is a chance to give them more platforms, be it in academic settings, panel discussions, art exhibitions, etc. 

Ali Abdi has been living in Afghanistan since 2015, working with a queer community in Kabul. He’s writing a monograph on the culture of same-sex desire in Afghanistan.