This is a longer version of my piece that first appeared in The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Much thanks to the paper for running it.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the U.S. media turned its gaze to the latest episode in the reality show otherwise known as The Forever Wars. Despite the fact that U.S. involvement in Ukraine has thus far followed the same trajectory as its intervention in Afghanistan, no one in the mainstream press appears to doubt America’s intentions or its ability to defend democracy there. Meanwhile the Taliban — a regime the United States effectively handed the country over to last August — continues to impose increasingly repressive measures on its citizens.
Afghan women have often been ignored by the Taliban. Now they are in danger of being erased. In March, Taliban leader Hibaitullah Akhunzada banned girls from attending school beyond the sixth grade. Recently he went even further when he issued an edict that requires women to cover everything but their eyes when appearing in public. The decree doesn’t stop there, however. It goes on to suggest that women should not leave their homes at all and outlines punishments male relatives may impose on those who don’t obey.
What makes the situation egregious is that the Taliban did the same thing when it took power the first time. That Zalmay Khalilzad, the career diplomat who negotiated the Afghan “peace agreement,” did not see this coming is laughable. Whether Khalilzad and his American cronies were disingenuous about the deal or merely obtuse is a matter for debate. What isn’t up for discussion is whether Afghan women knew they would be the first casualty in America’s foreign policy debacle.
They did know. Moreover, they tried to warn us for decades but we didn’t hear them. And if the Taliban gets its way, it won’t be long before their voices are silenced altogether.
Eleven years ago I served as a volunteer for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. The project helped Afghan women hone their craft under the tutelage of mentors from other parts of the world. Writing under pseudonyms — sometimes without the knowledge of the men in their lives — these women were finding their voices. At the time, American troops remained in Afghanistan but the specter of the Taliban loomed. Even then, the women in my asynchronous group wrote about their fear that the freedom they had so recently regained would be lost.
Some penned lyrical poems about their misgivings, others described their lives under the Taliban, and still others wrote opinion pieces about their opposition to the organization’s possible return to power. In “I Wish I Was Blind,” the poet Norwan painted an ominous picture of the future:
We don’t have the feelings of
Building or rebuilding our country
If we try
The dead birds are there
To kill us
Fellow workshop member Farida built on that dark vision in “Shadow of Fear” when she described her childhood under the Taliban’s rule. Banned from school, she lived in a town where people were so poor they had to make bread by mixing a small amount of flour with boiled potatoes. One day when Farida was 13, she got sick. After dressing in the required burqa, she went with her father to see a doctor:
On our way there we had to pass through a crowded bazaar where people were selling fruits and vegetables in an open area. As we were leaving, I stopped suddenly and stared at a human hand hanging from the top of a stick in the middle of a crowd. People were not paying much attention to the hand and it seemed as if it had been there for a few days because its color had changed to gray. My father told me not to look but I had already seen it. I asked my father why it had been cut off and to whom it belonged. He said it may be the hand of a poor man who was accused of a crime, stealing or something. . .
It was not so much the hand itself that disturbed me as the idea that such atrocities were so commonplace villagers hardly noticed them. Torture for petty crimes was part of daily life, as was the erasure of young girls like Farida.
We didn’t hear these women’s warnings a decade ago, nor did we heed them last year. Instead we believed what the male neocons in power told us. In a fawning article, The New York Times couldn’t praise our American diplomacy enough:
“A key difference in what Mr. Khalilzad was willing to do was this: He embraced the move to talk with the Taliban directly, hear them out at length, and agreed to their divisive demand to discuss a troop withdrawal without the U.S.-allied Afghan government at the table.”
Khalilzad, not to mention the credulous New York Times, should have listened to my former student Nadia instead:
We have expectations. We call upon the world to help us close the door on terror in our country. We are still hopeful that other countries will hear us and that one day they will help us end violence, corruption and war. Otherwise we walk again toward fear and risk.
We can’t undo the damage the United States has wrought on Afghanistan, all in the name of winning the Cold War. It’s not too late to learn from a mistake that led to thousands of deaths, killed American soldiers, cost billions and ushered a radical Islamic government to power. It’s not too late to help Afghan women as they walk toward fear and risk.