By Heer Nimavat
Mural by Afghani graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani, who is now living in exile
Democracy is the luxury of ignorance. It is the ability to turn one’s thick-skinned back to those with no luxury at all. Democracy is us. Lounging on our sofa beds, scavenging every peacocking article, so that the next time we meet someone ‘woke’, with an intellectual eyebrow raise and sorrowful side-nod, we can brazenly remark, “Can you believe what’s happening in Afghanistan?” It astounds me that while an entire country slipped into a humanitarian crisis, we behaved like lethargic consumers of capitalized information. Or worse, with every uninformed ‘like, share and comment’, we became those capitalizing it. In fact, this article started out as yet another self-serving act dripping with privileged guilt. But with every unforgettable reality, I came across, it became more and more about the people of Afghanistan.
Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few months, or just blatantly decided to unsubscribe to every news channel in existence (we wouldn’t blame you); let’s do a quick recap of what has happened in Afghanistan, and why it’s important right now. From 1979 to 1989, Afghanistan was occupied by Soviet troops. Upon their departure, the leader they installed was overthrown by a US- and Pakistan-backed mujahideen, which triggered years of civil war. In 1996, the Taliban take over (more or less) and a draconian, hardline version of Islam is imposed on the population. Then 2001 arrives, and with it, American (and para-American) troops and all of the more recent history we are all too painfully familiar with. They, along with a few other nations, remain in the country even when NATO formally ends its combat mission in 2014 and hands over responsibility to Afghan forces, who face no small threat and are almost immediately caught up with a growing insurgency. Then 2021. The US government announces it will be pulling all troops out of Afghanistan (in an unnervingly hasty fashion, which seems a bit out of place when you’ve already been there for 20 years), and thus begins the Taliban capture of much of the country, culminating in a coup on August 15. Not to speak of the dramatic hellscape that took place in the days that followed, and continues to (but we’ll get to that later).
Twenty years of war, and what has come of it? Moreover, against a backdrop of immense loss of life, bloodshed, cultures decimated, hopes created and cremated, and an estimated $825 billion dollars that seem to have had little to no impact, the question remains: where do we go from here?
Afghanistan is a country of 3.8 crore people. 63% of which are the young and educated, who mistook their two-decade-long tryst with democracy as an opportunity to dream. Studying, teaching or researching at Universities, I talked to eight Afghan research scholars about Afghanistan, before and after the Taliban coup.
According to an assistant teacher of English at Kandahar University, 9/11 was the beginning of a turbulent political history for Afghanistan. While peacekeeping by the transitional government between 2001 and 2004 seemed enough in the dawn of democracy, long-standing inertia in the fields of education, agriculture, politics and economics, made Afghan citizens impatient for change. Corruption, civil violence and constant intervention from the West, further tapered people’s trust in the government they had elected. However, the legislature’s decision to build dams on Afghan water, free-flowing into Iran and Pakistan was economically and diplomatically beneficial to the landlocked state. Years after the Taliban regime, the Afghan government was finally recovering from the hangover of Pakistan’s political and military interference.
The identity of Taliban has been a matter of international debate since their re-insurgence. Diplomatic sit-downs with media claim that they have ‘evolved’, but Afghan citizens have their doubts. On being asked what the Taliban really are, a research scholar answers, ‘They are not our people. They are political guerrillas controlled by the hands of Pakistan. Dictating over the simplest and greatest of democratic rights like playing music at weddings, grooming of beards, praying schedules, rituals, and women’s rights, Taliban’s extremism is the same as it used to be’. While conversing about change in their behaviourism this time around, a student of political science remarks that the only way in which the Taliban have changed is their approach towards communication. Presenting themselves before the international media, they are cloaking rigid, religious conservatism under a vaguely worded countenance of progressiveness. In spite of having declared general amnesty, they have executed many employees of the predecessor government. The genocide of Hazaras under the impression of ‘religious justice’ is yet another example of their primitiveness.
More often than not, radical shifts in power, are a result of public support or lack of mass resistance. The question of whether the Taliban uprising was a consequence of people’s will, evoked intriguingly polar opinions. According to a professor of Literature at Kabul University, the Taliban upheaval was Afghanistan’s reaction to its past governments. He states that the Taliban government now taking shape, largely consists of politicians, leaders, militants and citizens who had a bone to pick with the former establishment. Vehemently contradicting this opinion alongside six other research scholars was a women’s rights defender and civil society activist in Afghanistan. She says, ‘Will of the people in a democracy is either reflected on a ballot paper, through a protest, or revolution. Having lived through the regime twenty years ago, it is both delusional and oblivious to believe that the people of Afghanistan wanted the Taliban’s return. Indeed, the dissipating support for the previous government diluted resistance against the new. But politically, Pashtuns are the only sectional majority in favour of the Taliban. Why would a country ‘will’ itself out of democracy?’
Thanks to technology, the internet and moral flexibilities of 21st-century journalism (synonymous with sensationalism), the overnight influx of varying information about Afghanistan, was confusing for those of us with no firsthand contacts in the country. Observing the nature and narrative of information being broadcasted by most preliminary media sources, one can certainly notice an occidental bias. Whether it is an ethical conflict with the Taliban or a general Americanization effect, there is a definite disparity between the reality that exists within Afghan borders and what is perceived externally. According to a resident student in Kabul, following an initial phase of unrest in airports and borders, normalcy has persisted on the streets of Afghanistan. Apart from the Taliban authority’s crackdown on unapproved protests, multiple peaceful demonstrations led by human rights activists and feminists continue. Speaking of America, their role in the history of the Taliban is seemingly never-ending. Biden administration’s decision to retrieve troops from Afghan soil was heavily debated on humanitarian grounds internationally. Listening to young Afghan students talk about America reminded me a little too much, of Indians opining about the British. Describing the bittersweet taste of colonialism, they mentioned the classic combo of development and oppression that American authority came with. A Master of Arts at Kabul University said ‘I can’t help but feel betrayed by them. First, they forcibly released 5,000 prisoners and then left us alone in the hell of Talibanism. We have been nothing but a political playground’. He further emphasizes that the only form of American participation entertained in the future should be humanitarian aid and development programs.
Afghanistan’s developing economy, with its narrow private sector and under providing agricultural sector, has been aid-dependent for a long time. Referring to the future of Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, a student of political science and economics stated that financial recession combined with volatile international relations will prove to be a struggle for the new government. He adds, ‘As always, we (Afghan citizens) would be the collateral damage. The only long-term solution to the financial crisis- education, is also in peril under the Taliban administration. Discussing the sudden change in academic course and career opportunities, a professor of English at Kabul University said, ‘My greatest fear is that I won’t be allowed to teach anymore. 200 professors from my University have already fled the country and the rest of us are simply waiting to be replaced by Madrasa scholars. My female students have called me crying, saying that they will no longer be allowed to study. It is heartbreaking. I just hope that international scholarships and exchange programs continue because students deserve better in the name of education.’
The greatest imprint of oppression left by the Taliban after their first term in governance was upon the women of Afghanistan. So much so, that it took Afghan women twenty years and countless movements to find their names on their children’s national IDs. Just when they almost had education, career opportunities and equal rights within their reach, the Taliban’s return has pushed the feminist movement back several decades. Talking to a women’s rights activist and research scholar in Kabul was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I have ever had. When asked about the future of women in the Taliban regime, she said, ‘The only rights granted, will be the religious and cultural rights as stated by Sharia. The most educated of women will be forced to stay at home will no longer contribute to society. The Taliban culture will encourage sexual abuse and domestic violence, just like they did last time.’
It was when I asked her what it felt like to see the men enter Kabul that she said, “I remember watching television with my family. The Taliban had just entered the capital and I will never forget the second it happened. I looked around the room and it was as though all of us women knew that our lives were over”. Her last words to me were, ‘I just wish women from across the world would stand up for us. I promise you. We are independent, educated women with ambitions just like yours. This shouldn’t be it. Why should I have to leave my country? If I had to, I would take a bullet on Kabul’s streets to show the world their reality.’ The desperate tremor in her voice will forever leave an imprint on the history of Afghan women.
Democracy may be a luxury of ignorance, but as Orwell said, it is also the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. So here it is. A breathing, bitter reality you would rather have lived without. Now, what are you going to do about it?
About the author
Heer Nimavat is an 18-year-old award-winning writer and poetess
This article is part of a collaboration between TheLipstickPolitico x Pen In the Door by Gurmeher Kaur.