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‘We were afraid things would be bad, but never this’: A year after the fall of Kabul, Afghans face many crises

Having been in Kabul to report on the Taliban retaking control of the capital and the country and the evacuation operations that followed last summer, Kim Sengupta speaks to Afghans about that time and what has happened since

Sunday 14 August 2022 21:41 BST
Members of the UK armed forces taking part in the evacuation at Kabul airport last August
Members of the UK armed forces taking part in the evacuation at Kabul airport last August ( Ben Shread/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA)

After their fourth attempt to board an evacuation flight from Kabul ended in violence and terror, Emad and his family knew they must learn to survive until another chance came to escape the Taliban.

The disappointment at not getting away was intensified by the knowledge of just how close they had got to doing so. They had managed to get to the airport, but could not get to the last departing planes amid the chaos of a devastating suicide attack.

Emad had contacted me while I was reporting from Kabul on the chaotic and violent final days of the Western retreat this time last year. He was desperate, asking if my fellow journalists and I could help him get away to safety.

I had got to know him and his family during my visits to the country and knew the risks he would face from the Islamists. We said we would do all we could to help.

British soldiers based at The Baron Hotel near the airport, processing the evacuees, were also willing to provide assistance. “Just get them to come to the gate and we’ll sort it”, said a sergeant in the Parachute Regiment. He had, he thought, met a cousin of Emad working as an interpreter in Nad-e-Ali in Helmand. “We owe these people don’t we? We owe them a lot: we’ll do what we can.”

It was not to be. Emad, his wife Aina and two children were turned away three times at a Taliban checkpoint on the approach to the airport before getting through on the day an Isis affiliate, Islamic State – Khorasan Province, carried out a devastating suicide bombing, massacring 170 Afghans and 13 members of US forces.

The international forces were already in the process of pulling out then – an inglorious last retreat in a mission lasting two long decades. The death and destruction which had marked the conflict continued until the very end. The Isis bombing was followed by the American military launching their last missiles of the Afghan operation, a “righteous strike” against terrorists, the Pentagon called it. They had, it emerged soon, actually killed 10 civilians, including seven children. One of the dead was a former United States Agency for International Development (USAID) worker.

Emad and his family went home from the airport counting themselves lucky to be alive. They took solace in the hope that they would find sanctuary in Britain in the near future. He had worked for British NGOs and a British government-funded civic society project. Aina was a teacher at a girls’ school and had campaigned for women’s rights. They would qualify, they thought, for refuge in the UK as people who would be vulnerable under the Taliban.

Emad and his family applied for evacuation under the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy (ARAP) run by the British government. They received acknowledgement of the application with the assurance that it was being looked at. They heard nothing more, despite attempts to contact various government departments in London. Seven months later Aina and the children, a 14-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl, fled to Pakistan with the help of a people smuggler after a frightening encounter with the Taliban.

Aina lost her job after the school was shut amid draconian restrictions imposed by the Talibs, breaking their pledge on education for girls. Afghanistan remains to this day the only country in the world which prevents girls from attending high school. Aina went on marches protesting about the education ban and other repressive measures being taken against women. These marches have continued, albeit in dwindling numbers. This past weekend the Talibs broke up one of them in Kabul by firing shots in the air.

The protests were taking place daily when 34-year-old Aina began to take part. She was arrested and held for six days by the Taliban before being freed following pleas by a relation, a mullah, who knew a senior commander. Aina returned home with bruises to her body and traumatised. She has not spoken to the family about what happened to her during her time in captivity.

Women in Kabul march against the Taliban’s draconian restrictions on their rights (AFP via Getty Images)

“The bombing at the airport was horrible. We saw dead bodies, people missing hands and legs. The children were really affected. They had nightmares for many nights afterwards. And then we had Aina’s arrest,” recalls 37-year-old Emad. “After that we had to get her and the children out of the country. She would not have stayed quietly at home and they could have come for her again.

“Aina did not want to go without me. We had to persuade her to go, we reminded her of what has happened to others we knew. No one was safe, women have been killed.”

One of those who died was Rahima. Her husband Ahmad had worked for the UN, World Bank, and a British company undertaking UK government-contracted projects involving the Afghan administration.

The family fled their home in Kabul after the Taliban takeover. But Rahima returned to collect clothes and documents. She was fully aware of the danger they faced. They were spotted and the Taliban arrived saying they were looking for her husband.

There was an argument, shouting, and one of the fighters opened fire with his Kalashnikov AK-47, hitting Rahima in the head. Rahima’s brother and some neighbours rushed her to the nearest hospital. But the same group of Talib fighters turned up there, and ordered the medical staff not to treat the 26-year-old woman.

We have sold everything to make this journey. I don’t think we’ll see Afghanistan again

Unconscious and bleeding heavily from her injury, Rahima was taken to her sister’s house, and then to a private clinic run by a doctor who knew the family. An emergency operation was carried out, but she died soon afterwards.

“We were afraid that things would be bad when the Taliban took over, but never this bad. It is not just the repression, there is little food, people are starving. The hospitals have no medicine, people are not getting their salaries,” says Emad. He has left Kabul and is now staying in a village away from the capital. He hopes to get to a neighbouring country soon with his 70-year-old father.

“I cannot leave my father here,” he says. “He is not well, my mother died last year and he would not be able to cope by himself. I have another brother here, but he’s in hiding as well in an area which wouldn’t be safe for my father.

“We have sold everything to make this journey. I don’t think we’ll see Afghanistan again. I will meet up with my wife and children, but I don’t know where we’ll end up. I don’t know whether we’ll ever be able to live in the UK. We see they are taking Ukrainians, but it’s not so easy for Afghans.

“I am glad they are taking the Ukrainian people, I am not complaining about that, they need to get away from a war. But in Afghanistan, we actually worked at risk to ourselves with the Americans and the British. And then they abandoned us.”

In reality, Britain and other Western countries had no choice but to pull out their forces from Afghanistan once Joe Biden decided to cut and run. He and his administration sought to blame Donald Trump for signing the Doha Agreement paving the way for the Taliban takeover.

But Biden had reversed Trump decisions on other issues. The fact remains that throughout his US presidential campaign Biden repeatedly affirmed that he would not reverse the pull-out decision. He did nothing after getting to the White House about the repeated breaches of the agreement by the Taliban, which would have allowed the US to review its own position.

But then Biden had lobbied strongly against the Afghan war while he was Barack Obama’s vice-president and argued, unsuccessfully at the time, about the surges of troops requested by the commanders. Biden had also become a trenchant critic of the endemic corruption among the Afghan hierarchy, upbraiding president Hamid Karzai about it during visits to Kabul.

President Biden got what he wanted in the end. The Americans set the bar on pulling out very low at the time. “Look, lights haven’t gone out all over Afghanistan when the Taliban came have they?” said a US diplomat I met in Doha on the way out of Afghanistan. “Maybe the violence would actually scale down now with a stable regime. They may keep to their word on keeping out terrorists. Let’s just see how they act shall we? We need to engage with them.”

A year on, there has been little engagement. While the country collapses, around $7bn of Afghan assets in the US and $2bn in Europe remain frozen.

Biden announced in February that $3.5bn of the money in America would be kept for potential claims by victims and bereaved families of the 9/11 attacks and $3.5bn for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Talks are ongoing in Doha between the Americans and the Taliban on how the humanitarian aid would be distributed.

Earlier this month the Americans killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda chief, in Kabul with a drone strike. The organiser of the 9/11 attacks had moved to the Afghan capital from Pakistan following the Taliban takeover.

Senior US officials said the hierarchy of the Haqqani network, a powerful part of the Taliban, with ties to elements within Pakistan’s military and intelligence service, ISI, was aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul. The house where he died is reported to be owned by an associate of Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the network and the interior minister in the new government.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken charged that, by hosting al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan, the Taliban was breaking the terms of the agreement that led to the Western withdrawal.

It was fanciful to think that the Talibs would simply jettison their ties with fellow jihadists. One may also ask why the Biden administration carried out the withdrawal at the time and in the manner it did when there were plenty of examples of the Talibs breaking terms of Doha.

Killings continue. Isis has continued regular attacks against the Talibs as well as carrying out sectarian atrocities against Shias including bombings of mosques. The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, remnants of the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, is engaged in guerrilla warfare in the mountains of the Panjshir Valley.

The Pakistani military has launched airstrikes across the border on bases of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which seeks to overthrow the Islamabad government, killing 47 civilians, including women and children. Islamist separatist groups have launched rockets from Afghanistan into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Last week Sheikh Rahimullah Haqqani was killed in a blast in Kabul. The prominent cleric, a backer of female education, was blown up by a suicide bomber hiding explosives in an artificial leg. Isis claimed responsibility. A few days earlier four TTP commanders were killed within 24 hours. Three died in a roadside blast while travelling in southeastern Afghanistan, another by a bomb in the east of the country. All four were opposed to peace talks being held with the Pakistani government.

Amid the strife, a collapsed economy and shattered infrastructure, the Taliban government remains unrecognised internationally. There have, however, been unexpected geopolitical twists. India, the arch-adversary of Taliban-backing Pakistan, is in the process of opening a legation in Kabul at the invitation of the Talibs who have allegedly assured it will not be used by militants to launch attacks in Kashmir. Islamabad is unhappy at the development, with officials claiming that the return of an Indian presence will lead to renewal of anti-Pakistani activity, something they have accused the Indians of carrying out from Afghanistan in the past.

It will be difficult for the Taliban to control the foreign Islamist groups in its territory, even if it wanted to, and there is a very real danger that a broken society mired in poverty may once again become an incubation centre for international jihad.

Meanwhile, the hopes and aspirations of a generation of Afghans have been shattered. Afshaneh Ansari, a friend’s sister who is a student at Kabul University, told me in Kabul the week the Talibs took over: “I wanted to be an artist trying to fuse Afghan and Western art. I am also an activist on gender issues. I don’t think that will be possible now, not in Afghanistan, do you?

“You know, I was thinking this morning that I am 20 years old, I was born the year the Taliban rule ended. The life I wanted will end now, 20 years later.”

Afshaneh managed to escape at the end of the year and is now settled in Canada. “I feel relieved, obviously. I cannot imagine what I would have done if I had to stay there,” she reflects. “I was lucky, but people close to me, relations, friends, are still trapped there. My friends, young women, really only go out with men from the family. Even then they are stopped and threatened by the Taliban.

“The Americans, the Europeans asked us to take advantage of education, of work, of a new way of life. They said they would protect us, but we saw what happened at the end and now they have lost interest.”

The focus of the US and the West is on the war in Ukraine and the unfolding energy and economic crisis. The recent sabre-rattling by China following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan is a foretaste of crisis and confrontation which lies further ahead in the future.

But ignoring what is unfolding in Afghanistan is foolhardy.

The West has walked away from Afghanistan before, after using the mujaheddin against the Russians. We know what happened then: the creation of ungoverned space, terrorist camps, al-Qaeda and 9/11. Neglecting Afghanistan risks a reprise of that turbulent and violent history.

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