American Days in Afghanistan

American Days in Afghanistan

On the morning of Aug. 15, 2021, I was going about my daily work in my office when the Taliban broke into the Afghan capital, and in the evening of the same day I found myself trapped in the French embassy in Afghanistan. How I ended up there and how the country I was born in took this turn is not a very pretty story.

The story of the Afghan republic is the story of a period in Afghanistan’s history that has many heroes, but above all two main heroes: Afghanistan and the United States of America. In October 2001, I was working in a shoemaker’s shop in Pakistan when the American forces invaded Afghanistan and drove the Taliban out of the country. That was a turning point for Afghanistan and good news for me. I gave up shoemaking and, against my father’s wishes, began to learn English and study communications.

The American invasion had no direct impact on our house. My father actually wanted me to work and earn something to make the burden of his life a little lighter. It was a hard time for our family, and if I now respect the melancholy of those days just for the sake of memory, I would admit that the world we were thrown into in Pakistan was a dark hole of poverty, and I don’t want anyone to live like that on earth.

In the years that followed, I devoted all my energy and time to reading and learning, but the price of learning was high in my relentlessly fragile life. At a time when the Russian Federation and the United States passed Resolution 1373 on the War on Terror in the UN Security Council, I found my way to a Trotskyist circle in Quetta and spent a good part of my life discussing sociopolitical change, international politics and Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. My Trotskyist comrades argued all the time that the US was not building the Kabul-Kandahar highway because it wanted to develop Afghanistan, but because it needed a supply route for its military bases in Afghanistan to capture the profitable markets in the rich Central Asian countries.

It did not last long. I distanced myself from them. Nonetheless, I learned something about myself and something about the revolutionary tendency. I was a cynic, and my revolutionary comrades tended towards sentimental optimism. At that time, I met the people at the University of Balochistan, who took me into their circle, and with one of them I edited two volumes of a periodical student magazine that was nonsensical in its own way. I quit them too and withdrew into complete isolation. The more I read, the more isolated I became, and the more I learned, the less I knew. In 2008, seven years later, I woke up to a harsh reality and began to accept the fact that I could not go on like that. I was 26 and still dependent on my poor parents.

All I had in my hands was a diploma in English and all I had in my head was a few thousand English words. With what I had in my head and in my hands, I returned to Afghanistan in December 2009, and started my career as an English teacher in my home village. But the most important moment during my time as an English teacher came when I realized that teaching was not what I wanted. The main cause of my dissatisfaction lay in the image I had of myself at the time. I had an insatiable desire to read and a mysterious wish to write, but with what I earned as an English teacher in a small village, I could not afford a room of my own to read and write.

In June 2011, when the Obama administration announced the withdrawal of 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan, I quit my job and traveled to Quetta, Pakistan, to visit my parents and siblings. The town, where my father had rented a house, looked like a ghetto in the midst of horror. My younger brother, who had reached the age of puberty, was on the verge of a mental crisis. He had survived a suicide attempt and was undergoing psychiatric treatment. My father and mother had become addicted to a high dose of antidepressants. I immersed myself in Jewish literature and did nothing useful.

In April 2014, I went to Kabul to seek for myself a future. Back then, Kabul was a heavily fortified capital on the brink of unpredictability. The prosperity brought by international money aid had made many people rich in the capital. Kabul streets were cleaner than before, and women were present almost everywhere. A change was visible on the façade of civil society, in literary circles and in the city’s cafés, but beneath this cosmetic change lurked a bottomless pit of superficiality.

I don’t know what the exact purpose of the US and its allies was when they decided to stay in Afghanistan, but I could see the effects of their presence all over the country, especially in the capital Kabul, which was literally a city of extremes, especially of extreme wealth and extreme poverty. The city was full of clean-shaven, ironed, jean-wearing, fragrant, young, English-speaking Afghan technocrats driving up and down in their cars with tinted windows, and surly, pushy child vendors selling chewing gum and other junk to passers-by.

In those days Kabul was home to people of all descriptions; strong-men who lived in fortified houses, politicians protected by personal bodyguards, young graduates who looked for a job, war-disabled people who begged on the streets, homeless drug addicts living under bridges, NGO people who preached elimination of violence against women and the empowerment of women, destitute prostitutes who would sell their bodies for some money, those who sold clandestine alcohol and hashish,  shopkeepers who would sell aphrodisiacs, civil society activists who talked about human rights, day labourers who were waiting for work and returning home empty-handed, gangs who would kidnap people for heavy ransom, young poets who would talk about postmodernist relativism, children who polished shoes, children who would burn peganum harmala seeds to ward off the evil eye and getting some money in return, and money exchangers who laundered millions of dollars every day.

One stark contrast that was clearly evident in this overpopulated capital was the difference in the living conditions of the individuals who lived there in those years. In the slums of Kabul there were thousands of broken families living an inescapably hard life, and in the city center there were small networks of young corrupt government employees and circles of civil society members who met every weekend at luxury parties, drank expensive Scotch whisky, smoked cheap Afghan hashish and discussed development models, and in the heart of Kabul and at the center of power sat a president who blamed the Americans for what had fundamentally gone wrong in his administration.

I knew nothing about the unwritten rules of job hunting. I dared to write a little of something and sent it to newspaper and online magazines and it was published. But I was not paid for it. Writing as a profession in the market of journalism was a job that many tried.

As the weeks turned into months, I received a job offer from the newly established Voice of Citizen and signed a six-month contract with that newspaper. But the paper closed before my contract expired. The fact that my contract with The Voice of Citizen fell through brought me closer to the truth that journalism of this kind, if it can be called journalism at all, was something more volatile than politics. To be a journalist, in this particular sense, meant to be dependent on politicians, and to be a politician meant a constant dependence on a series of rapidly changing variables.

The Voice of Citizen, a seasonal party press, was funded by Karim Khalili, a Hazara politician who had survived the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the civil conflict in the 1990s and was twice vice president in the Karzai government. This party press, like its counterparts and editorially, was a perfect catalogue of pamphleteering with the clear intention to sway public opinion among the Hazaras and write anything to prove that Karim Khalil was right in his campaign stance. In the 2014 presidential election, Khalil ran on Ashraf Ghani’s list.

In 2014, President Karzai left office at the end of his second term. In the state of circumstances won by the US intervention and under the protection of the internationally guaranteed order, Hamid Karzai rose to the pedestal of power by sheer luck.

For much of the 20th century, the state machinery in Afghanistan was the business of the tribal aristocracy. Within 82 years, the country experienced five regime changes, two coup d’états, purges of the intelligentsia, famines, mass murders, the jihad against the Soviet occupation, civil conflict, reprisals, and finally the takeover by the Taliban in the mid 1990s.

In post-9/11 Afghanistan, the idea of democracy, a creature born with the help of American midwifery and nurtured by international monetary aid, was simply put: a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The most important consequence of the fusion of the Afghan political institution with the idea of democracy was that it enabled Afghan political factions to define life and polity in the light of a republican institute and within a constitutional framework.

But as a matter fact, public trust in the Afghan republic broke down when nepotism and patronage, that were more or less the hallmark of all politicians, became so pervasive in state institutions and government resources became a major source of personal gain and reward for loyalty, rather than attending to the needs of the people. The people who were emancipated from the tyranny of the Taliban in the 1990s initially believed that their government would be elected by their votes, but they soon realized that their votes did not count.

If I allow myself to measure Karzai’s legacy as a statesman who had an extraordinary opportunity— a sweeping constitutional power from above, an army, a police force and vast sums of money — to take a different path, and then measure his legacy by his confusion over the war with the Taliban, his obsession with power and his inconsistency in fighting corruption, I would say that the most honest judgement of his legacy is to re-read it. If his legacy speaks for itself, and if the terrible dilemma of his government is coherently discussed in its context— i.e. corruption, political culture and nepotism — then Karzai’s legacy can surely be summarized in the contradictory practice of patronage and clientelism that spawned and expanded a corrupt system of rewards and cronyism, stripping the government of its mandate and depriving democracy of its theoretical essence. Under Karzai, democracy became a kleptocracy.

Karzai is a bad leader because his self-righteous, sentimental patriotism masks his aversion for the fact that his government was corrupt and that he himself was complicit in it. Karzai’s moist eyes in front of the local media and his vociferous criticism of US and NATO policies in Afghanistan in the international media paint a dishonest picture. He accuses a scapegoat to escape responsibility and hide behind the curtain of victimhood.

In April 2016 by the time I joined Salam Watandar, the US had ended its combat operations in Afghanistan and transitioned to an advisory and support role for the Afghan forces. The Taliban had gained control of rural areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan and were fighting for territory in the north and northeast of the country, and suicide bombing, a war tactic invented primarily to kill NATO troops, had become one of the Taliban’s main weapons of jihad. At the time, Washington saw President Ashraf Ghani as someone who would be accountable to the international donor community and the US patron, and Ghani saw himself as the country’s savior.

The more I worked for SW, the less satisfying the work became for me. The SW editorial team was divided on many issues, especially on the war against the Taliban. The relationship between power and politics and politics and ethnicity and the relationship between the Taliban and the Pashtuns and the reaction of my colleagues to these realities was at the heart of the division in the newsroom. In short, all the good and bad habits that exist in the gut and head of Afghanistan’s society existed there.

In November 2016, I resigned from Salam Watandar and joined a media monitoring agency funded by the US Department of Defense. The Americans wanted to know everything that was in the local media and I was hired to give them a detailed summary of it and supervise a small team. I signed a one-year contract with my boss and quit my job after we ended up turning on each other. It took nine months for me to discover the simple fact that my boss was not paying me half the salary I was entitled to under the actual contract between him and the Americans.

If I pause for a moment and talk about the background and ambition of my boss, not out of vindictiveness of course, but just to describe the spirit and ambition of a social spectrum that had emerged in Kabul, I would describe him as a greedy man who had no sense of integrity and loved money, whisky and women. My boss was a local himself and in his early thirties. He had been fired from the US embassy in Kabul on anonymous charges and had secured a project from Exovera, a subcontractor of the US Strategic Command, thanks to his connection with an American woman.

What he was doing was the smallest and, of course, the most widespread form of corruption. Neither SIGAR reports, nor investigations of the Afghan anti-corruption authorities or courts, nor investigative reports of the newspapers can yet explain how the intricate web of corruption worked. Corruption in Afghanistan was a network that was difficult to penetrate, but once you entered it, no matter how smart or stupid you were, you would have easily found your own network. Like a tree with worms in it, corruption was eating the Afghan government and NGOs from the inside. However, corruption was not just an Afghan phenomenon; the Americans partly encouraged corruption, partly concealed it and partly failed to curb it.

I was unemployed until I joined a human rights organization working under the umbrella of Afghan civil society and signed a four-month contract with them. The project I was assigned to was funded by an Iranian human rights center in exile. I traveled to Herat to record, transcribe and translate twenty-four testimonies from families of Afghan victims of the death penalty in Iran.

The reality, depth and tenacity of corruption was so obsessively widespread that it was no longer seen as something wrong. For a moment, perhaps only for 30 seconds, when the hotel manager in Herat asked me if I needed stamped blank invoices, I found my consciousness caught in a trap in which the entire consciousness of the system was already caught. Money obsessed me. Before I left for Herat, the finance officer of this human rights organization gave me an envelope containing $3,700, made me sign that I had actually received the amount, and asked me to submit a bill for every expense that exceeded 25 cents. Half of the amount was spent and a large portion of it was paid to the interviewers as “travel expenses”, leaving the other half in my pocket. For a short while I wondered whether I should fill in the bank statements to keep the rest of the money for myself. For me, it was like an original sin. Finally, I bought a packet of Herati sohan for my colleagues and 150 grams of saffron for myself and returned the remaining amount to the finance officer.

My work for this human rights organization has given me some understanding of the complexity of Afghan civil society and human rights organizations. When Hegel defines civil society, he puts justice and law at the center, where individuals who are independent of the government come together and voluntarily work for justice, equality and freedom, but what we call Afghan civil society is a bunch of individuals who borrow the term civil society to justify the umbrella they hold over their heads. In fact, the true raison d’être of Afghan human rights organizations can be found in their concept papers or applications for financial support, in which the truth about life and death in Afghanistan is the subject matter of a sophisticated tone that calls for commitment to the victims of war and violence. In the short time I worked with the victims’ families, I came closer to the obvious fact that the victims’ lives were over and that their families’ lives were shattered and so inescapably hard, and that their stories were a small source of income for me and a large source of income for my boss. Over that last 20 years, a large sum of international fund was channeled to Afghan civil society organizations.

The decline of the Afghan republic was a gradual process. Under Ghani, this creeping process reached its climax. The rifts between members of the government widened and the trust deficit between the public and the government deepened. Ghani, who had gone into the election campaign with an exaggerated belief that he would turn the dictum into action, i.e. reform the institutions, curb corruption and bring the Taliban to the peace table, faced new challenges as the security situation deteriorated, unemployment increased and corruption persisted.

The rift between the public, especially the Hazara, and the government began to deepen in July 2016 when the Hazara-led protest movement was attacked, killing 84 people and wounding 231. In May 2017, Ghani showed his authoritarian color when security forces under his command fired on a peaceful rally of Tajik protesters, killing at least six people. Over the course of his rule, Ghani became increasingly paranoid and surrounded himself with a small clique of confidants.

When I started working as editor of the English edition of The Etilaat Roz in June 2019, the Afghan press was inundated with contradictory narratives. The predictions we made failed to materialize month after month, and the explanations we offered only helped to obscure the reality. In those days, The Etilaat Roz dug out its feature stories from ordeal of real life and focused its editorial notes on the prospect of peace with the Taliban. In my work for this newspaper, and to keep up with fast-moving events, I was slow.

Just how serious and theatrical things were in the months leading up to the total collapse of the Afghan republic only became apparent after the collapse. In February 2019, the Trump administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban, and in March 2021, the Biden administration announced the complete withdrawal of American forces. On August 3, 2021, Ashraf Ghani, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, declared war on the Taliban, and on August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took the capital Kabul, he fled directly to Uzbekistan without the slightest sense of guilt and a backward glance. We, the members of civil society, the journalists, the lawyers, the MPs and the NGO fat cats fled to Europe and America, and the country went into disaster.

The United States came to Afghanistan for security reasons and left the country out of a strategic logic. But in between, Afghanistan—I say this as a native and based on evidence to assure my testimony—missed a golden opportunity to build a history that any glorious nation deserves.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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