Lost Peace: The Plight Of An Afghan Woman
As I undress my eyes of the crusty sleep with which their corners are laden, and adjust my pupils to the morning’s glowing haze, I realize that I took for granted just how warmly last evening had received me, and by what hospitality I was conveyed to the sweet embrace of the night. Upon reflection, I see with what gentleness the quiet hours of dark had welcomed me, and by what silent tenderness my limp, dreaming frame was so lovingly caressed.
Now, the morning has come, the sun has risen, and already the clouds have begun to gather in the distance. Their shape and content augur ill. Ominous is a word too weak to describe their frowning visage. Their approach is rapid; their march, turbulent and stormy. It’s a strange, ungenial land before me, over which they stretch their dread, unsmiling shadows. It’s a darkening world into which, by the cruel force of some unseen act of violence or blind maneuver of fate, I’m suddenly thrust. It’s nothing like the tranquil world of light, the peaceful place to which, but a few hours ago, I casually bid adieu.
Perfect, it was not, (it made no pretense toward Utopia, and acknowledged frankly its multitude of sins) yet it more closely resembled the outline and contours of a dream. It aspired to liberalism, and spoke warmly of progress. It championed enlightenment, and the republican’s cause. It felt the enduring influence and the profound wisdom of the West, the greatest culture this world has yet known, by which my own hoped it might in some ways be molded and shaped. It was convinced of the need for broader opportunities for all peoples, for more accessible education to both rich and poor, for more vigorous industry for the sake of ongoing commerce, and for the equal treatment of the sexes under the law. It sought the elevation of its women from the status of “second class citizen” to the placement among the goddesses where they truly belong.
Now, all that is distorted, degraded, and warped. Now, everything before me is nightmarish and grim. Everything is darkened by the shadows of vengeance and the swirling clouds of malice and hate. In dreadful unity, as if a gathering storm, these plumes of thunder crash and join in eclipsing the sun. That bright star, not quite accustomed to bestowing its warm rays upon this cold, cursed land, is once again blotted out. Everything about this scene augurs ill. No encouraging auspice is forthcoming, no dazzling light to penetrate the heavy shroud of dark. No happy string of entrails speaks to our divines. Look into those ancient, visceral tablets of prophecy, onto which the mighty gods once inscribed their warnings. At them, I gaze, and see nothing but the horrible advance of terror, and the pools of bloodshed soon to be spilt.
I’m twenty-four years of age, and a citizen of what was, until recently, the free state of Afghanistan. As it is in many benighted nations the world over, freedom in Afghanistan is spasmodic. It’s more a paroxysm than a steady state; it emerges all of a sudden, and is just as quickly gone. It comes and goes in feverish spells, leaving, every time, her people drained of its vigor, and shorn of its defense.
In spirit, perhaps this country still believes itself free, but in reality, it’s very much subdued.
Until a few short weeks ago, Afghans had seemingly inverted the famous maxim of the Genevan philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: the Afghan, of a certain age, was born in chains, but, now, everywhere finds herself free. Such, at least, was my case, at least until the recent, dizzying sequence of events.
Born to servitude under the reign of the Taliban, I’ve since known and savored the joys of a new life. Since that organization was deposed in 2001, I’ve lived a life unfettered by its suffocating blend of religious zealotry, moral depravity, sexual abuse, rank misogyny, and political violence. For nigh two decades, the sweetest of my life, I was unassailed by its daily threats, by its constant cruelty, and by its proud barbarism. All the while, I was supported by those much more interested in my health and freedom, by those who sincerely wished to see me flourish as a human being.
Thus, the chains of my birth and my youth were abandoned, and I lived as any free human should.
I cultivated my talents and pursued my education. No impediment was placed before me. I found a profession congenial to my taste, and ascended its ranks on the wings of my own diligence and merit. I was neither stoned nor raped for having done so. I courted, and was the recipient of a young man’s courtship, to whom I willingly chose to join my life. The marriage was neither arranged nor compelled, and I was at complete liberty to accept or reject his conjugal offer. I was not sold as a bride at the age of fourteen, and condemned to a life of subservience and domestic toil. Together, we created two beautiful children, who stand at my side, and are the darlings of my life. Neither was executed for the imposition of being a girl in a world dominated by men. Every day, I implant a kiss upon their shining foreheads, over which the veil has never been draped, and pinch two plump cheeks unobstructed by the burka’s blinding shroud. I walk with them through the city’s winding streets, unescorted by their loving father. No one castigates or beats me for having the temerity to do so beyond the invigilating gaze of a man.
Such things might seem banal to the Western reader, to whom these daily events hardly merit mentioning. What, after all, could be more natural and less worthy of notice than cultivating one’s talents, pursuing one’s education, acquiring a profession, climbing its ladder, settling down with a husband, giving birth to little children, and watching these small angels grow before one’s eyes? For us in Afghanistan, these activities are no longer so normal. In fact, most of them invite ostracism, shunning, corporal punishment, or worse. For a woman, the aforementioned things are proscribed. And so, these quotidian acts become, once again, the distinct privilege of the West. For my girls and me, we’ll soon return to our original enslavement, and learn to grow comfortable and accepting of the heavy chains by which, yet again, we’re shackled.
In my attempt to be poetic, I fear I’ve been somewhat misleading. To me, this is not a “foreign” land—in the way that Australia, Japan, or Sudan is—but the land of my birth, and of that of my children. The floorboard onto which, as I light from my bed, I carefully step, is no different from the hardwood about which I more buoyantly leapt just a day ago. The soil across which I tread en route to the garden where the rosemary and poppies sprout is no different from that by which my feet were tickled but twenty-four hours ago. The late summer air with which I fill my lungs is as fragrant and delicious as was yesterday’s breath. The geography, in a word, is unchanged. The physical environment, unaltered. My position atop the Earth, unmoved, but everything else has shifted one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.
The withdrawal of the Americans and their allies is complete. It’s not as though this event was wholly unexpected. In fact, it’s long been foreordained. Ever since their arrival in 2001, before I’d yet known the delights of a single decade, their departure from this land was continually promised. It was spoken of as if it were a fait accompli, something long since agreed to, simply awaiting execution. Why would they not be taken at their word? President Bush, the junior and seemingly more jovial of the two, was the first in my lifetime to visit this place. An operation was decreed, for freedom enduring, and many troops arrived to see to this laudable end. His intentions were noble, if somewhat too susceptible to the flowery prospects of liberty and change.
A mission to capture Al Qaeda’s mastermind, a notorious Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden, and to topple the government by which he was abetted and concealed, turned into something much more. Bush was now committed to the impossible task of building a nation, in a place over which the Taliban—or, to use an appropriate synonym—barbarism still reigned. As it turns out, our soil wasn’t quite ready to receive freedom’s delicate seed. We lacked the vital nutrients with which the grounds of more mature nations are sprinkled, on which stronger roots can be more easily raised. And so, the fruits of the liberty tree were unforthcoming. The mighty boughs from which they might, in better climates, be plucked, took many years to grow, if they grew at all.
The American people, unwilling to tend to our far-off, desolate garden, and to embrace their role as world hegemon, bristled at the idea of distant ventures, and the endless occupations to which they often give rise. Can they be blamed? Such a sentiment is etched quite deeply in their bones, as I understand it; it’s in keeping with their national essence and their animating temper. Was it not General George Washington who spoke in his Farewell Address of “foreign entanglements”, and the importance of avoiding such intrigues at all costs? Did not his brilliant successor, the Puritan John Adams, preach neutrality when it came to the wars that were at once enveloping and impoverishing Europe? His adherence to the doctrine of “splendid isolation” likely cost him a second term (his support of the Alien and Sedition Acts certainly didn’t help), but Adams was characteristically adamant on this theme, and Americans were sooner won to his side.
Americans have, by and large, inherited this laudable and inward feeling. It deterred their intervention in both the first and second World Wars, into which, as Europe hastened to the brink, they stepped with only the utmost hesitation. It made them suspicious of Korea, and hostile toward Vietnam, out of which they vociferously demanded their troops be pulled. Now, guided by the failures of the past, they think it not only unsavory but unwise to deploy their sons to arid, mountainous, Middle Eastern climes in which they could do no good but provoke further tribal unrest. And so, public opinion was uncharacteristically unified on this single subject: America should remove herself, as quickly as possible, once the situation in Afghanistan was both convenient and safe.
To the surprise of every president since Bush, convenience never came, and safety proved the most fantastic of chimeras. President Obama withdrew troops from Iraq, creating a vacuum into which the terrorist cell, ISIS eagerly stepped. Across the Levant, it unleashed its fury with grisly and unanticipated success, claiming for itself a territory the size of Ohio, and menacing both the region and the world. After initially diverting his attention from Iraq and committing more troops to the “good war” in Afghanistan, Obama significantly reduced their numbers. Of the tens of thousands who once inhabited this land, only a small portion remained by 2015.
President Trump, after successfully quieting the frightful outbursts of ISIS, promised to lessen our troop numbers further. By May 1, 2021, it was his unrealized goal to withdraw them completely. He hoped, by so doing, that he might feather his cap with an unparalleled success, the type of “win” of which his predecessors could do little more than dream. He wanted to festoon his tenure with roses, the flowers owed to a president who was alone responsible for ending an “endless” war. Over the course of his waning days in office, he was engaged in a series of unfruitful negotiations with the Taliban. The conditions to which he held the group weren’t likely to be met and, as a result, the American departure would be again delayed.
The glory of America’s withdraw would not be his to enjoy. The departure from Afghanistan would not be his crowning achievement, the happy laurel by which the many spots on his legacy might be concealed, and the victories of his tenure highlighted and wreathed. The suffrage of the American people interrupted his plan, and a new administration was inaugurated at the end of the first month of the new year.
President Biden, somnolent, irascible, familiar, and aged, took over for an opponent of whom too many had grown weary. Immediately, in a fashion unprecedented by even the most ambitious of his predecessors, Biden signed a flurry of executive orders, and repealed almost every mandate upon which Trump, now a poisoned and unutterable name, had stamped his toxic imprimatur. Biden’s energy seemed to originate from an undisclosed source, and most of Trump’s legacy was, with the stroke of the new Executive’s pen (by whomever held), erased. Remarkably, though, one exception was made: Trump’s plan to withdraw our troops from Afghanistan went untouched, and Biden determined to put the plan into action.
Biden had convinced himself, if not the nation over which he presides, that he was duty bound to observe his predecessor’s plan. To this, if to nothing else, he swore unwavering fidelity. Having promptly nullified all his rival’s other sundry projects (the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, by which great amounts of oil would be carried from Canada to the Gulf ports; the removal of Critical Race Theory manuals from the desks of government employees; the commissioning of the 1776 project in response to that of 1619; the repeal of certain “CAFE” standards by which cars were “economized”, and their makers harried; the retreat from the Paris Climate Accord; etc.), Biden felt a sudden, moral obligation to honor this scheme developed by his predecessor.
And so, heedless of the integral conditions on which the Trump plan explicitly hinged, Biden pushed forward with the plan, damning the onslaught of torpedoes that lurked in his way.
An announcement was made in April that all American troops would be removed from the country by 31 August. It was to be a signal event before the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 11 September—those three assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by which the course of modern history was so abruptly changed. Assurances were given that all would go smoothly, all would follow the gentle meanderings of a pre-determined plan, and that all contingencies had been considered, should they dare arise and give us grief. Every potential threat had been weighed, and every impediment forecast and avoided.
Each passing day, we were urged to believe in a thin façade of stability and competence. We were exhorted to have faith in the threadbare curtain unfolded before us, a shabby screen of statecraft and diplomacy through which even the least acute eye could probe. When asked if the departure of American troops would precipitate a crisis, Biden guaranteed that it would not. Undesirous of the embarrassment of another “Saigon”, a national disgrace from which America continues to reel, Biden asserted that the evacuation of Kabul would not be comparable to that of the infamous Vietnam city. There would be no lasting image of a helicopter fleeing from a smoking embassy roof. There would be no horde of people clamoring for the mercy of a wearied and vanquished state. There would be no flotilla of rafts attempting to drift away from their Communist killers, toward a shamed nation from which they could expect no quarter.
To ensure that it was comparable, when it didn’t have to be, Biden held a conversation with President Ghani—my erstwhile leader, and his Afghan counterpart. In stubborn defiance of reality, and in obstinate pursuit of a narrow-minded goal, Biden urged Ghani to make it appear as though Afghanistan was not teetering on the brink. Each time I read the transcript, I can’t but cringe. Of course, unbeknownst to us all, the situation was unravelling, yet Biden wouldn’t undercut his narrative by divulging this truth.
What exactly was this truth? That the Taliban had gone about its task of reconquering most of the territory it had previously lost. It did so with the rapidity and confidence of a well-oiled blitzkrieg. What was surprising was the alacrity with which it accomplished this impressive feat. One after another, town after town, dozens of provincial capitals fell into its terrible grasp. First Herat, then Qalat, then important Kandahar and Ghazni were commandeered. After that, many smaller towns imitated their larger neighbors and succumbed to the Taliban’s siege. Still, despite this fact, we were told, time and again, that the Taliban couldn’t take Kabul so swiftly. America remained master of the situation, and it was by her rules that the Taliban still played.
Biden fixed the number of American troops at six hundred, and was unwilling to add a single private more. His military leaders, namely Lloyd Austin, Mark Milley, and Kenneth McKenzie, were forced to work within the constraints of this miserly allotment. Given these small numbers, and given the fact that any further request for more troops would be peremptorily refused, only two places remained to carry out the mission: Bagram Air Base, established by the Eisenhower administration in response to the encroachment of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and Hamid Karzai International Airport, a single-strip runway on the edge of Kabul. The latter was chosen, and the former abandoned in the dark of night.
Sadly, the extent of the abandoning wasn’t complete. Biden directed the American military to withhold all aerial and logistical support from the Afghan soldiers, the two sturdy legs by which their feeble military was kept erect for the last twenty years. Without this mighty foundation, these twin crutches of American technology and strength, the integrity of the Afghan forces promptly collapsed. This was unfortunate, but absolutely predictable. The Afghans, after all, were trained to fight in a very specific, perhaps overly-dependent way, and they lacked all ability to stand alone and endure once their mighty crutches were removed.
American and allied forces were re-deployed to the area, but their added number simply didn’t suffice. The Taliban offered Biden the chance to control the movements into and out of the city—that single point of egress on which the entire operation hinged—but the wearied Commander inexplicably declined. Doing so, I presume, would’ve required the deployment of still more American troops, a slightly longer occupation of Kabul, and the intolerable risk of not meeting his pre-established date of 31 August. He was resolute in his determination to avoid this at all costs. He was gullible, if not deluded (or worse) to think well of the Taliban’s motivations. Thus, the Taliban—not renowned for its genius at organization and its scrupulosity in behavior—took upon itself the heavy responsibility up to which Biden had turned his nose.
Americans living in Afghanistan, persuaded by the pacifying words of their leader, tarried, and didn’t leave the country when doing so was punctual, and in their interest. When they eventually realized that the situation was far worse than they were initially led to believe, they were caught in an unenviable place. In order to find an airport into which they may or may not be welcomed, they were made to run the gauntlet of Taliban soldiers. I’m sure that they suffered no rough treatment in the process—knowing, as I do, the gallantry and decorum of these terrorist-shielding men. Once there, they were often unable to gain admittance to the terminals and embark upon the very limited flights. In the event that they failed to board these precious planes, they were advised to try their luck another day. Yet, with each passing day, the likelihood of their escape diminished, and the threats on their lives grew.
As they awaited their narrowing chance, their names and biometric data were given to the Taliban for “safe keeping”, or something of the like. Without the faintest suspicion that it might apply this sensitive information for ill, the Taliban was told to study this list and, in nice gentlemanly fashion, allow those on it safe conduct through their debris-laden streets. The Taliban promised to do so, but, as Aesop’s fable about the wolf and the nurse reminds us, an enemy’s promises are made to be broken. These “lists” contained not only the names of American citizens, but Afghan allies as well. The former, two hundred of whom remain in the enemy’s midst, are sure to be held hostage and sold back to America at an extortionate price. The latter, probably with the guns we left behind, are surer to be killed.
Vigilant in its supervision of the chaos, the Taliban allowed ISIS to infiltrate the crowd. This was only possible because, upon regaining its power, and facing no deterrent from American arms, it decided to free all the terrorists from the dank prison cells in which they were kept. These ISIS militants, tickled by the chaotic scene into which they suddenly stepped, did what they do best. In a swarm of American soldiers, sympathetic Afghans, and allies of the West (all their declared enemies), they carried out an attack. A suicide’s vest exploded, by which his imminent ascent to heaven and access to seventy-two virgins was guaranteed, while a colleague’s gun sprayed anyone who was left standing. The attack claimed the lives of thirteen American servicemen, and over one hundred and sixty civilians.
Despite these casualties, Biden’s plan was unperturbed. The deadline for his force’s withdrawal remained 31 August, and not a moment later. Before then, though, a punitive response was deemed fitting. With a paucity of intelligence on the ground, by which such mortal decisions are normally guided, the Biden administration looked for ISIS enemies to target. They did so like a raging Oedipus, who’d poked out his own eyes. Supposedly, it found a group of people responsible for the planning of the ISIS attack, upon whom a salvo of drone firepower was quickly unleashed. The targets, as we’ve come to learn, were two. The identity of the first target hasn’t yet been disclosed; had it struck a famous terrorist, wouldn’t the administration want that information known? The second target, of whom we’ve heard even less, turned out to be a faithful American ally. He was joined in death by his innocent family, consumed by the fire of a drone’s misguided wrath.
Days later, it was declared in triumph that the evacuation was complete. Over one-hundred-thousand people, we were told, had been successfully removed from Afghanistan. The administration declared this number to be unmatched in all of human history, and this effort deserving of everyone’s most heartfelt applause. Yet the feeling of “completeness” sits uneasily with those Americans, two hundred in number, who’ve been left behind in this, my foreign land. And applause is unforthcoming from a woman such as me, now bludgeoned in the street for the crime of revealing her barren face.
These stranded Americans, these forgotten Afghans—they join me in my sad plight. As for me, born enslaved, I lived into my young adulthood a woman freed. This is my solace. It’s the bitter memory with which I plan to console the unhappy future that awaits me. I cast aside my chains, and rejoiced, if only for a brief while, in a life unfettered. Now, the opposite fate befalls my two young daughters. They entered into life liberated beings, and, now, they mature into subjects oppressed by an Islamic state. What their future beholds, I shudder to consider. What’s clear is that the storm is swelling. It no longer gathers so distant. The peaceful tranquility, the hopeful bliss of yesterday, is all but forgotten. The threatening clouds of the present hour hasten, and enshroud us in their gloom.