The People We’re Leaving Behind in Afghanistan

The New Yorker

Young Afghans defied the Taliban and signed on to reconstruction efforts, only to learn that U.S. and NATO forces would be abruptly withdrawn.
A crowd of Afghan women sit at a really for peace talks in Kabul.
A generation of Afghans sought to build a revived society and forged careers that would have been unimaginable during the years of Taliban rule.Photograph by Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency / Getty

On September 3, 2019, Abdul Samad Amiri, the acting head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission’s office in his home province of Ghor, posted a reflective message on Facebook. He was just shy of thirty. He had grown up amid “the trauma of more than 40 years’ civil war and feel wholeheartedly the affliction imposed on my people,” he wrote. Yet he was optimistic. “I can’t ignore or forget the dreams for Afghanistan’s future and her place as a part of this world. . . . Despite the difficulties, I owe my life to this land and will work for its betterment so long as I live.”

Later that day, while Amiri was travelling by car from Kabul to Ghor, Taliban militants kidnapped and then, two days later, murdered him—one more death among hundreds of assassinations targeting rights advocates, journalists, civil servants, and other unarmed, younger Afghans who had seized the opportunities created by the American-led invasion of their country, in 2001. Nine months after Amiri’s murder, Fatima Khalil, a commission employee who was twenty-four, and a driver, Ahmad Jawid Folad, forty-one, were killed when unknown assailants placed a bomb on the road, targeting their vehicle; the explosive detonated as they drove through Kabul.

“The loss of my colleagues really broke me in ways that I had never thought about before,” Shaharzad Akbar, the chairwoman of the commission, told me recently. Akbar, who is thirty-four, was appointed to her position about two years ago. “Dealing with the anxiety of all this, for all of us in the leadership team—we feel responsible, but there is very little we can do to keep people safe,” she said. Colleagues sleep in the office for weeks on end, and it is an all but full-time job to sift through and evaluate the threats.

As the Biden Administration withdraws the last American troops from Afghanistan, the Independent Human Rights Commission is one of the many civil institutions now left to confront a new era of insecurity and uncertainty. The commission was created by a provision of the Bonn Agreement of December, 2001, when, immediately following the Taliban’s overthrow, the United States, European allies, Iran, and Pakistan met with anti-Taliban Afghan leaders, exiles, and regional strongmen to work out an accord for an interim government. The Bonn conference selected Hamid Karzai to lead the new government; the creation of the commission was also a provision of the accord. Since the Taliban have mounted a comeback, starting in 2006, the commission has been a regular target of threats and violence.

Akbar is one of the Bonn generation of Afghans who did not join the war that spread as the Taliban seized control of rural areas and sent death squads into cities, but who sought to build a revived society, at once traditional and modernizing—a society that nato aspired to enable through security and investment. She forged a career that would have been unimaginable during the years of Taliban rule. Her father, a leftist journalist, had edited several publications before leaving with his family for Pakistan, in 1999, to escape the civil war and the rising influence of the Taliban. He introduced his daughter to “prominent women and their lives, through books,” she said. It was “very important to him that I was aware of feminism.”

The family returned to Afghanistan in February, 2002. Akbar, who had honed her study of English in Pakistan, enrolled at Kabul University, and then was accepted as a transfer student to Smith College, where she studied anthropology and graduated cum laude. Later, she earned a master’s degree in international development at the University of Oxford.

She returned to Kabul during the first term of the Obama Administration, a time when the U.S. was investing heavily in its state-building ambitions, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars annually into agriculture, drug eradication, education, and other sectors. But Akbar and her friends—who were, she said, “very young and idealistic”—became disillusioned with the way that some of the groups involved were using the money. “I could see that a lot of these organizations were very detached from local realities,” she said. “I felt that Afghans should have a greater say.”

She was the kind of well-educated, next-generation Afghan that President Ashraf Ghani sought to lure into government after he was elected, in 2014. Akbar served on his National Security Council, working on the peace process, an initially fitful and fractured effort to develop talks between Taliban leaders and Afghans associated with the Kabul government. From the start, negotiators aligned with Kabul were divided over how far to go to accommodate the Taliban’s extremist views, particularly about the role of women. In 2019, Akbar participated in discussions with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, concerning victims’ rights, human rights, women’s rights, and freedom of expression. “They had some prepared statements, and they didn’t want to go deeper,” she recalled. The international community “did the same,” offering gestural statements about protecting rights that elided hard questions about what accommodating the Taliban would require.

“If the Taliban are willing to engage, if they are willing to have deep discussions, if they are willing to negotiate—that hasn’t been determined yet,” Akbar told me, adding that, if they are, “there are areas of common ground.” The rights of children and war victims “are perhaps easier to talk about before we move to issues like freedom of expression and women’s rights.” Still, in Doha, “some of the discussion was premature,” she said. The Taliban “think they’ve won and they will have the last say, anyway.”

Soon after that round of talks, Ghani selected Akbar to chair the commission. It runs offices in fourteen provinces and enjoys a measure of freedom to criticize government policy. Over the years, however, its campaigning for human rights has been undermined by the impunity enjoyed by Afghan strongmen commanding militias and bodyguards who have abused civilians but have never faced justice. “The fact that the culture of impunity was not tackled for political reasons really discredited the whole agenda—the entire human-rights agenda,” Akbar said. “There are so many Afghans who were victims of war crimes who will never see justice.”

“I think there should be a reckoning among the international community, and among Afghans,” she said, “about what went wrong, and what went right.” She continued, “With the women’s rights agenda, I often wonder—yes, there’s a greater sense of empowerment, and there are better laws, but to what extent were our agendas responsive to people’s needs and priorities?”

In an age of renewed competition between dictatorships and democracies, self-reflective questioning about the integrity and the viability of the global human-rights regime—and how to strengthen it—could hardly be more urgent. Regarding Afghanistan, however, these are not questions in which the Biden Administration has shown much interest. Having made a risky and swift decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country this year, Joe Biden is understandably anxious to deflect responsibility for what may come next and to signal to Americans that it’s up to the Afghans now. “Afghans are going to have to decide their future, what they want,” the President said on June 25th, when Ghani was on a visit to Washington. Biden said that Afghanistan’s “senseless violence has to stop”—a distanced formulation that risked giving the impression that the Taliban’s attempt at armed revolution was not the main cause of that violence.

U.S. veterans of the war and members of Congress are pressuring the White House to do more to protect the tens of thousands of interpreters, drivers, and other support workers who directly aided the U.S. military and government after 2001, and who are now vulnerable to Taliban vengeance. Last week, the Biden Administration said that it is preparing a plan to move thousands of interpreters and military-support personnel outside the country while they wait for U.S. visa applications to be processed. Yet that plan will not protect the countless other Afghans who lashed their lives to the ideals and the hopes of the U.S.-led invasion. That includes the young urbanites of Akbar’s generation who defied the Taliban and signed on to a Sisyphean reconstruction effort in the midst of war, only to find, after years of violence and disappointment, that U.S. and nato forces—which are, because of their uncontested airpower, the only forces that can reliably keep the Taliban out of the cities—would be abruptly withdrawn.

President Biden has now pledged a large package of security assistance and humanitarian aid to the Kabul government. But recent Taliban advances, spreading fear, and deteriorating security forecasts have touched off what looks like a downward spiral, in which vital noncombat American support on the ground, such as contractors who maintain Afghan aircraft, will pull out alongside U.S. soldiers. Last week in Washington, Ghani said that his job now is to “manage the consequences” of the U.S. withdrawal—a technocrat’s description of an existential struggle that seems, for now, to be running against him.

Akbar told me that she is not “anti-withdrawal; I’m all for it,” but that the way the Biden Administration announced its decision—linking it to the anniversary of September 11th, for example—showed “very little consideration about the impact on a very fragile peace process” and on the Afghan population. Her greatest fear is “all-out war,” such as that which engulfed the country during the nineteen-nineties, a conflict laced with mass killings, rape, and other atrocities.

“There’s little reflection on failures and America’s role in these failures,” Akbar said. “That’s frustrating to watch. We are being left with a huge mess. We are being told to deal with it mostly on our own. Of course, it’s our responsibility. It’s our country. But it’s not a mess we created on our own.”

Steve Coll, a staff writer, is the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. His latest book is “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
The People We’re Leaving Behind in Afghanistan