The flawed U.S. presence lifted expectations about what kind of society they could have.
If the American withdrawal leads to a Taliban takeover or a bloody civil war, as many experts predict, would the sacrifices of 158,000 Afghans, including 43,000 civilians, killed by wartime violence have been in vain?
I want to believe they would not. And the post-Taliban years — a period of extraordinary change in the culture, expectations, opportunities and worldly exposure of a once-isolated and tradition-bound society — support my optimism. Despite the petty, self-destructive behavior of the political elite, and despite the still-powerful hold of religious and tribal taboos, Afghanistan is a far different country than it was when the Taliban seized power in 1996. Even if the Taliban retakes control, that can’t be completely erased.
Since the Islamist regime collapsed in 2001, a new generation of young women and men has been educated and exposed to the world. Millions of people have cast ballots in several presidential and parliamentary elections. Elders and officials in remote villages now have access to mobile phones and the Internet. Some rural schools for girls have closed because of Taliban violence, but women work and study and hold public office. Afghanistan is still an impoverished, conservative Muslim country, but it is no longer a prisoner of the past.
When I think of the Afghans I knew or wrote about who died in wartime violence, I also think of the legacy they created and the people they inspired. Some were poor and unknown, like the gentle high school teacher I met in a southern village, whose home library was covered with his beautiful calligraphy and drawings of animals. The community was destroyed by the Taliban, but when he passed away later, one of his six sons called to tell me, in near-perfect English, that the others were all doing well.
Some were well-known civic leaders, journalists or political activists who died in suicide bombings or were targeted for assassination by the Taliban or the Islamic State. Yousuf Rasheed, the soft-spoken director of an election monitoring organization, was dedicated to the cause of democratic rule. I met him often to talk about the challenges of improving the country’s flawed and fraud-prone electoral system. Last Christmas, he was gunned down by unknown assailants waiting near his house, but within a few days his staff was back at work, determined not to show that they had been cowed.
Some were friends who had no political ambitions but welcomed journalists like me into their homes or establishments to escape from the relentless pressure of war reporting. Kamel Hamade was not an Afghan, but he was a gracious host and a fixture in Kabul life as the proprietor of a lively Lebanese bistro, where I often went on weekend nights. He discreetly served us wine in teacups and often refused to let us pay for dinner, saying we should spend our money helping homeless animals.
One night in 2014, Taliban commandos bombed the front door, then rushed in with guns drawn. They killed Kamel and all 21 diners; a cherished oasis was lost forever. But the outpouring of messages I received from people who had once gathered there — an engineer from Texas, a lawyer from Ireland, a veterinarian from Maine — reminded me of the astonishing commitments made by so many foreigners who moved to Kabul over the years, wanting to help rebuild a scarred and long-suffering nation.
One of the first Afghans I reached out to this past week was Nader Nadery, a senior official in the government of President Ashraf Ghani. I met him almost 20 years ago, soon after the Taliban fled Kabul, where he was working for a human rights group after being imprisoned by the Islamist regime. He recounted that in those early months, as Western officials and experts began flocking to the capital, all conveyed a similar message: “Every one of them stressed the importance of promoting democracy and human rights,” he said. “Those of us who had fought for those values felt inspired and empowered. We felt we were not alone.”
Now, Nadery says he is “sad and angry” about the U.S. troop withdrawal, the news of which has thrown the country into a state of panic and confusion. Yet he also said that the sacrifices made by Afghans who died trying to build a new, democratic nation had not been wasted and that Taliban religious hegemony would not be so easy to reimpose. “Some good people have paid the ultimate sacrifice, but the things they believed and fought for became the rules,” he said. “We are facing difficult times, but those beliefs cannot just be stamped out.”
There are still reasons to fear that other Afghans’ darkest predictions of extremist mayhem and violence will come true, and that the country’s history of brutal ethnic conflict and political revenge will return in the absence of American military force. Ethnic rivalries remain fierce, and warlordism lingers beneath the surface of modern Afghan life. Members of the Taliban remain committed religious fanatics, convinced that they have defeated the mighty United States and could easily retake power. They have essentially boycotted peace talks with Afghan leaders and rejected plans for new, internationally sponsored talks in Turkey. Ghani’s government is weak and divided, and the Afghan security forces, struggling to hold on, may lose both morale and capacity without American backup.
Over the years, some Afghans came to resent the American military presence as a foreign “occupation.” Anti-American riots erupted after a U.S. military vehicle accident killed civilians in 2006, and again in 2012 after reports spread that copies of the Koran had been thrown out and burned at a U.S. military base.
But other Afghans clung to the hope that the heavy price paid by their security forces was worth it and that there was still a chance for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Just as a rising generation of young Afghan civilians has embraced democratic values and aspirations, the same has been true of the best soldiers and members of other security forces, many of them trained and mentored by American officers.
One was Lemar Safi, a young Afghan army captain who was killed in a Taliban ambush in northern Kunduz province in 2017. I never met him, but over the course of several conversations with his family and former commanding officer two years later, I came to think of him as representing the best of what the Afghan military could be — but often failed to achieve. Safi, 29, had earned a college degree in psychology, but something inspired him to join the army. His parents had lost one son in the civil war, and a second had been crippled in combat training; they were reluctant to let Safi enlist, but he insisted it was his duty. His former commander described him as highly motivated and eager to go out on high-risk operations.
By the time I interviewed his family in Kabul, Kunduz was again under heavy Taliban assault, but peace talks were underway between the group’s leaders and U.S. officials. Still grief-stricken, his relatives continued clinging to one hope. “Lemar’s death has been a heavy burden for our family to bear, but we don’t believe that his sacrifice was for nothing,” one of his brothers told me. “Thousands of soldiers like him have died for the same cause. He wanted to defend his country and its future as a democracy. He lost his life, but he did it for the sake of peace.”
Pamela Constable is a staff writer for The Washington Post’s foreign desk. She completed a tour as Afghanistan/Pakistan bureau chief in 2019, and has reported extensively from Latin America, South Asia and around the world since the 1980s.