In all the years I’ve worked in Afghanistan, the situation has never been more desperate. I am still trying to evacuate my friends — among them fixers and former colleagues who worked at Nouvelles de Kaboul, the magazine I launched in 2004 in French, Dari, and Pashto. At least for now, we have managed to keep in contact. But the news they are giving me, of brutal torture and executions and disappearances, is painfully disturbing.
Afghanistan is once again among the countries – on a par with Iraq, Syria, and Somalia – in which journalists are at the greatest risk of being censured, beaten, tortured, and killed. My friend Saad Mohseni tells me that his television channel, TOLO News, which is closely followed and protected by international media, continues to operate but does not broadcast musical programmes or provocative drama series. But ex-members of the staff of Nouvelles de Kaboul are hunkered down in safe houses. Those from Kabul News (the newspaper founded shortly after September 11 by another friend, Fahim Dashty, Commander Massoud’s former comrade, assassinated in Panjshir by a Pakistani drone three days after the fall of Kabul) are hunted by the police. And the interior ministry, with the help of the Haqqani network, which is indistinguishable from Al Qaeda, has relaunched Shariat, an incendiary weekly that explicitly urges readers to point out “suspicious individuals” on their street, in their building, or among their social and professional circles.
Every day, I hear new reports of the horrors on the ground. For women, the whole country is again becoming unlivable. In Mazar-i Sharif, the body of activist Frozan Sanfi was one of four found in an abandoned house on November 6, weeks after her friends lost touch with her. In a town near Kandahar, a young woman answered a bogus call inviting her to come to a checkpoint through which she would be exfiltrated to Iran; she has not been seen since. Stonings are again occurring in villages. The “minister for the promotion of virtue and the suppression of vice” is back, as is the hounding in mid-size towns of women bold and brave enough to appear in public without covering their face. And, although the rules in academic institutions are not always clear, schools that still admit girls, as in Kabul, impose strict conditions: girls must wear an abaya, a veil covering the entire body, to be allowed on school grounds; the niqab, which hides the face except for the eyes, is mandatory; where classes are still mixed, classrooms are divided in two by a curtain; and, at the end of class, girls must wait until the boys have left before getting up to leave themselves.
The situation is worsening: in more remote areas, the disaster knows no bounds. The killing last August in Baghlan province of folkloric musician Fawad Andarabi, whose crime was to have sung about the beauty of his valley. A few days ago in Sorkhood, in eastern Afghanistan, a unit of Taliban commandos burst into a marriage reception where young people had music playing; they fired into the crowd, killing two and seriously wounding others. Comedian Khasha Zwan, whom I met in 2002 during my mission as Special Envoy for President Jacques Chirac, was killed after posting videos on TikTok mocking his country’s new masters. His relatives told me a Taliban posse charged into his village, severed the muscles of his arms, lynched him, and finished him off with a bullet to the head. In urgent crisis are minority groups, both ethnic (the Hazaras of Bamiyan, who are systematically persecuted) and sexual (the name of my gay friend, whose family denounced him to the authorities, has been added to a long blacklist, and he is now hiding in a Kabul suburb awaiting evacuation to Europe or the United States).
This – if you can believe it – is the Taliban is operating relatively cautiously. It will do so until it has finished up negotiations with international financial institutions to ease the sanctions that affect the Afghan central bank and that prevent nongovernmental organisations from working in the country. On the cusp of a winter that promises to be harsh and could well plunge the country into a deadly famine, they know this is essential.
Watching the unfolding atrocities makes Trump and then Biden’s actions seem ever more bewildering. The facts are these: The United States had one-twentieth the troops in Afghanistan that it had in Japan. One-tenth those in Germany. Fewer than those in Italy, Spain, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. By the time Biden withdrew in August, it had long been militarily inaccurate to say that it was bogged down in an “endless war” — his force had not had a “combat mission” since 2014.
In the Afghanistan I last saw a few months before the August debacle, this quasi-symbolic deployment was enough to intimidate the Taliban; to keep them on the outskirts of towns and cities; and to enable civil society to function, a free press to thrive, and women who so desired to shed their burkas and liberate themselves. The importance of that presence cannot be overstated.
So why did Trump, and then Biden, decide to sacrifice it all? By what strange reasoning did they renounce a strategic deployment that was costing less and less while its effects on the ground were becoming more and more visible? It is a foolish decision that will be on the wrong side of history, mark my words.
At this point, the great democracies have but one real duty: to encourage, support, and, if necessary, arm those who, like young Ahmad Massoud (leader of the National Resistance Front, with whom I am also in regular contact), decry this awful mess and are organising themselves, from Panjshir, the Afghan resistance.
The fact is that night has fallen over Afghanistan. Until something is done, there is no hope for my friends or colleagues or the powerless — even if they survive this winter.