Stars and Stripes News, April 17, 2024

I went to Afghanistan to see my dying mom and found too many are dying in silence

“We will Soon Implement the Punishment for Adultery. We will Flog Women in Public. We will Stone them to Death in Public.”

Women wait to see a doctor at a mobile health clinic in Bagrami District, Kabul Province, Afghanistan, on Oct. 31, 2022. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)

Wahab Raofi

My sister Malala called me from Afghanistan: “Mom is in the final days of her life and wishes to see you and the rest of the family.” The call abruptly ended. I couldn’t shake the feeling that both the U.S. and the Taliban were monitoring incoming and outgoing calls.

“Are you going to throw yourself to the wolves?” my daughter Shabnam said, referring to the Taliban. We have lived safely in the United States for many years now. Sandwiched between my children and my dying mom, I made the decision.

My flight into Kabul International Airport arrived shortly before 8 in the morning. It was early fall, and off in the distance, the first rays of sunlight had kissed the snowcapped Hindu Kush, the sky in that direction bathed in gentle hues of lavender and pastel pink.

I had reasons to be fearful, the first being that I had returned to Afghanistan without growing a beard. I felt naked. Worse still, I had once been an interpreter for the American forces.

The Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, was said to have offered amnesty to all former Afghan army and civilian officials living abroad, especially those of higher authority, but Afghans learned from bitter experience that those were hollow words. Upon arriving, they would be arrested, tortured and killed. The Taliban were determined to eliminate all perceived enemies, past and present. As former Uganda President Idi Amin famously once said, “Eat your enemy before they eat you.”

My taxi driver, Sultan, constantly honked his horn at bicyclists and defiant beggars and pedestrians. Women were nowhere to be seen, and gun-toting Taliban were standing guard.

“Ah, you smell it,” Sultan said, having noticed me wincing from the foul odor outside. “The sewage system in the city no longer functions. Worse, the local farmers now use the waste to fertilize their fields. The scent is everywhere.”

As we drove, I witnessed raw sewage all along the roadside. The Americans had once spoke of bombing Afghanistan back into the Dark Ages. The Taliban have done that job for them.

“If the Taliban stops us, I will say I’m from Nuristan. I can pass as Nuristani,” Sultan said. “They have blue eyes, just like me. I would never bring up that I am from Panjshir. We are Muqawamat (the resistance) to them for resisting Taliban rule. Thousands of our young men are still being held in Taliban prisons. As for you, if you speak Pashto, you will be in good shape.”

His remarks reflected an aspect of the Afghan War: The Taliban, predominantly Pashtuns from the southern and eastern regions of the country, have systematically excluded other ethnic groups from their share of power.

I stayed in confinement for a week or so to grow a beard to be in conformity with the Taliban’s imposed dress code. Sultan became not only my driver for the next two months, but also my eyes and ears for all the current events and gossip in Afghanistan. During my self-imposed time, neighbors welcomed me as part of their community. They were predominantly Tajiks, including some former members of the former Afghan government or retirees who failed to flee after the arrival of the Taliban in August of 2022.

Every evening, each carrying a thermos of green tea, they gathered on the corner, sitting on a plastic carpet, discussing the realities of daily life: the pervasive joblessness, the looming specter of insecurity and the palpable fear instilled by the Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati, the Taliban’s secret service. This organization, reminiscent of a Gestapo-style force, casts a chilling shadow over the populace, evoking profound dread and apprehension.

My new neighbors — whom I name “The Blue Cell,” asked me a long list of questions: Why did the U.S. leave? Why has the free world turned a blind eye to a Taliban regime that has imposed draconian rule on Afghans, especially women … a regime that stifles any voice of peaceful dissent by intimidation, imprisonment or even assassination?

It has become a total eclipse of civility, they tell me. The Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan has plunged the nation into a state reminiscent of the Dark Ages. They vehemently oppose Western education, viewing it as incompatible with Islamic teachings; they have declared jihad against women’s rights, and they have failed to implement any coherent economic plan, leaving the country in dire straits. Their teachings of Islam have declared jihad against women’s rights and voided any chance of an economic plan.

Lately, their leader Mullah Haibatullah has vowed to start stoning women to death in public as he declared, “We will soon implement the punishment for adultery. We will flog women in public. We will stone them to death in public.” The Vice and Virtue police will apprehend young women on the streets, allegedly for violating their imposed dress code, only to release them upon payment of 20 thousand Afghanis (the Afghan currency equivalent of $250).

My Blue Cell tells me that it was now the Taliban’s standard operating procedure to kill off their supposed enemies and brand them as members of Daesh (literally, one who crushes something underfoot). Hora Sadat, a female YouTuber, recently met the same fate. Her only sin was to have built a large social media following for her light-hearted videos about life in Afghanistan.

In 2005, I had embarked on a private visit to Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the atmosphere was relatively calm, and the postwar economy showed signs of booming. Americans were perceived as liberators rather than invaders, in stark contrast to the view held toward the Russians in the 1980s. The Taliban were decimated, and there was no public support for their return.

What went wrong? First, it was the absence of good governance in Afghanistan, as Sarah Chayes observed in her book “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security,” rampant corruption in government was eroding the foundation of the Afghan government. Second, the Pakistani government’s support for the Taliban provided haven, enabling them to conduct hit-and-run operations and destabilize the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

I served as an interpreter in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2020, and I can say with certainty that without the support from Pakistan, the defeat of the Taliban would have been achieved much earlier, thanks to U.S. technological superiority and intel capabilities. But Pakistan strategically utilized the Taliban to exert pressure on the Afghan government, aiming to hinder or sever its close ties with India, while also seeking to establish a pro-Pakistani regime in Kabul, which they eventually achieved.

With regard to the U.S., there is no doubt in my mind that the U.S. had its own shortcomings. Military operations such as night raids and civilian casualties resulting from incorrect intelligence played into the hands of the Taliban. The Taliban were able to garner support from those who had suffered directly at the hands of U.S. forces or were dissatisfied with the Afghan government.

As an interpreter and cultural adviser, whenever I was asked by my team for my opinion regarding Afghan culture, I consistently advocated for prioritizing winning the hearts and minds of civilians while avoiding the creation of new adversaries. But the prevailing mentality often leaned toward aggressive action.

However, the U.S. should not be blamed for the calamities of Afghanistan. The country has been embroiled in internal conflict for much of its 300-year history. I agree with Carter Malkasian who, in his book “The American War in Afghanistan: A History,” writes that that tribal rivalries and Islam have been deeply ingrained in Afghan society, which makes it hard to bring change and achieve peace in this country.

The World Food Program (WFP) in Afghanistan has sounded the alarm on a surge in malnutrition cases, particularly among women and children.According to WFP reports, an alarming 1.2 million women are now grappling with malnutrition across the country.

Through a poignant social media video, the organization also underscores the escalating malnutrition crisis among Afghan children.

The day before my departure, my new friends told me that their hope was to leave the country, and I was lucky to be able to do so. One told me, “You must have been very smart to have left so long ago.”

The United States and the rest of the free world should exert pressure on the Taliban. They should not engage with a regime that disregards established norms, including respecting the universal rights of its citizens, women’s rights and upholding free elections.

Since I returned from Afghanistan, my takeaway is clear: The Taliban lack genuine grassroots support. They maintain control through coercion, employing tactics such as violence, torture and the imprisonment of human rights activists. High levels of unemployment and the oppressive treatment of women, who are often confined to their homes, render the country uninhabitable. The nation of my birth is silently witnessing its death.

As I departed from Kabul Airport, I glanced out of my window, reflecting on my mother’s dignified passing. Yet, amid my thoughts, I cannot help but ponder the silent suffering of countless women under the Taliban regime. Every day, their voices go unheard as they perish unnoticed. I write this piece with the hope of shedding light on their plight.

However, mere foreign graciousness alone cannot resolve the Afghan conflict as long as one group seeks to impose its will on others. This is primarily exemplified by the Taliban, predominantly composed of Pashtun tribes from the southern and eastern regions, operating under the guise of Islam.

Wahab Raofi, an Afghan-born American, is a graduate of Kabul Law School. He formerly worked as an interpreter for NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Characters Count: 11162

URL for news «I went to Afghanistan to see my dying mom and found too many are dying in silence»