“We are building roads and schools for people that hate us. It is not in our national interests,” Donald Trump, February 2012, Twitter
“We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan….morph into ..nation building, trying to create a democratic, cohesive and united Afghanistan. Something that has never been done over many centuries of Afghan’s history,” Joe Biden, Aug. 31, White House
As the United States resolved over the last two years to extricate itself from Afghanistan, both the Trump and Biden administrations crafted an essentialist narrative about the country. They, and many others in the U.S. government and media, characterized Afghanistan as an alien other, less a country than an ancient land of venal warring tribes, unable to unite and hostile to the outside world, and a place where there is no overlap of shared goals or interests with America and the West. This is a false and damaging narrative that contradicts more than 20 years of involvement in the country.
Afghanistan, like many Muslim countries in the last several decades, with its myriad of tensions and contradictions, has been caught in a spiritual and ideological battle, between the conservatives who seek to make their countries great again by harkening back to an idealized age when Islam was ascendant and pure and reformers and dreamers who yearn to break from the cloak of the past and catapult their countries forward and continue the path of modernity.
But what Donald Trump and Joe Biden miss, through oversight or by design, is Afghanistan’s peaceful history and how it has been outside forces that have often brought conflict and instability. Since the beginnings of modern Afghanistan, dating back to 1747, the country had been marked by relative peace, interrupted in 1978 when President Mohammed Daoud Khan was assassinated by communists allied with the Soviet Union. Prior to this devastating event which served as the trigger for today’s ongoing conflict, Afghanistan was largely a peaceful and stable country. Political contestations took place, leading to the overthrow of Afghan kings, but these upheavals were brief and did not lead to widespread bloodshed. Insurgencies in the 19th century against the British ended when the occupations were over and were resolved through formal and informal agreements. And adventurous westerners traveled the country in the 1960s and 1970s undisturbed, met with little more than amused curiosity.
Since that assassination, Afghanistan has been riven by a civil war, largely driven and backed in various ways by Russian, American and Pakistani interests. But even understanding that bloody history misses the complexity and dynamism of what Afghanistan is today. Approximately 65% of the population is estimated to be under the age of 20 and the urban population has doubled over the last 20 years. Afghans have embraced electoral politics, even when it has been deeply flawed. Participation in the country’s nine elections since 2004 averaged over 48%. Dressed in their finest clothes, families would show up despite intimidation and under the threat of the gun to place their votes. Women candidates took the greatest risks, often returning to their campaigns, even after being the target of assassination attempts. Through this determination, they achieved the highest level of participation in parliament in South Asia.
This is the Afghanistan Trump and Biden do not see. The Afghanistan where youth actively engage in social media, where people throughout the country stayed glued to their televisions to vote for their favorite male and female singing contestants in Afghan Star, Afghanistan’s equivalent of American Idol. Where Roya Sadat, a young woman in Herat established a film studio and produced and directed award-winning documentaries and films. Where in the wake of a suicide attack, a group of Afghans from Helmand began a nationwide people’s peace movement. Where fathers in remote districts appealed to donors to build schools so their girls could be educated. Where Afghans competed in the Olympics and people throughout the country openly wept, when in 2008 and 2012, one of its sons, Rohullah Nikpai, a young Hazara man, went on to win a bronze medal in taekwondo. Where artists and graffiti activists made Afghan streets their murals, bringing attention to corruption, women’s rights and injustice. Where a young woman began the “my red line” campaign, mobilizing people across the country to tweet and post to Instagram the rights and dreams they did not want to sacrifice in peace negotiations with the Taliban.
Now all these dreams seem to have turned into ash in the Taliban regime’s swift military takeover in Afghanistan. The country has gone quiet in social media, and in their homes, many of its dreamers sheltering in fear of reprisals from the Taliban. They risked their lives at the airport in desperate efforts to flee, believing that life under the Taliban, even if the promise of amnesty is genuine, would result in the almost certain death of their hopes and the future that they had believed possible.
This is the Afghanistan many of us fear has been lost, along with all its promise, at least for this generation. Naysayers and skeptics will argue that these dreams were foolhardy to begin with and could not be sustained without an occupying force. They will claim that Afghanistan was always the backward and war-torn place they imagine it to be. They will be all too ready to walk away from this hopeful generation.
But the death of these dreams also comes from an occupying force. Trump and Biden may argue that the Taliban is one of Afghanistan’s own, but for the majority of Afghans, who have never lived under Taliban rule, they are an outside force, supported and given sanctuary by Pakistan and other hardline forces. The Taliban’s brand of Islam is alien and foreign to the more tolerant Islam that had occupied Afghanistan throughout its history prior to this endless war.
The Afghan people made clear their choices in poll after poll that the Afghanistan that they seek is one in which Islam is a defining force, but an Islam that allows their daughters to be educated, to work and to participate in public life. They want access to the outside world. They want the right to choose their leaders and their future.
If there is a message that these people would want to tell President Biden, it would be this: See us. Do not collude with the Taliban to impose false narratives on our past and our future. Use whatever remaining leverage you have—recognition; high level diplomatic engagement; regional cooperation mechanisms; sanctions; targeted economic embargoes against Taliban leadership—strategically to make the Taliban accountable to the promises they have made to respect our rights and to be inclusive. All does not have to be lost. We have been shattered countless times and have risen before and we shall rise again.
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