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What’s been lost

Sally Armstrong, one of the world’s foremost chroniclers of women and conflict, on what the Taliban’s victory means for the long and magnificent struggle of Afghanistan’s women and girls

By: /
15 September, 2021
A woman walks past a mural along a street in Kabul on September 15, 2021. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

In January 2002, U.S. President George W. Bush brought Afghan human rights warrior Sima Samar to Washington to attend his State of the Union address. He introduced her as a champion for the women of Afghanistan and told her in front of his audience on Capitol Hill and the millions who tuned in from around the world that the U.S. would never forsake the women of Afghanistan. Today, Sima Samar, who has received many major human rights awards — including the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize — and is an honorary member of the Order of Canada, wonders where in the world she and the women she stood up for can find a safe haven while the Taliban rout the country again and set their misogynist sights on women and girls. 

As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America, the women of Afghanistan are on the run again. Their magnificent struggle for human rights, education and justice is in ruins. While America mourns the 2,977 lives lost in the attacks, Afghanistan, the place where it all began, is looking more and more like the rerun of a horror movie.

“The women of Afghanistan are on the run again. Their magnificent struggle for human rights, education and justice is in ruins.”

It’s hard to believe that in one year scientists found a vaccine to save all the people in the world from the COVID-19 pandemic but with 20 years and $US3 trillion the politicians could not find a path to peace in Afghanistan. It makes you wonder if they are looking for peace in all the wrong places

How quickly we forget. We forget how shocked we were when invading American troops stumbled over burqa-clad women who were forbidden to go to work, whose daughters were forbidden to go to school, who were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were in the company of a husband, brother or son, who had to paint their windows so they could not be seen from the outside. And when that news shot around the world, we rose up. We demanded the policies and the funding that would send girls back to school and women back to work. They had already suffered five long years of wretched abuse at the hands of the Taliban while the world looked the other way.

While periwinkle blue burqas became a flashpoint for western media, under those burqas were women determined to fight back against the gang of hyper-religious, illiterate men who took over the country and sent Afghanistan reeling backwards into the Dark Ages when they first marched into Kabul, on September 27, 1996.

I met those women a few months later. They were pharmacists and doctors, humanitarian aid workers and teachers, clerks and moms. And they were terrified. The atrocities committed against them were almost unspeakable. One young woman who had been married days before the Taliban came to town had heard that makeup and nail polish were anathema to the ruling brutes. She’d had a manicure for her wedding ceremony and didn’t want to take off the nail polish just yet. Although she bought a burka and only left home with her husband, when the Taliban saw her bright red nails, they tossed her to the ground, splayed her fingers apart and cut off her fingertips.

Women like Dr. Sima Samar defied them; she kept her medical clinics for women and her schools for girls open. When the Taliban told her they’d kill her if she didn’t shut them down, she said, “Go ahead and hang me in the public square and tell the people my crime: I was giving paper and pencils to the girls.” The edicts pronounced by the Taliban became crazier by the day — no singing, no dancing, no clapping, no laughing. Kite flying, a favourite pastime in Afghanistan, was considered un-Islamic and forbidden. Televisions and radios were banned. Little girls were told to throw their dollies into a bonfire because depicting human images was also forbidden.

To disobey the Taliban was to die. A woman who transgressed their hateful rules was taken to the soccer stadium and pushed to her knees while the black turbaned Talibs with their long straggly beards surrounded her and threw rocks at her head until she was dead. The Taliban rule was that you could not throw a rock so big as to kill her quickly. 

Beyond the abhorrent decrees and murderous punishments, this gang of thugs did not do a single thing to repair a country that had been though seven years of civil war after the Soviets departed in 1989 and the various mujahideen factions started a fratricidal blood bath to fill the power vacuum left behind. Neighbourhoods reduced to rubble and roads with potholes big enough to wreck a car were left as they were. The power grid wasn’t repaired. Gutters on the streets overflowed with trash while Taliban men strutted about looking for people to punish. 

Who saved the women and girls then? Well, it was the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — Article Five, to be precise, which calls on members of the alliance to come to the aid of another member who has been attacked. In this case the U.S. called on its NATO allies to find Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the 9/11 attacks, dismantle al-Qaeda — the jihadis who delivered it — and bring down the Taliban, the regime that welcomed and hosted al-Qaeda while it prepared and trained for mass murder.

After the U.S.-led invasion officially began on October 7, 2001 (American and allied agents and commandos deployed earlier), Afghanistan became a petri dish for international intervention. Schools reopened and businesses flourished. The world brought governance and human rights to a country starving for change and willing to work. Life expectancy went from 47 years to 63 years, according to the World Health Organization. Maternal mortality, once the highest in the world, dropped by 50 per cent. Women became governors, members of parliament and judges. Those little girls the world first met through news reports became orchestra conductors, Olympians and scholars.

But then it began to unravel. ISIS, known here as ISKP (the Islamic State of Khorasan Province), appeared and brought the hideous tactic of suicide bombing with them. Discontented young jihadis from all over the world came to punish the Afghan government and soldiers for their supposed collaboration with the West. By 2014, most international troops had left and an otherwise flagging Taliban ramped up its offensive. Then U.S. President Donald Trump cut a deal with the murderous men and made them look like the winners of the 20-year insurgency.   

Some pundits said COVID-19 was like an X-ray that showed everything in society that is broken. The same could be said for the intervention in Afghanistan. Like Somalia, Ethiopia, Iraq and even Sarajevo, the massive expenditure of blood and treasure exposed fissures the international community was unable to repair.

Terrorists rarely lose. They have a way of melting back into society when their backs are to the wall.  ISIS, Boka Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and others make headlines and then go back to their lairs and surface again and again, often with women and girls as their targets. NATO could not beat the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan, nor could droves of aid workers and investors, and nor could the long-suffering Afghan people themselves. A monumental effort to help Afghanistan was defeated mostly by a lack of unity among Afghans — by self-serving tribalism, war lords, insurgents, political opportunists as well as a bizarre truth that we, the international community, invariably fail to find a path to peace even when the x-ray shows the fractures. The days of international intervention may well be over. Now is the time for the think tanks to convene with the UN and NATO and others who can examine the past and rewrite the intervention formula.

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