Amidst dusty, jostled screams, a parent hoists their child over the airport razor wire. The wide-eyed infant is lifted from the crush. Below, countless anxious arms wave passports. The arrival of thousands more terrified people compresses the foremost crowds, until some – under a blazing Afghan sun – pass out. A few are dragged away, but others are trodden on and choked by the febrile throng.
At the cordon, British and American soldiers are shouting in their own language. So far, they have held back the crowds with bare hands. But now tear gas is used. The pop of the canisters is barely heard before the white clouds spread their spluttered, salty retching.
From atop captured vehicles the victorious Taliban look on; keeping watch with bladed stares.
How desperate would you have to be to pass your child to a foreign soldier? What fear – the certainty of a dark and dread filled future – would compel you to grip the airframe of a jet as it roared skywards from the earth?
These are measures of pure terror. Each one distilled, recorded and gawped at. Names like Zaki Anwari – a 19 year old member of Afghanistan’s national football squad. Anwari was crushed to death by the retracting undercarriage of the US Air Force C-17 transport plane he was clinging to.
The desperation of those Afghans permits us a glimpse of the Taliban’s true nature. Why did Anwari hang onto the plane? Because he had heard about massacres of the Hazara minority, of interpreters, journalists and comedians butchered, of the shops selling out of burkhas, and of the Taliban’s outspoken determination to return the country to the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. The presence of the American-led coalition had shielded the Afghans from this future. The shield has vanished.
Now, the executions will gather pace, the hunt for collaborators intensify, the already lethal crackdown on protestors grow harsher, and Afghanistan’s women will shrink into invisibility. The Taliban’s slick PR messaging – promising ‘inclusivity’ and women’s rights – is exactly what it looks like: canny media management for a West with a dangerously tangled moral compass. It seems to be working: Trump’s still banned from Twitter, but you can follow the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid here.
When we look for a steer on how grim Afghanistan’s future will be, we should examine the scared faces crowding Kabul airport. They know the Taliban’s assurances are nonsense. We should believe their fear.
There are those – safely ensconced in the west – who do not. For example, Owen Jones (The Guardian), Matthew Parris (The Times) and Yannis Varoufakis have all chosen to frame the withdrawal in terms of rejected colonisation. Varoufakis has written that he was glad to see the back of ‘liberal-neocon imperialism’, and encouraged Afghanistan’s women to, ‘hang in there sisters’. All of them argued that the achievements of coalition soldiers in Afghanistan were negligible. This is not true.
The removal of the Taliban government at the end of 2001 allowed almost two million Afghan refugees to immediately return home. They came back in the knowledge that their homeland would be a more stable, less brutal place. Where the playing of music and the flying of kites would no longer earn lashes and jail time. Former soldier Tom Tugundhat MP, has spoken movingly in the House of Commons of the successful efforts he undertook to open girls’ schools:
“The joy it gave parents, seeing their little girl go to school, was extraordinary. I didn’t understand it until I took my own daughters to school about a year ago.”
The removal of the Taliban allowed primary school enrollment to increase ninefold, from less than one million to 9.2 million. Meaningful parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place. A generation of young Afghans have grown up hyper connected and tech-savvy, like you and me. They have attended institutions like the American University in Kabul (est. 2006), which provided a springboard for start-ups and a haven for intellectualism.
Being able to vote, to learn, to work. These are not small rights, and extending them to millions more Afghans – while fighting an insurgency – was no mean feat. It is appalling that so many of our leaders only appear to be grasping the magnitude of these achievements in the wake of their annihilation. A bunch of islamofascist savages will now merrily set to work dismantling that progress. Frontline Taliban commanders are happy to admit that under the new regime, adulterers will be stoned. Mind you, only the female ones.
Watching Biden’s administration address the Taliban like a foreign government they can influence has been laughable, and sickening.
Sec. of State Blinken: “Together with our international partners, we call on those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan to guarantee the protection of women and girls and their rights.”
Press Sec. Psaki: “The Taliban also need to make an assessment about what they want their role to be in the international community.”
This is what defeat looks like. When your bold ‘America is Back’ foreign policy is reduced to asking nicely for something you won’t get, from people who would never consider listening to what you have to say.
Part two HERE, illustration by Oliver Buckingham