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As U.S. Troops Withdraw from Afghanistan, Gov’t Turns to Armed Volunteers to Fight Taliban

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Taliban fighters are escalating their offensive across much of Afghanistan, attacking major cities and seizing more territory as the U.S. military withdrawal from the country nears completion after nearly 20 years of war. The Taliban now reportedly control a third of all 421 districts and district centers in Afghanistan. Taliban representatives met with the Afghan government in Iran for high-level peace talks and said in a joint statement that “war is not the solution” to the country’s problems. We go to Kabul to speak with reporter Ali Latifi, who says Afghan security forces are arming local groups across the country to oppose the Taliban. “They’re really putting a lot of weight behind these uprising movements,” says Latifi. “It’s really a big gamble at this moment.” We also speak with Sima Samar, longtime Afghan women’s and human rights defender who previously served as the country’s minister of women’s affairs, who says the U.S. should have waited until a firm ceasefire was in place between warring factions before removing troops. “The withdrawal was not in the right time,” she says. “Afghanistan should not be abandoned.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn to Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, Taliban fighters attacked the capital of the Afghan province of Badghis as part of an escalating Taliban offensive in northern and northwest Afghanistan. The Taliban now controls roughly a third of all 421 districts and district centers in Afghanistan.

The Taliban offensive comes as the U.S. and NATO forces are withdrawing from the country after nearly 20 years of fighting. U.S. Central Command estimates the U.S. withdrawal is 90% complete. Last week, the U.S. military left Bagram Airfield, a key center of command in America’s longest war. An Afghan official said U.S. forces did not coordinate the departure with local authorities, resulting in a period of looting at the airbase before Afghan forces took over control. As the U.S. winds down its withdrawal from Afghanistan, at least 650 troops are expected to remain to secure the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. In addition, The New York Times has reported the U.S. will maintain a, quote, “shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors and covert intelligence operatives.” President Biden is scheduled to speak about Afghanistan today.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Taliban and the Afghan government met in Iran today for high-level peace talks. In a joint statement, the two sides said, quote, “War is not the solution to the Afghanistan problem.”

We’re joined now by two guests. Sima Samar is with us, a longtime Afghan women and human rights defender, served as minister of women’s affairs of Afghanistan from 2001 to 2003. In 2012, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award over her advocacy for women’s rights. She’s joining us from Houston, Texas. And joining us from Afghanistan is Ali Latifi, freelance journalist based in Kabul, his recent piece for Al Jazeera headlined “Afghans say recent Taliban advances forced them to take up arms.”

Let’s begin in Kabul with Ali. Can you describe what you are seeing on the ground? According to Al Jazeera, what, 30% of the country now under Taliban control — do you find that you can actually verify this?

ALI LATIFI: It’s hard to verify these statistics because, for one thing, a lot of these districts are often trading hands. You know, they go back and forth. And this is something that’s been going on for years, you know. The difference is that in the past this kind of cat-and-mouse game took weeks or months, sometimes even years; now it’s in a matter of days, where, you know, you’ll get a report that this district fell to the Taliban, and then, two, three, four days later, they say that it was regained by the government.

In the last week, I’ve been to two different — well, including Kabul, three different provinces of the country. You know, I’ve met with people who are part of these local uprising forces, which is what I wrote about for the Al Jazeera story. I met with security forces. I met with officials, including provincial governors. And they’re really putting a lot of weight behind these uprising movements, saying that they want to — they are supportive of actual people trying to defend their own areas, of taking guns that were all either already in their homes, left over from the civil war or the Taliban time, when they were hiding these guns, or even the current last 20 years, when disarmament kind of went awry, was never really successful. Or, in some cases, they’re handing out new guns to them, because the idea is that they want to show the Taliban that the people are, A, against them; B, supporting the National Security Forces; and that, C, they are willing to fight against them, against the Taliban. So, it’s really a big gamble at this moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ali, can you explain why you’re concerned about this, the fact that former mujahideen, as well as many other volunteers, are taking up arms — what you wrote about? What do you fear might happen?

ALI LATIFI: It’s not necessarily my fear. It’s a fear that’s permeating the — look, there are plenty of people that support, absolutely 100% support, these uprisings, because they think it’s localizing security, it’s bringing power back to the people. But then there are some people who fear that, you know, if you’re handing out all of these guns, A, can you get them back when you’ve supposedly won the war or reached your goal of somehow getting rid of the Taliban? And, B, can you make sure that these people will not turn their guns against the people of these areas? Because in some areas that we went, you know, the people that were part of these uprisings, they may have been from the same province or the same region, but they weren’t necessarily from the same exact district or the same exact area as where they were fighting in.

So, there are questions: Will this lead to tensions? And could we end up in a situation like 1992, where all of these armed movements essentially turned their guns against each other and there were rockets raining down on Kabul? The entire city was divided along ethnic lines and lines according to their allegiance to different armed groups. And, you know, the city was ghettoized, and there was all kinds of, in a way, lawlessness at that time, which is what eventually led to the Taliban coming to power. So, that’s really the fear that people have, is: Can you control this when you need to?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dr. Sima Samar, you were the minister for women’s affairs from 2001 to 2003 — that is, following the installation of the government after the U.S. invasion. Could you talk about your concerns regarding the Taliban — the Taliban, as we’ve discussed, reportedly in charge of a third of districts across Afghanistan — and also the broader effects of the withdrawal of U.S. and foreign troops from the country?

DR. SIMA SAMAR: Good morning to you. And good morning to your listeners. I think the — let me correct that I was minister of women’s affairs for only for six months, but then I was — for long time, I was the chairperson of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which was also one of the — an institution, I would say, that’s one of the success stories of the country, which done the promotion and protection of human rights and continue to do the same work.

I think, as my colleague said, the 30% of the country or district is under the control of the Taliban, but the people are not supportive of their presence. It used to be exchange of districts between the two conflict warring factions. But this time, they are more rapid. It is a concern, because we don’t know what will happen. But the concern of the people, more people are displaced, and it’s a lot of violence which pushed the people out of their homes. And the country is already — the people are already poor, and the economy is not in a very good shape. So it is a concern of more displacement, more poverty and more tension.

And on the issue of people uprising and protection or supporting or standing against Taliban, the problem is that it requires a proper management, as the previous speaker already said. If it’s not managed properly, the people of Afghanistan doesn’t have a good experience with that kind of uprising. And I hope it will not create any ethnic and political tension between the people who are against Taliban.

But I think the issue is that, clearly, it was not really — the withdrawal was not in the right time. At least they should have done after a ceasefire between the different political parties or the different groups, warring faction, in the country. So, that has not happened, unfortunately. And I think the other issue is that, of course, Afghanistan should not be abandoned, because we had the experience before, which was — end up with the serious attack on the U.S. soil. And if that has happened, then it will be another disaster, not only for the Afghans, but for everybody around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Sima Samar, I wanted to get your response to the Taliban spokesperson, Suhail Shaheen, talking about the Taliban’s position on women’s rights on CNN just a few weeks ago.

SUHAIL SHAHEEN: We are not against the basic rights of women. That is education and their work. Only because we are an Islamic society, they have to observe the Islamic hijab. Even now, if you see — if you go to the Kabul city, the women are observing hijab voluntarily by themselves, because they are this different culture, Afghan culture, an Islamic culture.

AMY GOODMAN: He was speaking on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN. Dr. Sima Samar, can you respond to what he has said? And also talk about the talks that are going on right now in Iran between the Taliban and the Afghan government — previously, it was in Doha, but that wasn’t including the Afghan government — and where women stand in all of this.

DR. SIMA SAMAR: Well, I think, on the stand of the Taliban spokesperson that they respect the basic human rights, why not all of the human rights, not only education and work? And as he said that the Afghan women already respecting hijab, then what is their problem, actually? And it’s the same thing that they said when they were in power in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. I think they have to show, in action, because the areas which are under control of Taliban, they have not shown the changes that they claim that they have been changed and they are respecting the women’s rights. Unfortunately, women are beaten up in simple issues, violating their basic human rights. That is one issue.

The second point, the second question that you asked, I think that in the Tehran talks, you see that there’s no women at all. And in Doha, we are not satisfied with having four women in the peace talks among the 42 men. They choose the 42, the number, because it was 42 years of war. But now it’s 43 years of war, and it’s going to be 44, unfortunately. I think — I personally believe that there is no harm if they really sit and talk, but it should be inclusive. It should be coordinated. Everybody should not — I mean, somebody is sitting in Moscow. Somebody is sitting in Doha. Somebody is sitting in another part of the world, in China or in Iran. But it should be coordinated. And it should be a way to get out of this problem. And Afghan people should realize that they are responsible for their country, and they should come to an idea and a plan to end the war in the country. It’s very violent, and people keep losing life every day. And —

AMY GOODMAN: And what do Afghan women need most right now, Sima?

DR. SIMA SAMAR: Well, I think they need recognition. They have to be recognized, first of all. And then they have to be included in the process. And then, with inclusion — and, of course, they should be supported, not giving their name in some position, but they are not — they will not get financial and political support. So, that is really important, that our existence should be recognized in the country, as a half of the population, and we should be included in all the policies, all the issues in relation of the country and the people, and the social and the cultural in the peace process, in the peace building, and implementation of peace agreement, in case we reach to a peace agreement.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Ali Latifi, you know, people have pointed out that the War in Afghanistan has been — that there have been foreign countries involved in addition to the U.S. The U.S. was not the only one. Could you speak specifically about the involvement of Pakistan and its continuing alleged support for the Taliban — the prime minister, Imran Khan, giving an interview to The New York Times recently, saying that whatever leverage his government had with the Taliban has vanished once the U.S. announced its withdrawal, because the Taliban took that withdrawal as a sign of its victory?

ALI LATIFI: Well, I think just the fact that Imran Khan admits to The New York Times that his government had even 1% of leverage with the Taliban should say a lot. You know, the fact that — and it’s not just Pakistan. This is why it’s ironic that the talks are happening in Tehran, as well, is that we’ve gotten clear proof on the ground that Pakistan and Iran are very heavily involved with the Taliban, are aiding them, are abetting them, are supplying them, are providing them safe haven. You know, I mean, there’s literal on-the-ground evidence. When you talk to police in different provinces, they will say that we found weapons and ammunition that was very clearly coming from Pakistan or from Iran. You know, people will talk about the presence of Iranian and Pakistani fighters on the ground. You know, I talked to an MP from the western province of Farah about a year ago — a few months ago, and he was saying that when he was in charge of security in the south and the west — when he was working in security in the south and the west, he saw Iranian fighters standing aside the Taliban. And people will say the same thing about Pakistanis.

And then there’s clear evidence. For instance, when Mullah Mansour, the second leader of the Taliban, was still alive, there was footage of him going through the Karachi airport to go to Iran and, I believe, also the Emirates. You know, there were pictures of different Pakistani leaders living in the areas around the Durand Line. You know, the fact that Osama bin Laden — if the whole point of this war was about al-Qaeda and 9/11 and bin Laden, he was found in Abbottabad. You know, I mean, the statement that the media always uses is that he was found near the Pakistani equivalent of West Point.

And yet there is no real pressure ever being put on Pakistan, right? If Imran Khan says, “I have very little or no leverage against the Taliban,” the question then comes: Why isn’t Washington and Berlin and London and Paris and all these other places asking him, “Well, when did you have leverage over the Taliban? Why did you have leverage over the Taliban? And why have you not been doing anything to exercise that leverage in a positive way?” And this is something that upsets everyone in Afghanistan, because, as I said, there’s documented proof, both on the ground here and just things like pictures and footage, that show that Pakistan has a very active role, and Iran, in supporting the Taliban, and yet there’s no real ever pressure, physical, real pressure, being put on Pakistan because of it.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ali Latifi, today President Biden will be addressing the issue of Afghanistan. It’s been almost 20 years, the United States’ longest war. Talk about the results of the U.S. invasion and occupation on Afghanistan.

ALI LATIFI: I was just reading today — there was a headline that the U.S. is considering giving visas and support to Afghan women and rights activists and journalists who may feel in danger after the U.S. withdrawal. And I think just that headline enough says — you know, if, in 2001, George Bush’s entire justification — and, you know, he paraded Laura Bush around, as well — and Hillary Clinton, when she became secretary of state, went on these speaking tours and came on these missions and kept talking about things like human rights and women’s rights and so on and so forth. And yet, literally, in 2021, two months before their withdrawal, we have a headline saying they may have to evacuate thousands of women and rights workers, 20 years after their invasion of the country, allegedly to support women, to reestablish human rights, to reestablish democracy. I think that, in itself, says everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for joining us. Ali Latifi, freelance reporter based in Kabul, we’ll link to your Al Jazeera piece headlined “Afghans say recent Taliban advances forced them to take up arms.” And we want to thank Dr. Sima Samar, Afghan women and human rights defender.

As we turn now to why the Palestinian Authority is cracking down on Palestinian demonstrators in the occupied West Bank, we’ll go to Ramallah. Stay with us.

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