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“Uncertainty, Fear”: How Afghan Women & Ethnic Minorities Feel About Taliban Takeover & U.S. War

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We look at how the rights of women and ethnic minorities will be impacted by the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan with two Afghan women who fled their country. Mariam Safi, who left Kabul last month and is founding director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies, says the Taliban’s rapid advance across the country surprised many people who had been hoping for a negotiated end to the war. “We had felt that there would be some space for a political settlement,” says Safi. “What has happened has certainly caught everyone by surprise.” We also speak with journalist Zahra Nader, a member of the Hazara minority who says the community risks losing its rights under Taliban rule. “There is lots of discrimination, systematic discrimination, against Hazara people in Afghanistan,” says Nader. “But now it’s going to get even worse.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

We continue now to look at Afghanistan and conditions for women, reporters, those working for peace. On Wednesday, Afghan news presenter Shabnam Dawran said in a video, shared on Twitter, she was prohibited by the Taliban from returning to work.

SHABNAM DAWRAN: [translated] My name is Shabnam Dawran. I have been a journalist for six years, and I have been working with Mili Television, when I heard that the new Taliban system’s rules have changed. With the courage that I had in me, I went to the office to start my work, but the current system’s soldiers didn’t give me permission to start my work. They told me that “The regime has changed. You are not allowed. Go home.” I am asking the world to help me, because my life is in danger.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two more Afghan women who have left their country, both of them now in Toronto, Canada.

Mariam Safi left Afghanistan just a few weeks ago, in July. She’s the founding executive director of Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies, known as DROPS, and the co-director of the Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace.

And we’re joined by Zahra Nader. She’s a freelance Afghan journalist who was a reporter for The New York Times in Kabul. She’s now based in Toronto, where she’s a Ph.D. student in gender and women’s studies at York University. She was born in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, and lived in Iran as a refugee for seven years, returning to Afghanistan in 2003. She fled her native home in 2017 due to mounting dangers she faced as a woman, a reporter and a member of the Hazara ethnic minority, which for decades has been targeted by militants, including the Taliban, as well as the Islamic State.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Mariam, let’s begin with you. You left but were planning to return very soon to Afghanistan. Talk about what’s happened and what you’re hearing back in Afghanistan right now with your organization and the people who work for it.

MARIAM SAFI: The situation in Afghanistan at the present moment, of course, is one that is endowed with frustration, uncertainty, fear. That is the perception, and that is the sentiment we’re hearing from those that we’re in contact with on the ground.

And what had happened and transpired in the last few days is something that we really had not anticipated, and it was a complete shock and disbelief to all of us. We had felt that there would be some space for a political settlement. And while things were getting very difficult in the last few months between the negotiating parties, we felt that there was some degree of space there for negotiations to result in a positive solution. So what has happened has certainly caught everyone by surprise.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mariam, could you clarify: What would you say would be a positive resolution? What did you hope the negotiations would accomplish?

MARIAM SAFI: Well, what all members of Afghan civil society and Afghans in Afghan society had hoped for was a political settlement, a political settlement to bring an end to the violence that had plagued Afghanistan for so very long. And a political settlement would have looked like a situation where both parties would come together. And, of course, there would be certain compromises, on the one hand, but there would also be certain promises and commitments, particularly in protecting the gains of the last 20 years. And it would have — and so, that is what we were hoping to achieve. It was never one victory over another, and we all realized that a military solution to this conflict did not exist. So, a political settlement would have looked as one that would have protected the gains of the last 20 years for Afghans. But, as you see, that certainly did not happen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Zahra Nader, could you talk about your own experience having fled Afghanistan, not once, but twice, as a refugee? And in particular, you worked as a journalist there. Can you say what you’ve heard about how the Taliban has been responding to the attacks on journalists in Afghanistan just in the last few days?

ZAHRA NADER: Thank you. Thank you for having me here.

I have been a refugee twice. And, you know, it is very, very hard to leave as a refugee. The first time, when the Taliban take over Afghanistan, my family fled to Iran. And as a refugee, I did not have any rights to education, to do what other children were doing. And that was very, very heartbreaking for me. And seeing that happening again in Afghanistan is really, really painful for me. And this is just awful that every day it is happening to Afghanistan.

About my work in Afghanistan, so, I worked at least around seven years as a journalist in Afghanistan. And in all my works, I was very focused on women’s issue. I wanted to cover the story of Afghan women, to see what they are doing in their lives and what is their problem and what’s the problem that they are dealing with. And so, in all those years, I have never imagined that we would reach this day, that we would again live under the Taliban. I’m talking to my friends back home in Afghanistan, my journalist friends, my prosecutor friends, my friends that work with the government, you know, at different level, and they’re all saying, “You know, it seems to us that our life was on pause for 20 years, and now we are just again going back, starting from 2001, where we left.” So, that is very heartbreaking right now for me to listen to their stories and see what they are going through right now.

This is how I’m feeling right now. You know, my family and everybody is at home. And the fear of that, that fear that I had when I was a refugee, a 6-years-old girl fleeing Afghanistan in the back of a car, and I’m now seeing that happening in front of the airport — lots of children, like, dragging, being, you know, in the stressful. What would happen, this — even the seeing, the experiencing of this situation that these people, women, everybody is facing in Afghanistan, that is a trauma that will never leave them, as it did not leave — the fear, the experience that I had as a refugee, they still exist in me. They have, like — I have fear. There are scars in my heart, that as I go, as I go in my ways, it come back to me and make life harder for me. And I can’t imagine that this is going to happen for the new generation in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about being part of the Hazara minority and talk about Bamiyan, where you were born. Bamiyan may be known by the world because the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan statues, the Buddhas that were carved, back in 2001. They were blown up by the Taliban on orders from the leader at the time, Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government declared they were idols. They also destroyed part of the statue of the Hazara leader, Abdul Ali Mazari, in Bamiyan, who they had killed back in 1995. Can you talk about the Taliban 2.0 that people are talking about today, back to then, and you, as a Hazara, how you feel about what’s happening to your people in Afghanistan?

ZAHRA NADER: I feel that they would be definitely marginalized. At least for past 20 years, they received some rights. You know, they can — they get education. They worked. Even though it was there always — the systematic discrimination always existed against them in Afghanistan, but it was much better. But now I feel, with the coming of the Taliban, so we can see they are just, you know, mullahs and from one particular ethnicity, and they would not tolerate other groups being part of their regime, although they are saying it. But I am fearful of, like, how people, not only Hazara people, but all people of Afghanistan, would live under the Taliban, you know, because, basically, they are the people who are coming from behind the mountains. They spent all their life fighting, and now they are here to rule our society. And I’m very, very fearful of that, how that would unfold for our future, for future of our country.

Specifically talking about the Hazara problem, we have tried a lot to tell the international community that we are — there is lots of discrimination, systematic discrimination, against Hazara people in Afghanistan. But it seems it wasn’t getting very much response. But now it’s even going to get even worse, because this group that are now in power in Afghanistan, they do not care about human rights, they do not care about women’s rights, and they do not care about Hazara or any minority people’s rights. And they would do anything that they can. They would do definitely what they did, you know, in 1990s. We know that they massacred Hazara in Mazar. They did in Bamiyan. So, all of those are just the pictures that are coming up to us, and a very, very traumatizing moment for all of us.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mariam, you know, we hear a lot in the press, here and elsewhere, of course, about what’s happening in Kabul. Could you talk about what you know of the changes that have occurred in rural areas, as well as in urban areas, and the distinction between the two? Because, of course, the reports are that the Taliban has been advancing across rural areas for much of the last year, and the government has really only — Ashraf Ghani’s administration has only been fully in control of urban areas. Could you talk about that?

MARIAM SAFI: Well, I think that to say that rural areas were under the control of the Taliban, while urban was under the control of the government, that’s not entirely true. Yes, the Taliban did control certain parts of the country. There are studies that showed that about 11% — in May, there was a study that I had come upon that showed 11% of the population lived under Taliban-controlled territory. So, that’s 11%, and this was in May. There were districts that were contested, and then there was districts — and that was a good majority — that was under the control of the Afghan government. So, that was the scenario in May, and that has rapidly changed now, obviously.

But in Afghanistan in the last 20 years, a lot of the development efforts have been focused and centered on cities and in urban areas. And so, urban areas have seen, have benefited a lot from the international intervention, whereas rural areas, particularly villages and districts — provincial city centers have still been better, but rural areas and villages and districts have not — have barely seen that amount of development. And that’s particularly been because of either violence, corruption and other factors that have prevented that from taking place.

So, it’s quite — it’s a mixed bag. And so, I would say that we have to be careful when we’re looking at the rural and urban divide in Afghanistan. There’s many, many drivers of conflict in Afghanistan, and there are many, many factors that have played a role in the last 20 years in how this divide has sort of increased and why.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the president leaving was a shock to so many, right? Ashraf Ghani. It wasn’t so much that the Taliban seized power in Kabul as they entered this vacuum. It wasn’t that the Afghan government, that the military was fighting them. They just left, despite the billions that the U.S. military had put into them. Talk about that shock and why you think that the Afghan government, under Ashraf Ghani, was so unpopular. Can you talk about it being, for example, what our next guest will talk about, a kleptocracy?

MARIAM SAFI: Well, I would say that a lot of what has transpired in the last five days, particularly on Sunday, when the president — we all heard that President Ghani had left, I think it’s too early at this present moment to say exactly what took place, and I do not want to speculate. But I will say that the Afghan National Security Forces — and I’ve been seeing reports that have suggested that the Afghan National Security Forces basically just surrendered the country. I would say it wasn’t the forces; it was certainly the leadership. There was a problem. There was a grave, grave problem in leadership. Poor leadership, political disunity have been a factor of where we are today, and there’s no doubt in that.

And the Afghan National Security Forces themselves fought against all odds in these last few years, in these recent years, and particularly in these last few months. When there’s no reinforcement, when they’re not getting enough resources and they’re left to both fight and defend for themselves, then it becomes very difficult. And so, the Afghan National Security Forces, I would say — even the development of the Afghan National Security Forces in the last 10 to 12 years, I would say, is when this force was actually built, when it was in fact supposed to have been built in 2001.

And it was the United States that took the responsibility of building the Afghan National Security Forces, under the lead program. And while they built an Afghan National Security Forces in large numbers, this was a force that they were both building capacity while they were also teaching them literacy at the same time. And in this process, there were a lot of areas where dependency upon the U.S. forces and NATO forces was something that was established. So there was a dependency on certain resources needed from the United States and other forces.

So, the dependency was there. It was still a young army, at the end of the day. And building this army itself faced a lot of difficulties in the last few years. I think they fought — they did what they could, but, unfortunately, I would say, the leadership failed them. And then, that’s what studies will show you, and that’s what reports in media would show you, that it certainly was a failure of leadership.

AMY GOODMAN: Mariam Safi, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of the Organization for Policy Research and Development Studies, co-director of the Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace, and Zahra Nader, Afghan journalist, Ph.D. student at York University, both speaking to us from Canada.

Next up, Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock on the longest war in U.S. history; his new book, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War; what the U.S. generals, what the U.S. government over the past 20 years did not tell us about what they were doing in Afghanistan. Stay with us.

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