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Afghanistan Faces Future Under Taliban as U.S. Withdraws & Drone Strikes Continue to Kill Civilians

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As the last U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, ending the longest war in U.S. history, we go to Kabul to speak with Danish Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja, who was once kidnapped by the Taliban and later embedded with them on a reporting assignment. He has been investigating Sunday’s U.S. drone strike that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.

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

AMY GOODMAN: The last U.S. soldiers have left Afghanistan, putting an end to this stage of the longest war in U.S. history. Marine General Frank McKenzie said the last troops and diplomats flew out of Kabul just before midnight local time Monday.

GEN. FRANK McKENZIE: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m here to announce the completion of our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of the military mission to evacuate American citizens, third-country nationals and vulnerable Afghans. The last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 30th, this afternoon, at 3:29 p.m. East Coast time. And the last manned aircraft is now clearing the airspace above Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. withdrawal leaves the Taliban in full control of Afghanistan, including the Kabul international airport, which the U.S. had used to evacuate over 120,000 fleeing the Taliban over the past 17 days. It was the largest civilian airlift in U.S. history. The last two Americans to leave were the acting ambassador, Ross Wilson, and Major General Christopher Donahue of the 82nd Airborne Division, who spoke to Taliban commanders just before the U.S. left. The Pentagon sent out a photograph of him as he left the tarmac.

Earlier today, the Taliban held a news conference at the Kabul airport, declaring the defeat of America. Supporters of the Taliban celebrated last night in Kabul, setting off fireworks and firing tracer bullets into the night sky. But for many Afghans, the country is entering a period of deep uncertainty as the Taliban return to power amidst a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis.

In Washington, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal praised the end of the U.S. war, writing on Twitter, “America’s longest war is finally over. As we continue working to help our allies and welcome Afghan refugees with open arms, let’s also commit to stopping endless wars once and for all.” According to the Costs of War Project, the U.S. spent over $2.2 trillion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By one count, over 170,000 people died in the fighting.

Just hours before the U.S. left, a family in Kabul held a funeral for 10 family members who had been killed in a U.S. drone strike Sunday. The dead included as many as seven children. Five of the kids killed were 5 years old or younger. The U.S. is now investigating the incident. The Pentagon had claimed it was targeting a car taking suicide bombers to the Kabul airport. Relatives of those killed, though, spoke out against the U.S. drone strikes.

AIMAL AHMADI: [translated] I lost my brother, my brother’s three sons, my own daughter and four of my nephews. It happened around 4:30 in the afternoon. … If we were extremists, we would not have worked for foreign organizations. I worked for foreign organizations for four years. My brother worked for them for 17 years. And one of my nephews worked for the American organization in Herat for six years. … We cannot even find the bodies at the scene of the strike. We want justice. The American military must hear our voices and never do this again.

AMY GOODMAN: We go now to Kabul, where we’re joined by the Danish Afghan journalist Nagieb Khaja, who is reporting for the Danish television channel TV 2. He has been reporting on Sunday’s U.S. drone strike and interviewed relatives of the victims. In 2008, Nagieb was kidnapped by the Taliban. He later embedded with the Taliban while making a documentary for Al Jazeera. He’s the director of the documentary My Afghanistan: Life in the Forbidden Zone.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nagieb. It’s great to have you with us. Can you start off by first responding to what is being reported is the end of the U.S. longest war in history, what’s happening on the ground, and then specifically talk about your investigation of this U.S. drone strike?

NAGIEB KHAJA: Thank you for having me here.

What’s happening on the ground is that, you know, for the past three weeks, not much has changed, because the thing is that a lot of things changed when the Taliban, they took Kabul. But since they took Kabul, you’ve only had the Western voices, you know, mostly American voices, inside Kabul airport. So, actually, the last troops leaving Afghanistan doesn’t really make a big difference for the average Afghan. Out in the streets, it’s business as usual, as in the past three weeks. And people are like, you know, these guys, they were in the airport, and they had something to do with the evacuation, and we couldn’t — you know, it didn’t make any difference for us, not leaving, us, the people who are not leaving Afghanistan. So, in that sense, it doesn’t make a difference.

But historically, of course it makes a difference, because it was the U.S. that started the War in Afghanistan, invaded Afghanistan with its allies. And then leaving this place here is — it’s unimaginable. You know, it’s still really difficult for me to grasp that the war between the Taliban and the U.S. government, and possibly also the remnants of the Afghan government — there is a small group of insurgents in Panjshir Valley, north of Kabul, but besides them, there is no War in Afghanistan, so it’s really unusual to be here right now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nagieb, what can you tell us about this drone strike with this family that was killed? Was this actual collateral damage, as the U.S. military is claiming, or were they just completely erroneous in their intelligence in hitting that car?

NAGIEB KHAJA: You know, what I could see was that you had this family — I talked to the brother of one of the deceased. The brother’s name is Aimal Ahmadi. And he told me about his brother, who was an engineer, Ezmarai. He was working for an international NGO, a Southern California-based charity, nongovernmental organization based in Pasadena. And he’s been working for this organization for 16, 17 years. And he was like a father for the family. He was taking care of his other brothers — of this brother that I talked to, Aimal, and also Romal, his other brother. And they were dependent on him. And according to his brother, he had applied — Ezmarai had applied for a special U.S. immigration designation, which would allow him to leave Afghanistan and go to the U.S.

And he said that Ezmarai, he came home, and he was driving a car into the yard. And he took his 12-year-old son with him, let him actually drive the car, because he wanted to — you know, he was just being nice to his son, letting him drive the car for a few meters. And a lot of the kids — some of the kids, they went into the car. Other kids were playing around the car. And suddenly, the drone struck the car, and everything exploded. And the car was on fire. And, you know, this tragedy of all these family members who were killed by this bomb, it happened. Neighbors came and tried to save people, but it was impossible. And it was like — it was a horrific scene of flesh on the walls, pieces of human beings all over the compound. It was a nightmare, he said.

And the thing is that what he’s telling me and the neighbors are telling me — and also, I also spoke to one of his cousins, of Ezmarai — is that they were a normal family struggling to make it in Afghanistan. And the three adults who were killed — Ezmarai and his nephew, Naser — they had a lot, a lot of interaction with Westerners, with the Afghan government. So they were doing a lot of things that you normally wouldn’t — you wouldn’t connect it to people who are sympathetic to Islamic State in Afghanistan. There was also a 20-year-old young man who was killed, and he was also a part of the family.

So, the thing is that everybody around them were saying that they were innocent, but, you know — so, you have two options. One option is that they didn’t know that one of these adults was an IS member, undercover IS member. And the other option is that they were innocent, that it was wrong; you know, the attack was based on wrong intelligence. But if the first option is true, you know, you actually have somebody in the U.S. making a decision that it was worth killing the children together with this IS member. So, either way, there are a lot of — you know, it’s quite problematic, to use a very mild word about what happened.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And it would be clear then that there were no explosives anywhere near the area? In other words, because the U.S. government has claimed that they thought they had an imminent threat that they were responding to.

NAGIEB KHAJA: I’m not an expert on explosives. It needs to be investigated. I know a lot of journalists are trying to investigate what was happening. I could see a burned-out car. And the American official who said that they struck this car, he said that it was loaded with explosives. But the family members that I spoke to and the neighbors, they said that it was one blast; you know, it wasn’t several of them. And, you know, this is like the testimonies from these people. They said that none of them had the impression you had two explosions. It was one car that was hit, and this car was set on fire, and the people all around the car and inside the car were killed.

Whether there is a possibility that there could have been explosives in the car, you know, it needs to be investigated, because, or else, we’re just going to — you know, as Aimal, the surviving brother, he said he wants this to be investigated. He wants a court case. You know, it can’t be true that his family members, one of his family members, one of the other adults has been accused of being a terrorist, and you don’t have a case about it. And he insists that he’s innocent.

AMY GOODMAN: Nagieb, you have a remarkable history in Afghanistan over the years with the Taliban. You were kidnapped by them. Then, years later, you embedded with them. And now today, August 31st, is the day that President Biden set as the deadline for U.S. troops publicly withdrawing from Afghanistan. Can you talk about what’s happening in the streets, who the Taliban are, and your experience with them, and if you think they will change as they say that they will?

NAGIEB KHAJA: The Taliban has been through an evolution, but you still have a very — you know, on the surface, it’s one organization. But under the surface, you have different layers. You have the southerners in the Taliban movement, people from Kandahar and Helmand, who are kind of more old-school Taliban, and they have a lot of — you know, they are the ones who have the most resemblances with the Taliban from the '90s. But they still progressed, because the Taliban in the ’90s, they were smashing telephones, smashing — you know, they were smashing pictures and forcing women to wear burqas. I've just been to Helmand also. I was there five days ago, five, six days ago. And I saw women without burqas, like face coverings. I also saw women just with a hijab, with a scarf on the head. So, even the Taliban from the south, who are the more traditional ones, they’ve changed. That’s for sure.

And then you have the eastern Taliban and some of the northerners in the Taliban movement, who are kind of more pragmatic. They are more modern, if you can use that word about them. I talked with some of my sources from Logar, the Taliban in Logar, and they revealed for me that they had fought very hard to convince the southerners to accept women education and women working. So you have these differences of opinion among them, but they just don’t let people know about them. They try to act like one force. And they put so much pressure on them, according to these sources, that they ended up accepting it, for now.

And then you have the Haqqanis. The Haqqanis, they are more like — you know, they are rebels, but they’re also kind of more al-Qaeda-inspired terrorist organization. Some of the most extreme terrorist attacks before IS showed up in Afghanistan, they were carried out by the Haqqanis. And the Haqqanis, they have links to ISI, the Pakistani intelligence, and influenced a lot by them also. And the old-school Taliban and the Taliban from eastern Afghanistan, they hate ISI. So, you have all this. You know, you have like an umbrella called the Taliban, but under the umbrella you have different kinds of Taliban, who have frictions depending on what subject you’re talking about.

And what kind of Afghanistan are we going to have? That’s a really good question, because the thing is that what I’ve learned from my days here, and also before I came here, is that they haven’t agreed on what kind of Afghanistan we’re going to have. They’ve kind of postponed some of the decisions about what they want.

Some of the topics that we discuss a lot, some of the progressives in Afghanistan and the educated ones in Afghanistan, liberal people, they’re talking about is women’s rights, personal freedom, freedom of speech, these things. And the Taliban, you know, for example, when they talk about women’s rights, when they talk about female education, they talk about female working, they say, “Of course we allow it, but within an Islamic framework.” So, you know, if Islam was just one thing, it would be easy to analyze ourselves to what we are going to expect from this movement. But when they disagree internally about what is an Islamic framework and what is not, then we don’t know what’s going to happen.

And that’s why — you know, this is my analysis from the people I’ve been talking to, is that they’re postponing some of the decisions about what kind of Afghanistan we’re going to have. Is it going to be much more light version of Taliban than the '90s or less light? Because it's 100% sure that some of the progress — because we’ve also had some progress in Afghanistan during the war. We’ve had, you know, female — women, they have much more freedom. Freedom of speech is very wide in Afghanistan compared to, for example, Iran, another country, or other Central Asian neighboring countries. Some of these things, what are they going to do here? We are not going to have the same freedom in Afghanistan as before, but is the freedom going to be very less or a lot less than what we have right now? But —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Nagieb?

NAGIEB KHAJA: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk somewhat about the actual practice so far, in the two weeks or so that the Taliban have been in charge of the country? Do you see any indications that they’re actually moving now to govern, to provide services? And clearly, as you mentioned, Afghanistan has changed. About 75% of its budget during the occupation was coming from international donors, so they’re going to have to have some kind of a relationship with the international community to be able to continue to have some kind of financial assistance. So, what’s your sense of their governance so far?

NAGIEB KHAJA: My sense of their governance is right now that they are — you know, they are going to announce the government very soon. They’ve chosen certain persons for certain positions, and they’re going to reveal it very soon. And the thing is that they really fought hard to keep, you know, the administration. But a lot of people have fled, and they’ve fled either because they disagree with them, because they don’t want to be a part of this kind of Afghanistan, or because they’re scared of them, that they don’t trust their promises about they are not going to take vengeance. So, they’ve lost a lot of resources. You know, there’s been a huge brain drain from Afghanistan. You’re talking about 100,000 people who left the country in a few weeks. A lot more people are going to leave this country. So they’re really going to struggle with a lot of things.

And they’re also going to struggle with the economy. The money flow has stopped to Afghanistan. You don’t have that money going into the country right now. People are not getting their salaries, people working for state, you know, for the government, for example. So, it’s going to be a very tough time for the Afghans, and it’s really going to be tough for the Taliban to be in charge.

But they’ve showed signs of wanting to cooperate — for example, keeping the mayor of Kabul. They didn’t fire him; they kept him as the mayor. And they’ve done the same thing other places, too. But at the same time, you also hear stories about vengeance. You hear about them looking for certain persons who disagree with them or who have been very critical, vocal critics of them.

So, on one hand, you have the leaders of the movement, that part of the leadership which negotiated in Doha with the former Afghan government and with the international community, a very pragmatic, flexible leadership, much more open-minded than you would expect from the Taliban before. And they’ve sat together with secular people, discussed with them, acknowledged that they had differences. They sat together with women, discussing with them. And on the other side, you have these other battle-hard Talibs who only knows war. They grew up in villages. They haven’t gone to school. They’re uneducated. They’re not used to be together with people who have different opinions than them. They’re not used to be together with women. And they’ve just been painted by the war.

So, you have these people coming to Afghanistan and trying to work under one umbrella. And that’s maybe also why we are hearing all these contradictory stories about the leaders saying — promising stuff, promising people that they can be safe, and on the other side you hear of incidents of commanders or rogue elements in the movement doing the opposite. So, it’s really going to be tough for the Afghan people, but actually also tough for the Taliban.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you staying, Nagieb?

NAGIEB KHAJA: Yes. In Afghanistan? No. I’m staying here for — I’m based in Copenhagen. I’m traveling back and forth. And I’ve covered Afghanistan for 17 years. I’ve been covering this conflict since 2004. And I, actually — I had decided to stop covering it, because I have a family, I have children. And, you know, you told the story about me. I’ve tried to be kidnapped. I’ve tried to be in prison twice here in Afghanistan, once by NDS, the Afghan intelligence, the other time by the Taliban, and kidnapped by a rogue Taliban group.

So, I had some really critical moments in this country, but, you know, it’s really difficult to let go. And after I saw what was happening in Afghanistan, I just couldn’t stop myself from coming down here and trying to document what was happening. It’s really important that the international community, they have some eyes and ears coming from abroad. And I could tell you one thing, that the Western journalists, they’re actually getting special treatment from the Taliban right now, because they have a PR campaign right now. Afghan journalists, they have a tougher time than us. So it’s really important with people like us here.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nagieb Khaja, we thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Danish Afghan journalist and documentarian who’s covered the War in Afghanistan and Syria. He’s in Kabul now reporting for Danish television channel TV 2. We hope to revisit you soon.

Next up, we speak to the twice Nobel Peace Prize-nominated, longtime peace activist Kathy Kelly. She fears the U.S. war may not actually be over. Stay with us.

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Peace Activist Kathy Kelly on Reparations for Afghanistan & What the U.S. Owes After Decades of War

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