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Afghan Journalist Bilal Sarwary: Taliban Must “Allow a Free Press to Thrive” Amid Humanitarian Crisis

Web ExclusiveJuly 28, 2022
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In our extended interview with Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary, he discusses life under Taliban rule, divisions among them, ongoing resistance movements, and “it is hardly a secret that Taliban officials are now buying hundreds of kilos of opium” in the drug trade. He also discusses his decision to flee to Canada and the increasing Taliban attacks on journalists. “The Taliban must understand that the Afghan press and the international press have stood by the people of Afghanistan throughout the last 20 years,” Sarwary says. “They should allow a free press to thrive.”

In Part 1 of our conversation with Sarwary, he discusses conditions under Taliban rule for women and girls in Afghanistan and the effect of sanctions.

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, as we continue with Part 2 of our conversation with Bilal Sarwary looking at the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan. Bilal is an Afghan journalist who reported from Afghanistan for 20 years. He fled the country after the Taliban takeover last year, was on a plane out that he said at the time represented the brain drain of Afghanistan.

In Part 1 of our discussion, we talked about what’s happening with women and girls in Afghanistan and also the effect of U.S. and European sanctions on the economy of Afghanistan, and we’re going to continue that discussion.

But, Bilal, as we have a few more minutes to speak with you, I’d like to go back in time and talk about that moment when you made the decision to leave your country — you were very reluctant to do this — what that plane looked like, what you expected — it was almost a year ago — and what has transpired, as we talk to you now in Toronto, in Canada.

BILAL SARWARY: Well, I think it was the most painful decision for myself and for my generation, Afghanistan’s most capable, you know, generation forcing to leave the country.

I think the Taliban, since that time, has really failed, you know, to transition from fighting into governance. They have really failed to treat the Afghan people with dignity. Let’s take the example of secondary education for Afghan girls. I believe that that’s an ideological issue. The Taliban keep coming up with so many excuses, as if, you know, the Afghan people in the international community would accept that. So, the Taliban have also really been cracking down on the Afghan media, on anyone who’s basically been reporting the truth. They don’t accept criticism. We have to look at the Afghan women. You know, they are missing. They’re literally wiped out from, you know, offices, from government organizations. The Ministry of Women Affairs, which was playing an extremely crucial role in Kabul, probably symbolic in some cases, was transformed into the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, Taliban sort of brutal and notorious enforcer of strict measures. The Afghan media, for example, cannot have concerts, musics and soap operas, which were a form of entertainment for millions of Afghans. This has completely gone away.

And in that context, I call it the Talibanization of Afghanistan, but also the brutalization of Afghanistan, where we continuously see the Taliban soldiers and fighters and commanders taking the law into their own hand. And the Taliban simply are not able, you know, to run Afghanistan as effective rulers today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Bilal, but there are also — there are reports that there’s — first of all, that there’s splits within the Taliban on some of these very key issues, as you say, in particular, secondary education for girls, and also that there is a sustained, if small, guerrilla resistance against the Taliban, people who were associated with the previous government. And obviously it’s small, but do you see any kind of possibility or hope from these things, the splits within the Taliban, that there isn’t consensus on critical issues, and also that there is some kind of opposition?

BILAL SARWARY: I would like to quote Saad Mohseni, my friend, the owner of, you know, MOBY Group, TOLOnews. He says, “Everyone is in charge, but no one is in charge.” And I think that sums up the situation when it comes to Taliban.

I mean, you also have to really, you know, look at the Taliban today as not an insurgent group, as sort of the de facto rulers. And you have to ask the question: Why is it that they have battalions and academies for suicide attackers? Why are they doing that?

You also have to ask a question: Why are Taliban leaders and commanders and officials involved in the opium and drug trade? Why are they announcing, on one hand, that they’re banning the cultivation, but, on the other hand, in places like Kandahar and Helmand, they are openly purchasing opium? It’s hardly a secret that Taliban officials are now buying hundreds of kilos of opium. And you have to, like, sort of look at the fighting that took place between various Taliban leaders and commanders in Kandahar and Helmand over opium revenues and, you know, preventing eradication teams. I mean, it was sort of how the Taliban were painting it.

Then, all the way up north in Sar-e Pol, the only sort of prominent Hazara commander with the Taliban, Mehdi Mujahid, started fighting against the Taliban, because he was controlling the coal mines and earning, you know, millions of afghanis a day. Up in Badakhshan, the Taliban’s army chief of staff, Fasihuddin, his commanders loyal to him, and other Taliban fought very openly earlier in the year over who could control the gold mines in Raghistan district. So, there is a resource curse for the Taliban, as well. And in some ways, as an Afghan, I see the repeat of the 1990s, when you had similar situations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Bilal, could you talk specifically about the impact of the Taliban takeover and the subsequent withdrawal of aid, humanitarian assistance, etc., on, in particular, the health sector? We’ve seen very, very disturbing reports from maternity hospitals, from reports of children, large numbers, a majority of children in Afghanistan, facing hunger, severe malnutrition. Could you talk about that, what you’re hearing?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, we had recently the disturbing development of the outbreak of cholera, for example, in remote parts of Oruzgan and Helmand provinces. And when I was speaking to some doctors up in Daykundi province in central Afghanistan, from where they manage to — despite some aid, they said there was like literally nothing inside the clinics and hospitals, no paracetamol — nothing, literally, you know. And if that was a sign, it actually tells us that there’s a need for, you know, connectedness between the Taliban as the de facto rulers and the international community. That recognition has to take place. But for that to take place, the Taliban have to really do well in Afghanistan. They have to treat the Afghan people, they have to empower the Afghan woman, and they have to also, you know, have some sort of a political reconciliation.

Let’s go back to, you know, the time before the Taliban took over Afghanistan militarily. They did not agree to a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire. They did not agree to a reduction in violence. They did not stop killing Afghans. So, the Taliban cannot say that “we’ve got nothing to do with this.” They were one of the parties to the war. And had Afghanistan had a successful peace process, had there been a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire, today the situation would be different. But, you know, today Afghanistan needs an economy that can basically feed the Afghan people. Today Afghanistan needs an economy that can provide a loaf of bread to millions of Afghans. And as I speak to you at the moment, it has been weeks that there’s been heavy rain and flash floods, destroying wheat crops, destroying pomegranates, gardens, destroying, like, grapes, pears. And all of this is a major and massive blow for the economy at a village, district level. And let’s not forget that Afghanistan is not open for business with the region. This is a country, despite having a lot of agricultural products, it has always traditionally imported rice and wheat from the region. And that is not happening on a scale that can, again, feed Afghanistan as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, I wanted to bring in the voice of a nurse with Doctors Without Borders in Helmand province of Afghanistan, speaking to Channel 4 News.

HOMEIRA NOWROZI: The malnutrition patients in Helmand is increasing. And when we discharge some patients, many reasons that they again come and are readmitted. The local clinics are not working, and they can’t get the follow-up service. Again they become worse, and they become sick and come here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the situation of hunger and illness, especially of children, is devastating in Afghanistan. And I wanted to ask you if you think there would come some relief with this latest news from Reuters that the U.S. and Taliban officials have exchanged proposals for the release of billions of dollars from Afghan central bank reserves held abroad in a trust fund. This meeting that has led to this — and I’m looking now at Voice of America, saying the U.S. and its Western allies “played the major role in shaping Afghanistan’s future. But with the Taliban takeover nearly one year ago, regional powers, like Uzbekistan, are increasingly driving international engagement while Washington and the West hold out” for concessions. This back-and-forth with Taliban officials is taking place in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Bilal. Talk about the significance of all of this and what that money release would mean.

BILAL SARWARY: Well, if that decision translated into a practical solution and the assets that belong to the people of Afghanistan were, you know, given back, and if the Taliban had a sound economical strategy, then it will be a relief. But still, it will not be sort of, you know, a magic solution. We have to remember Afghanistan is a country that’s heavily dependent on aid. And also, let’s not get fooled by one or two meetings. If anything that I have observed over the last 20 years, such conferences and gatherings, you know, offer little or no solution.

Uzbekistan is an incredibly important country in the region, an important neighbor for Afghanistan, but perhaps that country also will be demanding from the Taliban, or requesting them, to crack down on foreign fighters, especially from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. And I’m not sure how much the Taliban will be successful on that front, especially after Uzbekistan came under attack from the Afghan side. Few times, the city of Termez was targeted. So there’s a looming threat of foreign fighters, you know, that Central Asian countries feel threatened. And that, unfortunately, might be the focus of such gatherings, at least not publicly.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Bilal, do you have plans to go back to Afghanistan? And now watching your own country from outside, how hard is it to get information, even for you, so deeply connected to Afghanistan, though you’re in Canada right now?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, I think that our love affair with Afghanistan is a fatal one. I will hold on to that saying. And we would love to go back in a heartbeat, all of us, once there is sort of, you know, space for us, where we could help give the people of Afghanistan a voice, where we could help report to the world, as we have done.

But at the moment, unfortunately, that does not look like it could happen, because the Taliban have failed to treat the Afghan press and our colleagues with respect and dignity. They have been put inside bathrooms at the GDI, which is Taliban’s notorious intelligence agency. Armed Taliban fighters have walked into newsrooms. They have beaten up our colleagues. And they continue to basically guard their own narrative extremely jealously and forcefully. And they are also not allowing access to places like Panjshir and Andarab, where they are facing resistance from former government officials. They also don’t accept criticism. And we have ample evidence now that they are basically turning Afghanistan into a dictatorship when it comes to reporting, at least for the Afghan media family.

For our Western colleagues, perhaps things are slightly different, but even they are not being given and granted access, as we recently saw what happened with Lynne O’Donnell, a longtime friend of Afghanistan, or a colleague.

But it is up to the Taliban to make Afghanistan the home of all Afghans. And the country would benefit from capacity and talent and knowledge. But for now, I am also grateful that Canada is my second home.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, talking about Lynne O’Donnell, just to explain, the Australian who writes for Foreign Policy went to see what had happened to Afghanistan after 20 years. She was held and questioned for hours and told she had to retract some of her articles over the last years, telling her she would go to jail if she didn’t, she said, in this latest crackdown on press freedom. Bilal, your final thoughts?

BILAL SARWARY: Well, the Taliban must understand that the Afghan press and the media family in the international press have stood by the people of Afghanistan throughout, you know, the last sort of 20 years or so, and our international colleagues were there before, when we couldn’t be in our country, and that they would benefit from such a presence, that they should allow a free press to thrive, basically, that that would be in the interest of Afghanistan, that would be in the interest of the Taliban. And it’s also sort of very difficult for the Taliban to hide facts, because today Afghans have smartphones. There’s social media. And although we face issues in terms of reporting on Afghanistan, we continue to get everything on the ground, thanks to our networks, thanks to our contacts, thanks to those Afghans who want their voices to be heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Bilal, thank you for being with us. Bilal Sarwary is an Afghan journalist, reported from Afghanistan for 20 years, fled the country after the Taliban takeover, now speaking to us from Toronto. To see Part 1 of our discussion, you can go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.

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