Robert Azzi: In Afghanistan, still the Taliban persist

For the Monitor
Published: 5/9/2021 8:00:13 AM

‘And that, the story of our country, one invasion after another...Macedonians. Saddanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets,” Khaled Hosseini wrote in A Thousand Splendid Suns. “But we’re like those walls … up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn’t that the truth…”

“… Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing… ”

I first went to Kabul, Afghanistan in 1969. I traveled from Peshawar, Pakistan in one of those multicolored, heavily decorated, yet seriously uncomfortable busses ubiquitous on Pakistani highways. Along with fellow passengers, mostly Pakistanis and Afghans, we drove through the fabled Khyber Pass where the driver stopped for a break, allowing passengers to stretch their legs and, if a first-timer like myself, take photographs of a historic site along the fabled Silk Road that had connected Asia and Europe from the 2nd century BCE to the 18th century.

The Afghans welcomed me with open doors and arms. I fell in love.

This summer, if all goes as President Biden has decided, America will completely withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan by 9/11, joining the long list of military forces who entered Afghanistan with national aspirations and who, for lack of understanding and vision, ended up being ignominiously evicted by Afghans.

“Decisions, by all accounts,” David Fromkin wrote in A Peace to End All Peace, “including those of the participants, were made with little knowledge of, or concern for, the lands and peoples about which and whom the decisions were being made.”

Biden’s decision isn’t our first in Afghanistan.

After the Soviets were defeated in 1989, after a 10-year war, by Afghan mujahideen supported by Saudi Arabia, UAE, America (who supplied Stinger missiles) and others, there was a political vacuum in Afghanistan.

George Crile III, who wrote the book on which the movie [Congressman] Charlie’s Wilson’s War is based wrote that the mujahideen’s victory gave bin Laden his opening: “By the end of 1993, in Afghanistan itself there were no roads, no schools, just a destroyed country—and the United States was washing its hands of any responsibility. It was in this vacuum that the Taliban and Osama bin Laden would emerge as the dominant players…”

Wilson pleaded for the United States to step into the void. He wasn’t favoring the Taliban — he was trying to help the Afghan people. Unfortunately, America turned its back on the Afghans after 1989. By 1993 the Taliban had seized power and gave Al Qaeda refuge.

The Taliban persisted.

Operation Enduring Freedom,  launched in reprisal after 9/11, was a war of necessity, not only to capture or eliminate Osama bin Laden but to eliminate Al Qaeda as a threat to the homeland.

It was from the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, where bin Laden and Al Qaeda were believed to be holed up, that it’s believed bin Laden escaped to Pakistan.

In 2009, the New York Times reported, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations “concluded that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Tommy Franks had not committed enough troops during the battle to secure the area around Tora Bora. They believed that Osama bin Laden had likely been at Tora Bora and his escape prolonged the war in Afghanistan.”

Still, the Taliban persist.

Last month, not long after Biden’s withdrawal announcement, the Taliban killed more than 120 Afghan security forces and 65 civilians, further projecting its strength and defiance at both the United States and the Afghan government.

Anyone who believes that post-withdrawal America will have any leverage, military, financial, diplomatic, strategic,  over the Taliban hasn’t been paying any attention to what’s been happening throughout the Middle East since 1979,  including the results of a calamitous war of choice in Iraq and the cost that continues to be extracted, globally, from innocent peoples throughout the world.

 I have an ongoing personal interest in all this, one beyond my long-standing affection for the Afghan people. From the early 2000s I, with a friend, was guardian to a young Afghan woman whom we met and helped get an education, learn to swim, ride a bike, dream of a limitless future.

Under the Taliban women were forbidden education, forbidden to travel alone outside their homes. Today, millions have gone to school, others become doctors, political scientists, hairdressers, entrepreneurs, novelists, pilots.

Today, married, she lives in Europe, unable to return to visit her home and her mother and sisters, teachers and educators who have persevered, in spite of threats, to educate other women and who today are fearful for their future — as am I.

“… a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila,” Hosseini wrote. “No chance.”

Just as Afghan women are now being abandoned there are thousands of Afghans and their families who loyally served America as translators, guides and assistants who are unable to get visas to come to America. Who today hide from the Taliban, who tomorrow we may witness being executed.

“No chance.”

Recently, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting, as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen spoke of women killed by the Taliban in 2020, from activists to midwives, she called Biden‘s withdrawal deadline “arbitrary” and called for the administration to recognize violence against Afghan women and advocate for their protection.

It’s not often that I’m in agreement with both Sen. Shaheen and NYT conservative columnist Bret Stephens, but Biden’s dangerous withdrawal plan unites us in opposition.

“… to ask Afghans to fend for themselves after 20 years of American sacrifice shouldn’t be seen as unreasonable,” Bret Stephens wrote. “But foreign policy is also about dealing with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be. In the wished-for world, Afghan leaders wouldn’t be inept, Afghan women wouldn’t be in increased peril, the Taliban would have severed their links to international terrorists, and what the U.S. did in one corner of the world would have no bearing on how it’s seen elsewhere.”

“In the world as it is, none of that is true,” Stephens concludes, “and we have to find a way of advancing our interests without betraying our values and our friends. Last week’s calamitous decision on Afghanistan fails that test on every front.”

Fails the test not only for Afghan women, but for all humanity who suffer violence, oppression and betrayal.

(Robert Azzi, a photographer and writer who lives in Exeter, can be reached at His columns are archived at

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