The day before the Yakh Chal outpost massacre, CNN broadcast an interview with General Sadat. “Helmand is beautiful, if it’s peaceful, tourism can come,” he said. His soldiers were in good spirits, he said, and were confident they would defeat the Taliban. The anchor looked relieved. “You sound very optimistic,” she said. “It’s reassuring to hear. “
I showed the interview to Mohammed Wali, a cart seller in a village near Lashkar Gah. A few days after the Yakh Chal massacre, government militias in his region surrendered to the Taliban. General Sadat’s Blackhawks started attacking houses, apparently at random. They shot at Wali’s house and his daughter was hit in the head by shrapnel and died. Her brother rushed into the yard, holding the girl’s limp body towards the helicopters, shouting, “We are civilians! The helicopters killed him and Wali’s son. His wife has lost her leg and another girl is in a coma. As Wali watched the CNN clip, he was sobbing. “Why are they doing this? ” He asked. “Are they laughing at us? “
Within hours in 2006, the Taliban killed thirty-two friends and relatives of Amir Dado, including his son. Three years later, they killed the warlord himself – who had then joined Parliament – in a roadside explosion. The orchestrator of the assassination was from Pan Killay. On the one hand, the attack is the mark of a fundamentalist insurgency grappling with an internationally recognized government; in another, a campaign of revenge by impoverished villagers against their former executioner; or a salvo in a long-simmering tribal war; or a coup by a drug cartel against a rival company. All of these readings are probably true, simultaneously. What is clear is that the United States has not attempted to resolve such divides and build sustainable and inclusive institutions; instead, he intervened in a civil war, pitting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistan’s: one mired in endless conflict, the other prosperous and hopeful.
Hopeful Afghanistan is now under threat, after Taliban fighters invaded Kabul in mid-August, as Hamdullah predicted. Thousands of Afghans have spent the past few weeks desperately trying to reach Kabul airport, feeling that the frenzied evacuation of Americans might be their last chance for a better life. “Fro, you have to help me,” pleaded the helicopter pilot I had spoken to earlier on the phone. At the time, he was fighting against the crowd to get in sight of the airport gate; when the wheels of the last American plane left the runway, it was left behind. His boss, Sami Sadat, reportedly fled to the UK
Until recently, the Kabul that Sadat had fled often looked like a different country, if not a different century, than Sangin’s. The capital had become a city of hillside lights, glittering wedding halls and neon billboards cheerfully populated by women: mothers roamed the markets, girls walked in pairs from school, police patrolled in hijabs, office workers wore designer handbags. The gains these women experienced during the US war – and now have lost – are staggering and hard to understand when compared to the austere hamlets of Helmand: The Afghan parliament had a similar proportion of women to that of the United States Congress, and about a quarter of college students were women. Thousands of women in Kabul are understandably terrified that the Taliban has not evolved. At the end of August, I spoke by phone to a dermatologist who was in a bunker at her house. She studied in several countries and runs a large clinic employing a dozen women. “I worked too hard to get here,” she told me. “I studied too long, I created my own business, I created my own clinic. It was the dream of my life. She hadn’t been out for two weeks.
The Taliban takeover restored order to the conservative countryside while plunging the relatively liberal streets of Kabul into fear and despair. This reversal of fate highlights the unspoken premise of the past two decades: if American troops continued to fight the Taliban in the countryside, then life in the cities could flourish. Perhaps it was a lasting project: the Taliban were unable to take over cities against American air power. But was it fair? Can the rights of one community depend, in perpetuity, on the deprivation of the rights of another? In Sangin, every time I raised the question of gender, the villagers reacted with derision. “They give rights to women in Kabul and they kill women here,” Pazaro said. “Is this justice? Marzia, from Pan Killay, told me, “It’s not ‘women’s rights’ when you kill us, kill our brothers, kill our fathers. Khalida, from a nearby village, said, “The Americans have not given us any rights. They just came, fought, killed and left.
The women of Helmand do not agree among themselves on the rights they should have. Some long for the old village rules to break down – they want to visit the market or have a picnic by the canal without hinting at it or worse. Others cling to more traditional interpretations. “Women and men are not equal,” Shakira told me. “They are each created by God, and they each have their own role, their own strengths that the other does not have.” More than once, as her husband lay in opium stupor, she fantasized about leaving him. Still, Nilofar is coming of age, and a divorce could bring shame on the family, damaging his prospects. Through friends, Shakira hears stories of dissolute towns filled with broken marriages and prostitution. “Too much freedom is dangerous because people will not know the limits,” she said.
However, all the women I met in Sangin seemed to agree that their rights, whatever they are, cannot flow from the barrel of a gun and that the Afghan communities themselves must improve the condition of women. Some villagers believe that they have a powerful cultural resource to wage this struggle: Islam itself. “The Taliban say women can’t go out, but there is actually no Islamic rule like this,” Pazaro told me. “As long as we’re covered, we should be allowed.” I asked a prominent Taliban scholar Helmandi where it says in Islam that women cannot go to the market or go to school. He admitted, somewhat annoyed, that this was not a true Islamic injunction. “It’s the culture of the village, not Islam,” he said. “People over there have these beliefs about women, and we follow them. Just as Islam offers fairer models of marriage, divorce and inheritance than many tribal and village norms, these women hope to gather their faith – the common language across the many divisions of their country – to carve out greater freedoms.
Although Shakira hardly talks about it, she herself harbors such dreams. During the decades of war, she continued to learn to read, and now she’s making her way through a Pashto translation of the Qur’an, one sura at a time. “It comforts me a lot,” she said. She teaches the alphabet to her youngest daughter and has a bold ambition: to bring her friends together and demand that men build a girls’ school.
Even though Shakira plans to move Pan Killay forward, she is determined to remember her past. The village, she told me, has a cemetery that stretches over a few peaks. There are no plaques, no flags, just piles of stones that glow red and pink in the evening sun. A pair of blank slabs protrudes from each grave, one marking the head, the other the feet.
Shakira’s family visit her every week and she shows the mounds where her grandfather rests, where her cousins rest, as she doesn’t want her children to forget about her. They tie scarves on tree branches to attract blessings and pray to the deceased. They spend hours amid a sacred geography of stones, shrubs and streams, and Shakira feels renewed.
Shortly before the Americans left, they blasted his house, apparently in response to nearby Taliban grenade fire. With two rooms still standing, the house is half habitable, half destroyed, much like Afghanistan itself. She told me she wouldn’t mind the missing kitchen or the gaping hole where the pantry once stood. Instead, she chooses to see a village reborn. Shakira is sure that a freshly paved road will soon pass the house, the tarmac sizzling on summer days. The only birds in the sky will be the feathered ones. Nilofar will be married and her children will walk along the canal to school. The girls will have plastic dolls, with hair that they can brush. Shakira will own a machine that can wash clothes. Her husband will wash up, he will recognize his failures, he will tell his family that he loves them more than anything. They will visit Kabul and stand in the shade of giant glass buildings. “I have to believe,” she said. “Otherwise, what was it for?” “??