When my family fled Kabul in the 1990s, a bloody civil war was raging in Afghanistan. After years of western support to fundamentalist militant groups, those groups had defeated the Russian army and the communist government, then ravaged the country as they fought to control it. The international community had washed its hands of Afghanistan, seemingly indifferent to the fact that the people raining rockets on Kabul were trained by the CIA, or that the , leaving the militants to tear the country apart.
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I was 11 when we fled. What stands out in my memory was the bitter disappointment and fear I saw in my parents’ faces when they recognised no one was coming to our aid.
For a decade Afghanistan was largely ignored. Then, 15 years ago today, the pendulum of global interest swung to the opposite extreme. Within a month of the terrorist attacks on , the , vowing to defeat the Taliban and bring democracy to the country. We heard over and over that this was a just war, and it was a moral imperative to intervene and defeat the evil of the Taliban. Failure, they said, was not an option.
But now, again, we appear to be subject to global indifference and neglect. Two years ago Barack Obama declared . Yet 2016 has been the deadliest year for civilian casualties and injuries. Despite the explicit premise of the war – to “liberate” Afghans from the Taliban – the group is now stronger than ever, and gaining more and more territory. In the last month have been launched in Kabul by the Taliban, killing dozens of civilians.
With security non-existent in most of the country, Afghans remain poor and destitute. Unemployment is high and access to basic services remains desperately low. More than half of all Afghan children . It is still one of the and it is still devastated by violence. It seems to stand once again on the edge of collapse into a bloody civil war.
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There is no question that the intervention in has been riddled with disastrous decisions. A series of hubristic military and development strategies have predictably failed and as yet there is no detailed understanding of the failure or how it might be prevented in the future.
Still, even after nearly 40 years of war, ordinary Afghans are fighting for a better life. It is their extraordinary resilience and entrepreneurship, rather than military strategy, that has made a difference to everyday life in Afghanistan. Afghans enjoy a flourishing media industry, a burgeoning youth movement, women’s rights groups and countless businesses – from mobile phone companies to fast-food chains.
Afghan films, including those made by women, regularly feature in film festivals around the world. , an Afghan version of Sesame Street with Afghan characters, is a regular on television. Numerous channels offer an array of programmes including news and political programmes that openly criticise everyone, including the president, and report on the atrocities committed by the Taliban. There are more than a dozen . A particularly poignant moment for me last year was when the , a woman murdered in the streets of Kabul, was in a display of feminist activism.
Still, even after nearly 40 years of war, ordinary Afghans are fighting for a better life
There are other signs that social attitudes are changing and more and more women are entering the public domain. People are exercising their democratic rights to register dissent through peaceful public demonstrations. Despite the typical images of war and poverty in the media, progress has been made.
The rhetoric and international policy regarding Afghanistan presents us with a violent dystopia under the Taliban if we do nothing, or an implausible vision of democracy. There is, however, a third option. Supporting the Afghan government and Afghan people where we can will help their continuing efforts to build a better society. Ongoing humanitarian and development support that is locally led and meets the needs of Afghan people will build a stronger society, while ensuring that Afghanistan and its people remain a political priority will signal the long-term commitment of the international community to support the people’s resistance against fundamentalist groups such as the .
Fifteen years on, it’s time to honestly reflect on the failure of the international community in Afghanistan. If we can abandon paralysing, fantastical notions of complete failure or victory, and meet Afghans where they are, we can build on what progress has been made. Afghans need the full support of the international community to continue their hard-won successes in the past 15 years. Anything less would be another bitter betrayal by the very people who claimed to have their back.