The day before the massacre at the Yakh Chal outpost, CNN aired an interview with General Sadat. “Helmand is beautiful – if it’s peaceful, tourism can come,” he said. His soldiers had high morale, he explained, and were confident of defeating the Taliban. The anchor seemed relieved. “You seem very optimistic,” she said. “It’s reassuring to hear.”
I showed the interview to Mohammed Wali, a stretch car dealer in a village near Lashkar Gah. A few days after the Yakh Chal massacre, government militias in his area surrendered to the Taliban. General Sadat’s Blackhawks began attacking houses, apparently by accident. They shot at Wales’ house, and his daughter was hit in the head by shrapnel and died. His brother hurried into the yard and held the girl’s limp body up by the helicopters, shouting, “We are civilians!” The choppers killed him and Welsh’s son. His wife lost her leg and another daughter is in a coma. When Wali saw the CNN clip, he sobbed. “Why are they doing this?” he asked. “Are they mocking us?”
Over the course of a few hours in 2006, the Taliban killed 32 friends and relatives of Amir Dado, including his son. Three years later, they killed the warlord himself – who at the time had joined parliament – in a roadside blast. The orchestrator of the murder came from Pan Killay. In one light, the attack is a mark of a fundamentalist uprising fighting against an internationally recognized government; in another, a campaign of revenge by poor villagers against their former tormenting spirit; or an ointment in a protracted tribal war; or a hit by a drug cartel against a rival company. All of these readings are probably true, at the same time. What is clear is that the United States was not trying to bridge such gaps and build sustainable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, the Americans, like the Soviets, actually created two Afghans: one bound in endless conflict, the other prosperous and hopeful.
It is the hopeful Afghanistan that is now threatened after Taliban fighters marched into Kabul in mid-August – exactly as Hamdullah predicted. Thousands of Afghans have spent the past few weeks desperately reaching Kabul airport, sensing that the insane evacuation of Americans may be their last chance at a better life. “Brother, you have to help me,” begged the helicopter pilot I had previously spoken to over the phone. At the time, he was fighting crowds to get within sight of the airport gate; when the wheels of the last American plane pulled off the runway, he was left behind. His boss, Sami Sadat, reportedly fled to Britain
Until recently, Kabul, from which Sadat fled, often felt like a different country, even a different century, than Sangin. The capital had become a city of mountain lighting, glittering wedding halls, and neon billboards joyfully filled with women: mothers seeking markets, girls leaving school in pairs, police officers patrolling in hijab, office workers carrying designer handbags. The gains that these women experienced during the American war – and have now lost – are staggering and difficult to see when compared to the tight villages of Helmand: The Afghan parliament had a proportion of women equivalent to the US Congress and approx. a quarter of college students were women. Thousands of women in Kabul are understandably afraid that the Taliban have not developed. In late August, I spoke by telephone with a dermatologist who was bunkered in his home. She has studied in several countries and runs a large clinic that employs a dozen women. “I’ve worked too hard to get here,” she told me. “I studied for too long, I made my own business, I created my own clinic. This was the dream of my life.” She had not gone outdoors for two weeks.
The Taliban’s takeover has restored order to the conservative landscape, while Kabul’s relatively liberal streets have been thrown into fear and hopelessness. This reversal of destiny brings to light the unspoken premise of the past two decades: If American troops continued to fight the Taliban in the countryside, urban life could flourish. This may have been a sustainable project – the Taliban were unable to conquer cities in relation to the US Air Force. But was it just? Can the rights of one society forever depend on the deprivation of rights in another? In Sangin, when I raised the issue of gender, village women responded with scorn. “They give rights to Kabul women, and they kill women here,” Pazaro said. “Is this justice?” Marzia from Pan Killay told me, “These are not ‘women’s rights’ when you kill us, kill our brothers, kill our fathers.” Khalida, from a nearby village, said: “The Americans gave us no rights. They just came, fought, killed and left.”
The women of Helmand disagree among themselves on what rights they have ought to have. Some long for the old village rules to crumble – they want to visit the market or go on a picnic by the canal without triggering hints or worse. Others stick to more traditional interpretations. “Women and men are not equal,” Shakira told me. “They are each created by God, and they each have their role, their own strengths, which the other does not have.” More than once, while her husband was lying on an opium drug, she fantasized about leaving him. Still, Nilofar is coming of age, and a divorce can bring shame on the family and hurt her prospects. Through friends, Shakira hears stories of dissolved cities filled with broken marriages and prostitution. “Too much freedom is dangerous because people do not know the limits,” she said.
However, all the women I met in Sangin seemed to agree that their rights, whatever they entail, could not flow from the barrel of the gun – and that Afghan societies themselves must improve the conditions of women. Some villagers believe that they possess a strong cultural resource to wage this struggle: Islam itself. “The Taliban say women cannot go outside, but there is actually no Islamic rule like this,” Pazaro told me. “As long as we are covered, we should be allowed.” I asked a leading Helmandi Taliban scholar where in Islam it was stipulated that women are not allowed to go to the market or go to school. He admitted, somewhat sadly, that this was not an actual Islamic injunction. “It’s the culture of the village, not Islam,” he said. “People who have these beliefs about women and we follow them.” Just as Islam offers more just templates for marriage, divorce, and inheritance than many tribal and village norms, these women hope to unite their faith — the common language across their country’s many boundaries — to create greater freedoms.
Although Shakira hardly talks about it, she herself has such dreams. Through decades of war, she continued to teach herself to read, and she is now working her way through a Pashto translation of the Koran, one sura at a time. “It gives me great comfort,” she said. She teaches her youngest daughter the alphabet and has a bold ambition: to gather her friends and demand that the men build a girls’ school.
Although Shakira is considering moving Pan Killay forward, she is determined to remember its past. The village, she told me, has a cemetery that spreads over a few hilltops. There are no plaques, no flags, only piles of stones that glow red and pink in the evening sun. A pair of shiny tiles protrude from each grave, one marks the head, one marks the feet.
Shakira’s family visits every week, and she points to the mounds where her grandfather lies, where her cousins lie, because she does not want her children to forget it. They tie scarves on branches to attract blessings and pray for the dead. They spend hours in the middle of a sacred geography of rocks, bushes and streams, and Shakira feels renewed.
Shortly before the Americans left, they dynamized her house, apparently in response to the Taliban firing a grenade nearby. With two rooms still standing, the house is half habitable, half ruined, just like Afghanistan itself. She told me she would not mind the missing kitchen or the gaping hole where the pantry once stood. Instead, she chooses to see a village in rebirth. Shakira is sure that a freshly paved road will soon run past the house, the macadam sizzling hot on summer days. The only birds in the sky will be the kind with feathers. Nilofar is getting married and her children will walk along the canal to school. The girls are given plastic dolls with hair that they can brush. Shakira will own a machine that can wash clothes. Her husband will be clean, he will admit his mistakes, he will tell his family that he loves them more than anything else. They will visit Kabul, and stand in the shadow of giant glass buildings. “I have to believe,” she said. “What else was that?” ♦
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