The bravest woman I ever met was a schoolteacher in Afghanistan. She was a tiny figure in a black abaya and headscarf, but during the dark days of Taliban rule she had turned her home into a secret classroom for women and girls. Every lesson there was a victory against the odds. It was very difficult for her pupils even to leave their houses; usually they had to go out with a male relative. She would teach her class in whispers, everyone waiting for the sharp rap on the front door that would mean they had been discovered. When British soldiers arrived in her part of Afghanistan, Helmand Province in the south, she opened a proper school. On the day I visited, there were computer classes, paid for by the British taxpayer. The sound of women’s laughter spilled out of the doorway and into the dusty street. I wonder what has become of her now.
Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, told me earlier this year that the ‘Islamic Emirate’ would respect women’s rights. ‘Islam grants good rights for women,’ he said — for men and children too. We were speaking about the murder of a prominent woman journalist in Jalalabad, shot dead as she left the television station where she worked. Not us, Mujahid said, that was Isis.
He might have been telling the truth about that particular incident. The Taliban leadership has been trying to create a more respectable image, as hard as that might be to believe. The White House was much mocked for saying — as Kabul fell — that the Taliban should seek the international community’s good opinion, at least if they wanted aid. But a former minister in the 1996 Taliban government told me once that their biggest mistake had been in dealing with the West. We were ignorant of western governments and western culture, he said, we knew nothing of international relations: we didn’t know what we were doing.
Today’s Taliban are vastly more sophisticated than when they were last running the country. Their political leader, Mullah Baradar, has negotiated directly with a US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. The two men were photographed standing stiffly next to one another in Doha, Pompeo giving a rueful half-smile. Mullah Baradar wrote an ‘open letter to the people of the United States of America’ in February, full of carefully chosen words about ‘upholding and guaranteeing all rights of women afforded to them by Islamic law’. But then Baradar had also said in a speech: ‘The only work done under the shadow of occupation in the name of women’s rights is the promotion of immorality and anti-Islamic culture.’ Over the past year of what has been a masterful diplomatic effort, the Taliban have been saying one thing to the international audience and another to their supporters. What happens now to education for women and girls will reveal their true character.
Despite some shrill headlines in recent days, the picture so far is mixed. After the Taliban took over much of Kunduz Province in 2019, they allowed girls of 16 to sit their final exams. But in parts of Wardak Province, they closed schools for girls over 11. What happens can depend on what local people want. In some places, they have persuaded the Taliban to keep girls’ schools open; in others they seem to have agreed with the Taliban that the schools should close. And where they are kept open, often the Quran is taught and little else. At the very least, we can say that the Taliban have not issued a blanket ban on girls going to school in areas under their control.
Perhaps the outcome will depend on a struggle between moderates and hardliners. During the Taliban’s sweeping advance last week, there were reports of fighters taking girls as forced brides. And in May, the Afghan government blamed the Taliban for a bomb attack on a high school in Kabul that killed as many as 90 teenage girls.
Joe Biden ordered the US retreat from Afghanistan knowing what that might mean for women. Getting out of Afghanistan has been the President’s settled wish for a long time, not something forced on him as a result of the deal done by his predecessor, Donald Trump.
The rapid collapse of the Afghan government forces was still a nasty shock. Biden and his officials were not completely foolish to hope the security forces would hold out for longer than they did. There were 300,000 troops and police officers with modern weapons, artillery and armoured vehicles against — perhaps — 75,000 Taliban fighters with Kalashnikovs, motorcycles and flip-flops. But in the past, big changes in Afghanistan have happened not because of victories on the battlefield but because people changed sides.
In recent weeks, army and police units in their thousands just melted away, abandoning weapons and equipment, when faced with a Taliban force of just a few hundred. You couldn’t really blame those fighting for the government. They weren’t stupid: they could already see which way things were going last year when President Trump agreed a ceasefire with the Taliban, one that did not include the Afghan government. The US was off the battlefield; no one wants to be the last man to die in a lost cause.
A lot has been written about how useless the Afghan government forces were, despite all the money poured into them. The US taxpayer spent more than $80 billion in total, an astonishing sum. In some years, training the Afghan army was the biggest single item in the US defence budget. But Afghan troops in the field might easily be high on hash or opium. I watched a US army sergeant tell his men to ‘quit bitchin’ about the Afghans being on drugs half the time and just accept the situation.
Being on drugs was a rational response to being in the Afghan army. The chances were high that you would be killed: some 60,000 government troops have died in the war with the Taliban. And you would often meet Afghan soldiers who had not even been paid, the money held back by corrupt officers or because of the government’s inefficiency and incompetence.
Individual units trained by the US, or Britain, could be brave and effective, in particular the Afghan Special Forces. They would have small victories, but those successes could never be sustained. American generals and politicians were always — in Vietnam fashion — intoning that Afghanistan was about to turn the corner: one more year, one more push. President Biden has finally called a halt to this. Only 3,000 US troops were in Afghanistan when he took office, and casualties were slight: more died in training accidents in the US last year. But neither was there any end in sight to the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan.
Nation-building in Afghanistan was always going to be hard — even futile — but we didn’t help ourselves. Soon after the British army arrived in Helmand in 2006, I was there for a visit by a British government minister. He met the governor and then asked to see some ‘ordinary, hardworking Afghans’. His hosts were dismayed: this wasn’t on the programme. But British and Afghan officials — plus bodyguards — trailed reluctantly into the street, where they found a single Afghan. This man looked puzzled at being accosted by a slightly manic figure in a tweed jacket speaking English, but he listened politely. The minister gave a speech to his audience of one about the importance of ‘stakeholders’ in Helmand. The man nodded along but clearly hadn’t understood what the minister was talking about.
Westerners and Afghans often spoke to each other through such a fog of incomprehension. It’s true that some Afghans — like the schoolteacher I met in Helmand — were overjoyed with the American and European presence. But many others, especially in the countryside, were deeply conservative and longed for the return of the Islamic Emirate. Twenty years on, it has. It’s as if we were never there at all.