Former CLR Fellow Jessica Wright ’14 began her legal career in Kabul, Afghanistan where she worked with a team of local and international lawyers on Afghan commercial and tax law matters, as well as Rule of Law Initiatives. She also served as a legal advisor to the Office of the President, and was an adjunct professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan. Now a litigation associate at DLA Piper in New York, Jessica reflects in this important post on the dire events unfolding in Afghanistan, and what the return of the Taliban means for the Afghan people.
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“It’s nearly spring again, and I’m still in Afghanistan, almost inexplicably. American airstrikes in the provinces are shifting Taliban sights on the cities, they say, and foreigners are advised to leave. Progress in law and institution building ebbs and flows, as do the foreign monies for projects, as do the people who run them in short, detached tours. Life is cyclical for almost everyone, turning in tedium or tragedy depending on whether one’s aim is a project benchmark or simply reaching home across town, unscathed.”
I wrote those words in the spring of 2018, just before I left Afghanistan for the last time. The Taliban’s spring offensive was about to begin, and I faced a direct threat from the ISI-backed Haqqani network. In truth, though, even then, Kabul didn’t feel like a war zone for more than a few days or hours at a time, and I always knew that if things went south, I could be on the next flight out. Expats are privileged to live with a sense of detachment in places like Afghanistan – we can view everyday life with its bomb blasts and security threats as a story to tell instead of a reality to live. Still, proximity to war changes the way we understand conflict – it personalizes the fight and deepens the relationships forged with a place and a people.
The speed at which the Taliban has advanced across Afghanistan in the last week has shocked nearly everyone I know, from seasoned journalists to well-connected Afghan politicians. Ten provincial capitals were seized by the Taliban in just six days: Shebergan, Sar-e pul, Kunduz, Taluqan, Aybak, Pul-e Khumri, and Faizabad in the north, Farah in the west, and Zaranj and Ghazni in the south. Understanding that the war in the provinces had definitively moved to the cities, Afghan friends began sending panicked messages asking for advice and visa references and Embassy contacts, hoping that with a little luck they could still make it out. Then, on August 13, two major cities fell: Herat, a vital cultural and economic hub on the border with Iran, and Kandahar, an important city in the southern Pashtun heartland. In quick succession, Mazar-i Sharif, the last holdout in the north, fell on August 14, and on Saturday, the Taliban took Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, cutting off Kabul from the east. Entire Afghan units surrendered to the Taliban, knowing that without U.S. support they could no longer continue to fight. Others laid down their arms in protest, unwilling to risk their lives on the battlefield for a hopeless cause and a government in shambles.
Colleagues on the ground in Kabul have reported a massive influx of refugees from the provinces. They tell stories of families weeping outside embassy gates and passport offices, desperately seeking a way out of the country. Many others have set up mattresses and makeshift tents in the local parks knowing they have nowhere else to run. As the weekend wore on, locals rushed to stock up on food and other necessities, and all the while American Chinooks and Black Hawks flew overhead at constant, regular intervals, serving as a brutal reminder that as foreigners escaped to safety, Afghans were trapped on the ground to face their fate alone.
On Sunday, as the Taliban continued its advance toward Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani and Vice President Amrullah Saleh relinquished power and fled the country, signaling the collapse of the Afghan government. In a post on his Facebook page, Ghani stated, “To avoid bloodshed, I thought it would be better to leave.” Shortly thereafter, Dr. Abdullah, the former Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, who remains in the country, sent a message to the people of Afghanistan asking them to stay calm. He assured them that “God will make [Ghani] accountable.” Former President Karzai, who also remains in Kabul, posted a photo of himself and his daughters with a message to the Taliban, asking them to provide security and safety for the people. The Taliban said they would not take Kabul by force, but when they reached the outskirts of the city on Sunday evening, they began making their way in to “prevent lawlessness.” Judging by the messages from my Afghan friends and colleagues, the mood had shifted from quiet panic to stoic resignation. They told me that the American flag at the U.S. Embassy had been taken down, and that the massive Afghan flag atop Wazir Akbar Khan hill was removed by the Taliban shortly thereafter. They sent pictures of Taliban leaders inside the Presidential Palace – once a serene fortress – and reported that groups of fighters were milling about on the streets carrying their distinctive white flag bearing the shahadah: “I bear witness that none deserves worship except God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It felt as if everyone was holding their breath, expecting the bloodshed to start at any moment but still hoping, desperately, for some other outcome.
It is not yet clear what a Taliban regime will mean for the people of Afghanistan, but according to analysts, the insurgent group, ousted from power 20 years ago by a U.S.-led invasion, has been growing stronger for the last two decades, and the methods they employ to govern will likely be as brutal as they have been in the past. The Taliban has run a shadow state for years in the southern provinces, and residents of those areas report that gruesome beatings and executions remain commonplace. Researchers point out that the Taliban’s leadership has become savvier, which may in part account for its ability to seize the Afghan capital, but they caution that such change does not necessarily translate to more lenient rule.
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Islam has always been at the center of the lives of the Afghan people. In fact, a form of Sharia or Islamic law governed the legal process in Afghanistan until 1925. Traditional Islam in Afghanistan meant minimum government with little interference in people’s lives; everyday decisions were carried out by elders in the tribe and the community.” It was not until 1925 that King Amanullah introduced the first civil legal code, and not until 1946 that a Sharia faculty was set up at Kabul University, allowing an integration of traditional Sharia with modern law. “Another moderating factor for Islam in Afghanistan was the enormous popularity of Sufism, the trend of mystical Islam,” which is built on prayer, contemplation, music, and a “permanent quest for truth” (Ahmed Rashid describes Sufism and Islam in Afghanistan in his book, Taliban, from which the quotes in this section are taken).
The “austere Wahabbi creed of Saudi Arabia,” which opposed mystical Sufism, gained some traction in Afghanistan, but Islamic extremism had never flourished in earnest before the Taliban. There were indeed several traditional political Islamic movements, some of which sought a type of Muslim internationalism that would unite the ummah or Muslim world, and to achieve their political ends, “parties like the Pakistani Jamaat and Hikmetyar’s Hizb-e-Islami set up highly centralized modern parties organized along communist lines with a cell system, extreme secrecy, political indoctrination, and military training.” These movements were led by radical Islamicists, but they could be considered rather modern and forward-looking in comparison to the Taliban.
The Taliban’s interpretation of Islam, jihad, and social transformation echoes none of the Islamicist trends in Afghanistan. Rather, the Taliban’s particular interpretation of Islam stems from the teachings of semi-educated mullahs in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), who trained generations of Afghans in rural madrassas. Their interpretation of Sharia is heavily influenced by Pashtunwali, the tribal code of the Pashtuns, and the madrassas themselves were funded and influenced by Saudi Arabian Wahhabists. The Taliban are not advocates of learning or reform, and they accept “no concept of doubt except as sin and consider debate as little more than heresy.” In addition, the Taliban tend to be “poorly tutored in Islamic and Afghan history, knowledge of the Sharia and the Koran and the political and theoretical developments in the Muslim world during the twentieth century.”
When the Taliban first entered Kabul in 1996, the religious police beat men and women in the streets for not having long enough beards and for wearing the burka improperly. An intelligence agency was formed and staffed with thousands of professional spies and paid informers. Anyone who questioned the Taliban’s edicts were said to have questioned Islam itself and were punished severely. The Taliban massacred ethnic and religious minorities, and its subjugation of women was total. Their regime was built entirely on what amounted to myth: particularized beliefs, fears, and ideologies that had nothing to do with Islam itself or with Afghan cultural norms. The Taliban’s ban on every form of entertainment, for example, was based on the belief that entertainment, particularly music, strained the mind and hampered the study of Islam.
In recent years, the Taliban have sought to project a more moderate image and have shown some flexibility in their application of Sharia. In an Eid holiday message in May, the Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada stated, “The Islamic Emirate seeks cordial and positive relations based on mutual respect and good conduct with all neighboring, regional and world countries.” Many caution, however, that while Taliban leaders have become more adept politicians, they have not changed their goal of reinstating an Islamic emirate with the repressive laws and retrograde policies the world has seen before. As it currently stands, foreign powers have little to no leverage when it comes to ensuring that international humanitarian law is followed and that the rights and freedoms of the people are protected.
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What is happening in Afghanistan feels deeply personal to me. I have taught and worked with and come to know the vibrant younger generation of Afghans who desire peace and have worked, relentlessly, for a stable democracy. What will become of them now? Will they be able to study at university and operate businesses and run for office? Will Afghan journalists be able to publish stories, unfettered, or will the press become a propaganda arm of the new regime? And what about the women and girls? Will they be relegated to the home and denied an education and a livelihood? Will those intelligent, driven women who became law firm partners and political activists and influential artists be silenced and made to live a life in the shadows? These questions haunt me, and I struggle to imagine the Kabul I knew transformed into the bastion of a merciless Taliban state.
It is difficult to connect to tragedies from which we are far removed, but it is important to look to Afghanistan now. All of us would do well to remember that the Afghan people have suffered generation after generation of warfare and humanitarian crises, all at the hands of foreign powers. And there are dark days ahead.