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Trapped Between The Taliban And US Empire: Afghan Women Mobilize For A Democratic Afghanistan

This is Part 1 of a two-part feature on women in Afghanistan and the diaspora after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in August.

Sana, a 26-year-old Afghan asylum seeker living in the United States, received a phone call from her mother in Afghanistan, which she long dreaded would come. Her mother calmly told Sana: “I’m going to tell you something. It happened yesterday.”

After over a year of begging her family to leave Afghanistan, Sana’s younger sister was arrested by the Taliban while walking on the streets of Jalalabad to go shopping with her friend. Unaccompanied by a man, the two young women caught the attention of Taliban security forces on patrol. They were taken into custody, questioned for hours, and falsely accused of prostitution. 

While in detention, they were permitted one phone call. “They called my mom who went there right away with my father,” recounted Sana, who agreed to be quoted for this story on the condition that we use a pseudonym.

The situation escalated when Sana’s parents arrived at the police station. Her father and the Taliban security officers had a heated argument. He called the Taliban “slaves of Punjab,” a common insult Afghans use for the Taliban who many see as a foreign group from “Punjab,” or Pakistan. 

The Taliban fixed their weapons on him and told Sana’s mother to look away. Sana says that her mother “was quick enough to de-escalate the situation. She said let’s not do that. He’ll calm down.” She was able to somehow convince the Taliban to release her daughter and her daughter’s friend. But before Sana’s family left the police station, one of the Taliban chillingly declared: “A woman’s place is either in the house or in the grave.” 

Since then, Sana’s family has mostly stayed locked indoors, afraid of any further provocations. A male friend of the family was kind enough to go out on their behalf to pick up groceries for them, although food has been harder to find as Afghanistan teeters near famine.

Sana works as a translator and lives “in between places.” She is separated from her family by over 6,500 miles and terrified that she will one day get another call from her family telling her that the Taliban arrested—or worse, killed—one of her loved ones. 

Trapped in the U.S., a nation that invaded her country 20 years ago, the future of an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban leaves her anxious. 

From Kleptocracy To Taliban Rule

President Joe Biden’s announcement to withdraw U.S. military forces from Afghanistan marked an end to the longest running war in U.S. history, but for countless Afghans, it was a shocking scene to see the Taliban once again sitting in the country’s presidential palace.

The recently published Afghanistan Papers by Washington Post journalist Craig Whitlock shed considerable light on how the Taliban returned to power so rapidly.

The Taliban took advantage of the inability of a woefully inept and bewildered American political and military leadership, which lacked an understanding of Afghan culture, politics, or history, and had no strategy to win. 

One major reason the Taliban were able to rise out of the ashes was because of the incredibly corrupt U.S.-installed government, run by a host of warlords despised by most Afghans. 

Some of the warlords jockeyed into power by the U.S. included Abdul Rashid Dostum, who served as deputy defense minister and vice president. He had long been accused of numerous crimes, including the mass suffocation of up to 1,500 Taliban POWs, and possibly thousands more, under his custody. He was reportedly given $100,000 a month by the CIA.

According to Christopher Kolenda, a retired U.S. Army colonel, who worked as a strategic adviser to three commanders in Afghanistan, “By 2006, the Afghan government had self-organized into a kleptocracy.” 

“A number of senior positions were purchased for a price,” said Kolenda. “People didn’t pay for the position as a national service, but in the expectation that you’d recoup the cost, through cuts from assistance programs, selling uniforms or ammunition on the black market, drug trafficking, or kidnapping.”

While the Taliban had a reputation for being brutal, it was easy for them to recruit fighters and supporters based on people’s resentment over the state of the Afghan government.

The human death toll of the war also aided the Taliban, increasing contempt from Afghans. Civilians were killed in pre-dawn raids, wedding parties bombed by fighter jets, and men and boys rounded up and thrown in CIA black sites or in cages in Guantanamo Bay, where they were stripped of their rights and tortured. 

In other gruesome episodes of the war, “kill teams” murdered Afghans and kept severed fingers of their victims as war trophies.

Entire villages were razed to the ground by occupation forces. The 2009 Granai massacre was one such atrocity where an estimated 140 civilians were killed, most of them children. 

President Barack Obama’s administration unleashed a major troop surge in Afghanistan and expanded a drone assassination program. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that upwards of 10,000 people in Afghanistan, and Pakistan were killed by drones, many of them non-combatants. 

Brown University’s Costs of War published a report in 2015 that showed, in addition to 176,000 deaths directly caused by the war, an estimated 360,000 people were also killed indirectly from the war.

Not afraid to deploy their own violent tactics and target civilians, the Taliban were able to capitalize on the fact that they were fighting a foreign occupation. As the only major armed group fighting the occupation, it was an easy task to find willing recruits, many of whom were unemployed, hopeless, angered by the deaths of civilians, and frustrated over the corrupt government. 

Malalai Joya, the longtime political dissident and youngest woman to ever be elected to Afghanistan’s parliament, lambasted the U.S. for paving the way for the Taliban’s rise to power. While the Afghanistan Papers reveal the regrets and lessons learned from former U.S. military and government officials, the focus is centered around where things went wrong after the war started. Joya and other political dissidents are convinced that the war itself was the source of the problem. The seeds for future Taliban rule were planted from day one.

“The rise, and now the return, of the Taliban, and the ideological brothers of these extremists such as ISIS, al-Qaeda and dozens of other terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, is the result of decades of foreign intervention and corruption which has turned the hope of life and a relatively bright future into a terrible nightmare for our helpless compatriots,” said Joya.

Another former member of parliament who had to go into hiding is Balquis Roshan. Like Joya, Roshan had been a major critic of the occupation. “With the mask of democracy and false slogans and promises of freedom for the people and for the women of Afghanistan, [the U.S. has] practically proved to the whole world that they have done nothing except create miseries. They have fulfilled their own imperialistic and capitalist demands by making Afghanistan a war zone to reach its own purposes and to get closer to its competitive aims with Russia and China.”

The emperor’s clothes, in all appearances, had finally fallen completely off. Former President Donald Trump’s peace plan with the Taliban was viewed by many Afghans as the proverbial nail in the coffin

But as their nation fell into further chaos and disarray, Afghan activists around the globe, who were united in their opposition to the Taliban, the fallen government, and any form of foreign occupation, took action.

‘I Didn’t Know Other Afghans Existed Here’

Like countless other Afghans in the diaspora, Asma Yawari, a 17 year-old who is a first generation Afghan American, felt completely helpless amidst the rapidly changing political crisis in her homeland. 

Yawari and her mother tried in desperation to find a way to get their relatives and friends safely out of Afghanistan. “My mom was going from congressmen to USCIS to the senator, and none of them really helped. So it was really frustrating,” stated Yawari. 

Realizing that politicians were not going to assist in any way, Yawari turned to the internet to find an alternative approach. Her search brought her to an Instagram account popular with many young Afghan activists, @TheAfghan. Global protests were organized through the account to draw attention to the political and refugee crisis in Afghanistan. 

“I asked if anyone was doing anything for Chicago. At that point, they said that there was no rally. So they assigned me Chicago,” recounted Yawari.

She previously felt isolated in the predominantly white suburbs of Chicago, stating, “I didn’t know other Afghans existed here.” 

Yawari was put in touch with Masooma Mohammadi, a 15-year-old high school student in Skokie, Illinois, who had also expressed interest in planning a protest. 

The two became instant friends as they organized together. They set up social media accounts, connected with other Afghans and activists in Chicago, and created flyers for the march. 

Mohammadi moved the demonstration to an earlier date after watching Biden’s August 16 speech on the unraveling situation. 

“My family, as well as many Afghans, were all sitting in the living room or were on our phones, watching him speak, expecting for him to say something like we will gladly be accepting refugees,” she shared. She was outraged when he said little on the matter. “The frustration that Afghans felt that day, the betrayal. I can’t even explain it,” she said.

Mohammadi’s hope, one shared by many Afghans, was that Biden would help facilitate a mass acceptance of Afghan refugees. 

Afghans across the U.S. and around the world had several points: Biden’s speech, the fall of one city after another, the heartbreaking scenes at the Kabul airport of civilians, desperate to flee, falling from an airplane to their deaths as it took off, or the escalation of ISIS-K attacks, including the Kabul airport bombing that killed 60 Afghans. 

Throughout dozens of cities around the world and across the U.S., Afghans, alongside activists and supporters, gathered in the streets, at government buildings, and outside American embassies, demanding other nations bring in more Afghan refugees, an end to proxy wars, and an end to military occupations once and for all.

In Los Angeles, which claims one of the largest Afghan populations in the U.S., the Afghan community was particularly well organized. A series of demonstrations unfolded, including some at the Pakistani embassy.

‘Afghan Women Are The Backbone Of This Society’

As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, activists around the world kept pushing back. In what was billed as a “day of global solidarity” on September 26, protests occurred across 30 countries. Over 400 organizations signed on in support of the demonstrations, including women’s activist groups, immigrant justice organizations, and unions. 

While the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), One Billion Rising, and V-Day took the lead in organizing the protests, the “call to action [was] developed in consultation with grassroots women leaders and activists on the ground in Afghanistan” according to the One Billion Rising, which was founded by playwright and philanthropist Eve Ensler. 

The September 26 actions had an explicit anti-imperialist and feminist message, much more so than previous protests. Demands included calls to cut the Pentagon budget, abolish the military industrial-complex, and an end to “imperialism, militarism, fascism, and religious fundamentalism.”

Significantly, the protests that have swept the world are decidedly led by women. In a Democracy Now! interview that aired on September 24, Roshan spoke about the global protests. “Indisputably, we believe where there is oppression, there is resistance that will begin and grow against it. The resistance has been initiated by women.”

“Fortunately, this time women took the lead. And we are hopeful that Afghan women will resist and press ’til the end and unite for achieving the rights of all, but especially our half of the Afghan population,” Roshan added.

Roshan is currently living in hiding, and the U.S. State Department noted she was “assaulted” before and during Afghanistan “peace negotiations,” which commenced on September 12, 2020. 

To Mohammadi, who helped organize the Chicago protest, it made sense that this wave of protests was almost entirely organized by women and girls. “I personally do it for the people. I do it for my generation. I do it for the future generation, and I do it so I [can] have a bloodline. I do it so I don’t go extinct,” she proclaimed. 

Sana stated that her confidence to speak out derives from her heritage: the long tradition of strong women before her. “I come from a family of matriarchs, women leading the household. And that has been the case in the whole country, but people just don’t acknowledge it. Afghan women are the backbone of this society and of their families. I was raised by three very smart and very, very brave women.”

This is Part 1 of a two-part feature on women in Afghanistan and the diaspora after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in August.

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn is a social movement journalist and organizer from Utica, NY affiliated with Copper City Collective. His work has appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique, The Indypendent, the Hudson Mohawk Magazine and elsewhere.