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Trapped Between Taliban And US Empire: Afghan Women Keep Hope Alive After Occupation

This is Part 2 of a two-part feature on women in Afghanistan and the diaspora after the withdrawal of U.S. military forces in August. Part 1 can be read here.

In Albany, New York, three young Afghan women organized a protest at the state capitol that brought out over 100 people. One of the organizers, Audrea Din, said that the “protest had a very general message, which was about addressing the humanitarian crisis and having resources to help out refugees in the area.” 

She added that the organizers demanded a ceasefire, the end of proxy wars, and for the United States to accept more Afghan refugees. “We also want all actors engaged in the war of Afghanistan to be held accountable and pressure them to comply with international law,” said Din.  

Although the rise of the Taliban and refugees fleeing were the primary concerns of many of the activists, Din believes, like many, that the U.S. government and military should face justice for the 20-year occupation. 

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. Now, activists in Afghanistan and the diaspora are figuring out how to navigate the aftermath of U.S. military occupation.

Helei Iqbal is a 25 year-old born in St. Petersburg, Russia as an Afghan refugee. She later moved to Portland, Oregon with her family. Iqbal organized a protest with two other young Afghan women in Portland’s historic Pioneer Square, the site of many large Black Lives Matter and antifascist demonstrations. Her protest was not reserved solely for the Taliban. 

“The previous government of Afghanistan, from the beginning, I knew it was corrupt because I knew that Ashraf Ghani was with the Americans,” said Iqbal. “He was always looking for what America had to say to him, and I feel like that was the main point of the corruption.”

Iqbal also had much to say about the role that Pakistan played over the years as a breeding ground for the Taliban and as a destabilizing force. “Pakistan has always been the predatory neighbor to Afghanistan.”

Many Afghan activists share Iqbal’s concern and agree with her that punitive measures should be taken by the international community against the Pakistani government and military. 

Iqbal also stated that the recently fallen government was “ethno-nationalist” and gave favorable treatment to the dominant Pasthun ethnic group while others were discriminated. 

Afghans Suffer From ‘Three Sides’

Mariam Rawi, who spoke to Shadowproof on behalf of the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), explained the group’s position succinctly, stating that “the people of Afghanistan are suffering from three sides: foreign occupation and meddling, the Taliban and ISIS, and the (former) puppet Afghan government composed of Jihadist warlords and technocrats.”

RAWA is a women’s rights organization established in Kabul in 1977. Since its founding, the group has stood alone in its consistent criticism of Afghan rulers and occupying forces amidst a perpetually shifting political terrain. 

The recently published Afghanistan Papers provide ample evidence that support RAWA’s view of the former government. They show that not only did U.S. political and military officials know that they were funneling billions of dollars into corrupt warlords and technocrats, but they actively built a government with a culture to enable more corruption.

“The U.S.-sponsored so-called ‘civil society’ was in fact a tool to depoliticize and de-radicalize our social life, which hindered growth of a progressive mass movement in Afghanistan. By withdrawal of the U.S./NATO forces, they airlifted most of their major NGO players to Western countries.”

Additionally, several Afghan officials fled the country with millions of dollars, which they embezzled from the U.S. government. Former President Ashraf Ghani reportedly left with four cars and a helicopter filled with cash. In 2016,  The New Yorker reported his net worth at $4 million. 

Other Afghans come from families who amassed fortunes from the occupation, such as Daoud and Hamed Wardak, the multi-millionaire sons of Abdul Rahim Wardak who served as the Minister of Defense from 2004 – 2012.

Hamed Wardak made his fortunes running a military supply contracting company, NCL Holdings. His younger brother Daoud, who owns a $5.2 million Miami Beach resort property, recently purchased a $20.9 million Beverly Hills mansion. Perched on the hills surrounding L.A., Daoud is far removed from so many of the working class Afghan immigrants that populate the city.  

With the Taliban now firmly in power, and despite their reassurances that they have changed dramatically from when they ruled the country in the 1990s, are back to their old ways. Taliban forces continue to be accused of massacres, extrajudicial killings, targeted assassinations, and increased repression of journalists and political dissidents.

The discovery of the bullet-ridden body of activist Frozan Safi in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif was a grim reminder of the current risks facing women activists. (Activists suspect the Taliban was behind the killing, but they have not been able to prove it.) 

The Taliban also abolished the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in September, replacing it with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The new agency is tasked with carrying out their interpretation of Islamic jurisprudence, which is a conservative strain of Deobandi Islam.

Despite the harrowing climate, Rawi expressed more hope than many Afghan activists in her long term outlook of the crisis. “Now the people of Afghanistan can easily comprehend that no foreign troops can deliver us humane values. It is for us to struggle for these values against the Taliban or any other bloodthirsty group,” she said. 

An increasing number of Afghans at home and in the diaspora, many of whom supported the U.S.-backed government or saw the U.S. occupation as safeguarding some semblance of women’s and human rights, now embrace RAWA’s view: that the only people who can liberate them are themselves.

Resisting The Taliban

While activists in the diaspora organized their own protests around the world, resistance continued against Taliban in a variety of forms within Afghanistan. Even back in early July, spontaneous demonstrations of armed women took place across the nation as the Taliban continued to gain more ground.

The unprecedented armed protests showed that women were willing to confront the Taliban on the battlefield. It’s uncertain how many women, if any, followed through on these threats.

After the fall of Kabul, protests led by women took place in response to the reintroduction of restrictions on the rights of women and girls in public life, work, and school. Although there has been less coverage in Western media lately, women’s rights and civil rights protests have taken place daily across Afghanistan. The demonstrations range in size from the hundreds to smaller gatherings and take place in the streets of Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad, and other major cities as well as in smaller towns in rural areas. 

The demonstrations were an act of defiance against the Taliban’s ban on protests that are not given government approval.

In numerous instances, the Taliban used force against peaceful demonstrators by whipping and hitting people and firing their weapons into the air. At one of the demonstrations in Herat on September 7, three people were killed by the Taliban. 

Targeted attacks on journalists covering the protests were also common.

Reporters Taqi Daryabi and Neamat Naghdi for the independent Afghan newspaper Etilaat Roz were detained in Kabul at a demonstration the following day. They allegedly were tortured while in Taliban custody. The two were eventually released.

Both journalists had been in Kabul to cover support for the armed resistance against the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, which is north of Kabul.

A History Of Repression Of Ethnic and Religious Groups

Shabnam Nikzad is a 19-year-old Afghan American who lives in West Lost Angeles. Her family fled Afghanistan in the early 1980s. They went to Iran and later the United States.

Nikzad and her family are ethnically Uzbek and Tajik, which are both minority groups in Afghanistan. She is keenly aware of the types of repression that other ethnic and religious groups have faced in Afghanistan. Of particular concern for her is the plight of the Hazara people. She made a sign for the protest she assisted others in organizing in L.A. that read: “Hazaras, Shias, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, LGBTQ+ will never be safe under the Taliban.” 

“I think that people have to recognize the Hazara genocide, which is technically ongoing; it wasn’t just something that happened years ago,” said Nikzad.

There was a mass genocide of Hazara people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries under the rule of Abd-al-Raḥmān Khan. Scholars say that half of the Hazara population was killed off or displaced. 

“They get murdered; they don’t have the same rights as the other people in Afghanistan. I feel like it’s essential to have the community recognize that as a whole, before we can move forward and talk about unity,” Nikzad said, hinting at the contending views held by some Afghan activists on how and when to bring up the persecution of minority groups.

When the Taliban were first in power, they were accused by Human Rights Watch of killing 2,000 Hazara people in Mazar-i-Sharif. Fears of ethnic cleansing were again renewed when the Taliban regained control this year and reportedly massacred Hazara people on two occasions

Nikzad’s grandfather fought the Russian occupation alongside famed military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud from the Panjshir Valley who successfully defeated the Russians, then fought the Taliban.

It was Massoud, who encouraged her family to flee. “My family’s house was bombed, and they had to escape in the middle of the night,” Nikzad said.

Massoud, lionized by many as a national hero and compared to Che Guevara, has a complicated legacy. Mariam  Rawi of RAWA said the comparison with Che others have is not appropriate and that warlords allied with Massoud, an anti-Communist who received funding from the CIA, committed “heinous crimes during the civil war” of the 1990s. Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda militants posing as journalists two days before the September 11th attacks in 2001, but his siblings and children have remained active in Afghan politics. 

Following in the footsteps of his father, Ahmad Massoud founded the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan and rallied 1,000s of fighters to carry out an armed struggle against the Taliban from the rugged mountains and hills of Panjshir. At their disposal were the remnants of what past occupations left in the valley over the years and a determination to make a last stand against the Taliban against all odds. 

Unlike his father, the younger Massoud lacks a key element which led to both the defeat of the Russians in the 1980s and the ongoing fighting against the Taliban in the 1990s: the financing, and backing from other governments. Isolated, underfunded, ill-equipped, and surrounded by the Taliban, now equipped with the best weapons the US had to offer, who were still high off their lightning takeover of Afghanistan, the resistance in Panjshir was all but destroyed. 

Conflicting reports covering the rapidly changing situation in the Panjshir Valley continue. While The Intercept reported that Ahmad Massoud and other leaders had finally fled to Tajikistan, to wage their struggle from abroad, National Resistance Front spokesperson Ali Meysam Nazari told Deutsche Welle in an October 22nd interview that Massoud is still in Panjshir and resistance forces are still fighting the Taliban. Although Massoud’s current whereabouts are still unknown, National Resistance Front social media accounts have shared photographic and video footage of resistance forces in Panjshir, and claiming that small battles are being fought, and won, against the Taliban.

Keeping Hope Alive In Afghanistan

Asma Yawari (center) speaks at an Afghanistan rally held in Chicago’s Federal Plaza August 22, 2021. Masooma Mohamadi (far left) is draped in an Afghan flag. The two took the lead with other Afghan women to organize the protest.” Photo credit: Ishaq Hameed @isaqshoots

Numerous Afghan activists, thousands of miles away from Panjshir, often find themselves glued to the news and social media, but also admit they step away from it all from time to time. Looking away is their only option to cope with the anxiety and trauma they experience from the news of a crisis they see as getting worse with each passing day.

Sana, who was profiled in the first part of this feature, is still trying to find a way to get her family out of Afghanistan. She sees few, if any, realistic options at the moment and misses her family.

Still, she feels fortunate to be out of direct harm’s way, even if it happens to be in the country that invaded and subsequently occupied her home country for 20 years. Sana is convinced that if she was still in Afghanistan, she would be targeted for assassination by the Taliban.

The last time Sana was in Afghanistan she facilitated workshops at a conference for Afghan youth to learn about opportunities to study abroad. She and two other women, who attended the conference, later received an anonymous letter. “It was written on a piece of paper and there was a plastic bullet wrapped inside. A written note said ‘stop spreading the message of the West or we will behead you in your bed at night.’”

Her two friends, both sisters, eventually fled Afghanistan with their family, Sana recalled. They moved to the Philippines because of that threatening letter.

Sana herself did not stay around long enough to see if anyone would follow through on that threat. Other friends were not as fortunate. One of Sana’s friends, someone she met while studying in Kyrgyzstan, moved back home to Afghanistan after graduating. “She started working with the Human Rights Commission, and she was targeted because she was a woman’s rights activist. She was a free woman. The way she carried herself, the way she walked on the street, the way she talked, was seen as a threat,” Sana shared.    

Fatima Natasha Khalil and her co-worker Jawid Folad were killed when a sticky bomb attached to their car detonated. No group claimed responsibility, and it came at a time when targeted assassinations of human rights workers and activists like Natasha was sharply rising. 

Sana is waiting on a response to a request for asylum in the U.S. that may take years for her family. She is frustrated by what she sees as an underfunded, broken government agency that is far behind where it should be in accepting Afghan refugees.

“There are so many refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, who’ve been waiting for six years to just get a single interview,” Sana said.

Although President Joe Biden’s administration has allowed over 66,000 Afghans in the U.S. since August 17, Sana believes this doesn’t go far enough. After 20 years of destruction, she said that the U.S. has an obligation to “accept as many refugees and immigrants as possible.”

Other women remain as determined as ever to keep struggling, despite their feelings of hopelessness. In Chicago, Masooma Mohammadi and Asma Yawari—both highlighted in the first part of this feature—spend much of their free time outside of school dedicated to the activist work of Afghans for Chicago, a new organization they co-founded with other local Afghan women. They hold fundraisers to help resettle Afghan refugee families and have held online sessions to mobilize support for Afghans living in Chicago.

In Afghanistan, women’s protests occur daily. There is no sign of them letting up any time soon. More prominent activists like Malalai Joya have since left Afghanistan. She recently spoke at the World Peace Conference in Barcelona, Spain. She gave a riveting speech to a packed audience, reminding those gathered, “That only nations can liberate themselves.”

While Massoud and others involved with the armed resistance in Panjshir continue to reach out to Western and Middle Eastern governments to support their struggle, Belquis Roshan offers a different approach. “International solidarity, we can initiate,” she said, “by creating harmony and unity and working together – not with governments, but the people.” Time will tell what kind of grassroots resistance can be forged by women and if, ultimately, it will be successful. 

“Right now, what’s important is the resistance. Because I feel like if that dies out, then there’s actually no hope for Afghanistan,” said Nikzad.  

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.