Photography by Simon Norfolk
Afghanistan is known for falling. This time, it went down in eleven days.
It hasn’t seen stable governance since its former monarch Mohammad Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 after almost forty years of relative prosperity. While I taught there, from 2010-2014, his mortared palace was still the place to go for picnics on weekends. It was a magnificent ruin, walls blown out, cupolas collapsed. For all its damage, it suggested a serene, stately promise.
Over these past days, reaching out to former Afghan students, some who now reside in Europe and the US, some still trying to flee, I’ve tried to assess America’s twenty-year occupation, our so-called “forever war.” Like thousands of other Americans, I had a small stake in the country, a few years of my life, some kindnesses I can’t forget or repay.
In geopolitical time and in war, twenty years is indeed forever. This may be especially true in Afghanistan where governments, elected or not, have very short shelf lives and bitter ends. Few cities boast a Soviet tank graveyard as a tourist site.
After the monarchy, political coherence was all but over for the country. I met Afghans who remembered every one of the following periods and still carried a sweet, mournful memory of the king who’d abdicated in 1973. His tenure was followed by five years, from 1973-1978, under Prime Minister Mohammad Daud Khan, the brother-in-law and cousin of the former ruler, who was assassinated by Nur Mohammad Taraki of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Taraki was president for a single year, overthrown by Hafizullah Amin, his own deputy prime minister. In 1979, the Soviets invaded, installing Babrak Karmal, who remained in power only until 1986. He was replaced by the head of his secret police, Najibullah, who after five years as president had to take refuge from the mujahidin in a U.N. compound while war waged around him. After four years in hiding, he was abducted by the Taliban, tortured to death, some say castrated, dragged by a truck through Kabul’s streets, hung from a lamppost and denied proper burial. That only brings us to 1992, when warlords carved up Kabul and left it, and the palace, in ruins.
The Taliban were only in power for four years before the American-led Northern Alliance pushed them out. Considering all this, a twenty-year foothold in the country is practically twice forever.
And yet, measured in lives, twenty years is a generation, from birth to university graduation. The three graduations I witnessed in Kabul were remarkable things. I’m not one for processions, never attended my own. But for the women in my classes, these were the first in their lifetimes. In an echoey gymnasium, we celebrated a path that had been rediscovered. Of course, we knew it could be lost again, but everyone just started moving forward.
On one of my first outings through Kabul in the summer of 2010, a colleague relayed the story of Marjan, Afghanistan’s “most famous” lion, as we passed the zoo. Up along the mountainsides, I could see bent figures carrying buckets of water to mud homes. Along the street, dusty watermelons sat like dinosaur eggs. Families and children gathered outside, dragging balloons through the air. My colleague must have sensed I was not faint of heart (I had, after all, chosen to teach in a university that required I sign “proof of life” paperwork in case I was kidnapped) and went on to relay Marjan’s grim story.
Gifted by Germany to the Kabul Zoo in the 1970s, the lion spent its years shelled, taunted, starved, and stoned, a victim of Afghanistan’s political upheavals. Sometime after the communists were run off, a militia soldier entered the den. He was attempting to stroke Marjan’s mate, the lioness Chucha, a demonstration of courage or stupidity. Marjan attacked. The following day, the dead soldier’s brother enacted his retaliation, throwing a grenade at the lion, blinding and deafening the animal, tearing away his jaw. Miraculously, Marjan continued to live, though never able to eat without assistance, attended to by devoted Afghan caretakers and international animal welfare organizations, until he succumbed to old age.
In a characteristically wrong-headed effort at symbolizing a people, both Afghan and Western media associated Marjan with Afghans’ suffering, their spirit, perhaps their displacement, too. Now that Kabul has (again) fallen to the Taliban, Afghans find themselves exhibited, pitied, questioned on their commitment to democracy. The “melting away” of security forces, the President’s sudden exit, the hordes pressing into the Kabul airport attempting to flee, all suggest a passive and defeated people. No doubt, there may be little will to resist the tidal force of the Taliban after the US made up its mind to withdraw even its limited troop force. How devastating to see Ashraf Ghani whisked from his rose garden and library to Abu Dhabi, leaving his people not even a clear road to the airport. But while we evaluate what many will call a failed mission in Afghanistan, I’d encourage some alternative readings. Americans might recognize that weakened lion in themselves, for a start.
In the years I lived and taught in Kabul, I witnessed America’s hobbled efforts firsthand. I was also able to see its successes, which were entirely a result of collaboration with the Afghans. The conflicting interests that drove our decision to enter Afghanistan (retribution, a desire to show the Russians how it’s done, profitable opportunities for contractors, developers, consultants) almost sank our efforts, even without the threat of the Taliban. There’s much to feel cynical about as the perennial questions regarding interventionism come into stark relief.
Was this project, which only became about women and girls after we invaded, worth the lives or the money? In the face of such grave spectacles playing out on TV, we want to figure out why it happened; why, if we were never meant to be there, does our retreat seem so heartless? As for American military deaths, who can gauge that sacrifice? I hope that those who sacrificed their lives made that decision for themselves as well as any of us can. Whether they fought for America (its ennobled concept of “freedom”) or for the Afghan people, or because war was the economic opportunity held out to them, or they wanted to afford college, or to kill, or maybe because they didn’t know what they wanted, people chose to engage this military venture. Was it worth it? It’s a good time to ask ourselves about our own life decisions. After all, people are dying of COVID to prove they’re free. People work themselves to death. They believe in something. They die for something. So, I’ll let our service men and women determine whether it was worth it. I’ll let their families have those discussions.
Was it worth the trillions in public funds? I have a hard time knowing what a trillion can buy these days. Between our corporate profiteers and the corruption in our own government contracts, what really gets done for a trillion dollars?
But let’s say a hundred thousand girls in Afghanistan grew up avoiding child marriages, public flogging, or stoning to death: was it worth it? Maybe. Now let’s say they grew up to become teachers, judges, healthcare workers, both engaging their potentials and passing on that gift to others. Is that worth it? I’m thinking the money could have been used for worse.
I, too, would love to have seen that money shoveled into American projects. I’d love to see a Climate Corps, a Manhattan Project to end plastics, cancellation of debt, reparations. But I’ve never seen public money work that way. The government doesn’t execute charitable giving. What was “given” to Afghanistan was paid for by their enduring American bombings and displacement. What we call “nation building” was almost an afterthought, not so much out of guilt, but dread of a political vacuum, regional power held by people we could not understand nor reason with, and, of course, refugees.
We have a complicated way of investing in the world. It’s not usually an act of kindness.
And yet, Americans were successful in providing a window of stability and hope to millions of Afghans almost despite ourselves. Sown throughout the country were the shoots of a new civil society. What came with that time was reduced infant mortality, reduced deaths in pregnancy. Life expectancy rose from 42 to 62 years, paving a way for a generation of Afghans to become not merely local leaders (what use is that now?) but global leaders. Hope requires some continuity. It’s not always measured from project to project. Afghans’ life experiences matter. Many of my former students and graduates of universities across Afghanistan are now working around the world to address challenges they’ve intimately experienced: refugeeism, rebuilding and reforming societies, reconsidering geopolitical decision-making with a focus on civilian concerns. Their experiences are important because these are global problems, happening as frequently and pointlessly as fires, in countries far beyond Afghanistan. Besides that, if anyone will have a hand in moderating the Taliban, it will be the millions of Afghans who’ve lived in “post-conflict” capitals throughout the country. In America, once you give someone a right, it’s not easy to take it away. I think we’ll find this in Afghanistan as well. The Taliban aren’t just launching their charm offensive for the international community, they’re doing it for the millions of Afghans who rebuilt the institutions that were destroyed during the civil war, and during the Taliban’s last period of control. They may attempt to shut everything down, return Afghanistan to dust, but a generation of Afghans knows what’s owed them and more importantly, what they’re capable of building. They may be the only people who can reform the Taliban.
Americans can learn now from the Afghan experience. In the years that I taught in Kabul, I witnessed a people who knew how to build the present, even though nothing was guaranteed. I’m afraid we’ll need those models. So shortly after our own attempted coup, we’d be best to not think of government collapse as something that happens only over there.
I envy you if America feels stable to you.
I’ve spent the last days thinking about our drivers at the university. They are on my list of those whose kindnesses I cannot repay. Unarmed, in unfortified vans, responsible for shuttling around groups of Americans. We spent time with them twice a day, nearly every day. Once, on the airport road in 2012, my driver told me that a piece of scalp had been recovered from the road. That morning, a suicide bomber had killed fourteen people, eight of whom were South Africans, in that very spot. Then, shortly before I left in 2014, the Lebanese restaurant I visited twice a week came under attack. The Taliban blew off the fortified doors, entered, and in an hours-long attack shot dead the owner, the entire staff of young Afghan waiters and cooks, and all the diners, including two American faculty. Twenty-one people were killed. After I left Afghanistan, two professors from The American University in Afghanistan were kidnapped. They spent years in captivity and were released after a Taliban prisoner swap. A week later, AUAF was stormed by gunmen. Eleven killed, seven of them students. Dozens were injured.
The Taliban would be atoning back to the Stone Age if they had to account for their crimes.
Some would argue these horrors are part and parcel of America’s foreign policy overreach, its destabilization of the region. I don’t discount any of the conversations that can be had regarding the American footprint, the arms we sell, the allies we keep and the ones we abandon. But I’ve met the students and drivers, the waiters, a lot of teachers, NGO workers, young journalists and artists and musicians. The Afghan people are the flowers that grow in that footprint. I’ve seen the risks they take to pursue what was easily accessible to me. It wasn’t so much courage, but the simple imperative of getting along. You can’t build if you live from peril to peril. Despite the terrible trauma playing out in Kabul today, there will come quiet moments in between, moments when Afghans will again ask themselves: What do I want for myself tomorrow?
We may have left them, but we should continue to listen.
Adam Klein is the author of the story collection, The Medicine Burns (High Risk Books); the novel, Tiny Ladies (Serpent's Tail); the D.A.P. artist monograph Jerome: After the Pageant. He edited The Gifts of the State: New Writing from Afghanistan (Dzanc Books). His work has appeared in Bomb, Pank, Hobart, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He earned his MFA at The New School and has been a resident at Yaddo, MacDowell, Ucross, and elsewhere.
Simon Norfolk is an award winning landscape photographer whose work has probed and stretched the meaning of the “battlefield” for over twenty years. He has photographed war-zones and refugee crises, the supercomputers used to design military systems, and the test launching of nuclear missiles. He has produced four monographs of his work including Afghanistan: Chronotopia (2002) published in five languages; For Most Of It I Have No Words (1998) about the landscapes of genocide; and Bleed (2005) about the war in Bosnia. His most recent book is Burke + Norfolk: Photographs from the War in Afghanistan (2011).