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‘I never thought this would happen’: After 20 years of war, an abrupt end

Written by Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Victor Jay Blue, Jim Hulebrock and Christina Goldbaum

By the time Ghulam Maroof Rashid’s 50th birthday passed, he had spent more than a third of his life fighting for the Taliban on one battlefield or another in Afghanistan. He believed that they would eventually win the war but had no idea that this year would end.

“We once thought that maybe the day would come when we wouldn’t hear the sound of airplanes,” he said this month while sitting on the dusty red carpet of a governor’s compound in Vardak province. “We’ve been very tired for the last 20 years.”

In the war’s final year, the Taliban’s electric military offensive, the fall of the US-backed Afghan government and the final US withdrawal of troops have brought about as deep turmoil as the US offensive in 2001 – two decades earlier this month.

Now former fighters like Rashid are battling the regime. A generation of women is fighting for a place in public life. And Afghans across the country are wondering what will happen next.

Rashid’s story is only one of a kaleidoscope of experiences that Afghans have shared over the years of the American war that officially began on October 7, 2001, when the black silhouette of American bombers clouded the Afghan skies. .

Ghulam Maroof Rashid, a Taliban commander in Mendan Wardak, Afghanistan, October 2, 2021. Afghans reflect on the final months of the fighting, amid the uncertainty that ensues under a Taliban-controlled government. (Jim Hulebrock / The New York Times)

Since then, a generation of Afghans in urban areas have been buoyed by the influx of international aid. But for more than 70% of the population living in rural areas, the way of life remained largely unchanged – except for those caught under the violent umbrella of the Western war effort, which displaced, injured and killed thousands.

The New York Times spoke to five Afghans about the abrupt end of the US war in Afghanistan and the uncertainty ahead.

the rebels

Rashid, a young intelligence officer with the Taliban in the 1990s, recalls the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: “I first started farming, but then became a teacher in a village school,” he said after the fall of the Taliban. Said about his life. . “Then, we started our jihad.”

Soon, they were planting Russian-made mines and homemade explosive devices on the streets, one of the deadliest tactics of the war. Rashid said he fought mainly in his home district, Chak. About four months ago that district had come under Taliban control.

“I remember because we had given some money to the army men so that they could travel to their homes,” he said. “I didn’t expect that after two months all Americans would be gone and we would go to visit our friends in Kabul.”

Rashid has once again found himself in the Taliban government. He goes to work at the Wardak governor’s office every day, sleeps with his family every night and no longer trembles at the metal clatter on top of the plane.

NGO worker

When the Taliban began their brutal advance across the country this year, Khatera, 34, thought of his daughter, who was just 14—the same age he had to deal with the prospect of his sudden engagement during the first Taliban regime. was found to be removed. Being forced to marry Talib.

“I knew what life would look like,” he recalled as the rebels withdrew like an unstoppable force. “Women’s season was over.”

He reflected on the career he had built over the past two decades – from a broadcaster at a radio station to a project manager for an international aid organization. “I had the joy of freedom and economic freedom,” she said. “When I was going in those doors, I saw what life could be like.”

In the first few weeks since the Taliban took power, much of the freedom is gone. Khatera is afraid to send her children to school. She is afraid to go to her office and knows that even if she is able, she cannot return to her old job. The international aid organization she works for hires a man in her position to communicate with the Taliban.

Samira Khairkhawa, 25, in Kabul, Afghanistan, October 5, 2021. Afghans reflect on the final months of the fighting, amid the uncertainty that ensues under a Taliban-controlled government. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

“It’s the worst feeling as a woman, I feel helpless,” she said.

Soldier

On a recent day in September, Shire Agha Safi, 29, stood in front of two Marine Military police officers outside Tent City, her temporary home in Quantico, Virginia. He was evacuated from Afghanistan this summer along with thousands of others.

“I never thought it would happen, that the whole of Afghanistan would fall into the hands of the Taliban,” Safi said, although he had spent the last year on one of the most volatile fronts in Afghanistan.

By August 15, he was an intelligence officer in the Afghan army, joining a US-backed military force more than a decade ago.

When asked, the two marines had never heard of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, where Safi had spent months in bloody urban fighting with the Taliban. Suicide bombings and airstrikes, both Afghan and American, devastated much of the city, killing and wounding hundreds of fighters and civilians.

“At that time we still had hope,” Safi said of the battle for Lashkar Gah, which dragged on over the summer as surrounding districts collapsed. “We never thought of surrendering.”

Where Safi will end up after leaving Quantico is somewhat unclear, though he understands that he may be housed elsewhere in the United States.

“Do you know about Iowa?” He asked.

Citizen

Abdul Basir Fisrat, 48, has driven trucks on the Herat-Kandahar-Kabul route for 35 years, but during the twilight months of the US war, that path traced the collapse of much of the country as the Taliban swept toward Kabul. .

About five months ago, they first saw the decline in Navrak district of Ghazni province. He was relieved to see him leave: a security post deployed by the previous government opened fire on his truck, demanding money. After confiscating it, he said, “We thanked God that we were saved from the persecution of government soldiers.”

Fisrat lives in Kandahar with her family, but she travels 1,000 miles whenever there is work. He has worked without education and served under five different governments since the 1980s, two of which are ruled by the Taliban.

Now Fisrat, who owns three trucks, has the ability to bribe the Afghan government into thousands of dollars. Under the Taliban, he makes no payments. This would be a significant force majeure, if it were not for the deteriorating economy that has made visits few and far between. But the lack of fighting means he can go wherever he wants: “If I want to, I’ll leave at midnight,” he said.

Civil servant

The life of 25-year-old Samira Khairkhawa encapsulates the gains made for Afghan women during the war and the ambition many of them have to move forward.

Abdul Basir Fisrat in his truck in Kabul, Afghanistan October 4, 2021. Afghans reflect on the final months of the fighting, amid the uncertainty that ensues under a Taliban-controlled government. (Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

After finishing college in the North, she found her way to the capital, Kabul, through a program for youth leadership funded by USAID, and by 2018, she worked for Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani on the re-election campaign. Did a job From there she became a spokesperson for the State Electric Company in Kabul. She eventually had dreams of running for president herself.

But as the Taliban made their relentless progress over the summer, Khairkhawa began to have nightmares. “I dreamed that the Taliban came into our office and our house,” she said. He kept those dreams to himself, worried that telling someone they might come true.

 

On 15 August, Khairkhawa was on her way to the office when she got caught in a panicky traffic trap in Kabul. She stopped at a restaurant, uploaded a clip of the chaos that ended on the news and went to her house.

“We did not believe the US would leave Afghanistan in this situation,” she said. “The Taliban return or Ghani surrenders. But once it happened, we were shocked.”

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