“No One Wants to Listen to the Afghan People”

A conversation with scholar Mejgan Massoumi on how Afghans have experienced the war between the United States and the Taliban.

Marya Hannun
August 20, 2021
Kabul evacuation
Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at a perimeter at the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, August 16th, 2021. Photo: AP/Shekib Rahmani

THE RAPID FALL of Kabul to the Taliban earlier this week has been covered in the US media as a trauma for Americans, akin to the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. In this conventional telling, it is Americans who have fought and spent and sacrificed in Afghanistan for the past two decades since the 9/11 attacks, and who now confront the spectacle of total failure and humiliation, as the Taliban consolidates control over the entire country. To the extent that Afghans themselves are present in this narrative, the emphasis is on those who have worked directly with Americans during 20 years of de facto occupation, many of whom are now scrambling to leave the country, fearing reprisals by the Taliban. Their stories are wrenching, and regardless of one’s position on the war or the US withdrawal, the moral duty to welcome as many Afghan refugees as possible should be an urgent concern for all of us right now.

But too little attention is being paid to the vast majority of Afghans who have suffered through decades of violence amid shifting geopolitical contexts, and who will remain in the country under Taliban rule. We invited Marya Hannun and Mejgan Massoumi to discuss that perspective. Marya is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where she is working on a book about Afghanistan’s first women’s movement in the early 20th century. Mejgan is a fellow at Stanford University researching Afghan engagement with the radio during the period of intense political reform and social transformations leading up to the Soviet Invasion in 1979. Their conversation, which focuses on how Afghans themselves have experienced the war between the United States and the Taliban, has been edited and condensed. It originally appeared in yesterday’s email newsletter, to which you can subscribe here.

David Klion, Newsletter Editor

Marya Hannun: Your family came to the United States as refugees from Afghanistan. Can you talk about that experience, especially in light of what we’re seeing this week?

Mejgan Massoumi: My family escaped from Afghanistan in the early 1980s, when the world was enduring another kind of war, and another geography of players—the Cold War and the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, during which the US was allied with the Afghan resistance. We were smuggled out of the country through Pakistan and eventually made it to Italy, where the authorities discovered we had arrived with fake passports. My father confessed to the authorities and said, “Look, we’re escaping religious persecution. I cannot return back home. My family and I will be killed.” The Italian authorities didn’t know what to do with our family, so we hung out at the airport for a week. We made Italian headlines. Eventually, it was the Catholic Church that sponsored our family for temporary asylum. We were in Italy for less than a year before an Afghan family in the US found out about us and sponsored us to come here, and the rest is history.

You’re not going to hear about those kinds of refugee stories in today’s climate, I think, because there’s a different political context and a different kind of war. The “War on Terror” that we’ve been hearing about for two decades impacts the way sovereign nations view the region and its people.

MH: It’s been almost exactly 20 years now since the so-called “War on Terror” began. For other Muslim or Arab Americans, like my family from Palestine and Lebanon, the 9/11 attacks felt like such a moment of rupture, and they didn’t result in an invasion of our homelands. What was it like to be a member of the Afghan community in the late 90s, and then especially after 2001?

MM: Many of the families that fled in the 80s, including my parents, believed that this was temporary and that they would go back to Afghanistan once it was safe. But that moment never came. The Soviets left, and then there was a civil war followed by Taliban rule. Then 9/11 happened. It was a numbing moment. It was incredible to imagine that this attack could happen in the US, but it was even more incredible to imagine that my ancestral home was going to be engaged in a war that had nothing to do with the people of Afghanistan. I interpreted the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 as my adopted country’s war of revenge being taken out on my ancestral land, and I couldn’t understand why Afghan civilians, who had nothing to do with what happened on 9/11, would have to surrender their land as a staging ground to carry out that work. The Taliban was not a government they elected into power. I thought it was incredibly unfair that Afghans had no say about it.

At the same time, there was hope. You would see images, especially in the US media, of Afghans on the ground, incredibly excited that the Americans were going to come and help them. Afghans were now America’s allies in the “War on Terror,” and the Americans were going to come and get rid of this oppressive regime that had terrorized the Afghan people.

MH: That was 20 years ago. One thing I’m thinking about a lot these days is how Americans’ views of Afghanistan tend to be shaped by when they choose to tune in. They tuned in in 2001, and now once again, everyone’s looking at Afghanistan. We’re hearing about the fall of Kabul as if it’s a moment of rupture, which it undoubtedly is, but it didn’t happen overnight.

MM: I think Americans are only just becoming aware of the problems over the last 20 years, and only because of what’s happened the last few days. There was never a clear plan. There was this repeated rhetoric of, “we’re gonna go get the bad guys, and we don’t care who gets in our way.” They were going to engage in it at any cost—and most of that cost was borne by Afghan civilians. But in the US, we didn’t hear about Afghan civilians. We didn’t hear about all the bloodshed. The majority of people in Afghanistan are aged 25 and younger. What does that tell you? How many times have our people had to physically produce new human beings to replace those who were either killed or they left? How many more times do the civilians, the people of Afghanistan, have to incur the costs and sacrifice their lives for accidents of history that have nothing to do with them? I don’t think Americans often consider that.

MH: Relatedly, there’s a sense among a lot of Americans that there was not another option. That’s definitely the narrative we’re hearing from the Biden administration: The US wasn’t going to stay in Afghanistan forever. Biden wasn’t going to continue to subject Americans to this “Forever War.” What do you say to that?

MM: There were so many different options. The US could have put pressure on Pakistan to stop funding the Taliban. They could have held off on the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before a peace agreement was reached with the Afghan government. Of all of the options that there could have been—that were available to the US and its allies and the international community—why did giving Afghanistan completely over to the Taliban seem like the only option? What does that tell us? How it happened was very disappointing, and very irresponsible. You don’t leave people who you call your allies, and who helped you fight this war for the past 20 years; you don’t exit out like that.

MH: For many of the Afghans who gained a lot during these 20 years, and didn’t want the US to make a deal with the Taliban, did they view the occupation as a legitimate thing? That question seems missing from the narrative.

MM: Nobody wanted this occupation to go on forever. We can’t ignore the fact that former Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were chosen by the US, in what was masked as a democratic process. We really saw that play out in the 2014 elections, when Ghani ran against Abdullah Abdullah. Many Afghans believed that Abdullah had won and that the democratic system failed because votes were not properly counted. Then Secretary of State John Kerry had to come in and intervene to keep the unity government together. The US had such a huge hand in deciding what the legal representation of the state would be, and it was for the benefit of the US and NATO military operations, and not for Afghans, who weren’t always happy with the government but didn’t have a meaningful choice.

MH: Can you talk about how women’s rights were instrumentalized over the course of these 20 years, as well as how they are being discussed today?

MM: I think we can’t just agree to this framing around women. Too much of the discourse around both the Taliban and the US intervention has centered specifically on women’s rights, but this is not just about women. It concerns all of Afghan society, including men and women and everyone on the spectrum in between. We are not hearing about people who are gay or bisexual or nonbinary. For that matter, we’re not hearing about other minorities, religious minorities. The war between the Taliban and the occupying forces affects everyone in different ways. I think women have been co-opted by the media and policymakers because you can make such extreme arguments and use such black-and-white images to justify the need to invade and impose.

MH: It seems like people are now focusing on a limited definition of women’s rights—including the rights to education, political participation, job force participation, and marriage—as the main litmus test of the Taliban’s legitimacy. But legitimacy is so much more than that. Legitimacy has to do with how you came to power and how you hold on to power, how you engage civilians, and whether you’re accountable for violence. None of those things are central to the conversation. It’s just, “Well, it seems like they’ll let women go to school.”

MM: That angers me altogether, because it shouldn’t be legitimized. This was a coup. The US, with their withdrawal agreement, handed Afghanistan over to the Taliban. I don’t want to legitimize terrorists deciding the fate of Afghan women or Afghan men or Afghan children or Afghan grandfathers or Afghan grandmothers.

MH: But many Afghans would say they also don’t want to legitimize the US getting to decide the fate of Afghanistan, and that the government the Taliban has overthrown was itself a US puppet. Maybe the real question is, why are those the only two choices?

MM: Because no one wants to listen to the Afghan people. Nobody wants to incorporate their voices or their opinions. It’s a bunch of elites deciding the fate of an entire country. There’s nothing democratic about anything that has transpired in Afghanistan for the past 20 years, or the 20 years before that. That’s the truth. No one’s listening to people on the ground. Take the Allahu Akbar moment a few weeks ago...

MH: Strangely, that did not get a lot of international attention, unlike the protests we’re seeing in Kabul this week, which have been reported and shared widely. For people who haven’t heard about it, can you describe it?

MM: So basically, a few weeks ago the Taliban tried to take Herat, and Afghans were stunned by the violence against civilians then and leading up to it. Every time they would kill or they would seize, the Taliban forces would say “Allahu Akbar,”—“God is great.” In other words, they’d say that this violence is in the name of God: “God is great and God has brought us to this victory.” So people saw this, and they took back those words from the Taliban and they started chanting “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.” By which they meant: Allah is the Greatest, and Allah is seeing you and witnessing your destruction, and your oppression, and your vile use of our beautiful religion that means peace. Islam means peace. Do not do this in the name of our beautiful religion.

Regular people on the ground were recording these chants on their cell phones all over the country. So it caught on. It spread from Herat. Every time the Taliban seized another province, that province was saying “Allahu Akbar” back to them. In Kabul, they were marching in the streets saying “Allahu Akbar.” It was an amazing moment of uprising that many of us beyond Afghanistan didn’t see. It’s so disappointing, when you don’t get that kind of solidarity, when people don’t hear your cries, when people don’t see you resisting.

Marya Hannun is a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, where she is working on a book about Afghanistan’s first women’s movement in the early 20th century.