The scenes out of Kabul are brutal and harrowing. They of course evoke the fall of Saigon. But also the fall of Srebrenica.
The Taliban took control over Afghanistan on August 15 — two decades after the extremists were driven out of power by American-led military action. The Taliban had risen to power in 1994.
As the Taliban secured city after city, women activists, politicians and educators spoke to international media about their fears of reprisal. Fears grounded in historical precedent. In a U.S. State Department report from 2001, the Taliban decreed women had to wear coverings from head to toe, were not allowed to work, and were barred from attending schools. Women’s healthcare was restricted. Women were not allowed to leave their homes unless they were accompanied by male relatives. The windows of houses had to be painted over to stop outsiders from seeing women in their homes.
On August 17 there were credible sources, including statements by witnesses and victims, of Taliban sending girls back from school and women from their work. In an interview with @BBCYaldaHakim, a Taliban commander said girls cannot have education and endorsed stoning and amputation as reprisals.
As the horrific scenes of total chaos at the airports and along the streets have played out on CNN, criticism of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the last of the U.S.’s troops from Afghanistan has come from all quarters, right and left.
In an astonishing lack of self-awareness, George W. Bush has opined about his concerns for the women of Afghanistan. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) also lambasted President Biden.
Yet it was Bush who led the U.S. into Afghanistan with the orchestration of Vice President Dick Cheney, Liz Cheney’s father.
History exists for a reason, and revisionist historical takes are not the same as actual history. The people who know this best are the historically marginalized and vulnerable: women and LGBTQ people — the very people most at risk now in an Afghanistan under extremist Taliban control.
History says the Bushes and Cheneys should be reserving their critiques for themselves.
When I was reporting from London in the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher were working in concert to create the entity we now call the Taliban. They were to be the antidote to the Soviets in Afghanistan. But then they became their own threat — and to more than just dissidents, women and LGBTQ people.
I wrote about the Taliban blowing up the giant Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in early 2001. But by that time women had already been ushered back into their homes, girls taken out of schools, gays and lesbians made invisible.
The Taliban decreed in 1996 that women and girls be barred from education, work and travel without a male chaperone. The punishments for violations were severe and could even be death by stoning, as depicted in the 2008 film The Stoning of Soraya M., although that film takes place in Iran.
Punishments for LGBT+ Afghans were also severe. Mere existence was illegal. Death was, as it is for women who disobey Sharia law, the ultimate penalty.
When the U.S. looks to lay blame for who caused the current crisis, the answer is — uncomfortably — the U.S. The U.S., over decades, wreaked a level of havoc that perhaps couldn’t have been anticipated. Yet until Biden, some could argue, no attempt was made to fix it.
Donald Trump made things worse, of course. Trump negotiated the release from prison of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in 2018. In 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, about whom I reported in PGN repeatedly throughout 2019 and 2020, negotiated a deal with the Mullah — not with the legitimate government of Afghanistan.
That deal released 5,000 Taliban men from prison. Men who had terrorized women, girls, LGBT+, dissidents. Now the Mullah is the head of the new Taliban-led government, and Biden is beholden to that Trump/Pompeo treaty.
Yet on August 17, Trump claimed what is happening in Afghanistan is the greatest humiliation for the U.S. Many would argue that was January 6, when there was an attempted coup at the Capitol, fomented by Trump and led by his followers.
The perils in Afghanistan are very real, regardless of which side of the aisle is speaking its own ideologically perceived truth. And the Biden administration, while perhaps correct to withdraw the last of America’s stabilizing presence in Afghanistan, has been stunningly tone deaf in how it has addressed the crisis, as well as in their descriptions of the Afghan people.
Those who concern me most, as a journalist who reported on the last takeover by the Taliban, are the women, girls and LGBT+ people of Afghanistan. It would be impossible to overstate the terrors they each face, now, simply by the mere fact of their existence in a male-dominated, cis-het society in which they have no real place and in which they are at best second-class citizens with no autonomy.
Reporters in Afghanistan are already detailing the threat. And if they weren’t, the Taliban leadership has itself been succinct: Sharia law — Islamic law, religious law — will define everything in Afghanistan going forward. Within that construct there is no room for female, queer or trans autonomy.
Imposition of the death penalty for homosexuality has been classified as judicial murder of gay and lesbian people; a form of genocide. Yet it is, according to Afghans and human rights advocates, imminent.
On August 16, Nemat Sadat, the first gay Afghan to come out publicly, tweeted: “It’s not hyperbole to say that the Taliban will do what Nazis did to homosexuals: weed them out and exterminate them from Afghan society. Please help.”
Last month, Gul Rahim, a Taliban judge, told the German newspaper Bild that, “There are only two penalties for gays: either stoning or they have to stand behind a wall that falls on them. The wall must be 2.5 to 3 meters [about 10 feet] high.”
I have reported on “corrective rape” and honor killings of lesbians for various publications. I reported on lesbian asylum seekers fleeing Sharia law to the U.K. and stringent new asylum laws here in the U.S.
NGOs have reported for years that gay men and lesbians have been raped as punishment–which the U.S. government knows. “[Gays and lesbians] continued to face arrest by security forces and discrimination, assault, and rape,” said the U.S. State Department’s country report on Afghanistan in 2020.
Nemat Sadat pleaded, “Please help.”
The question now, with more than enough blame to go around, is where will that help — for women, girls, and LGBT+ people — come from? Or will it come at all?