Upon Leaving the Wild, Wild East in Afghanistan

by Phyllis Chesler

In the history of the world, no foreign power has ever occupied or been able to remain in this landlocked and remote country in central Asia. The Persians, the Mongols, the British, the Russians – all were unable to prevail. Even Alexander the Great departed, only leaving behind some blonde haired and green eyed Afghans.

I was once held captive in fairly posh purdah in Kabul. This dangerous but magnificent adventure became something of a writer’s treasure. From time to time, I miss the splendid, soaring beauty of the mountains, the biblically barefoot, naked-faced nomad women, the charm and humor of individual Afghans. I do not miss having my American passport taken away and the loss of my liberty.

As a daughter-in-law, I was expected to live with my mother-in-law – and so I did. I was also expected to convert to Islam. I discovered that my father-in-law had three wives and 21 children. All news to me.

While the Taliban had not yet emerged, the treatment of women and of the poor left everything to be desired. I was not allowed out alone without a male escort. And while women had been unveiled in 1958, only wealthy and educated women, with access to drivers and servants, traveled around without wearing long veils or stumbling about in chadaris/burqas.

Afghanistan is the country that once gave shelter to Osama bin Laden after Saudi Arabia and Sudan exiled him. Here is where he planned 9/11 and where he successfully hid afterwards – at least until he relocated to Pakistan’s elite military enclave in Abbotabad.

Nearly 20 years ago, President George W. Bush unleashed American troops to find bin Laden and to punish those who hosted him. We mainly failed in that specific mission, but our boots on the ground allowed shelters for battered women and schools for girls to open; it also encouraged women to become police officers, journalists, physicians, and to run for parliament.

As we know, many of these women were threatened with death, and some were eventually assassinated by the Taliban. It did not stop other women from bravely taking their place. Fawzia Koofi, a former member of the Afghan Parliament, was shot in her car. She lived – but she still does not know whether a member of the Taliban or of al-Qaida tried to kill her.

President Biden is resolved to pull out the remaining troops by 9/11.

At stake are geo-political human rights issues as well as military issues vis a vis terrorism. Although American troops have been demonized, then praised, many Afghan civilians are now worried about what will happen to them when our troops are gone.

In the first three months of 2021, the number of civilians killed and wounded have increased “29 percent over the same period last year,” the New York Times reports. “The American withdrawal will undoubtedly be a massive blow to morale for the Afghan security forces…without American military support, Afghan government troops are up against a Taliban enemy who is frequently more experienced and better equipped than the average soldier.”

Here’s one of my concerns: The moment the last American soldier departs is the same moment that the barbarians will torch the shelters for battered women and the schools for girls – and begin publicly stoning women to death for alleged misdeeds. The hands of thieves will be cut off according to Sharia law. Women will again stumble around in chadaris, burqas – sensory deprivation isolation chambers on the move.

One Afghan woman, Basireh Heydari, a student at Herat University, was recently quoted as saying: “The Americans are leaving. We have terrible days ahead with the Taliban. I’m worried they won’t let me leave the house (let alone attend college).”

Another Afghan woman student, Salma Ehrari, wanted the world to know that the Taliban “is fooling them, they are not changed.” She holds the Americans responsible for what will happen – not the Taliban – since “this is just the Taliban’s nature.”

Even with the American military presence, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 6,500 incidents of violence against women in 2019. The previous year, attackers slit the throat of three people working at a school in Nangarhar before lighting the building on fire. Video emerged last year of a woman being stoned to death as a mob chanted Allahu Akhbar.

However, are we morally responsible to do that which cannot be done, namely, educate the Taliban to respect all human life, including that of girls, boys, and women – as well as infidel lives? Can we successfully impose a Western view of human rights there – or in neighboring Pakistan or Iran – even as we are condemned as racist imperialists and colonialists, often by Western “progressives”?

How much more blood and treasure must we continue to expend in the effort to do so? We have lost more than 2,300 U.S. personnel who were killed there since 2001. Currently, the Taliban, wealthy opium traffickers, surround 10 cities; their promises cannot be trusted.

Upon our withdrawal, said retired U.S. Army Col. Chris Kolenda, the Taliban will decide that “the West cannot be trusted and they’ll decide to go on an all-out offensive … The Taliban is likely to gain some serious momentum.” If America tears up the peace agreement that the Trump administration signed, the Taliban will “look to Russia and China for aid.”

What will that mean in terms of anti-West terrorism being allowed to flourish in Afghanistan? How will our withdrawal affect the decisions of other NATO countries who have troops on the ground?

How much more must we sacrifice in what may be a doomed attempt to shore up a failed state and to prevent anti-Western terrorism from festering and flourishing in these beautiful Badlands?

According to Lisa Curtis, who served as the top Afghanistan official on President Trump’s National Security Council – we should stay.

“There are costs associated with keeping US troops,” she said, “but the risks of going completely to zero far outweigh the costs of keeping a small number of troops there. I think the question is this: Is the US willing to spend $5 billion annually, which means a small US force presence of about 2,500? Is that worth it, as an insurance policy to prevent another 9/11-style attack?”

However, she admits that such a small force will not be able to stave off an inevitable civil war—and worse. Terrorists worldwide will “converge … and it’s likely to be a worse terrorist safe haven than it was before 9/11.”

Our presence is enabling about 8,500 NATO troops to remain.

These honorable experts are not focused on the costs to human rights if American and NATO forces pull out. I cannot help thinking about those women. I was once one of them.

First published in the Investigative Project on Terrorism.