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After the Fall


Nobody goes out. The city is quiet and all the shops are closed. I did not go out myself, but I heard that the Taliban started a house-to-house search and tried to find the house of several journalists, so we decided to leave my house. If I am in my own house, the neighbors will tell the Taliban where I am. They all know about me.

They just got some of our neighbors. Men dragged out of their apartments. Women are crying. The men were from the old government. Just ordinary civil servants.

Message from a Kabul journalist to U.S. journalist Elizabeth Rubin

Among the tragedies in the fall of Kabul, count the two people so desperate to escape the Taliban they hung onto the wing of a departing jet before falling to their deaths.

These deaths, like so many, were avoidable. One doesn't have to endorse Liz Cheney's position that the U.S. should have stayed the course - after 20 years, more than $2 trillion, and casualties: 2,448 American soldiers, 3,846 U.S. military contractors, and 66,000 Afghan national military and police - to conclude that the Biden administration botched the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

That's the takeaway from Elizabeth Rubin, who's reported on Afghanistan for The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, and The New Republic. As she prepared to board a flight to Croatia, I asked her if the Biden administration was wrong to pull out of Afghanistan, or if it was a matter of timing.

"It's not like I'm in favor of nation-building," Rubin said. "I don't think we should have ever gone there 20 years ago. But certainly we should not have pulled out so quickly. The way they did it was just absolutely unethical and morally egregious. The country was in shock. Nobody was prepared for this."

Afghanistan was, in a certain way, a proxy war, Rubin explained. The Taliban has been supported since their inception in the 1990s by Pakistan's ISI, the Inter-Services Intelligence. While Pakistan's government attempts to maintain some deniability around the Taliban, it shares the goal of turning Afghanistan into a state friendly to Pakistan, a counterweight to Pakistan's old foe: India.

Taliban soldiers and commanders have benefited from being able to retreat to Pakistan, and to draw on the wealthier country's resources. "They're buried in Pakistan, they have homes there, they're treated in hospitals in Pakistan," Rubin said. "The Red Unit, the Taliban special forces, are trained by Pakistani soldiers."


According to Aqil Shah, a visiting scholar at The Carnegie Endowment for Peace, the connections between Pakistan and the Taliban aren't just military. While their guerrillas live rough, Taliban leaders have significant real estate holdings and business interests in Pakistan.

The U.S., now facing criticism for "rebuilding" the Afghan military using its own high-tech model that's heavily dependent on bombing missions. Once the U.S. withdrew, the Afghan army lost crucial air support.

Many Afghan soldiers hadn't received pay in weeks. The corrupt Afghan government, in their minds, had long since abandoned them. It wasn't hard to do the math. Many soldiers returned to their villages or joined the Taliban.

Ironically, the Taliban takeover has a potential downside for Pakistan, too. Now that the Taliban are in control of Afghanistan, jihadists inside Pakistan may gain traction, destabilizing that country.

"Zero Responsibility"

What went so wrong? There is plenty of blame to go around. The Bush administration's stated reason for invading Afghanistan after 9/11 was to combat Al Qaeda. But many say the U.S. should have left the country to its own devices once Osama bin Laden was killed in year 2011 - and as you might recall, that was during the Obama administration.

What led directly to this week's debacle was the Trump administration's 2020 agreement with the Taliban. The agreement signed in Doha, Qatar in late winter traded a Trump administration promise to withdraw U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan for an implausible Taliban pledge to prevent Al-Qaeda from operating in territory it held.

By excluding the Afghan government, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weakened the leadership's already fragile hold and strengthened the Taliban.

The Doha agreement made for good press, but it was classic Trump: a public relations victory that barely masked a heedless and weak capitulation.

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Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, shown here in Doha, told Fox News host Chris Wallace, “...the Biden administration that has basically abandoned the global stage in favor of climate change. They’ve been focused on critical race theory while the embassy is at risk.”

Reality check: It was Pompeo who promised last year that the Taliban would “work alongside of us to destroy” al-Qaeda.

There's no question that the Biden administration inherited a bad situation. But there were alternatives to an abrupt withdrawal. The Washington Post reported that General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. Austin "Scott" Miller, now Secretary of Defense, and then the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned President Biden months ago that a rapid Afghan government collapse was likely in the event of a quick exit. Both advised against a full withdrawal. Leaving several thousand troops would have buttressed Afghan forces.

“It came down to where the assessment they were receiving from the military in Afghanistan did not support the preferred policy decision that the administration and certainly the State Department wished to pursue,” an official told the Post. “The bottom line was that DOD was not the loudest voice in the room when it came to stating their candid assessment of likely outcomes.”

In other words, Biden had made up his mind. That happened before he assumed the presidency.

As the Washington Post reported, during the presidential campaign, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. “No, I don’t!” Biden said. “Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.”

“The idea of us being able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists in the world is just not within our capacity,” he continued. “The question is, is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the self-interest of one of our allies at stake?”

The second yea vote for rapid withdrawal was Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and administratively, Blinken bears responsibility not only for the timing of the withdrawal but also for the failure of the United States to stand by the Afghans who stood by us. The surreal sight of two human beings falling to their deaths in a desperate attempt to flee Afghanistan is only the most visually intense reminder of an immigration system that is, in the words of former congressman Bruce "in a state of total collapse."

Immigration is a two-stage process, normally, starting with a security check by the the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Under Alejandro Mayorkas, who heads Homeland Security, USCIS has undertaken a comprehensive review of its practices. 

The State Department has not, despite a backlog of visa applications that numbers in the millions. The Trump administration made Draconian cuts to the State Department budget, and that's part of the problem. But the department seems unwilling, or unable, to undertake the modernization effort now being considered at USCIS.

The State Department's deficits showed up in stark relief in Kabul. A conservative estimate of Afghans facing torture and death at the hands of the Taliban because of the assistance to the U.S. exceeds 60,000. An estimated 18,000 Afghans have assisted the U.S. military and have applied for special immigrant visas, available to people who face threats because of work for the U.S. government. Only 2500 of these have been approved for entry to the U.S. These applicants have 53,000 family members who would also be under threat, according to The New York Times.

For Some Women, Survival is a Matter of Days

Melanne Verveer, former U.S. ambassador for Global Women's Issues and Mina's List founder Tanya Henderson wrote in a Washington Post oped that special immigrant visas are not available to women activists and journalists now in danger from the Taliban. The State Department announced a new category of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program on Aug. 2, providing a way for people like these women, at-risk Afghans who are not eligible for Special Immigrant Visas, to permanently resettle in the United States.

There's just one problem. Just like most of the U.S. immigration system, this mechanism doesn't work.

"However," the authors wrote, "it remains almost impossible to access the Refugee Admissions Program."

For some Afghan women activists, survival has become a matter of weeks — or days. Humanitarian parole can be applied for within Afghanistan; case reviews typically happen within two business days, and the typical three-month processing time can be shortened to days if the emergency situation warrants it.


U.S. refugee admissions guidelines require applicants and their eligible family members to relocate to a third country — at their own expense — before their cases can even begin to be processed. Visas are difficult for Afghan women activists to come by in the best of times. With the twin disasters of Covid-19 and war now raging across Afghanistan, most countries have ceased offering visas altogether.


Some U.S. officials have suggested women go to the borders of neighboring countries to claim asylum. But the Taliban is rapidly seizing control of border crossings and closing major roadways. Asking Afghan women to make their way to the border is like leading lambs to a slaughter.

With tens of thousands of Afghans in fear for their lives, the U.S. consulate proved unable to cope with the crisis. So the military, once again, stepped in. Instead of the 2,500 troops that had been withdrawn, the U.S. sent 5,000 troops as a temporary measure to oversee the flight of those with visas from Kabul's airport and ensure the safety of embassy personnel.

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Afghan journalist Shougofa Alikozay's story "What It's Like to Be Married at 7 years old" was published in 2016.

Heading to Mecca

The reason for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan hasn't changed: Islamic extremism. Many longtime observers now say that once Osama bin Laden had been killed, the U.S. should have left Afghanistan. Now, however, U.S. withdrawal is likely to strengthen Al Qaeda. Peter Bergen, a CNN analyst, wrote that thousands of foreign fighters are likely to pour into Afghanistan to join the victorious "holy warriors" and receive military training.

“The relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda will get stronger,” he quotes Saad Mohseni, the head of the Afghan news and media company Moby, as saying. “Why should the Taliban fear the Americans anymore? What’s the worst that could happen? Another invasion?

“These guys are going to be the most belligerent, arrogant Islamist movement on the planet,” Mohseni added. “They are going to be the Mecca for any young radical of Islamic heritage or convert. It’s going to inspire people. It’s a godsend for any radical, violent group.”

In the end, America's Afghan adventure was an old story retold. In Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, a seemingly naive yet secretly arrogant American arrives in Vietnam and the result is death and disaster, with a woman bearing the brunt. On August 16, The New York Times editorial page editors wrote, perhaps with unwarranted kindness:

The war in Afghanistan began in response by the United States and its NATO allies to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as an operation to deny Al Qaeda sanctuary in a country run by the Taliban. How it evolved into a two-decade nation-building project in which as many as 140,000 troops under American command were deployed at one time is a story of mission creep and hubris but also of the enduring American faith in the values of freedom and democracy.

Elizabeth Rubin: Messages From Kabul

Elizabeth Rubin's articles always caught my attention because her on-the-ground reporting from trouble spots like Sierra Leone, Iraq, and Afghanistan was vivid and writerly. I also paid attention because she was an outlier: a female reporter who had gained entry to the boys' club of top magazines like Harper's and The New York Times Magazine.

Women and children are disproportionately affected by war and economic shifts. We need women writing about these subjects and they should have a national audience. Because just as African-Americans, LatinX, and LGBTQ people do, women write differently, think differently, cultivate different sources, and bring different values to the mix along with a mastery the traditional aspects of international politics.

Take note: several of the journalists Rubin quoted after the fall of Kabul are female reporters who flourished during the 20 years the U.S. intervened in a country called, in that hoary cliche, the graveyard of democracy.

They'll be put in their places - harshly, tragically - over the next several years. Male editors-in-chief here in the U.S. - and the top magazines are all helmed by men - should be taking a look at their preconceptions of who writes what.

For the record, no intelligent female writer ever wanted to write for a woman's magazine. Makeup is fun to use, but boring as shit to write about.

Susan Zakin

Rubin received this text message from a female television presenter on Aug. 16

At 7:30 am today as usual I was getting ready to go to the office.


At 7:35 I left the house and everything was calm and safe.


No one could believe that a few hours later Taliban would enter Kabul.


At 7:55 I reached the television station and began to working, trying to find out what’s going on with the situation in Afghanistan. I found a few things on Facebook that said it’s possible the Taliban would enter Kabul tonite.

But we ignored it.

At 10 am suddenly a colleague came and said, ‘Take all your stuff. The situation is terrible. The Taliban are at Kotal Kabul (Kabul’s mountain pass). Go home quickly.’

Everybody became very anxious and we went to our boss to ask what we should do.

He said, “Because you’re working in the media they must not see you or you will possibly get killed.”

I gathered all my stuff from my office and put on my hijab so nobody would recognize me on the way. I left the TV offices with a colleague who is also a female presenter and we just were hoping that we wouldn’t bump into the Taliban. When we left the office I noticed everybody was running to their homes.

We went to the road on the hillside to our left but no taxi driver would take us because we were female and they were scared that they’d be seen with a girl without a mahram (a male chaperone).

We walked for 20 minutes until a kind, humane person came with a motor and took us on our way.

We went to the Tamini projects. Everybody was running away. All the shops were closed.

The streets were full of cars and trucks people and all the girls and women were running to make sure they got home as soon as possible in case the Taliban reached that area and hurt them.

My family was ringing from home saying, Come quickly. So we told our driver to go another way. The whole time we saw a city engulfed in fear and terror. And everyone running.

After an hour we arrived home and we heard the voice of Payham Fir saying the Taliban are in the North Road, three minutes away from our house. Again I looked on social media where I could see pictures of the Taliban at Saraj I Shamali (the northern market) telling girls to go home quickly. Don’t come out again. When I saw these videos and photos I lost my soul and my mind. I lost myself. I felt so feeble mentally. I told myself that all the efforts of all these years have been lost. We studied so much. We woke up early in the morning to go to University. We tried so hard. Every is lost. All is gone.

I tell myself that one day will arrive when we can go out with comfort and study again. One day will arrive when we can go to the TV station again and present our programs. Even though all these questions are unanswered, we won’t give into hopelessness. I will try to reach my goals if they allow me. God willing that Afghan women should not be tortured again. Allow them please to shine and rise again like the Sun."

Thanks to Elizabeth Rubin for allowing Journal of the Plague Years to publish these messages.

From Elizabeth Rubin's "In the Land of the Taliban"

One afternoon this past summer, I shared a picnic of fresh mangos and plums with Abdul Baqi, an Afghan Taliban fighter in his 20’s fresh from the front in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. We spent hours on a grassy slope under the tall pines of Murree, a former colonial hill station that is now a popular resort just outside Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. All around us was a Pakistani rendition of Georges Seurat’s “Sunday on La Grande Jatte” — middle-class families setting up grills for barbecue, a girl and two boys chasing their errant cow with a stick, two men hunting fowl, boys flying a kite. Much of the time, Abdul Baqi was engrossed in the flight pattern of a Himalayan bird. It must have been a welcome distraction. He had just lost five friends fighting British troops and had seen many others killed or wounded by bombs as they sheltered inside a mosque.

Pregnant and Embedding with the Army in Afghanistan

When I was asked to write about being pregnant and embedded with soldiers in Afghanistan, I said OK. But I was still reluctant. And so the months passed. Then, not long ago, I got an email from a colonel in the army's media affairs office, saying they were declining my next embed request in part because "you failed to disclose your pregnancy". What troubled me more than the refusal was that the colonel was a woman. Compare the email I got from another colonel, a man: "Congratulations! I heard you are due in February – forever you will provide Rock Paratroopers with stories. 5(+) months pregnant humping up the Abas Ghar!" (the 8,400ft mountain ridge in the Korengal valley).


How could a woman, particularly in the military, not understand why I would have kept my pregnancy to myself? Is it true that the toughest adversary for women is still other women? I may be extracting too much out of a simple anecdote, but it was enough to make me want to tell the story. One reason was visceral: I wanted to get even with her. The other is more complicated.


Read more at The Guardian.

The Paris of Central Asia

What is now Afghanistan is a network of passes between China and Central Asia, India and the West, so that the conflict and intermingling of cultures here was bound to be extraordinary. But Afghanistan itself … is interesting chiefly because waves that flowed through it to mingle elsewhere left a little water behind in these mountains, and things that suffered metamorphosis ... elsewhere survived longer here in a purer form.

Babur went on to conquer Delhi and found the Moghul dynasty; he returned to Kabul because of the gardens and big trees and because it was cool in summer.

— Peter Levi, “The Light Garden of the Angel King,” 1973

“I lived in Afghanistan when it was very governable, from 1964 to 1974,” said Thomas E. Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha, who met recently in Kabul with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan. Mr. Gouttierre, who spent his decade in the country as a Peace Corps volunteer, a Fulbright scholar and the national basketball team’s coach, said, “I’ve always thought it was one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

- The New York Times 10/18/2009

Faridha Marwash ::: Come To Me In The Morning

SAFAR ::: “Raftim Azin Baagh”

Djila ::: Dari Folk Music

Ustad Mohammad Omar and Ghulalahm ::: Music in Kabul in the 1960’s

Afghanistan ::: Music From The Crossroads of the World recorded by Peter Ten Hoopen in 1973

“Greedy nations want our land, and they have interfered with our country…”