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Emran Feroz on the meanings of the events in Afghanistan

Author and journalist Emran Feroz was born in 1991 to Afghan parents in Innsbruck, Austria. Feroz, who also calls himself an “Austro-Afghan” and was awarded the Concordia Prize for reportage in 2021, has proven to be a clear-sighted critic of the “War on Terror”, the questionable global use of combat drones all over the world, as well as Western policy in Afghanistan, which he travelled to regularly and on location.

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Shortly before Kabul fell to the Taliban, Emran Feroz published his third book: The Longest War. In it, he looks at the West’s nearly 20-year military campaign in the Hindu Kush, its humanitarian costs and why it ultimately failed. We talked to him about the country of his parents, a society torn apart by war, and about media stereotypes and misconceptions.

Islamic Newspaper: Dear Emran Feroz, what do the events of the last weeks and months mean for Afghans and their country? What do you derive from them?

Emran Feroz: It is one thing to speak for the Afghans. For example, there are enough provinces where the withdrawal took place years ago. The remaining troops that left now were a few thousand men. And it was all so badly coordinated now in every way with all the evacuation commissions. We could see that with the last US soldiers who destroyed war equipment and helicopters at the airport so that the Taliban couldn’t use them. The pictures associated with them as they were escorted by the Taliban to take off simply document a total failure in every respect.

What this means now for many Afghans is difficult to summarise. I think that this chapter has been closed and at the same time many are now looking into a very uncertain future. Afghanistan as a state cannot survive without foreign financial aid. And millions are dependent on this aid. These are now the concerns that most are dealing with both in the countryside and in the cities. And these other things that you hear about in the media these days, like individual freedoms, human rights, and women’s rights, come on top of that. What unites most of society is simply that you are facing a humanitarian catastrophe and that it must be prevented.

Islamic Newspaper: There are various organisations that have spoken in recent weeks that around 12 million people are facing food insecurity and two million children are acutely malnourished. What do your contacts on the ground say about the acute burden on the people?

Emran Feroz: Yes, that is the case. Today, the Taliban posted an exemplary picture from the presidential palace. You can see them eating on the floor. It looked very much like an average Afghan meal – so vegetables, a bit of meat. And they staged it, of course. The message is: we are not like the old elites; we are all sitting on the floor. And the leader is sitting there, too. And we all eat the same. Many have criticised that now there are many who will soon have nothing to eat. There are regions of Afghanistan where there is famine. These are areas that are totally isolated, or that have been occupied by the Taliban, where food reserves are running out. In the Punjir region, which has officially been conquered by the Taliban, but from which fighting is still being reported, the information situation is very opaque. It is very unclear what is happening there. This is also because they did not let any media in. Somehow reports have leaked out from there that food is running out and that people are only living on bread and leftovers. And I do think that in many regions of the country the whole thing is heading more and more in this direction, unless help from outside reaches the country soon.

Islamic Newspaper: That means that from your point of view you would also be in favour of at least minimal talks and that the aid deliveries and projects can continue?

Emran Feroz: Yes. And one more addition to the last question: Of course, prices for basic foodstuffs and so on have also gone up. They are higher than usual, and many are under pressure. You also notice that many are running out of cash. We saw what was going on in front of the banks, Western Union and MoneyGram. Many Afghans used to get money from abroad. Most have relatives abroad and are very dependent on them right now. It was also difficult for me to send them money in the last few days. In the meantime, they have reopened, but all hell is breaking loose there at the moment.

It is now the case that they are in power and the mistake that was made in the 90s, namely driving the country back into isolation – which of course was the Taliban’s own fault – must not be made. The population was collectively punished. And that is precisely what must not be repeated now. There are many reasons why the Taliban are in power, and there are also reasons among sections of the population. By and large, the Afghans did not have much to do with the withdrawal and the peace deal. I don’t think it would be right if they were all sanctioned now. There is a difference between how you deal with the Taliban and the population. And if you now stop aid deliveries or sanction the country, you are first and foremost punishing the population.

Islamic Newspaper: You are a journalist and observe what is going on in the country, but also what is written here in the West. It was almost infuriating to hear people talking about “our defeat in Afghanistan” right from 16 August. Geopolitically and militarily, that may have been a defeat, although de facto there has been no combat mission in Afghanistan since 2014. Isn’t that an incredibly egocentric thing to say and keep quiet about the defeat of the Afghans themselves?

Emran Feroz: Yes, of course. This is a problem that has run through recent reporting. People spoke of “our defeat” and “our soldiers.” And at the same time, they didn’t want to take responsibility for important mistakes and blamed the Afghans. This is echoed in sentences like: We did our best, but the Afghan army did not want to fight. Most of the people who suffered in this war, who fought on the ground and made many sacrifices, were Afghans. The army has basically been squandered in the last few years, months, and weeks. Poor men were sent to war and at the same time they worked with people who were corrupt and enriched themselves personally.

Islamic Newspaper: There are voices that have straightened out this narrative that the Afghan army and police did not fight. As of 2014, the main burden of ground operations was on the army and police. They have suffered at least 74,000 deaths. That they did not fight is not true, is it?

Emran Feroz: Exactly true. The death toll of the security forces alone has been at least three to four times that of civilians in recent years. That was at least a five-digit number every year. There was fighting even though basic things were missing. The last time I saw Afghan soldiers at the front was in the spring. They lacked all kinds of things. They were not paid regularly either, but they fought anyway. That was, for example, in a province in the north-east from which the Americans withdrew almost 10 years ago. And there, the withdrawal did not play a big role for these people, because most of them were already alone anyway. But at the same time, one noticed how deep the rifts were between these soldiers and the ruling politicians. It is also understandable if at some point, they became tired of fighting and said to themselves: Okay, I can’t do it anymore. Why doesn’t person X send their children? They are all abroad studying.

Islamic Newspaper: … or run restaurants in Dubai, of which you described some cases…

Emran Feroz: Correct. It is precisely this perspective that is often ignored. People like to blame others and talk about their own defeat, although they don’t understand what the last years and the years to come meant and will continue to mean for most Afghans.

Islamic Newspaper: If you read recollections of Western soldiers who were deployed in Helmand or Kandahar in 2007 or 2008, they speak of sometimes intense and bloody battles. What was the intra-Afghan war like? Was it a very bloody affair?

Emran Feroz: Yes. But on both sides; both from the Taliban side and the army and various militias that have been built up in recent years. This has also referred to various tribal feuds and related structures in some areas. It could be described there as (??) when Taliban fighters or a commander were suspected in a village and the whole village was bombed blindly, resulting in many deaths. On the other hand, something comparable has happened when the Taliban have conquered some place. Then the whole family of a soldier or a member of the security apparatus could be killed. There were additionally many different structures. Not only the Afghan army, but the police as well as various militias set up by the CIA and an intelligence service with its own militias, so it was sometimes very confusing. People often made examples of each other and massacred each other.

Islamic Newspaper: It is often said that the Afghans have not been actors in the last 20 years. They are people who have acted, who have rejoiced, who have suffered, who have died and who have lived. So, don’t we also need a change of perspective that doesn’t deny the people on the ground their ability to act?

Emran Feroz: That is very important, because in the last few years we have seen in many analyses that this is still often attempted. People try to externalise problems with conspiracy theories. There is a lot of fake news. I have described the Pandzhir case. A lot of attention has been focused on it in the last few days. In the first days after the storming by the Taliban, propagandists from the other side spread rumours of Pakistani drones and forces supporting the Taliban. There is talk of a Taliban-ISI axis, according to which Pakistan supports the Taliban and supported them in the 1990s. This is an open secret, but it is often mixed up in such a way that in the end even many Afghans think that these Taliban are not really Afghans at all, but like aliens from another place. They then say that they are Pakistanis or Punjabis. I have not met a single Pakistani or Punjabi among the Taliban. There is often a distorted picture. This was then all exposed as fake news spread by the Indian media. Every serious observer knows immediately what is going on. But many have unfortunately fallen for it. This is just one recent example, which has now been repeated. One reason for this was that people were deprived of this capacity to act and of their own personal agenda, and they did not really know it. Also, how the Taliban were able to take over all the provincial capitals and Kabul surprised many people because they simply did not want to realise that these people are not some foreigners who come from somewhere, but people from this country. Somehow you must come to terms with that. Instead of doing that, they were caught up in this reality and many others.

Islamic Newspaper: We depend on explaining complex processes with a long history in the form of images. Now, a lot of stereotypical images are being drawn about Afghanistan with terms like “Middle Ages,” “modernity” and the like. Yet the often violent “modernisation” and centralisation of Afghanistan has been going on for more than 100 years. Then people like to talk about tribes, although even Pashtuns are not a single entity on closer inspection. And there is the contrast of urban and rural. In short, it is very difficult to get an adequate picture from the outside. To sum it up in one question: What do the Taliban have to do with the Afghan Middle Ages?

Emran Feroz: It’s always funny when it comes to the Middle Ages or the Stone Age. And then you see the Taliban special forces, which now look like American special forces. I think we should say goodbye to such images. The Taliban live in the 21st century. They have a different value system, totally different ideas than many people here in the so-called West and than many others in Afghanistan. But they are also modern or post-modern. Of course, there have been wars in Afghanistan in the last decades or centuries, like the several Anglo-Afghan wars. There, of course, certain actors could be found who were not unlike the Taliban. But they are still considered national heroes among most Afghans today because they chased out the British.

Something that has always strengthened such actors in Afghanistan – whether with the British, the Soviets or the Americans – can be compared to the Tyrolean folk hero Andreas Hofer. He lived in the early 19th century and was executed in 1809. I try to make clear in my book and with that of Pankaj Mishra that such movements have also existed here and could perhaps even exist today if the circumstances were different. Hofer had instigated a peasant uprising against Napoleon and the Bavarians at that time. He staged himself as a defender of certain values – in this case of a conservative Catholicism. On the other side there were people who said: You are living in the Middle Ages, and we are now enlightening you. But then exactly the opposite happened, what they wanted. People held on to these values more and supported certain uprisings. You cannot impose these values – in this case liberalism, democracy, etc. – from the outside. Something similar was tried by the Soviets in the 70s and 80s.

Islamic Newspaper: Isn’t this project of modernisation from above in Afghanistan much older? Didn’t it already take place under kings like Amanullah?

Emran Feroz: Yes, exactly. Of course, it is much older. There were the big attempts from outside, but then also those from inside, like Amanullah Khan, who wanted to push it through – even with violence. You also have to bear that in mind. He was not the super-democratic reformer. He relied on Pashtun tribes, on whom he wanted to impose these things. He really humiliated and massacred some of them. And then many enmities arose again. But overall, anyone who tried to use violence from within or without failed. And at the same time, forces that were not so dissimilar to the Taliban grew stronger.

Islamic Newspaper: We can observe among some young Muslims in the West how they sometimes refer to a “glorious” past, which is then also a constructed one. What is this “tradition” to which the Taliban refer? Is it based on the real past or is it rather the result of 42 years of war and conflict?

Emran Feroz: I think it is partly based on the past. But it is also partly a consequence of these wars.

Islamic Newspaper: The Taliban have just presented their interim cabinet. Now they must run a state. There is a phenomenon that we also know from the Russian Revolution. In the end, people from the tsarist secret service continued to work in the torture chambers, or tsarist officers in the military. Now the Taliban will probably not be able to avoid relying on the previous personnel as well. Are they dependent on the previous officials to keep the whole thing running halfway?

Emran Feroz: Absolutely. They can’t even define what exactly the difference is supposed to be between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which has existed for the last 20 years, and the Islamic Emirate, as they propagate it. And it still hasn’t been officially renamed now. There are still many unanswered questions. In any case, the Taliban must open in many ways. They are dependent on such personnel. This interim government is not even inclusive by Afghanistan’s traditionally conservative standards. If you look at which Afghan scholars were included, it is anything but inclusive. There were voices who were under the impression that they were now progressive. They are facing big problems. There are very well people in their ranks who know how difficult this balancing act is. If they really wanted inclusiveness, they could, for example, have formed a government in which you see faces from the old government, in which you see several women, in which you also see former corrupt politicians like Karzai. That might have looked better on the international stage than the current result.

But they probably would have lost many in their own ranks that way. Even the average foot soldier would have asked themselves what they were fighting for. This balancing act is very difficult. And I think, however, that they cannot do without these other experts.

Islamic Newspaper: Do you think that the Taliban are in a vacuum now and will be in the future, so that they will have to get know-how from countries like China, Pakistan, or Iran?

Emran Feroz: I think so. The aforementioned states will increasingly take on a dominant role in Afghanistan. The Taliban are now in a situation where they will be dependent. The point is also that they are facing a bit of an ideological crisis. What held most of them together within the Taliban was the presence of foreign troops, was corruption. That is gone now. That means that many will also question much more what their leaders are doing. But that opens up the danger of further radicalisation.

That’s the next point. We still have the IS in Afghanistan. You know very well that if the scenario of an inclusive government with people like Abdullah, like Karzai and so on had happened, secessions would be conceivable. And in the end, you see them with the IS.

Islamic Newspaper: It may sound a bit abstruse, but don’t the Taliban now have to give up the habitus of the resistance fighter and wear uniforms, for example, in order to be able to represent the state they control at all?

Emran Feroz: They must make the state work now, which is of course one thing. They have to be recognisable. Many of them wear uniforms now. Recognisability is important. It will go more in that direction. Of course, you still see a lot of soldiers who you recognise by their turban and by their gun when they patrol. If they want to lead the state in all respects and be taken seriously, then it will move more in that direction. But I think they will also be overwhelmed by it. As I said, until recently they were a guerrilla group. Where they ruled, they could quickly feel the vacuum because of corruption. But all that is falling away now, and all the responsibility is on them.

Islamic Newspaper: Among the six key points you identify in The Longest War as moments of failure of the Western intervention in Afghanistan is a failure on the issue of “women” or the instrumentalisation of the issue. Beyond the real situation of women in the new Afghanistan, what function did the “liberation of women” have for the intervention and the subsequent occupation?

Emran Feroz: We must consider one thing, and that is this image of women’s liberation. It has been reconstructed again and again. It has also been constantly invoked by the media that you go to Afghanistan to liberate the Afghan woman. In the 80s, the Soviets argued the same way as the British did before. Per se, the Afghan man was assumed to be a retarded barbarian who did not know how to deal with his wife.

As a result, in recent years and up to now, we have been able to see contributions on the subject from relatively privileged districts of Kabul where a liberal life is led. Women artists or directors are shown here, which gives the impression: All this was created by the intervention and would now be destroyed by the Taliban.

That is just wrong. The scenes depicted represent only a fraction of female society. This small urban elite has developed over the last 20 years and benefited from this military occupation in one way or another. And so, there is an attempt to apply this image to all Afghan women. Most of them who live in the countryside have grown up in a completely different reality. And that has a lot to do with poverty, with economic inequality, with the lack of development that just didn’t happen there and all the aid money that disappeared. It also has to do with the war economy and the war itself.

It makes things easier for many Western actors not to explain these things now or not to address these complex realities. Instead, pictures are broadcast from some district, not even from the whole of Kabul, where there are also rather rural and poor districts. People are made to believe that these things are representative of the majority. Similar things can be found from the 80s in the propaganda films of the Afghan communists and Soviets. There, women were presented who lived a very western lifestyle or drank alcohol at home. A lot of things were staged in a very propagandistic way.

Islamic Newspaper: What is striking in the reporting before and after the fall of Kabul is the sometimes-complete absence of the tens of thousands of women and tens of thousands of girls who died or were mutilated from the beginning to the end of the occupation by bombings, drones and night raids on their villages …

Emran Feroz: I don’t want to accuse anyone of evil, especially not any of my colleagues. But I have also noticed in the last few weeks, even after the book was published, that people here had no idea what kind of people they were working with. There was Asadullah Chalid, for example. He kept abducted girls as sex slaves and probably boys as well. He sexually abused, murdered, and tortured many people. The man had his own villa where he could do whatever he wanted while being courted by the Allies. A few years ago, he was seriously injured by a suspected Taliban attack and was treated in the US, where Obama personally visited him.

When you know such details, it is hypocritical to keep coming across the same narratives when reading as if you have been working with some cleaners. And now the evil Taliban are coming and the whole project has failed. It wasn’t like that. I think many people didn’t want to deal with such cases because they didn’t underpin the narrative.

And that narrative was important. I recorded in my book the case of an Aisha who was mutilated by her husband. She was also on the cover of Time magazine. As a signature, you could read what would happen if we left Afghanistan. That was some years ago. And in the text, it was explicitly repeated. Later, it became clear, as local Afghan journalists reported and corrected, that it was not the Taliban. Rather, she was a victim of family violence.

People have often tried to feed and maintain the dominant narrative. You can see that now in these days too. All the stories always want to sort out and find out what the connection to the Taliban is in this. At the same time, they don’t want to deal with the fact that there was no good and evil there, that the situation there was much more complex. And that one did not only associate oneself with human rights criminals and misogynists, but also acted that way oneself in the affected areas, which were infested by drone attacks, special forces and so on.

Islamic Newspaper: After 42 years of silence – with exceptions – the guns in Afghanistan. Do you think it is possible that this is a moment when people can come to rest and perhaps something like healing could also occur at the local level?

Emran Feroz: Some people are quite sober about it, and I am mostly so. If you look at the numbers, it is indeed a great thing that so few people have been killed in Afghanistan in the last few weeks, or in general that the acts of violence have decreased so much. But you must bear in mind that the Taliban also terrorised their own population and carried out suicide attacks and so on in the cities. And they are now fighting no one more than the IS. But that is now less decisive and not so dominant.

You must be careful not to go too much into the Taliban narrative. They just had all the concrete walls in Kabul dismantled for propaganda purposes, which often caused a lot of traffic chaos and ensured the safety of some politicians and their houses. Everything has been dismantled and the Taliban want to say: So, now there’s peace here. But that was built up because such attacks took place.

Many people also perceive this as a difference. But whether political developments will go in this direction remains to be seen. A lot of this has to do with the actions of the Taliban, but also with the behaviour of the international community. In the parts of Afghan society, especially in the cities, where the Taliban have problems with their kind of government, socio-political and technological progress has taken place in the last 20 years. And there will certainly continue to be demonstrations and political activism against them. And that is also good and important. The point is whether the Taliban will keep their promises or become more totalitarian. My optimism or pessimism also depends on what direction they will take. Pessimism has not been so easily driven out of me.

Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. There are many internally displaced people. There are also many other people who just want to get out. And all this talk about the Taliban shortly after they came to power was also somehow deemed good by a lot of Western media. Everything they have done so far, and especially the way they have set up their government, has not only confirmed that one should not give them a big leap of faith and that the whole thing could degenerate very quickly.

Islamic Newspaper: Dear Emran Feroz, thank you for the interview.

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