The Taliban may no longer be America’s enemy but they remain an enemy to me—an Afghan-American woman who was nearly kidnapped by them. They became my enemy when they beat my grandmother in 2000, bruising her back. They forced my cousin, a medical student, to quit school and sit at home for six years. They forced my aunt to stop teaching and open a secret school. When the doors of the school opened, my aunt shivered in fear. If the United States is negotiating an end to war with the Taliban, I plead those negotiations do not mean the end of freedom for Afghan women.
Vice President Joe Biden’s words are not a surprise, because from the beginning the U.S. tried to negotiate with the Taliban to get Osama bin Laden. When the Taliban didn’t or couldn’t hand over bin Laden because al Qaeda and the Pakistani military had more control in Afghanistan than the Taliban, these so-called students also became a target for the war. Now that bin Laden’s dead and al Qaeda weakened, the U.S. no longer can justify its losing war.
Civilian Afghans knew little about al Qaeda’s role in terrorism or its hatred toward the U.S. They thought the U.S. was coming to save them from the Taliban, whose ideas were foreign to urban Afghans. My cousins stood on their roofs watching American bombs fall on Taliban military posts in Herat province like it was Fourth of July. Many Americans think that the Taliban’s practice of Islam is a part of Afghanistan’s tradition, but the group actually is a modern political movement born out of the proxy war the United States and the Soviet Union fought inside Afghanistan.
My memories are of a happy childhood ruptured by war. One day I played in my grandfather’s orchard picking pomegranates and grapes, on another day I witnessed my classmate die in a school bombing. I was 9 years old when my family fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We settled in the U.S., but I returned 18 years later, in 2000, when the Taliban reigned, to visit my relatives. My cousins defied the ban on music and sang and played music, but in the morning, they whispered, frightened that the Taliban would raid their home. The psychological fear debilitated any progress or learning in the cities. I returned after the Taliban ouster in 2002, and stayed for the next five years to witness the changes propelled by the American intervention. Afghan men and women thought peace had come—along with jobs, education, and freedom.
In some provinces, life is better, especially for women. Millions of girls are going to school for the first time, women are in the government, back to teaching, running businesses, and have access to basic health care. Reports that violence against women has risen can be seen as a positive sign, because it means women actually are reporting the violence. During the Taliban time, that violence was state-sponsored.
But in the southern provinces—the frontline of the U.S.-Taliban war—women’s lives are in greater danger. The Taliban have systematically assassinated women who work to help other women in Kandahar. In 2005 I was working on my book, Opium Nation, and traveled to Helmand province in search of a young girl, who had been bartered in marriage to an opium smuggler. My guide took me to a house he thought was safe. The men of the house claimed to be Taliban and said if they had not known my guide, they would’ve punished me for traveling without a male relative. (Some interpretations of Islam mandate that a woman can travel only with a male relative.) These men also suspected I was coming from the West and wanted to kidnap me. My guide, who was related to them, talked them out of it. The women I met in Helmand left the house with a male relative only to go to the doctor’s. They spent their hours inside their compounds. I met two women married to the same man who said they wanted to go shopping, to see Kabul, and to learn how to read and write. But they were afraid of the Taliban, who controlled their district.
I understand the need for the U.S. government to change the language of war when Americans and the world are tired of fighting in Afghanistan, and when the current Afghan government is corrupt and inept. After Sept. 11, people called the war inside Afghanistan an intervention; now that has changed to occupation. If the Taliban no longer are the enemy, they are still a threat to humanity, to any form of progress. If a political agreement is reached to include them in the Afghan government, that pact must preserve rights for women.
The political complexities and changing alliances mean little to my relatives and friends inside Afghanistan—the women are now doctors, artists, and journalists. The men are Fulbright scholars, TV hosts, and musicians. If the Taliban return unchecked, those people will be out of work with no livelihood, and these 10 years of fighting will have been futile.