Afghan Male 1
This interview was conducted over the phone with a man in Afghanistan. Due to ongoing personal and security concerns, he requested to be presented anonymously.
He was born in Iran after his parents fled Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. In his interview, he discusses some of the challenges Afghan refugees in Iran have faced, coming to Afghanistan in 2006, pursuing a bachelor's degree at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul and what life has been like since then.
Interview conducted on December 26, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and an Afghan male
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: Where are you from?
Afghan Male: I am from Afghanistan from the central highland from the city of the big great Buddha, Bamiyan.
RH: Bamiyan. OK. What is your current role?
AM: I work with an international NGO supporting Afghan law enforcement agencies.
RH: OK. Can you briefly describe a little bit of your backstory?
AM: We were refugees but our case is a bit different than the status refugees get in western countries. Actually, I was born in Tehran. My family, my parents, left Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. My elder siblings were born in Bamiyan and when we moved there, we were born there but we were called displaced people – Afghan people – not a refugee but not Iranian citizenship. Simply being born in that country we were not citizens of that country.
RH: I see. Did you grow up in Iran? When did you come back to Afghanistan?
AM: Yes. I grew up there. I finished my high school in Iran, came back in 2006 or 2007 – I don’t recall the exact date. I was alone when I came back to Afghanistan. Without any family and without knowing anyone in Afghanistan I just decided to come back to my country. It was in 2006.
RH: 2006. OK. Was there a very large community of Afghans in Tehran?
AM: Yes. Millions of Afghans were living in Iran and especially in Tehran. We were living in a town in the south of Tehran. I remember a few days before I came back to Afghanistan – I don’t know if I should go further or not – but many of them repatriated after the Taliban era but, again, came back to the country for economic reasons.
RH: OK. Where were you on September 11th?
AM: I exactly remember that. I have a specific picture of that in my mind. I was working in a shoemaking factory that belonged to my brother and my uncles. We were watching the news at that time. I don’t remember how old I was but I think I was in elementary school – no, older than that.
I could understand something big was happening. Everywhere in the news was the attack to the twin towers. At that time I didn’t understand what the twin towers were. I didn’t understand where that attack initiated from but I remember there was a sense of worry in the family members and the surroundings. Everybody was talking about the attack of 9/11 and it had a really bad impact, not just to Afghans, but I could see the negative impression of that horrible terror attack among the Iranians as well.
RH: Can you talk about the mood in Iran at the time?
AM: Yes. Well, I came back home from work that night and I was asking my father, “what’s going on here?” He actually gave me brief information about what was happening, what was the WTO and where that was located. At that time I couldn’t understand exactly what was happening but I had the idea that this attack was happening, planes were hijacked and thousands of innocent people were being killed there. Those innocent people being killed raised a sense of sympathy among all human beings. It didn’t matter whether we were Afghans, Americans or Iranians.
RH: You talked about this briefly but what was the mood among your family members and fellow Afghans?
AM: The Afghan community in Iran, they were migrants. Many were illiterate. Many of them – not being aware of the politics and the international affairs, terrorism, everything – they were not really involved in those issues or they couldn’t capture the idea of what was happening. It was just a sense of worry. But it was a couple of months later when the US planned to come to Afghanistan, that was the start of some sense of feelings in the Afghan community.
RH: OK. That’s a perfect transition. What was the impact of the US invasion of Afghanistan on the Afghan community in Iran?
AM: Well, first of all, I don’t think invasion is the right word to be used for this. Of course the US came to Afghanistan, occupied Afghanistan but it was not an invasion. It was to support the Afghan nation. It was to help us, to rescue us from that horrible moment we had at that time.
I’ll give you a story and memory from that time. I was in school and we heard that the US started deploying its forces in Afghanistan. It started from the southern provinces and we were shown on the map every day in the news at school that this number of provinces were taken from the Taliban. The Taliban collapsed in this province. Day by day we saw that progress and there was a sense of hope among the Afghan community, among the refugees there. Everybody was so cheerful and happy that finally we are going to be a nation without being ruled by the Taliban and without having a civil war again. That was the moment when I could see that hopes were again revived among the Afghan community there.
Let me add something else here. What is notable about Afghans, the Afghan nation, the refugees, was so suppressed there by the government of Iran, many times by the Iranian people. There were good and bad people but we were a second class nation there. By the US deployment in Afghanistan, I remember that we were gaining some respect. Everybody was saying, “oh. We are jealous of you. Finally you will have the United States in your country and your country is going to be a superpower in the region very soon.”
RH: Interesting. How did your family react to the US going into Afghanistan?
AM: Well, of course everybody was happy. My father was one of those refugees who had left the country, the conflict, the war going on, all the violence and we were kind of happy that it’s going to be over finally. There’s going to be peace in our country at the end. That was the same common feeling among all Afghans. I can’t really differentiate the feeling that I had, my parents had or the other Afghans. We were all talking about the same thing and feeling happy for the same reason.
RH: I don’t know how much insight you would have into this but how much did life in Afghanistan immediately after the US entered?
AM: They said that the war was over very soon and there was going to be an election. We were getting the news from inside the country that there was going to be a new government established and there was supposed to be an election held also in the neighboring countries Iran and Pakistan because they were hosting the greatest number of refugees, Afghan refugees, at that time. We were at that time trying to do as much as we could for this election. The refugees had no real idea of the ethnic conflicts going on in the country. At that time we didn’t have anything like that. It didn’t matter if you were Pashtun, Tajik or Hazaras. It was mixed. We were all Afghans. We were trying to do this campaign for the election.
First of all, everybody had a united purpose to call refugees to participate in the election. Second, some people either being aware of the decision, being aware of what they were doing – especially elders or the younger generation – were thinking only of participating in the election, voting for the elected president. But the elders were really focused on the ethnic issues. People were trying to vote for the candidate of the same ethnicity because people didn’t consider that as an election but only as a contest just to know the percentage of every ethnicity in the country. From then I could understand that there are still the same conflicts among people. We still haven’t embraced that position at that time that we could put all of the conflicts and all of the disagreements we had in the past and be a united nation. That was imagination from expectations at that time. From then I was understanding that the issues would continue in the country. It’s not the end of war in Afghanistan and this is just the difficult beginning for the country.
RH: Was that election that you are referring to the one that elected Hamid Karzai?
RH: OK. What motivated you to go back to Afghanistan in 2006?
AM: I graduated from high school at that time. Having not even a refugee status I was facing difficulties to pursue my higher education. I remember that I had one or two years break in my studies at high school because of the tough rules of the Iranian government for education of Afghan refugees. They might have had at that time the idea of Afghans going back to their country but at the same time they didn’t really want that because they were using or – how can I say? – abusing the Afghan refugees for their own purposes. But anyhow, apart from that I was intending to come back to Afghanistan just to pursue my higher education because I didn’t get the opportunity or get the chance in Iran.
RH: Alright. Then you went to University in Afghanistan?
AM: Yes. I came to Afghanistan. When I came back I saw the devastated country after war. It was really not imaginable at that time when I was coming back. I had prepared myself for the worst things in Afghanistan but it was much worse than what I thought. Nothing. No electricity, no power, everywhere full of dust, no roads, nothing constructed. I knew our country would be a backward country after decades of war but still, I hadn’t seen that with my own eyes.
But I came back. I was looking for different chances and scholarship programs. I couldn’t get any. One year I spent in Afghanistan. I was with some friends, with some fellows that were all working with different organizations in the country. I said, “why shouldn’t I do that?,” because I knew English a little bit. It was fine. I could actually – how can I say it? – it was enough that I could even pursue my higher education in English. Then I decided to look for a job. I looked for a job, I got a job with one of those international organizations and then moved ahead, found another job, stayed with the same organization I’m working with for another eight or nine years.
With that job I saw the opportunity to study at the American University of Afghanistan. It was the most well-known university at that time. When I came to the country I didn’t even imagine that I could go to this university and get my bachelor’s degree here. When I got a job it was not that difficult to get a well-paid job at that time and I could see that I could afford studying at that university. I got my salary at the end of the month and paid the whole money to the university just to study there because it was a great chance compared to many of the scholarship programs I could get out of the country at that time. That’s my story of education. I went to the American University of Afghanistan, graduated and now, for the time being, I’m looking for a couple of programs actually. I hope that I can get my Master’s Degree, do postgraduate studies and come back to Afghanistan again to utilize that knowledge, to utilize that expertise again and use it here.
RH: Excellent. Good to go. For Americans or other foreigners who may not have had the opportunity to visit Afghanistan, can you please discuss what day to day life is like?
AM: It’s completely different from what you see in the news. Let me tell you one thing, my parents are still living in Iran because what they hear on the news prevents them from coming back to Afghanistan. This is what they hear – everywhere a fight is going on and they are scared to come back. This is what many of the Americans and foreigners hear on the news. I remember some of my colleagues, when they came to Afghanistan they were surprised at how life is normal in the country. Well, like any other country people have their families and enjoy their lives. There’s still difficulties compared to the life in Europe and the neighboring countries but still we have that spirit to continue and to improve the situation.
If you had asked this question a couple of years ago back in 2009 or 2010 I would have said it’s very normal for an international to step into Kabul, take a taxi, go wherever they wanted but it’s a bit different now especially in the recent couple of years – not because of the Taliban as a security threat but social security is a problem for them now. It’s not only about the Taliban but it’s about the kidnappers. It’s about the Afghans, the locals, who use this as an opportunity to get money from them. It’s a bit different in the recent years but we still see it as normal life. It has its own difficulties but by the time life is changing and security is getting worse – the economic condition is getting worse – we are also moving parallel to that. How can I say? We are getting used to these new changes and we don’t really feel that.
RH: How has the overall living situation changed from when you returned to Afghanistan in 2006 until today?
AM: The living conditions. Do you mean in terms of security or the overall change?
RH: I would say both, security and the overall change.
AM: Well, security has gotten worse. Security has really worsened since that time. When I came in 2006 we had a couple of explosions that really had a large number of casualties. A couple of years later we had that explosion beside the Indian embassy and Ministry of the Interior that led to the killing of so many people but they were not happening so regularly. They were once in a while, once or twice a year but since 2013 and 2014 – especially since 2013 when we had the news that the US and NATO forces are going to leave Afghanistan beyond 2014 – the security situation got a bit worse since then. We have had more regular attacks within the capital, the capital city of Afghanistan, so many complex attacks, suicide attacks and kidnappings of internationals, foreigners and Afghan locals who are working with the internationals. The Afghan businesspeople, the Afghan rich people, are also not immune. Security-wise, these are the changes in terms of security.
The overall conditions for life I believe all initiates from the security. It’s not that easy to stay in Afghanistan anymore. You see the trend of migration these days from Afghanistan to the West. The primary reason that people are moving is because of insecurity. While those people are economic migrants, it is the insecure environment here that has made the economy falter and weakened the Afghan economy. That has made life so miserable, so difficult for the Afghans. Many people are losing their jobs here. Especially since the beginning of 2015, many of the aid agencies have cut back. They have downsized hugely and that was the biggest incentive for so many of the Afghans to stay in the country because those were the agencies and the organizations that were offering the best paid jobs to the Afghans. Without them, life is getting more difficult for those people and being unemployed – this is a large number of people I’m talking about – being unemployed it effects the whole society.
You see the circulation of money, especially the foreign currencies, less in the country. The Afghani exchange rate is losing its value. It’s devaluating. These all are a negative sign to the Afghans. Well, the exchange rate is something that an economist would know, if it goes up or down, if it would be useful for the country or not but Afghans see that as a negative thing in the country. By losing its value, people will start questioning the legitimacy of the government and if the government has been successful in implementing its economic plans. That would make the overall spirit of life here a bit difficult.
RH: How do Afghans in general feel about the US and international presence?
AM: I divide this into two or three groups – let me say three groups. One group is neutral. They don’t really care what’s going on in the country but those are not really a large number of people.
But the two main groups, of course, have its opposites and its pro. There are a large number of people, especially the minorities, who have gained lots of opportunities after the US presence in Afghanistan and international forces. Minorities like Hazaras, like Uzbeks, they have got the chance to pursue their education and go to universities. There is still discrimination but at least there was a window open for them to go through. The door was open. They have chosen to use this opportunity, the US presence, and they have a kind of security during this time and they’ve progressed a lot. You see that nowadays Hazaras and Uzbeks are among those groups of people who have a say in the government, who can change the vote of a large number of people from one candidate toward the other. This is the political wisdom, the crowd wisdom and the political majority of the minority groups that were gained during the US presence in Afghanistan. These are the people who would like the US government to be here. They don’t want them to leave. Another group with the same ideology are women. Women are also the ones who have so much benefitted from the US presence here. These people do not wish US and international forces to leave the country but we still have the opposite side.
Except from the Taliban, except from the Islamic State affiliated groups there is that sense of extremism, religious extremism, in so many of the people. Let me be specific. Among Pashtuns, those are the ones who are against the US presence here. Many of them either have the same ideology as the Taliban or they simply think that the Taliban and ISIS are groups created by the US and the US is playing a game in Afghanistan and they should leave here. This is the simple thinking they have to not be welcoming the US forces in Afghanistan.
RH: OK. Interesting. Have you had any interactions with the US or international forces specifically?
AM: I have been working, as I said, in the field of law enforcement. Of course I have my international colleagues – not military forces but at the same time we have some interactions with NATO forces, some Americans. Yes, I’ve seen them not on a regular basis but at a couple of events we’ve had interactions with those guys.
RH: Are there, maybe, any specific Americans that you work with that you have a great relationship with that are worth mentioning? And you don’t have to use names if you don’t want to.
AM: Yes. I wouldn’t name them but in the organization where I work we have many people from different nationalities. I have my greatest colleagues from the US. We have a couple of years spent together in Afghanistan. Apart from the work, we have our social interactions. We are friends while being colleagues. We were attending different events. Those are some of the people that are really a model for me by the way they behaved, by the way they professionally worked and by the way they were actually sacrificing their life in Afghanistan for the improvement of this country. Apart from their personal interest to come to Afghanistan, I really appreciate what those people have been doing so far. To be specific, I have a colleague working with us. He left Afghanistan a couple of years ago and went to Pakistan, went to south Asia for other jobs but yes. They were great people that I was working with. There are still many of them that I know them, I’m personally working with them and those are the ones I will never forget.
RH: OK. Alright. Good to go. Are there any specific stories that you have of something in your work working with Americans that went really well?
AM: Yes. At the American University of Afghanistan I remember I initiated a soccer tournament on the campaign of anti-corruption. That project was joint because we were working with two different departments within the same organization but we were still friends. That friendship led me to think of such an initiative. We organized a soccer tournament between a couple of universities and media to include media to broadcast it as much as possible to disseminate that anti-corruption message. That was the joint program we had together. I initiated that. I took everything, took all the responsibilities and did it but it was, like I said, because of the relationship I had with that colleague that made me work with this project and we had a successful campaign. It was good. I don’t call it successful because of the massive corruption in the country but that was something at least that we could do as our portion, as our responsibility.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Could you please talk a little bit about the Taliban and what is their role in society?
AM: I only once faced some of them. It was the time when I came from Iran to Afghanistan. I remember I came to Herat with some friends, with some fellows. We took a bus. I was so crazy at that time. I didn’t understand the security situation in the country. When we were on the bus I was in a suit – I didn’t even have that local vest. I had some English books with me, I had my high school documentation translated into English with me and those could cost me my life. I didn’t know that. I just took the bus and I came.
I think that it was in Helmand that our bus was stopped. It was over occupied, the bus. In the corridor there were people sitting back to back and that was the thing that saved my life, I remember. I saw them stopping the car, they came up and they were looking into the bus. I was about to faint. I couldn’t understand anything. They were speaking in Pashto. I didn’t understand what they were saying. I was just asking the guy beside me and he was saying, “those are the Taliban. This is a checkpoint of the Taliban and I don’t know. They want to check the bus.” They came up. They had a weird look because they couldn’t come in the aisle. The aisle was full of passengers and they decided to let the bus go. That was my first experience with the Taliban and I was swearing that I wouldn’t go this way from Herat to Kabul, Kandahar to Kabul by road again. I wouldn’t try that again. That was the only and the first interaction I had with the Taliban group.
Their role in Afghanistan, well, they don’t have any role per se but they have some attacks to do and they are quite successful at what they are doing. To terror, to scare people, to make life miserable for the Afghans, this is what the Taliban has been assigned to do and they’re so successful in that.
RH: How do the Afghan people view the Taliban?
AM: You see, the Afghans are not all like me. I am just one of the Afghans. I consider myself totally different from many people in this country because of my religious view, because of my everything. People here are so religious. They don’t like the Taliban but they don’t really hate them as well. By saying Afghan people, we have to discuss it both religion-wise and ethnic-wise.
Talk about the Pashtuns. The Pashtuns are the biggest ethnicity in Afghanistan and don’t really hate the Taliban. They are from the same ethnicity and have a sense of sympathy with them because the Taliban are being killed every day by the American security forces, by the international forces. They have a sense of sympathy with them but the majority of Afghans – almost every Uzbek, every Hazara, every Tajik and all the minorities including many of the Pashtuns – hate the Taliban. They consider them as wild, savage, uncivilized, ungovernable beasts. This is what people call them every day on the social media. This came through the activities of people, of the Afghans, through social media and that is the perception I get through the community.
RH: OK. Have the Taliban made any legitimate attempts at governing?
AM: No. I remember after the civil war it was the use of force. They came to the country, they came from Kandahar to Kabul to the north. It was all use of force and during the time they governed in Kabul, I don’t see any legitimacy there. From after the US presence in 2001 in Afghanistan there was no such thing as a legitimate attempt by the Taliban. We just had this peace reconciliation negotiation for many years going on without any result and that’s because the two sides, especially the Taliban, doesn’t have any incentive and doesn’t have any interest to make peace, to contribute to forming the government. They have always continued their terror. They attack in the country to the civilians, to the international security forces and I don’t see any legitimacy from the Taliban side to govern or at least to take part in forming the government.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about the government in Kabul?
AM: The current government?
AM: This is the most chaotic election in the world, I say. Almost everyone, I assume, knows about the formation of the national unity government. We have this opposition group with Abdullah Abdullah being the candidate and then, based on political agreement and based on the mediation of the minister of foreign affairs of the US, this government was formed. But from the very beginning many people started to question the legitimacy of this government.
It’s been almost a year that they have been ruling the country but the overall perception of the Afghans toward this government is so negative. They don’t really like this government. They’ve had so many failures since they were not elected but since they formed the cabinet and that’s not even complete yet. We have the Ministry of Defense position vacant. The Ministry of Defense has an officer in charge. We’ve had, recently, the Director of National Security resign from his position. That position is vacant. It’s led by an officer in charge although they have already passed the duration that the law allowed them to be the officer in charge. They had to go to the Parliament and get the vote of confidence. That all passed. These are a few examples of how the government presented itself to the Afghans.
They had a great start, especially President Ghani, by addressing the issues of corruption and talking about the Kabul Bank scandal but later on, everybody was seeing that the government was really doing nothing. They cannot even solve their internal problems. They have two heads. We have a Chief Executive and we have the President trying to go forward in a parallel way. They don’t consent on any single issue and this is the government the people see in the country. This is actually the way they presented themselves. Nothing can be agreed upon by these two heads. It’s chaos. It’s complete chaos.
RH: Let me ask you this. Since you got back into Afghanistan in 2006, how has that situation changed? Has the government always been a little chaotic or was it more stable earlier?
AM: We had President Karzai, actually, for five years and then we had an election between President Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. There were the same issues of the previous election – Abdullah Abdullah on one side, Karzai on the other side. Doctor Abdullah was again blaming President Karzai for cheating in the election. It was a bit chaotic in the beginning. I don’t know exactly what happened but he suddenly gave up and President Karzai was announced as the elected president of the country but it was not stable. We didn’t have a sense of stability. Especially in the last years of his office, President Karzai actually raised the conflict with the US on signing the bi-lateral security agreement – the BSA. That really added to the chaos in the country. Parliament on one side, we had the Grand Assembly on the other side. Everybody was willing to sign the BSA with the US because everybody knew the aftermath and the terrible results of having the US departing from Afghanistan. The president decided not to sign it. They postponed it, postponed it, postponed it and then he left it for the new president. It was finally signed but that was one of the examples I can say about the chaos that the previous government led in the country.
RH: OK. You talked a little bit about this but can you talk about the role of women in Afghan society and has it changed at all since you got back in 2006?
AM: The role of women is not that strong in the country. Women are still the most suppressed group in the country but it has changed, of course, since 2011 after the US presence in the country. Now you see women taking part in elections. They become candidates for parliamentary elections. They take part in civil activities, they’re in media, they’re everywhere but still this is the picture we get nowadays from the women because it is mostly broadcast by the media. We shouldn’t forget that women are not limited to those who are living in Kabul. They have more or less a better condition compared to 2001, 2002 or 2003. Their well-being is so improved. They take part in many different activities. They get a job and study. I am living close to Kabul University and every morning I see many girl students going to the university. That’s a big change. That’s a big achievement.
But still it’s not enough because this hasn’t reached to the remote areas, to the rural areas – provinces. Not like Mazar or Herat which are the major cities of Afghanistan, in provinces we still have that situation for women that they had during the Taliban rule. If you go to the south to Jalalabad, if you go to Kandahar you rarely see a single woman outside their house. They’re all under burqas. If you see any of them, they’re at home. Like I said, if you go to Jalalabad or southern provinces like Kandahar where the Taliban still have power there or still the people, especially among Pashtuns, this is so common.
RH: OK. I know you said in Kabul there’s a little more freedom for women but is it just Kabul or are there other parts of the country where they have more freedom too?
AM: I said major cities like Mazar and Herat. These are the ones I visited. Women have the same situation as they do in Kabul. Well, it’s not that good in Kabul but comparatively compared to other provinces Kabul is much better. I consider Mazar and Herat the two major cities where women have more freedom and can raise their voice for their rights.
But there is an exception to this. I’m from Bamiyan. I don’t say this because I’m from Bamiyan but I say this because I’ve witnessed with my own eyes when I went with some of my international colleagues, some of the foreigners to Bamiyan. We had a trip there and were seeing that it’s totally different from every other part of the country. You don’t see women as free as they are in Bamiyan. Even a foreigner, a woman, the way they dress in their own country, when they come to Bamiyan they feel safe. Women feel safe. Women are given the chance actually to go to study, to work. I don’t know how that change was as a result of the US presence in the country. I’m sure that’s one of the elements that affected that but those people in the central highlands are the most flexible ones. Even during the Taliban they were not putting so many restrictions on their women at that time and they were the ones looking that were looking for the opportunity to give the chance for their women to raise their voices, to develop, to personally progress and make changes in their own lives.
RH: Alright. Good to go. So this is a big question and you can answer it however you want. Since you got back in 2006, what are some of the other notable events that have occurred aside from what you already told me?
AM: Events. By events do you mean something that led to something that developed? There were so many events, good and bad.
RH: Maybe some significant events that you were involved in or that you were involved in or that you have particular insight into. Or actually, let me put it like this. What are some of the significant events since 2006 maybe that someone from outside of Afghanistan might not have read about in the news or might not know about?
AM: Well, it’s a bit difficult if someone has not even had a chance to read about it on the news because notable events are normally highlighted in the news.
RH: Oh yeah. That’s right. [laughs]
AM: But there is something. The role of media in Afghanistan has changed a lot. We have more than forty TV channels, TV stations here. This is itself a big change. You hear that in the news but you don’t understand how this has developed since the US presence in Afghanistan. Freedom of speech I can give as an example. I can’t really think of an event that people haven’t had a chance to read in the news. Notable events are really noted [laughs] by Afghans, by internationals.
RH: But that’s actually a good one. You say that media has expanded. How has that expansion of media affected Afghan society?
AM: I see a lot because it’s not only about broadcasting different TV programs, it’s about changing the culture of the nation. Through the advertisements against the Taliban, against terrorism, against violence, I think we’ve had a couple of them that were so successful in that.
On women’s issues, we have TOLO news, we have Channel 1. These are the ones that have the greatest impacts in the perception of society. There is still a long way to go but that’s, I think, the most accessible source of information and source of news for the people. Those have been playing the role good enough so far. There’s still room to progress but I consider them as one of the main elements, one of the main factors that can bring the change in the country. Now even in the most remote areas of the country, people have access. They don’t have access to electricity provided by the government but many people in the rural areas at least they have solar panels. They can have electricity to turn on the TV to follow the programs, to follow the news and that, I believe, has had a major impact on the culture of the people so far.
RH: How do you feel about the withdrawal of US and international forces and the direction that Afghanistan is taking?
AM: It’s not a good time for the US to leave. At the end, finally, at some point Afghanistan should be able to stand alone but this is not a good time for the US to leave. Actually, international forces could leave Afghanistan much earlier but if they had that foundation for economic development, for security, if they have those foundations in place before they even plan to withdraw from Afghanistan, from the day when President Obama announced his plan to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan, we really saw a big change in the nation. Everybody was worried about the future and people are still worried about the future of Afghanistan for the time being. One major reason is what happens if US forces leave in 2016? This is the greatest concern of the nation and the government itself, I believe, at this time because it can’t stand alone. It cannot stand alone. We have the Taliban, we have now a new emerging group the Islamic State, ISIL, in the country. The Afghan security forces are not able to fight them, to control them. We witnessed the fall of Kunduz in the north that, without US air support, it couldn’t get captured and taken back.
But the problem is that it’s not all about having the US forces leaving the country. I’m not talking about when to leave but the question if they leave, what will they leave for the Afghan security forces? There is a plan to keep thousands of advisors but I don’t know if advisors are simply enough to train Afghan security forces. If that was enough, they could form the Afghan army, Ministry of Interior police and then keep a few thousand advisors from the very beginning and that could go on. But that’s not an option. If US and NATO forces have a reason to come to Afghanistan from the very beginning and if they leave Afghanistan at this time, Afghanistan will very soon go back to the first point of when the US came to Afghanistan. It’s a waste of fifteen years of trying in the country, wasting so much resources and money. Some people may think that the Afghan government might be able to control the Taliban not because of the efficiency of the government but because the Taliban does not have that power anymore.
I don’t want to be pessimistic but there are more problems for the time being. We have Taliban. They are still being supported by Pakistan, by Saudi Arabia in the country. They have other neighboring countries, Iran, having some interest in Afghanistan. The Syria conflict nowadays has really impacted the focus on Afghanistan but we see that Russia has an interest to now be involved in Afghanistan in different fields. They very recently said that they would negotiate a contract with the Taliban for the peace process. These are all the things that regional countries have, the interest of the regional countries in Afghanistan. I don’t say Afghanistan is a unique thing, that all are looking for something in the country but security in Afghanistan is not for the benefit of some other countries.
Also about the Taliban, they don’t have the power they had before 2001 but they are still being supported by so many other external factors, by some other government. The problem is that it’s not even IS. IS is the same group of insurgents arising from some groups of the Taliban or among the local people. The biggest threat for the country is the unstable government itself. It was right after the election when Abdullah said he would announce his parallel government to the government of President Ghani. Everybody was waiting for a spark for somebody to trigger the new civil war and without US mediation, we would have been really in trouble. We would have again been back to that era, I believe. We see that the government is still breakable from the inside and that’s one of the biggest threats. If the US leaves, it’s not only about the military, it’s not only about security forces. Without the US presence in Afghanistan, without US control over the government of Afghanistan, this government is not going to survive for long, let alone keeping the major cities of the country safe from the Taliban.
I don’t know if this is the right time to say this but it was a few days ago that we had the minister of defense, the US minister of defense, to Afghanistan and he openly announced that we are going to have, by the start of the spring, the fight is going to be more serious. He was actually saying that to the Afghan security forces but he said, “we will be with you.” Well, on one side he indicates to the Afghans that we are going to keep supporting you but on the other side he is giving that negative impression and really destroying the spirits of the Afghan security forces. At this time they can’t really imagine any situation worse than this. This is my perception of the withdrawal of international and especially US forces from Afghanistan.
And from the government of Afghanistan we’ve seen President Ghani urging the US to think twice about the withdrawal of forces from the country. The government at this time seems to be more interested in keeping more security forces of the US inside the country, it might be because they understand their lack of ability to control the country but that’s luckily what they want. But now it depends on the US government. If they want to leave, well, it’s their own policy. It’s the US – not only the US government but the whole of Americans – to decide whether they want to keep their forces in Afghanistan, whether they want to give more victims to be sacrificed in this country any more or not. But I see the cons, the disadvantages, the bad results more than the advantages of leaving the country at this time. At least the US should leave something for the country beyond some advisors, beyond some military equipment. The ground should be prepared for the Afghan government to take control of everywhere and then I think they will be able to leave.
RH: Alright. Good to go and thank you for that. I was hanging on to every word of that so thank you. We’re going to move on to some spiritual questions. Has the war or the last couple of years affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
AM: Of course war changes the life of all people. I was luckily not in the country during the war in Afghanistan but still we have that stress. We have that tension every day by hearing from the news about the suicide attacks, an explosion that was happening on any corner of the city sometimes very close to us – sometimes hearing the RPGs firing overnight until the morning. Those are the things that really sometimes make you think, “are you going to be that stupid to stay in Afghanistan forever? Don’t you want to leave?” There are so many people leaving this country and going abroad. At least they will have some sort of security. At least they will have some sort of calmness. They wouldn’t be living with all the stress going on here. It has its impacts on the overall spirits of society but I keep myself as an exception to that. I don’t really think that it has made me disappointed or dispirited. It hasn’t really changed my decision to be in Afghanistan to work for the country. If there is anything that would make me leave this country, it’s not because of the war or because of the violence going on, it’s because you see the government itself and the corruption. These issues are even more dangerous, I think, than insurgent groups like Al Qaeda or IS.
RH: Has the war or some of the violence or what’s going on in Afghanistan changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
AM: Well, of course I’m thinking more about life and death these days than I was five or six years ago. I’m really thinking more about that. Before I used to think of the other world, being a good follower of the holy religion of Islam, but it has really changed my view towards religion, towards life and death. Some values really changed because of all the violence that’s going on, not directly by war.
How can I say this? Let me first talk about the religion issues. Not directly affected by war but all the violence and all the fighting going on in the country – apart from the politics in the region going on – has something rooted inside the religion. By being extremist Muslims, by being so super religious, these people like the Taliban and groups similar to those have the potential of being killers of human beings. They justify that by religion. It’s not only about the Taliban that kill people, within the society you see the Afghans as extremely religious. It might not be to that extent that they kill people like they did with that – I don’t know if you’ve heard the story about that girl Farkhunda who was accused of burning the Koran and then she was killed by a group of men in the middle of the city – that has the potential of the religion to make people so violent. These things have really changed it.
I don’t indicate from that specific incident but from the day I came to Afghanistan, living in Iran people are not that religious. Religion is kind of a personal matter for the people among the society – I don’t talk about the government. But when you come to Afghanistan, Everything suddenly changes. You must be a religious person. You must be a good follower. You must be a Muslim. If you are not, you will be killed that easy. When you live in this society, when you live in this situation, you really question your own ideas, your own opinion. “Am I really following the right path?” That changed, actually, through the past seven or eight years of my life. I’m not only just being away from these people, it’s not just to hate this ideology, it’s also going against this society. I don’t want to be just stagnant. I don’t want this to happen to my people even if it’s at the cost of my life.
I remember I was once discussing some issues at the office. There were some e-mail exchanges among some Afghans and then I just jumped in. I stopped them from going to that direction. I told them that, “if you want to use social media for any opinion exchange, do it. Don’t do it within the office.” It was as simple as that. I didn’t insult anyone’s belief. At the time I received a threat that I would be killed because I am not a Muslim. I said, “I don’t care what you think about me and I don’t really care if you want to kill me for that because what I’m defending and what I believe is so valuable, so important for me, I’m ready for any consequence and you are most welcome to do anything you want but don’t ask me to be like you guys.” That’s a matter of life and death.
Going back to the matter of life and death, every day we expect to be killed in any of these incidents – in a suicide attack and everything. The thing that is important for me is why I am being killed in Afghanistan. If it’s because of working for some international organization, being friends with internet partners or even for my religious belief, if I’m killed for that then I’m not really scared of that. If it’s just simply being killed for something nonsense, well, I don’t want to lose my life for that but – how can I really say it? It’s a bit difficult to put into words but death has become much simpler for me. Having that religious ideology, following a religion will put it into a specific framework about the other life. But just being free, following nothing, not following a religion or something really makes you feel much easier about your life and death. I am here to live and bring change to the country. I am here to at least be part of the change in the culture of my people in the way people think in this country. If I am killed for that, it is most welcome. I don’t even think about after that. I don’t know if I could communicate my message or not.
RH: Actually, that makes perfect sense. Good to go. Thank you. Now I’m going to switch it up a little bit and shift gears. Since you got back in 2006, what are some of your happiest memories of your time in Afghanistan?
AM: Actually there are more incidents especially in terms of security that makes life a bit miserable in this country but we utilize every single opportunity that we can to be happy. We can get together with friends, celebrate some occasions like even Christmas, even New Year’s, that are not celebrated in Afghanistan. The Afghan new year. These are the moments that a group of people with the same ideology, with the same way of thinking. We get together and celebrate these moments, these events. I cannot name any specific one but those are the happiest moments we actually have with friends.
Apart from those, I don’t know. It’s very limited to some gatherings inside someone’s house, inside a restaurant. You don’t have any other place to go. After it gets dark it’s really not a good place to get out of your house. We still use those opportunities. These nights we have, three or four days ago, the longest night of the year. We call it Yalda. People use these opportunities to get together. They read poems and they use that opportunity to be one minute more together with each other. Those are the things we use to be happy. I can’t recall any specific memory that makes me think that this is the happiest day of my life in the country.
RH: Do you have any funny stories about how the Afghan people or people around you deal with everything?
AM: Well, it’s a bit funny and a bit bitter. Sometimes I laugh at that but sometimes it makes me deeply think about the way people deal with all these issues going on. I remember one of my colleagues who is extremely religious saying that we Afghans could tolerate all these massacres and killings because we are the good followers of our religion. We believe they were martyred during the war, though it was a civil war, and people were killing each other with no side being right or wrong – actually, both sides could be wrong but not both could be right – and this is the way that they sympathize with each other. They prostrate themselves that, “we will have a batter life in the other world.” This is the way that people cope with all these situations. That may be funny for some people but it’s both a bit funny and at the same time a bit sad to see people dealing with all these issues like that.
RH: OK. Do you have any funny stories about the Taliban? When I ask that, I mean do people ever make any jokes about the Taliban or do people ever make fun of them at all to kind of alleviate?
AM: [laughs] No, man. You can’t joke with the Taliban. You can’t joke with them. There’s nothing funny about them. Seriously, there’s nothing funny about them.
RH: OK. Because I know in the US sometimes people make a lot of jokes about the president and stuff when it’s about serious policy so I didn’t know if something similar occurs in Afghanistan.
AM: You know, when I see this I have, actually, the same idea of what my American colleagues have. Afghans lack a sense of humor. They don’t have a sense of humor at all. Jokes? It’s a bit difficult to be funny. You have to be very frank and directly point out some issues that seem funny to some people but Afghans lack that sense of humor. That could be one of the reasons they don’t joke about the Taliban but the Taliban is a separate issue. There’s nothing funny about them. There’s nothing really funny about them. It’s all about killing innocent people and we can’t have anything at them.
But let me tell you something. I was watching an animation last night. It was exactly last night that one of those creative animators have made. There were actually two guys, a child and one of those Taliban mullahs, who was actually brainwashing the young boy to explode himself to attack foreigners and then he’ll go to heaven. There will be four women welcoming him and four women will be for him forever. And then they suddenly explode them bomb when they hug each other and he goes to the other world. That was a bit funny with some songs – they call them revolutionary Taliban songs – with those songs playing in the background. That was making that a bit funny but let me tell you something, if somebody’s watching that video and you don’t look at it, you would think it was a bunch Taliban killing some innocent people, exploding somewhere, and you suddenly get scared. You really get scared. When you look at the video and you see it’s an animation and nothing, you will understand how that could be a bit funny. This is what I’m saying about the Taliban – there’s nothing really to joke about.
RH: OK. Good to go. My last couple of questions. We touched on this earlier but what are some of the common misconceptions that the average American or people outside of Afghanistan might have about the conflict and what the people of Afghanistan have gone through?
AM: Well, I think Americans, the average American is getting to know more about the Afghan society. I don’t know how an average American would think of Afghanistan. The ones I’ve met in the country are the ones who really know the society, are the ones who really know the Afghan people, the enemies and the day to day life in Afghanistan. But the average people, I don’t really have an idea of what ideas they have, what opinion they have in Afghanistan.
One common misconception is that if an American wants to travel to Afghanistan, as soon as they land in Kabul airport and they get out of the airport, everybody is a potential criminal, everybody is a potential killer, everybody is a potential kidnapper. That may be one of the misconceptions about Afghans. It’s not like that. Afghans, with all the violence that’s going on here and with all the bad things, even as we talk about ourselves, we have so many good things as well. The hospitality. Afghans, sometimes we blame Pashtuns for being the supporters of the Taliban. We blame the Taliban for being Pashtuns but those people in Jalalabad for example – do you remember earlier I talked about women’s issues in Jalalabad and how you don’t see a single woman in the streets when you go there? If you dress up like westerners, if you are in a suit, you will be really magnified there. You will be a bit differently treated from the local people and that endangers your life.
But at the same time, people, for example, in Jalalabad and many other provinces are so welcoming. They will have a sense of hospitality. It doesn’t matter if they are Afghans, if they are foreigners. I’m sure you have seen the movie Lone Survivor. You see one of the soldiers are rescued by local villagers and they will keep him until the last moment. They will fight for his life because he was his guest. Those are the really good things that you will see among Afghans that you may not see in any other part of the world.
RH: Alright. If you could communicate something to US policymakers as they think about their next steps in Afghanistan, what would it be?
AM: Well, I said Afghans are divided into two groups. Some people will let them go. They say, “you’re most welcome and now it is time to go.” But some people say, “hey. Stop. You don’t have to leave Afghanistan alone at this moment.” Those are the cliché answers one may think of.
But let me tell you something. The US policymakers are really aware of what they are doing in Afghanistan. They know their interests. Let me be frank with you. I as an Afghan may not be aware of US involvement in Afghanistan. They have a purpose. There is a regional conflict in the Middle East. The focus was on Afghanistan until a few years back. The focus is on Syria now and those could be some of the reasons for the US presence in Afghanistan and this region because of the superpowers of the world – because of Iran, because of Russia. But it’s very simplistic if you think the US is here only for Afghanistan. It’s not. They have their own interests to, as they say, make the world a safer place for everyone, to protect the citizens, to bring the front line of the war in this region. But thinking about the next step, I believe the policymakers are much more sophisticated than any Afghan political elite. Even our best guys wouldn’t be able to give a suggestion to the US about what to do.
What I would think of as a personal opinion is that, first of all, it’s not a good time for the US to leave. If they leave there is nothing to protect the minorities that don’t have the chance to stand up during the US presence in Afghanistan. Women will be the most vulnerable group by the departure of the US troops from Afghanistan. It shouldn’t be like that. US policymakers should have thought about this from the very beginning. They should have found the solution for this. If they want to leave, what they should do is to keep all the achievements they have so far.
If they want to do anything again in Afghanistan, one thing is to think of some permanent solutions for Afghanistan. Economic development, security establishment in Afghanistan – these will all vanish by the departure of the US from Afghanistan. It shouldn’t be like that. I know the US has, I told you, its own interests in Afghanistan but at the same time US policymakers have had more than a decade being in Afghanistan. I don’t know how the situation could be prepared for that. Of course they know it better but a permanent solution to the peace issues in Afghanistan, the security issues in Afghanistan, economic development, women’s rights – there should be something permanent established, a mechanism established to keep all these achievements that we’ve had so far. The US presence in Afghanistan might be, again, useful to them.
I’m one of those guys actually who likes and finds his interests with the US presence in Afghanistan. Without having them after, I don’t know, one more decade or something gradually leaving Afghanistan may actually cut the hands of some of the other countries in the region from Afghanistan. Having the US in Afghanistan doesn’t make Russia, doesn’t make Iran, doesn’t make Pakistan, India, China to be just silent, to be stagnant. They will of course have some interest about US presence in Afghanistan or withdrawal from Afghanistan. These are all the things that can be considered by the US policymakers if they want to leave Afghanistan, what would be the pros and cons not only for them but for Afghanistan, for the region. I don’t know. It’s far beyond my – I don’t know. I can’t really even make that suggestion but regional cooperation with the US being the lead maybe including Iran, Russia, China. This would be the permanent solution for Afghanistan. We can’t really ignore any of these countries and, at the same time, we can’t ignore the US not to be here. Without them it’s not going to be solved. With them there are going to be more problems again with all the regional powers in Afghanistan.
RH: If you could say something, maybe in general, to everybody in Afghanistan going forward, what would it be?
AM: I don’t know. It’s so difficult because this is a situation that I don’t know even myself what I am going to be doing the year after, even next year, one or two years later. I don’t know how my future will be.
One thing I would love to see Afghans doing would be to educate either inside the country or I prefer many of the young generation to go abroad to get their Master’s Degrees, to get their higher education post-graduate studies and bring that knowledge back to Afghanistan and try to communicate their learning, their knowledge to other layers of society, to the next generation, to the elders. This is, I think, what Afghanistan really needs at this moment – some elites among the Afghans, from the young generation, being educated and, maybe, to form the government in the next round of elections.
RH: Alright. Good to go. I have one more question but before I get there I want to backtrack a little bit because there’s one question I wish that I had asked at the very beginning of the interview. How do your parents or your grandparents and those from your parents’ or grandparents’ generations remember Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion?
AM: We nowadays blame mujahedeen groups for what they did in Afghanistan. We blame them for rising against the government at that time. Maybe they were thinking that they were doing something good at that time because of being so religious. At that time I am sure my grandparents thought that, “yes. They are fighting to defend Islam, to stop communism penetrating into the country.” But nowadays, if you ask every single man and every single woman who have been living in Afghanistan during the communist regime in Afghanistan, they would say, “we have seen the real Afghanistan.” They would say, “we have enjoyed the most beautiful times in Afghanistan.”
I just see pictures of them and I try to connect them to what my parents and what the elders say about Afghanistan. I see, for example, the most insecure province of Afghanistan, Helmand, was the province that had the majority of natural conservation in the country. It was a beautiful place for visitors, for the foreigners to come – and for the Americans. I remember one of my friends was saying a few days ago that his parents showed a place in Helmand that Americans used to live there, despite it was during the Soviet regime. We still had the Afghan government in place but at that time at least we had peace. We didn’t have this much violence but that was the beginning of all these conflicts in the country. I don’t say that was the ideal time for Afghanistan but that was the best. Because the situation got worse from there, that was a turning point for Afghanistan and those memories are remembered by so many people and everybody is really missing those times in this country.
RH: OK. Good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
AM: No, nothing. I think that you really put every aspect of that in all your questions.
RH: Great. Good to go. My last question is, since you returned in 2006, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of?
AM: Well, I said I came for a purpose to Afghanistan. Because I didn’t have the chance to study in Iran, I came back to Afghanistan. I’ve received my bachelor’s too late but that was one of the achievements I had. I’ve seen many of my friends who are much older than me and they are still proud of being able to go to the American University, study there, get educated there and I think that is one of the biggest achievements I’ve had so far.
Apart from that, the progress I’ve made in my job. These are all personal aspects of that but during a couple of years I’ve been working in different fields in Afghanistan and the most, I don’t call it achievement, but the things that I am really proud of are that I believe this is my odyssey to work for that organization with the thinking that being a member of this team, I’ll be serving my country. I’ll be thanking those people. I’ll be not disappointing those US soldiers who came to Afghanistan and lost their lives here. At least I’m thinking that they had something in mind when they came to Afghanistan. They had their own beliefs. They came to establish peace not only in Afghanistan but to save their families in the US. But at the same time they sacrificed their lives in Afghanistan. They did a lot for us. It’s really being dishonest if – I’ve had the opportunity to be a corrupt man. I’ve had the opportunity to do anything but just being honest with the perception of thinking despite all the challenges in front of us, despite all the massive corruption in Afghanistan, despite all the security issues in the country, at least I’ll be a small drop in an ocean trying to do good for the better of his own country.
RH: Alright. Outstanding. Is there anything else?
AM: No. I don’t have anything else.