Tabish was born and raised in Afghanistan. His father was imprisioned by the Taliban for being from a region of Afghanistan that was not loyal to the group. After graduating from Kabul University, he worked for the Afghan National Olympic Committee and the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. He is currently a Fulbright scholar studying at Seton Hall University.
Tabish’s article in Foreign Policy can be found here.
Interview conducted on June 30, 2016 in Bryant Park, New York City
Present: Richard Hayden and Tabish Forugh
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Tabish Forugh: My full name is Tabish Forugh.
RH: Where are you from?
TF: I am from Panjshir, a city northeast of Kabul, a hundred and twenty miles from Kabul but I have grown up in Kabul and studied there.
RH: OK. What is your current role?
TF: I’m a Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan studying at Seton Hall University. I’m doing my master’s. It’s my second year of international relations with a focus on diplomacy.
RH: OK. What was Afghanistan like when you were growing up?
TF: Actually, it’s a pretty complicated question because I’m twenty-nine years old by July 16th this year so almost I have lived my whole life in a country where war has been a consistent phenomenon. I have grown up in war while the civil war was going. Then the Taliban ruled the country. And then of course post-9/11 the country was stable, at least in the big cities. But still a war is going on there. So it’s not easy to describe a country with so much pain and sorrow, of course, because it’s war. But I have lived through all these difficult years but I have had good times to call it a better period than before which is the post-9/11 Afghanistan where we had the time to go to school, get connected with the world.
RH: Alright. What the government like in the period from when you were born to before 9/11?
TF: In 1991 the Afghan government – almost 1992 – the Afghan communist regime collapsed. The mujahedeen who were supported by the western countries and especially by neighboring Pakistan, they took power. Unfortunately they couldn’t manage to govern the country. The infighting started and a brutal civil war was waged. Sixty thousand Kabulese citizens were killed and the country was devastated. Literally there was no central government in the country from 1992 to 1996 when the Taliban took power. Of course, the way the Taliban governed was neither a democracy nor a human way of governing the country. It was brutal. It was an ideologically driven system and it was entirely barbaric. If somebody wants to the tell you how the Taliban ruled the country, just look to the current situation in Syrian and the way Daesh is ruling the territory in Raqqah or in cities in Iraq and other cities in Syria.
I cannot call it the government but the way they ruled the country was extremely unique to their own ideology and their way of governing. The people were suppressed, deprived, excluded, discriminated and we could hardly breathe as free people which was something hard to do.
RH: Piggybacking on that, how did the people feel about the government? Actually, two-part question. How do people feel about the government before the Taliban and then the Taliban?
TF: In the very initial days, the very beginning days of the Taliban takeover of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, people thought that this group might give a chance for the people to live peacefully because the mujahedeen and the warlords were ruling the country based on their own patronage of power in the corner of the country. So, people had kind of a perception that they might be a uniting force for a divided, fractured country. That’s why that when you read the history, in the very initial days of the Taliban takeover in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, people welcomed them actually because they thought that they might give a better opportunity.
But that was not the way. It turned to be a more brutal scenario than the government before that. Of course, when you compare it to the post-1979 government of the communist regime, the lawlessness, the decentralized system of power and, of course, the islands of power based on the warlords in the north, south and east of Afghanistan, that was very complicated because during the Soviet supported regime a central government was in place. Of course a rebellion was going on but the government was capable enough to deliver the basic needs of the people. After the collapse of the last communist regime, things totally changed. You can call it entire chaos, full-scale crisis and mismanagement and disorder.
RH: What was the relationship like between the warlords and the ethnic groups at this time?
TF: It’s interesting. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Pakistanis supported jihad – quote-unquote jihad. It was inaugurated as a project supported by most of the western countries and the money was going through the intelligence networks from the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and Pakistan as a main channeling spot of this support. But of course the people were not happy with the Soviet Union. They were feeling that they have been betrayed and their system of beliefs had been confronted with the new communist ideology. That’s why a genuine anti-Soviet sense was going on. But that was very small in scope. So once it connected with the regional and, of course, international politics in a broader picture, it got worse because money was pumped in. The rebel groups were receiving arms. They were receiving stinger missiles and of course they got empowered. So you have these networks and suddenly a central government that’s collapsed with no pre-plan, with no plan for consequent management of the crisis after the collapse of the communist regime. So the government was actually shaped or they agreed to have a kind of government between the Islamic parties in Pakistan and they moved to Kabul but they couldn’t accommodate all Islamic forces and they had their own ambitions. And of course Pakistan is a main supporter of these factions and was pursuing its own agenda. They influenced the process and things got worse.
The question that how were the relations between the ethnic people and these warlords, most of these parties were first ethnic and then ideological. You know that we are a multi-ethnic country so these warlords were using the money from the sources that they got to empower their own ethnic militias. In a lawless vacuum, all these warlords fought their best to get their own share of the power and resources. That’s why that post-mujahedeen period turned into the beginning of a civil war along ethnic divisions and sectarian, even, which sometimes was not so harsh at the time. But you could see that there were the Shi’a parties supported by Iran and the Sunni militants supported by Pakistan. This was the dynamic of the post-mujahedeen period and the relations between the people and the warlords.
RH: Got it. Let me back up a little bit. Maye this would be a question that you could answer for your parents or your grandparents. How do people in Afghanistan remember life before the Soviet invasion?
TF: Afghanistan was a peaceful country but, of course, extremely poor. There was a monarchy that ruled the country for forty years. That was not ideal by any standard. Had the monarchy had their own plans and executed their plans promptly for developing the country, we could have avoided all of this chaos post-1979. But the only thing which you could call a good thing about the period was that the country was not connected with the regional problems. Islamization was not something on the peak. The way that the people practiced their religion was more calm. The government was a secular system running its own agencies.
Of course, one ethnicity ruled because the monarchy belonged to a Pashtun dynasty, and the other ethnic groups were deprived and excluded from the system. But still, the surface was fine. The country had relations. Kabul was a destination for tourists. People were going to universities. The last decade of the monarchy has been called, in Afghan contemporary history, the decade of democracy. It was a sign of slow and steady progress of the political parties in which the people were trying to practice the very initial sentiment of being politicized in a way which people can respect each other. Looking into history you see that the communist party and their fans and their followers were demonstrating in Kabul one day and the other day the Islamic groups and then the other day the pro-monarchy people were demonstrating. So the social/political dimension was peaceful, not violent, but it was not going in a way which could avoid the post-Soviet Union circumstances.
The cousin of the monarch arranged a coup and he toppled the king so the first republic was established. The president was wavering in his political positions, leaning toward America then toward Russia – not Russia, the Soviet Union – and then towards Saudi Arabia. These were all the signals that the country might go in a direction to be hard to control. But the only thing, the last point in these questions, that the Afghan politicians were able to manage the locality of the politics at least peacefully or without major violence. But let me be clear, it was not an ideal democratic system. It was an absolute monarchy enjoying full authority and access to the resources and to legitimacy while in the rural areas the people were struggling to have their very simple needs met.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
TF: I was in Kabul. I was a student in Istiqlal High School which is the most popular school in Kabul. It is a French lycée constructed by the French education system. But it was the Taliban reign, the Taliban ruling. I do remember that when I heard about the news, it was the morning. We went to school. Our professor, who was ideologically influenced by the Taliban system, came to the school and said, “Thank God the infidels were attacked,” because the Taliban were heavily manipulating anything in the curriculum. They had their own system of teaching. It was not education by any standard. It was totally a system of madrassas, mostly Islamic religious texts with a fundamental narrative of Islamic values. Maybe someone would call it a Salafi/Wahhabi version of Islam which were educated by the Taliban education ministry.
So I was there in Kabul. We heard from the only news outlet of Kabul which was the Radio Sharia – the only and state-owned radio. It was how I heard about the news. We were in Afghanistan and my dad was very recently released from the Taliban prison. He was in prison for eight months just because we were not from the same ethnicity that the Taliban were. As I told you my father who was born in Panjshir, a valley that was the center of resistance against the Taliban, and they accused my dad that he is assisting the anti-Taliban movement. That’s why they put him in jail for eight months.
For me it was a sense of relief. I could feel that, OK, something huge happened. Let’s hope that this government would collapse because I was seeing my dad from the outside of the Taliban prison on the other side of the bars. I could feel as a kid, as a teenager, I was sensing that something is going to happen.
RH: So then what was the period between September 11th and the US invasion in October like?
TF: Of course you know that a movement of resistance was going on against the Taliban in northern Afghanistan led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan commander. He was killed two days before 9/11 by the two terrorists – Arab terrorists. The only ground forces which could stand against the Taliban and which could stop the Taliban from gaining the whole territory of the country was that small anti-Taliban movement. Now as I read the books, they had contacts with the international community – especially with the Russians, Iranians and Indians and including a few of the CIA agents and, of course, offices. That gave them a chance to get support from the international community and of course the anti-Taliban coalition led by the United States and the UK started bombing the country – started bombing the Taliban stations and their powerhouses, let’s call it.
So the period before the new government – from December 2001 when we had the first interior government, the interim government – it passed so quickly because the Taliban were on the run. People were feeling liberated after five, six years of the brutal rule of the Taliban and it was a sense of joy and happiness for most of the people who felt the brutality of the Taliban with their own selves.
RH: How did you react to it? Did you have a similar feeling as everybody else?
TF: As I told you before, I had grown up in an educated family. My dad and my mom both had a master’s. They had studied outside the country so my family environment was quite anti-Taliban. The imprisonment of my dad multiplied our anger against the Taliban so my reaction was extremely good because, as I said before, I was thinking, OK, they had done something very huge. They harbored Al Qaeda and other terrorists and they attacked one of the world’s superpowers – the only remaining superpower, let’s put it this way. So I could predict, not very clearly, but I was expecting something big to happen. My reaction was to welcome any change.
RH: Let’s move up to the US invasion. What was the US invasion like? When did the US enter Kabul and what was that like?
TF: The first bombing started on October 7, 2001 but the first troops to enter Kabul were the Northern Alliance forces led by the late General [Mohammed] Fahim who was the commander of the forces at the time. So the people were going on the street, welcoming the liberation troops. But later on with the establishment of the interim government we had the ISAF forces – the International Security Assistant Forces. These were the very few battalions who started to secure Kabul. They were patrolling along the streets, they were interacting with the people and people were extremely happy seeing a different kind of rule by different people for a different environment where they could have the chance to express themselves.
It’s funny. People having the chance to shave their beard. The Taliban had a very strict way of sharia law imposed. The women were banned from school and from going outside their homes without a mahram or someone very close to their family. So after years of seeing Kabul in that brutal environment and, of course, with the Islamic morality police they had that were enforcing the Islamic or the sharia law, you could feel that, OK, the people were going to the street. They were shaving. The hair salons were full of people. They were just waiting in line to get shaved.
So this was a very memorable moment for the people of Kabul. I’m sure the same was true about people who were under the Taliban in other cities too because they felt the same level of suppression and brutality and barbaric way of governing the people.
RH: Do you remember the first time that you saw US forces in Kabul or interacted with them? What was that like?
TF: I think I was in the tenth grade at school. It was post-9/11. Our school principal, he managed a tour of the students – maybe sixty, seventy students – to a camp of ISAF forces in eastern Kabul. This was the first time that we were going from the city to see international forces. They warmly welcomed the students. I do remember that we had a very good lunch with them. They were giving books. Freedom magazine was distributed with three languages – Farsi, Pashto and English. For us it was very good. We were seeing that, OK, something different is getting published because the only news outlet in paper was the government publication. It was extremely, of course, for the Taliban. Nothing useful in that. So that magazine was something better. So my first interaction with the international forces I don’t remember but I’m sure it was the multinational camp forces people – especially from French forces because we used to speak a little French that we studied as a foreign language in school. So we interacted with the French soldiers and that was an interesting memory.
RH: How did life in Kabul change after the US invasion?
TF: I think it’s changed socially, politically and economically. Socially, we feel liberated. We had the chance to express ourselves, to talk about whatever we want, to tell whatever we want, of course to discuss any topic that we desire to talk about. This environment was unprecedented in Afghan history because you could hardly tell a Talib soldier something that was even very correct because it was hard to interact with them. They were inaccessible to people, extremely brutal. The social change was that the space was open. We felt that we are no longer an isolated country. People would hear, as we were listening to the Afghan television which was our only news outlet at the time, that the international community was there and that they were supporting Afghans in making the constitution and new institutions and, of course, supporting the Afghan kids to go to school. And socially this openness was something huge.
Politically a brutal regime was replaced by a broad-based interim government which had the chance to include all political parties, all ethnic groups for the first time in the country to share the power in a way which was hard to expect just a few months ago under the Taliban rule.
Economically, we were a poor country. The United Nations World Food Programme was distributing food and the people were working to get wheat to feed their kids. So now with the international troops, a job market was created. People were getting busy with the construction projects and the supplying of international forces project. This was bringing a circulation of money and, of course, increasing the expectation of the people and giving a sense of something called prosperity and something is there besides a dry loaf of bread. It was a change in full scope.
RH: How did your family react to all this?
TF: We were happy because my mom used to teach at a girls’ school before the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996. My mom started to go back to school. My older sister who was banned from going to school under the Taliban and did home schooling, she got the chance to go to school again. It was a change. We were seeing the kids go to school and the girls, too. So my family’s reaction was extremely different because we had part of our family there in northern Afghanistan with the anti-Taliban movement and we had another part of our family, like the rest of the Afghan people, migrated to Pakistan. They were coming. My cousins and my aunts and my uncles, some of them were coming back to Kabul. It was a reunion, a moment of happiness and hope. We could see the future that signals a different prospect than what we had under the Taliban.
RH: When did you come to the US?
TF: I first came to the US in 2012 with a leadership program with the State Department. Then I had a fellowship in DC with the National Endowment for Democracy in 2014. The third time I came with a Fulbright scholarship in 2015 and I’m going to be here until 2017.
RH: OK. Moving ahead from September 11th from 2002, 2003 on, how did things continue to evolve?
TF: It depends from which perspective you see this. From an Afghan perspective, we were gaining confidence in a government which was receiving huge support, financial means and, of course, military support from the international forces. It was creating hope for the Afghan people. Institutions were being built. Schools were open – the university got opened – and so were economic institutions. There was a huge jump of GDP growth. By 2008, 2007, Afghanistan had more than ten percent GDP growth per year. Of course, now understanding how the economy works we do understand that that was a fake jump but at least something huge was happening in the country. Migrants were coming. Afghan National Forces started to train and employ and hire new cadets and new people. The police forces were given the chance to run the country.
The freedom of expression was something that was very huge. The Afghan media was something that we can proudly call an achievement of the post-9/11 occupation. A dynamic civil society, by Afghan standards of course. When we are talking, we are not talking about France and Switzerland. We are talking about Afghanistan having institutions working and trying to increase awareness, women’s rights, human rights. Of course some talks were going on about transitional justice and the way we deal with the past. A new layer or a new group of Afghan elites were on the rise. People were very eager to get educations. Their standards were changed. Very cautiously, I can call it that a transformation was happening.
But from an international point of view, Afghanistan was the centerpiece of American foreign policy. Al Qaeda should have been defeated, dismantled and disrupted as the policy outlined in the United States. The international community was eagerly supporting the international conferences and they were holding a summit on Afghanistan how to empower the Afghan people to live in their own country.
At the same time, the Taliban were on the run but after 2004, a reemergence of the Taliban directly linked with the money, intelligence and resources of the Pakistani intelligence networks were again rising in some parts of the country. So it’s a mixed picture. You cannot portray that as black and white. Good things were happening; bad things were happening too. As I pointed out, the good things were the things we felt as a transformation but the thing that shouldn’t have happened was the reemergence of the Taliban. The war that could have been ended in 2003 was prolonged. The Americans got involved in Iraq toppling another dictator in the Middle East. Of course, as a student in politics and history in the Middle East, I do believe that toppling Saddam was an interesting thing but of course the crisis after that rechanneled or kind of changed the way the Americans were engaged in Afghanistan. Afghanistan became a forgotten case in the Bush administration. That’s why the regional players – including Pakistan – were emboldened by this forgetting of this agenda by US policymakers and they were more engaged in supporting the Taliban and weakening the Afghan government in Kabul.
RH: Since 2001 for you and Afghanistan as a whole, what are some of the specific, notable events that occurred since 2001?
TF: For Afghanistan we had the interim government and then we could have had a loya jirga – a grand national assembly – which provides the consensus among Afghan people to establish a transition government. We had elections. We had civil society organizations and we had education. These were the notable achievements of the Afghan people as a whole.
The second part was personal?
TF: Our family was changed because my elder brother started working with the Afghan government and then with the international organizations, with the UN. So economically we were in a much better position. And then we had the chance to travel outside of Afghanistan and see the world, get educated and, of course, study languages which was something notable for me and for my family.
RH: After your initial meeting with ISAF and throughout the years, did you interact at all with US forces or international forces and, if so, what were those interactions like?
TF: Right after the graduation from school I went to college. I went to study in Kabul University. But once I graduated from Kabul University, I started working as a journalist. I was the news editor for a daily. Then I joined the Afghan National Olympic Committee which offered me a huge chance to work with international institutions for the Afghan athletes traveling outside Afghanistan.
After 2010 when I joined the Election Commission of Afghanistan, the US diplomatic mission in Kabul was heavily involved in supporting and offering financial support to the Afghan electoral process. My interactions with the internationals and including the American friends, in a professional context, started after 2010. We had USAID as a big donor and the United States was paying a huge portion of the electoral budget and, of course, we had international advisors working with different parts of the electoral commission advising and training and supporting, technically, the institutions. So at least after 2001 I was professionally engaged with American friends in Kabul and, once I came to the United States here for my education, with the academic institutions.
RH: OK. Great. Know what? Let’s go ahead and jump right into it. You talked a little bit about it but can you discuss and expand on your work with the IECA [Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan]?
TF: The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan is the constitutional body governing and conducting elections in the country. I joined the commission as a spokesperson but later on, after a year of working as a spokesperson, I got the chance to get hired as Chief of Staff and join the policy team of the commission.
Working with the election commission was a huge experience because the very first elections in the country – the 2004 presidential, the 2005 parliamentary and the 2009 presidential elections – were conducted by a joint commission by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and the IEC, which stands for Independent Election Commission. In 2010 for the first time, the process was led by Afghans. Afghans were responsible for holding parliamentary elections. That was a hard task to handle because we had the international presence down. Our advisors – the numbers were squeezed. We had limited advisors helping us and at the same time we had the chance to train more Afghans.
Conducting an election is a huge task. You have to hire at least eighty to a hundred thousand people across the country for the polling stations, the polling sites, the trainings, the public outreach, campaigners and, of course, the support staff in the provinces. That was a huge task for the Afghans. The turnout was incredible. However, there were claims of fraud but obviously, in a country like Afghanistan, it’s hard to conduct an ideal election. But that was good by the Afghan standards – at least much better than the 2014 elections.
RH: Alright. What were some of the challenges to free and fair elections?
TF: Conducting an election directly links to good governance. Unfortunately we have been among the failed states for the past two or three decades. So the dysfunctionality of the institutions in the capital and across the country in the provincial centers offers a chance for the provincial power brokers – warlords and ethnically influential figures – to manipulate the elections, to misuse the resources and, of course, to stop people going to vote.
Culturally, the practice of elections – the way we conduct it and the way which we were doing it with our international partners – was unprecedented. Afghanistan had never had such kind of elections. Still, the religious fundamentalists and extremists were campaigning against elections. They thought that that is a Western value and is not fitting their way of life and their lifestyle or ideology. So the threats were so high.
Working for the election institutions was very dangerous. We have lost our colleagues during the operation of elections. The Taliban were extremely against elections and calling that a western idea which has no roots in their Taliban way of life. So the challenge was enormous. A similar history is not there. The government was not strong enough to enforce the law enforcement institutions and the judiciary. It’s very complex.
When you have a failed or failing government or state, it’s hard to expect that you can do a national project and process perfectly and properly. It’s not happening in any part of the world. But the only thing which was very promising is that the people have the sense that, OK, if you want legitimacy the you go through elections. Instead of fighting through guns, they were now fighting to the vote. They were trying to urge their supporters to go and to participate and to vote. The women’s turnout was incredible in a country of limiting traditions and cultural restrictions. But the practices were good. Still, there is a long way where we can get to the point to call it a perfect election.
RH: OK. Can you talk a little bit about the role of ethnic groups in the election and how that dynamic has affected elections since 2001?
TF: Unfortunately, ethnicity is a very strong factor in any deal in Afghanistan whether it’s politics, fighting for resources or legitimacy. People are hardly convinced to vote for a proper, qualified candidate based on merit. They vote based on the relations of the clan and tribe and their ethnic lines. That’s why that in the Afghan parliament or even during the presidential elections, you see that the people are urging their own close ethnic groups to vote for them. You see most of the ethnic leaders in Afghan parliament. That’s why part of the dysfunctionality of the current Afghan parliament or the previous one is because of the fact that people, unfortunately, didn’t vote according to wisdom. Exceptions are there but those exceptions are rarely making a change in a huge country where everything is defined by how you attribute and how you associate yourself with what or with which tribe.
RH: Do you think that the Taliban will ever have an interest in participating in electoral politics?
TF: Categorically and fundamentally they are denying any democratic rule and democratic system which offers an equal opportunity for all Afghans. They are authoritarian with dictatorship tendencies and ideologically driven ideas and notions of government. I don’t think that they would do it soon. I don’t think that they would do it in the far future.
RH: OK. What are some of the things that the IECA has done or is currently doing to promote electoral education?
TF: Right before the 2014 elections I was fired by the Afghan president so I’m not inside the institution now to see but as a civil society activist where I try my best to increase awareness about electoral reforms and the need for that, I wrote pieces for international magazines including Foreign Policy on how to save Afghan democracy. For one of those, that is the title. I focused in that piece on how we can empower Afghan institutions to do that.
Unfortunately, the crisis of the 2014 presidential elections and the way that they failed to lead the system, to lead the process, discredited the institution. According to the timetable the Afghan parliamentary elections should have been conducted last year but still nobody knows when it’s going to happen. But if you want me to explain how the IECA was conducting the public outreach?
TF: I will tell you that we had provincial offices permanently. Of course, the number of people working for us were increasing during the operation. We had public outreach offices, we received support from the Afghan education ministry, from the Ulema council of the religious leaders because as I explained before, having Ulema supporting a national project is extremely important because the low level of publicity and the way they influenced society makes it impossible to run it alone so you have to have them on your side if you want to succeed in campaigning for a better system. We used to have their support. Schoolteachers, professors of universities and, of course, the elders of communities across Afghanistan were helping us in awareness. We have conducted an enormously large media campaign across Afghanistan to pay for advertisements, TV advertisements, papers and magazines. We managed to use all possible tools to reach to the people and tell them that voting for the constitution is a fundamental right and if you want to change something in a better way, you have to vote.
Of course, the barriers are so huge. It was hard, as I explained, the ethnic politics, the politics of greed and the way that the patronage of the social patterns are designed and shaped based on the tradition give you very little space and room to do something meaningful in a short period of time. It’s a long process.
RH: Before I move on, is there anything about elections or your work with the IECA that I left out that you would like to address?
TF: I think the international community has invested so much in these institutions. They have paid and, living in the United States, I do now know in a better sense what the taxpayer money is. That money, those hands, was the taxpayer’s money of the people in the western countries. There was a genuine sense of conducting something better by the Afghan partners but the world shouldn’t abandon the desire and the expectation and the democratic expectation of the Afghan people. We stood against the Taliban. We stood against religious establishments who were challenging the tolerant system of democracy. So abandoning a people who had the courage would have very dire consequences for the region and for the world – especially at the time when extremism and fundamentalism is on the peak.
RH: This leads right into my next question. How do you feel about the drawdown of US and coalition forces?
TF: Unfortunately, it’s going to change many things in the country. The achievements that I told you before are huge but fragile. For maintaining those achievements and for keeping those gains, the Afghan government is still incapable of managing it alone and to manage its own self. Of course, no rational politicians and no rational elite would tell you that American forces or any international forces would stay in a country forever to lead and to govern and to help them. One day you have to get out of that country. The public opinions are not in favor of that, I admit it. The taxpayers are not willing to pay their money there but at the same time we have to remember that treasures were there. I mean, treasures of blood and money were spent in that country, especially by the United States people and government. So the drawdown of forces directly affects the capability of the government in securing, sustaining and stabilizing the country. Extremist forces – the warlords and the regional networks of terror like Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network – would find another opportunity and would use the country as a sanctuary as they did in 2001 to attack the western capitals. What’s happening in Brussels, in California or in any part of the world is not without link in Afghanistan or Pakistan or Syria or Iraq because it’s a trans-border network of terror.
So we have gained these things. If you totally drawdown forces then it’s hard to imagine that things would stay the same way. Luckily, there nearly four hundred thousand Afghan security forces are on the battlefield. In contrast to the Iraqi forces who abandoned their posts and let the Daesh terrorist groups capture the big cities like Mosul and Fallujah, Afghan forces bravely and proudly stood in the face of regional terror to defend their territories. Nearly four thousand Afghan National Security Forces died last year in direct confrontation with terrorist groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda. It means that there is potential to stand against the global threat of terrorism in that country. If the world doesn’t fight this war in this generation, unfortunately we’ll all have to fight it in the next generation. That’s why the drawdown of the forces should be rational, responsible and predictable.
RH: Good to go. You might have addressed this already but what is the greatest challenge that Afghanistan is facing today?
TF: Security. A rebellion by the Taliban, a proxy war which is directly linked with the powerhouses in Pakistan, Islamabad, Quetta and, of course, the regional networks including some of the Arab countries who have shown huge sympathies to the Wahhabi narration of Islam are supporting those terrorist groups. So the biggest challenge is how to overcome that.
The next challenge would be how to make sure that the people will at least have a loaf of bread in their houses when they go back home. It’s hard. Economically the country is facing so much challenge because with the drawdown of the international forces, the people who were indirectly working with these troops are now unemployed. Afghans are making up the second largest population of migrants to Europe after Syrians. They are not leaving the country because they love to live in Europe. No. They leave the country to live somewhere where they can find something for their kids – security, a roof to sleep under and a piece of bread to eat.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Have events in the Middle East over the last four years since the rise of ISIS or Daesh affected Afghanistan and, if so, how?
TF: Unfortunately yes. We are very linked to the consequences which happen in the Middle East because in a broader sense we are part of the Middle East culturally and even territorially. Daesh is gaining a foothold and footprints and have tracked their footprints in eastern Afghanistan. A huge operation by the Afghan government is going on in the eastern part of the country.
Let me just put it this way. Millions of uneducated, extremely radical Islamists are living in capable or failing states are in place in both Kabul and Islamabad with a difference. In Kabul the government is not intentionally supporting these groups but in Islamabad, using the proxy forces or the jihadist forces is a tool of foreign policy. So in such circumstances where you have free, very cheap soldiers available, any terrorist groups – particularly like Daesh or the so-called Islamic State – with the huge resources of the money that they have, they can simply hire an unemployed and radicalized Islamist to fight for their cause. This is happening in that part of the world. Luckily the recent decision by the United States president which allowed the American forces to target the Daesh posts in the country is extremely helpful for that. So it is really affecting not only Afghanistan but, in a broader sense, it’s affecting Pakistan too.
RH: Interesting. Alright. So we’re going to move onto some spiritual questions now. Has the war affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
TF: Had the Taliban not been toppled, the way that we were receiving education was extremely harsh, was extremely radicalized, and I have no doubt that not only me but my brother and the boys and friends who we were studying with could have been potentially radicalized because the way that they designed the education system was a madrassa system. It is the same way Daesh and Al Qaeda are educating kids in Yemen, Syria and Iraq with their harsh narrative of Islam, intolerant view of the world and, of course, very aggressive manner to live.
The openness which I recalled moments ago created an opportunity for me to not only reconsider how the world works but to reconsider how I can get access to better resources of religious texts. So having a better understanding of religion has helped me to know the history of practicing Islam in that part of the world. You know that Rumi Mawlana, the great philosopher of the thirteenth century, moved from Afghanistan to today’s Turkey. His thoughts were peaceful thoughts of practicing Islam while a Muslim could peacefully live with the Jew and with the Christian. They can go to synagogue, they can have lunch in the mosque, they can go on a Sunday afternoon to a church to listen to music. This kind of spiritual religion was something that was very deeply rooted in the religion of that part of the world. Unfortunately, the politicized version of religion brought a new and very harsh way of practicing that.
I do believe that the Afghan people are not the way that has been defined by the media. We do practice our religion but at the same time we don’t know that, in a tolerant world, you have to live peacefully with the world and this the basic thought of any religion. I have no doubt that no religion generates terror until the point that it is politicized. Look to the history. Christianity was a peaceful religion – and is – but once it got politicized, many people died in Europe. The 1948 politicized Jewish religious identity in the Middle East cost thousands of lives in that part of the world. I do believe that there should be space. We should differentiate how religion works in a private zone and how our social lives and, of course, our legal system of government works differently, properly, according to rational laws.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Has the war changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
TF: Definitely, yes. Because in the war that I have lived, it’s hard to see the future. You feel that it’s so imminent, very near and right next door. A blind rocket might hit your bedroom and you will never see again your sister and brother. Living in peace gives you the chance to plan not for today but for the future and for the years to come. So you plan to have an education, you plan to have a career, you plan to save money to make your own business, to go for a vacation somewhere and rest and love traveling. In a consistent status of war, these things won’t happen.
I’m sure that even in today’s country, at the moment we are talking just a few hours ago, one hundred and fifty Afghans killed – police cadets – on a morning in Kabul. They were very young – my same age. So had the country been in peace, they could have one day been the generals, the leaders of the country and their families would have had a beautiful Eid which is coming in a few days – a great religious festival in the Muslim world – but now they have to mourn. They have to welcome the coffins of their young kids.
RH: That was this morning?
TF: This morning.
RH: OK. I haven’t heard about it yet. I have to go home and check. Alright. What were some of the spiritual challenges that you faced during the war?
TF: In war what you have is just to pray. When nobody can help you, you always reach to someone who is above us and we have no choice but to say, “OK. Let’s hope that God will help.” So that’s why in peaceful countries where stability and peace is something consistent, the people are probably less religious because they don’t feel the need. But once you are under attack? Supposed that you live in Raqqa or live in Kandahar, Kabul or somewhere in the world under the war, you have no choice but to spiritually make sure that somebody is taking care of you and let’s see what’s happening. So you give yourself a sense of being in peace but outside your own circle, that is not true because a violent movement is going around. Rebels and militias are holding guns and they can do whatever they want.
RH: Alright. I’m going to switch it up a little bit. Do you have any funny stories about the US occupation?
TF: Unfortunately I have grown up in a family where we don’t remember very many good, funny stories because the seriousness of my dad as a teacher, professor and debating politics, I cannot recall a funny story. But I have very good memories of living in the United States. I lived in DC. I lived in San Diego and, of course, now I’m living in New Jersey which is close to a big city like New York here where we’re talking. Unfortunately I cannot recall a funny story.
RH: Here’s a question for you then. When you first came to the US, what were some of your thoughts and feelings and how did you contrast it with your experience, or life in general, in Afghanistan?
TF: Luckily that was not my first visit outside the country. I had visited over forty cities while I was working with the Olympic Committee of Afghanistan. So I had already experienced how the world works and how peace is a meaningful thing to the world.
RH: What were some of the cities that you visited?
TF: I have visited five, six cities in Turkey. I have visited most Asian cities from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur and from Frankfurt to Lithuania to Paris so I have been very lucky with traveling. Those experiences were so huge.
Of course, coming to the United States was something totally different because it was my first time visiting a country which its politics, its military engagement and its civilian engagement changed my life and the life of my family. So that was an interesting experience. I do remember that it was November 2012 during the presidential elections in the United States. I was with a team of electoral observers on an observation mission which was the reelection of the current US president Barack Obama. We visited seven or six states including a few swing states like Florida, Ohio, New York. So that was a very interesting experience. Of course, things were entirely different. You have a functioning democracy, a strong government and a tolerant society and a free society – something which we don’t have there.
RH: What are some of your happy memories of the US?
TF: The fellowship I got from the National Endowment for Democracy is a very prestigious scholarship for democracy activists around the world. When I found myself there in DC among ten prominent democracy activists including a former president from Ethiopia, a few opposition leaders from Burma to Azerbaijan and Russia, I felt extremely proud to be a part of that team to engage with them, exchange with them and, of course, network and impact. That was a very happy moment for me and the moment that I heard about my acceptance in the Fulbright scholarship was also a very good time for me.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What are some of your happiest memories of living in Afghanistan?
TF: I’m blessed by having a huge network of friends and colleagues. In a country like Afghanistan where having those big networks matters one day – especially if you are politically involved. That is my achievement, to have such a network of friends working inside of government, outside government, civil society activists, professors at universities and, of course, those who I can trust if one day I work for a political cause. They can be trustworthy friends, colleagues and partners in any effort which I might do.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I move onto my final couple questions I just left one out that I wanted to ask. Can you talk a little bit about the role of women in Afghan society and how it’s changed since 2001?
TF: We have nearly seven million kids going to school and luckily almost half of them are girls. My oldest sister is a nurse working with an Afghan military hospital and my younger sister is a sculptor studying fine art. I have grown up in a family where my dad equally respected and offered the chance to me and to my sisters and, of course, my brother. I do believe that if we want to develop Afghanistan, if we want to secure Afghanistan and if we want to have a better country, we have no way except to empower women – educate them, empower them and offer them the opportunities in which they can flourish their abilities and their ideas.
Unfortunately in today’s Afghanistan, especially in rural areas, it’s hard to change the mentalities in a male-dominated society. It’s a long way ahead to get to the point where the Afghan men can offer those opportunities to their women. Luckily things have changed and transformed since 2001 because of the education and engagement and the support of the civil society and the projects which are funded by the international community including the United States. But still, the achievements are fragile. We have to make sure that we have a government offering the same opportunities and preserving the rights and the dignity and the integrity of the Afghan women.
I’m not pessimistic but I’m not excessively optimistic too. That would be a boyish optimism if I were to say that things are wonderful. Things are not wonderful. There is a very consistent threat by the Taliban, by warlords, by the mentality of male-dominant society and they are feeling those abuses on a daily basis in their lives. So as an Afghan man, I do at some points feel ashamed and embarrassed of having a society where we don’t all have the same opportunities – by “we” I mean the men and women. That should change. That should change eventually and we should all work for that cause and idea.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about the conflict and what the people of Afghanistan have gone through?
TF: All Afghans are not sharing a violent, radicalized vision of extremism or Islamism. This is a misperception. In the West we feel that the Middle East is a place of nomad people, a place of people with no better understanding of the world – at least the common people, not the elites. Of course the elites who study who know the history, who are deeply engaged, they do have a better understanding that the Middle East was a place of culture, civilizations and history. I think this is the first thing.
The second thing about the perception of Afghanistan is that we always see a violent face through the media because good news doesn’t make it into the news. The Taliban are not the entire Afghan people. They are a tiny, radical people – terrorist people – who have ruined their country and who have stood against the will of their people. They have hijacked the people across Afghanistan because of the incapability and dysfunctionality of the government but it would never mean that the people of Afghanistan have very serious and genuine sympathies towards the Taliban. However, there might be a group of opportunists and community leaders who offer them shelter and who supports them but it cannot be translated into the entire Afghan people’s support for the Taliban or, even, the Pashtun support to the Taliban. Talibans are not Pashtuns. They are a proxy force with a terror agenda antagonizing the Afghan people, the region the world.
RH: Good to go. You actually touched upon this a little bit earlier but if you could communicate something to US policymakers as they think about their next steps in Afghanistan, what would it be?
TF: A very complicated question. Actually, in my last semester for my statecraft class, I wrote a policy recommendation comparing the policies of the Bush administration and the Obama administration. I think it’s very relevant that foreign aid is paralyzing any country including Afghanistan. We have to have plans for smart investment where people can stand in the short-term, mid-term and long-term to lead their country and to offer opportunities for their fellow countrymen.
Afghanistan’s problem is not a domestic problem. If I would have the chance to tell this to the US policymakers – and luckily I have had this opportunity to talk with people in policy in DC and I have told them clearly – I would once again tell them, “Let’s see Afghanistan in a regional context.” The terror networks are not in Afghanistan. It’s outside Afghanistan. You have to pressure the owners of the terror networks, the powerhouses of the networks, and their financial supporters to stop funding terror in Afghanistan.
The other thing, in a state of of decreasing the forces very rapidly, I would urge the policymakers in DC to keep the level of troops at least at ten thousand people and to make sure that these are the guarantors of stability in that country. We don’t want the American troops to fight for us, once again, in the battlefields. They have sacrificed for us and we are grateful for their sacrifices. We don’t need them again on the front lines but we do need them as supporters, advisors and trainers for a predictable period of time to make sure that we can run that country and are not letting again the terrorists to reemerge and reorganize and recapture the country because it’s a common threat. It’s a global threat.
So having the mentality that terror is a global phenomenon, we have to remind ourselves that we all, in the western capitals, have a responsibility to stand against them. If we are not standing in Fallujah against Daesh, in Afghanistan against Daesh and the Taliban, we have to confront them next door in our big cities. So we in our rational thinking is that we have to empower our local partners in our war against terror. We have to make sure that functioning governments are capable of delivering the basic needs of the people. They can offer employment, they can offer basic health services, they can offer an independent judiciary system and education to the women particularly and, of course, to the men. So these would be my policy recommendations.
RH: Alright. Good to go. If you could communicate something to Afghans going forward, what would it be?
TF: Never rely forever on your international friends. Of course they have helped you very much and we should all be grateful of that. But we as a nation should invest to increase the capabilities of leadership, of investment, of entrepreneurship, of education to make sure that we have our country and we are a reliable, trustworthy, peaceful partner in the international community in the long war against terror and in our journey for the future.
RH: Alright. Good to go. This is a big question. Do you see a way forward for peace and, if so, how do you foresee it coming about?
TF: Very tough question. We are almost for four decades in conflict. It’s hard to imagine that things would change overnight but reaching a peace – a just peace, not appeasement because you can make a deal with terrorists and give to them and appease them and conceal the achievements that you have gained and they are ready to come and get it. But a just peace where people feel that they have not been betrayed is hard to negotiate. We have to have this commitment, strength and vision to communicate and to negotiate peace. We have to convince the regional countries that a peaceful Afghanistan helps regional stability and would increase regional integrity and coexistence. I think we have to convince the regional countries, we have to communicate with international partners and we have to help Afghan people understand that peace and support of peace is the only way to solve this dilemma. War would never be an option but the terrorist groups, the opposition-armed groups, should be militarily defeated if we want to make peace. If not, it’s really, really hard to reach your peace deal because nobody would make a peace deal with a weak government. A negotiation table should be in place, the peace talks should be open but at the same time we have to use legitimate force to make sure that our opponents are fearful of our rational decisions for securing our people.
RH: Good to go. Before I get to my last question, I want to backtrack a little bit. You talked about your father was in prison under the Taliban. Aside from his interactions, did you have any interactions with the Taliban and, if so, how did they go?
TF: We lived under the Taliban. I do remember that I was a teenager and I had to because it was obligatory. We had to have a turban, a very long thing, to turn around on our head. It was the dress code of the Taliban. We couldn’t grow our hair long. Of course at that time I had a beard but I had seen Taliban face to face. Their morality police in the streets were brutal. You had to go to prayers five times per day with no excuse. No matter if you were a kid, a teenager or a young adult, you had to go. So I have faced them many times on the streets, in the school and while I was visiting my dad and while me and my brother were going to the corrupt courts of the Taliban to process the files of my father’s release.
RH: Are there any specific stories that stick out in your mind? Any notable stories, I should say.
TF: Once they lashed me for not going to the prayers. I was riding a bike crossing a mosque. I didn’t know that it was a time for prayer. They stopped me, the morality police, and they lashed me and they forced me to go and to take ablution and then start praying. They were extremely brutal people. I will once again repeat, if somebody wants to know how brutal they were, go and ask the Syrian people under Daesh. They are two sides of one coin. Similar ideology – of course different ethnic sympathies but same worldview. They are sharing the same stupidity. So they are the same thing. If the Taliban were version one, Windows One of terror, Daesh is Windows Ten. But still they are the same Windows.
RH: Alright. Perfect. So my last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your work in Afghanistan?
TF: I worked for democracy. I stood against the extremist version which has dominated or which is used by some of the religious leaders in the country and I stood for democratic values, for freedom of expression and for having civil society and a better country where all Afghans equally – with no discrimination, with no exclusions – can have access to power, legitimacy and resources. So I have contributed as my own part for a country which I have envisioned to live in. Thank you.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else?
TF: No. Thanks.
RH: Alright. Thank you!