August 31, 2021: 'Avoid the cleaning lady!', Afghanistan and the danger of the one-sided story
Update January 6, 2022: After publication in August, this story reached the top 5 of the most read foreign affairs stories in 2021, in both The Netherlands and Belgium
Tekst published in De Groene and De Standaard
Translation into English: Clare Wilkinson, Tessera Translations
Translation into Chinese: Lulu Ning Hui, The Initium.
Mualim Rahmatullah, an elderly man in his seventies, sat calmly in the hotel next to a high table covered by a white tablecloth, with porcelain plates, and a grayish-white silk cloth twisted into a turban resting in the corner. “Welcome to Kabul,” said the man whom I had come to speak to about how he had helped President Hamid Karzai gain power in 2001. I was alone in Afghanistan for the first time, doing research for my book about the transition of power from the Taliban to President Karzai. Mualim Rahmatullah was confident and welcoming. He treated me to Kabuli pilau, a rice dish that is widely eaten in Afghanistan. “I hope this gives you some energy after your long journey,” said Rahmatullah, something my father also often says when I return home after a long absence. After we had eaten, we spoke for hours about what had happened to him and Karzai in 2001.
The patience and openness with which Mualim Rahmatullah explained the situation and background in Afghanistan is exemplary for the country—because wherever I went, the vast majority of Afghans were equally welcoming. It was as if they raised the stage curtain and invited me to step into their lives and document their stories. This would be followed by, “Do you need a place to sleep? Can I drive you somewhere?” I even had to be careful not to compliment an Afghan woman on her earrings, because before I knew it, I would be given them. This Afghanistan gave me no choice but to pack my bags and move there. Over the past fifteen years, I have benefitted from this openness time and again, allowing me to give the best possible account of what has been happening in the country during this period.
After 9/11, Afghanistan remained surprisingly easy terrain for journalists to report on. Things got more complicated after 2014 in terms of security yet even then the Afghan interpreters I had to rely on because I don't speak the language were still prepared to risk working with me. It is hard to say who spent more hours conducting an interview. Like many of my international colleagues, I have never had reason to complain about the willingness of the NATO ambassadors, the colonels in the military camps or U.N. ambassadors to tell me their side of the story. Yet I was always impressed by how much time and effort my Afghan sources gave—it was unprecedented. For example, Afzal Khan, a librarian with a large newspaper archive, was so enthusiastic about my research that he voluntarily searched for all the Taliban newspapers I needed and even taught me some Pashto. Ahmad Issa, the son of an important businessman in the Kandahar region who was a key source for my second book, on Taliban leader Mullah Omar, escorted me all over the place. When I asked him about the mosque where Mullah Omar founded the Taliban, Ahmad eagerly drove me there. He was a trained doctor and had a passion for Afghan history which he also believed to be under-researched. He brought me everywhere without hesitation. “Welcome, welcome here. I think it's cool to be part of your research,” he said.
From the very beginning, even Taliban members such as the former Minister of Finance, Mutasim Agha Jan, the former Minister of Health Mullah Abbas or the former Minister of Justice Shahabudeen Delawar were willing to talk to me, including after the fall of their regime. They spoke to me about my book, but also extensively discussed their views on Afghanistan’s current affairs.
I remember how genuinely surprised I was by the accessibility of the Afghans. Because, to be honest, I was terrified when I first sat down opposite Rahmatullah in that chic hotel. While he was talking to me calmly, I thought, hasn't he brought a terrorist with him to maybe kidnap me? As he poured me some green tea, I felt wary and on edge. I remember walking into that restaurant while trying frantically to get my helmet out of my bag so that I would be prepared for any possible danger.
But it was hardly surprising that I didn't trust the Afghans initially. After 9/11, Afghanistan was always described in the international media as “the land of terrorists who stand for everything we do not stand for,” as U.S. President George Bush put it. Afghanistan was the country where 9/11 was conceived and prepared. In international photo-journalism it was portrayed predominantly as an ominous land. Rarely did you see anything other than victims of violence, preferably photographed in black and white.
Like many international colleagues, I had internalized that fearful image. It was the image projected by the military, which tends to see enemies everywhere. I still remember how a Dutch colonel who showed me around Camp Holland in the Afghan province Uruzgan suddenly yelled at me not to get too close to the restroom because that Afghan cleaner might blow himself up at any moment.
The contrast between the terrifying image of Afghanistan following the post-9/11 military intervention and what I gradually discovered about the country by talking to the Afghans themselves reminded me a lot of a TED Talk I discovered at that time. In it, Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi spoke about “the danger of a single story.” It's the story of how years after Nigeria's independence, Adichi continued to learn about her country's history at school from the perspective of the former British colonizer—texts about a country full of spectacular nature, exotic wild animals, and strangely dressed people who waged incomprehensible wars among themselves and were waiting to be rescued. It was only years later that she experienced a 'mental shift' when she became acquainted with the experiences of Nigerian writers who told a very different story about the country’s history and culture.
On that note, it became clear to me that many international media organizations were also caught up in a single story regarding the intervention in Afghanistan. Slowly but surely, my fear about Afghans gave way to confidence in their story. It changed my perception of the country and I began to stray further away from the narrative of Afghanistan portrayed by my international colleagues.
For example, there was the story that although the Taliban had been driven out surprisingly quickly after 9/11, they had entrenched themselves in border enclaves such as Tora Bora, adjoining Pakistan, along with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda. It was said they were therefore ready to strike back as soon as there were signs of weakening in the international military support propping up the new Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s regime.
The West’s battle continued in full force in the form of a manhunt for anyone suspected of being involved in 9/11. Within a few months, thousands of alleged Al Qaeda fighters and Taliban sympathizers were locked up, often in secret prisons where torture was permitted, for example in Poland, Egypt and most infamously Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
At the same time, the Americans were shaping the new government of Hamid Karzai. Governors and police commanders were selected mainly for their military qualities. They were mostly former administrators who had acquired a bad reputation in the devastating civil war in the early 1990s, and were ousted by the Taliban in 1994. They were now in charge of the new Afghanistan, supported by international forces who were ensconced in large military bases all over the country, ready to fight the persistent threat from terrorists.
Thanks to my conversations with Afghans for my Karzai book in 2007, I soon started doubting the existence of that threat. The rapid fall of the Taliban came not only through military intervention, but also by strengthening contacts with loyal power brokers and the tribal chiefs who play such an important role in Afghanistan. In particular, Karzai, who a few years earlier had opted for the U.N. ambassadorship on behalf of the Taliban government, knew how to nurture and use these contacts. After a violent start to the military intervention in which the Taliban had no chance, a massacre was prevented in Kandahar: in their own stronghold, the Taliban leadership decided to lay down their weapons and end the fight. Karzai promised that there would be amnesty for the Taliban, unlike for the Arab fighters of Al Qaeda.
After Karzai personally informed the major international news agencies of the Taliban’s surrender, he was corrected from Washington D.C. by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Karzai said Rumsfeld had called him and told him not to accept the surrender. “Al Qaeda and the Taliban remain our enemies. We will continue to send troops," saidSecretary Rumsfeld. Karzai allowed himself to be silenced by this display of power, and the news of the surrender disappeared within twenty-four hours and would never be mentioned again by the world media (The New York Timeswrote properly about this turn of events only twenty years later, after Taliban had retaken Kabul.)
With this denial, the military intervention soon became a war without an enemy. Driven mainly by the sentiment that 9/11 must be avenged, Afghans were rounded up on the slightest suspicion of connections to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Usually, for such a suspicion, a tip-off from the circles of the new Afghan rulers was enough. Such tip-offs became the way for those administrators to find an audience with the Americans for other matters that were more important to them. They would try to get monetary favors, or settle an old feud with rivals, and then tell the Westerners what they wanted to hear: “It's the Taliban, or Al Qaeda.”
I heard about dozens of cases where the blame was placed directly on the Taliban or Al Qaeda without any verification of these claims. For example, there was a story of a French U.N. employee in Ghazni, who was killed by a sniper. On the authority of the United Nations, the international press described the assassination as a Taliban-orchestrated attack. This even led to a decision that the U.N. would temporarily withdraw from that area, since the threat from the Taliban was too great. Years later I heard that the diplomatic circle in Kabul already knew in 2003 that the story of the French U.N. collaborator was most likely more complex. She ended up in the crosshairs of one of Karzai's powerful administrators, Assadulah Khalid, who remained a close ally of the Americans until 2021, but was also known for giving false tip-offs about the enemy. On another occasion Khalid attacked a U.N. convoy in Kandahar, on its way to visit his opium fields, and told the press that it was a Taliban attack. Norwegian Special Forces told me they also found suicide vests in his home in Ghazni, showing that he staged more attacks and pointed to the terrorists. In the case of the French U.N. employee, there has not been a proper investigation to date, but Khalid is accused of rape by Human Rights Watch. There is also the possibility of a crime of passion that was hushed up; Assadullah's wife is said to have sent an assassin to kill the French U.N. employee.
It seems likely that in the first five years of the War on Terror (and also after that) most attacks were instigated by “false reporting” as I call it. Many of these cases would never make it to the media. There was the story of the taxi driver Dilawar, who was driving with three passengers past the American camp in Khost when a rocket hit the camp. Based on the intel from their Afghan informant Jan Baz Khan, Dilawar and the three passengers were arrested by the Americans on suspicion of carrying out the attack. A walkie-talkie in the back of the taxi was sufficient evidence to send Dilawar to the torture prison in Bagram, outside Kabul, and the three passengers to Guantánamo Bay. Later, a U.S. source (not an Afghan source) leaked the story of the innocent Dilawar to The New York Times because it was one of the first cases proving in detail the cruel methods used by the U.S. government. The article describes at length the torment Dilawar went through. Dilawar did not survive ‘the interrogations’ in the torture prison of Bagram. The New York Times reported that his legs were so shattered that it looked as if a bus had run over them. Years later, Dilawar’s three passengers were released without charges.
To me, the most important part of that article is what can be read in only a sentence or two at the end. The informant of the US, Jan Baz Khan had launched the missile himself, and had identified the taxi driver and his three passengers as the perpetrators in order to collect the generous bounty for reporting terrorists. After realizing this, the U.S. government arrested Jan Baz Khan (I don’t know how long he spent in prison) and tried to hide these facts from Congress and the media.
Though the newspaper did not connect this to the systematic mismatch of the US presence, Dilawar was yet another victim of the ongoing threat of false reporting. The Dilawar case shows once again how the U.S. Army acted in haste and failed to check the intel coming from their biased sources. (These were sources whom the U.S. often refused to see as biased, but rather as ‘buddies in the fight against terrorism’, such as Asadullah Khalid, who was visited by President Obama in a hospital in Washington D.C. in 2013, when he was wounded in an attack.)
The story of the US ally Pacha Khan Zadran means to many Afghans also a long list of innocent deaths. The ideological Americans often let themselves being used to settle a family feud of their ally PKZ, as they called him. Many Afghans died before the Americans realized what Pacha Khan Zadran’s agenda was and how the U.S. had been played. In 2001 Zadran was instrumental in hunting down the Haqqanis, who then belonged to the Taliban, but had a rather independent role in eastern Afghanistan. Like the Taliban, the Haqqanis also considered surrendering. But Pacha Khan Zadran was their main personal rival, and had much better connections with the Americans. Since the U.S. and its C.I.A. hardly ever cross-checked their intel, it was easy for Zadran to intervene, and bomb a convoy with Haqqani’s who were on their way to Kabul to speak to Karzai. ( Steve Coll, though without sourcing, states in his book Directorate S. that one of the Haqqani’s ended up living in Kabul, and started discussions with Karzai. Coll does not mention the earlier false reporting incidents with Pacha Khan Zadran) . Many more convoys with personal rivals would be killed subsequently by U.S. airstrikes.
The more stories I heard about incidents like this—I am most familiar with endless amount of stories of false reporting by tip-offs from U.S. intel sources like the Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammed Khan, and the Kandahar governors Gul Agha Sherzai and Sher Mohammed Akhundzada —the more concerned I became about how easily Americans and other Western organizations allowed themselves to be dragged along by false information. For them, the world after 9/11 was very clear. The stance of "you are with us, or you are against us" that President George Bush had taught the international community also applied to Afghan society as far as America was concerned. In Afghanistan, you could only belong to the “good guys,” or to the “bad guys” and therefore to Al Qaeda or Taliban. As a result, the Americans failed to realize that the daily lives of ordinary Afghans revolved around completely different things.
For most Afghans, 9/11 was an event which didn’t really affect them. It bore little relation to their own lives and many did not hear of it until months later. The fact that international troops came to Afghanistan in response to 9/11 to catch the culprits was not seen as a threat by most of the population. After all, those few culprits were mainly the Arabs of Al Qaeda; according to my sources, the Taliban had not been aware of Osama bin Laden's plans. For them, the question was whether the Arabs were still in the country or were hiding in the border region. They even hoped that the arrival of the Americans would bring good things to their country where life had been so hard in recent years. After all, mighty America was seen as a magical country with good intentions, whose people would use their power to bring some of their prosperity to Afghanistan as well. Some Afghans were sure that the streets of New York were genuinely paved with gold and hoped their land could share in that wealth.
That hope was not answered. Instead of helping Afghanistan economically, the Americans' focus was almost entirely on the hunt for ‘terrorists’ (whether truly guilty or not). The average Afghan civilian remained just as poor. In fact, the terrorist hunt often resulted in collateral damage among innocent people. A war economy arose around the international troops. Informants, interpreters, administrators and guards became increasingly aware of what the Americans wanted from them and realized that they would be well paid for this.
They became the “good guys” for the Americans, the Afghans who were trusted more than the rest. But the Americans were largely oblivious to the agendas that these people had. Because often there were simply no terrorists, but there was an interest in the bounty system for terrorists, which encouraged Afghan people to follow their private agendas. In the Americans' need to take revenge, the threshold for someone to be considered a terrorist was very low. The Afghan administrators were able to quickly adapt to what the Americans wanted—twisting the truth so that they could profit from the hunt for the so-called enemy. All you had to do was tell the Americans "there's one" and they went for it. Often the victims of this false reporting were competitors in the same war economy rather than actual Taliban or Al Qaeda.
Ex-officer Mike Martin described this process from inside out as a political advisor and Pashto speaker working for the British Army. He also saw the British allegedly go to war against the Taliban, while noting that the ‘insurgents’ were in fact rivals of the tipster. Blinded by their obsession with the Taliban, the British military failed to see that they were allowing themselves to be exploited by the profiteers of the war economy. In his book An Intimate War, he describes this mechanism and shows a historical pattern. In the nineteenth century too, Britain deployed its army in Afghanistan without regard for the dynamics of Afghan interests. The British lost the struggle and according to Martin, the same happened during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union were fighting their ideological battle in Afghanistan.
It should therefore come as no surprise to anyone that the Taliban—who were mostly forced to flee to Pakistan—returned after an absence of about five years. Around 2005 they started organizing again into what would soon become a deadly insurgency, also killing thousands of innocent people. A Taliban financer in Dubai told me how easy it was to recruit new groups of Afghans. "We didn't really have to do anything. The resistance sprouted up like mushrooms." This started a vicious circle in which more and more international troops were sent to Afghanistan to counter the growing Taliban. And so the Americans got the enemy they wanted. After years of struggle, it is the same enemy from which they are now fleeing.
Besides the thousands of casualties, the Americans and their allies have not achieved much in this War on Terror despite all the invocations of President Biden. The truth is that probably only the Taliban can prevent Afghan territory from ever being used as a base for an attack along the lines of 9/11.
I write these sentences with tears in my eyes. Of course, it is primarily the U.S. administration and its international allies that, led by vengeance and blinded by rage after 9/11, turned Afghanistan into an unnecessary battlefield, partly because of a lack of compassion and ignorance of the history, culture, and age-old customs of the population in that country. But my years of journalistic involvement and presence in that battlefield have also forced me to question the role played by international media, especially the major American and European news agencies, television stations and newspapers. Because what if in all those years they had sought out a wider range of sources for their war reporting, and not relied so unilaterally on the generals, diplomats, and other spokespersons and representatives of the War on Terror? What if they'd taken the trouble to speak to all those ever-willing Afghans a little more often and shown that the country was so much more than a breeding ground for terrorists. What if they had considered the indications that the Taliban had in fact surrendered very quickly, and examined the chances of a domestic Afghan political agenda in the face of the international War on Terror aimed at encircling the defeated Taliban? What if the international media in those early years did not automatically attribute every attack in Afghanistan to the Taliban without even asking Afghan sources about the actual circumstances?
What the international press has done is very similar to the Nigerian history that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi absorbed when she was young. The Western news consumer was told the same “single story.” Ngozi Adichi warns that stereotyping takes away all dignity from people. It emphasizes how different we are, and not how similar. It drives people apart, it creates misunderstanding and conflict. If there is one country experiencing this right now, it is Afghanistan.