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Some Afghans Dread The Departure Of Foreign Forces. Others See It As Liberation

A Black Hawk helicopter of the U.S. Air Force flies over Kabul in April.
A Black Hawk helicopter of the U.S. Air Force flies over Kabul in April.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Shugofa Nayebi recently divorced her husband, signed up for dental college and began working in a hair salon doing eyelash extensions to pay for her studies.

"I'm independent now," Nayebi, 32, says over the din of hairdryers and music in the Shabnam Salon in an upscale Kabul neighborhood.

But she's counting down the days until — she fears — her freedom will be lost. On May 1, American and foreign forces began scaling back troops and dismantling bases across Afghanistan, ahead of a planned complete withdrawal on Sept. 11. The date is symbolic because the 2001 al-Qaida attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., were the reason why the U.S. invaded Afghanistan two decades ago to topple the Taliban, who'd given refuge to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Now, Sept. 11 may take on new symbolism for Afghans.

Crowds at a street market in Kabul in April.
Rahmat Gul / AP
Crowds at a street market in Kabul in April.

For some, it will be the day when they'll finally see the backs of foreign intruders.

"When I heard on the radio that Biden announced a withdrawal, I was so happy — I couldn't cry or laugh," says Abdul Qader Sultani, a 40-year-old laborer who has lived on Kabul's outskirts since fleeing his village years ago following repeated night raids by U.S. forces.

For others, particularly urban women like Nayebi, it will mark the beginning of more difficult times.

"I worry that the Taliban will seize power when the Americans leave," she says. "The dark times we lived through before will return."

Nayebi is referring to Taliban rule in the 1990s, a period that her family lived partly through, until they fled to Iran. The Taliban shut down schools for girls and banned most women from working — even from leaving home without being accompanied by a male family member.

"Maybe they won't let me study," she says. "Maybe they won't let me work. They'll definitely shut down this salon."

Many Afghans and analysts expect the country to plunge into a deeper, more complicated conflict. The Taliban have stepped up their attacks across Afghanistan since May 1. They say they'll pause for a three-day ceasefire they've declared for the Muslim holiday for Eid al-Fitr, which follows the holy month of Ramadan.

For months, militants have been killing influential Afghans, including journalists and human rights activists. The U.S. and other Western nations blame the Taliban for some of the more than 700 targeted killings that occurred after peace talks between the insurgents and the Afghan government began last year, The Taliban deny involvement.

On Saturday, a series of bombs struck a Kabul school, killing more than 50. Most of the victims were female students. No one claimed responsibility for this attack, but ISIS has claimed responsibility for recent attacks targeting and killing Afghan women.

"It's a mess," says Michael Kugelman, the South Asia senior associate at the Wilson Center. "The violence has already been intensifying with foreign forces on the ground. But it'll get worse, I think, once U.S. forces leave, just because obviously you're not going to have the training, advising mission in place to at least put the Afghan security forces in a position to push back against the Taliban."

Even as violence surges, U.S.-brokered peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have stalled.

The Taliban have said they now support some rights for women that complement their deeply conservative interpretation of Islam. But those come with heavy restrictions, rights activists note — such as gender-segregated schools and workplaces. And local Taliban commanders in some parts of Afghanistan have been loathe even to allow minimum gestures such as the establishment of girls schools or allowing girls to study beyond grade six.

Maram Ataee, an 18-year-old who studies piano at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, is worried. The Taliban banned music in the 1990s, but "music for me is a reason why I can survive here in Afghanistan," she says.

When she wants to cheer herself up, she plays tunes by Ahmad Zahir, a beloved Afghan singer-songwriter who died in 1979. The Taliban destroyed his grave as part of their war on music, and what they see as un-Islamic culture, like venerating the dead.

If the Taliban try to crush music in Afghanistan again, Ataee says, "I will do our best to fight. It's the only way — we can't just lose everything we have worked so hard just to reach this level here in Afghanistan."

Others, like Sultani, the displaced laborer, are counting down eagerly. He comes from an area contested by the Taliban in the central province of Maidan Wardak and says his village was ravaged by American raids a decade ago.

"They smashed our homes. They shamelessly stared at our women," he says. "Their dogs attacked us. They killed some villagers. I sold my cow and four goats on the cheap, just so I could flee."

Sultani says he hasn't been back to his village in years, but when the foreigners leave, he'll return. So will Gul Rahman Durrani, a 57-year-old security guard in Kabul, who says American and Afghan forces blew up his home in the same province during a snowy winter two years ago.

Durrani says he was punished for providing food for Taliban fighters.

"I told [U.S. and Afghan forces]: You are one kingdom and the Taliban is another kingdom," he says. "When you ask me do something, I can't say no. And it's the same for the Taliban, because we are poor and you both are powerful."

Other Afghans hope the withdrawal will mark the day their country starts knitting itself back together.

Islamic law teacher Mawlawi Atta Niknaam says the Americans created a class of Afghans who depend on foreign aid instead of their own people. That will change, he believes: "Our government will be self-reliant. They'll have to work hard and roll up their sleeves."

Peace will be more possible, he hopes. "Afghans will have to come together and listen to each other," he says. "We will have to tolerate each other."

But at the same time, suggesting a deeper divide, Niknaam believes Afghans who want foreign forces to stay are effectively Westerners. That includes people like Shugofa Nayebi, who sees her freedom in divorcing her husband and supporting herself, and believes that freedom was possible because foreign forces helped keep urban areas relatively safe in their two decades of presence in Afghanistan.

Nayebi says those freedoms are dear to her. If the price of peace is the Taliban coming to power, she says, "I don't want to live in Afghanistan."

Khwaga Ghani reported from Kabul. Fazelminallah Qazizai also contributed reporting from Kabul. Diaa Hadid reported from Sydney, Australia.

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