In Afghanistan, a collapse of hope

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Boston Globe on August 19th. The situation of the Afghans interviewed here has been in flux since the Taliban takeover. We’ll publish an update with a followup to their stories in the coming days. 

KABUL — The girls in their uniforms and crisp white headscarves cheerfully entered the front gates of the school as the early morning sun rose over distant mountains on the edge of Logar Province.

It was July 28, and a teacher with an iPhone captured, in a gallery of photos and a video, the calm procession of students into the Mohammad Agha District school, a beacon of hope and academic possibility for young women which has a long and deep connection to a New England family and to the attacks of Sept. 11 20 years ago. It was the first day back at school after closings due to a dramatic surge of COVID.

On that day, anxiety over the virus lingered but the graver peril and uncertainty around what would become of Afghanistan after the US withdrawal of troops felt comparatively distant. The Taliban fighters were steadily advancing, but in more remote districts, outside of Kabul. The ominous clouds that were gathering over Afghanistan, and eventually around the school itself, were not yet visible and the principal, Shima Sadat, a strong, sturdy woman, expressed nothing but resilience.

“We are not afraid. We can’t be. We have to move forward,” she said.

The principal’s confidence would soon be shattered, as would America’s and the world’s, as the Taliban’s advance and the Afghan government’s collapse proceeded at a lightning pace few had thought possible.

On Aug. 12, the school grounds would become part of the battlefield, according to Sadat and the teacher who shared images of the students entering school. A firefight erupted between the Afghan security forces at a checkpoint at the entrance to the school and Taliban militia. Heavy caliber bullets shattered windows and pocked the plaster walls of a classroom. The teacher with the iPhone sent photos of the blown-out windows along with a curt and powerful caption about the lesson of the day: “In today’s school: war.”

Shima Sadat, principal of the Mohammad Agha District school, stood in front of a teacher and student at the school in Logar Province, Afghanistan (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

The abrupt transformation of the school grounds into a makeshift Taliban base stands as a stark emblem of what has happened across the country. It reveals just how precarious and perilous is the future for girls’ education in Afghanistan, despite assurances from the Taliban leadership that they will not impose the same harsh restrictions on women and girls as under the previous Taliban rule, from 1996 to 2001. Now as the Taliban return to power and take up control of the Ministry of Education, it is not hard to see why so many are despairing about what the future holds.

In texts via WhatsApp and brief conversations in broken English over crackling phone lines, Sadat was desperate last week, fearing for her own life and the lives of her 984 female students from first grade through 12th and all of her teachers, who are mostly women.

“Everything is changed. Just like that. It is all over,” Sadat, 45, said Wednesday, speaking through a relative who offered to translate.

After 20 years and the longest war in American history, it is glaringly apparent that all the money and all the sacrifice made over the years seem to have done virtually nothing to stop the Taliban’s return to power. Now the fate of the country is hanging in the balance amid a shamefully chaotic retreat by the United States.

Sadat’s resilience has descended into despair, and a direct, personal plea: “We are no longer safe here. We do not know what will happen to our girls and to their families. You know us. … Please do not leave us alone here.”

In July, students returned to school after a COVID-19 shutdown in Logar Province, Afghanistan. (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

I have known Sadat and the staff at her school for many years, and spoke directly with her on a reporting trip to Afghanistan at the end of last month. I first connected with her in 2006 when the late Sally Goodrich, who worked in the North Adams school district, and her husband, Don Goodrich, a lawyer, traveled from their home in southern Vermont for the opening and dedication of the school in Afghanistan’s Logar Province. It was built in memory of their son, Peter, from Sudbury, Mass., who was killed on Sept. 11, 2001, aboard the United Airlines flight out of Logan International Airport that crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The Goodrich family raised nearly $250,000 to build the school because they felt it was the way Peter would have wanted them to respond. In a glass case inside the principal’s office is a photograph of Peter and a copy of an English-language Quran that he had read carefully, driven by a passionate interest in comparative religion that grew out of his undergraduate studies at Bates College. “He was always curious, a student of the world,” his mother once told me.

Twenty years ago, Peter was a 33-year-old software engineer living in Sudbury and recently married. He was traveling to California for work when he boarded United Airlines Flight 175 out of Logan on the crisp, beautiful morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The plane became the second one to crash into the twin towers. Immediately after the 9/11 attack, as the United States headed for war against Al Qaeda, which claimed responsibility, and set out to topple the Taliban regime, which had provided sanctuary and support to Al Qaeda, I was dispatched by the Globe to Afghanistan on Sept. 19, and was one of the first reporters on the ground in the aftermath of the attack. During my years with the Globe and periodically after, I covered the conflict across Afghanistan and then in Iraq as the US diverted its attention to a new front in the Global War on Terror.

Returning to Afghanistan on this trip, I wanted to be there just before the final pullout of US troops and, as it turned out, just before the stunning collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces amid the swift return of the Taliban to power. During this reporting journey from July 21 to 31, with only seven days actually on the ground in Afghanistan, it seemed to many there that Kabul, ordinarily a noisy, bustling place, had taken on an unusual and unsettling quiet. It felt something like a sharp drop in barometric pressure, the sort of drop, it would turn out, such as occurs before a Category 5 hurricane.

My hope was to get an on-the-ground assessment of where we were at the bitter end of this war and on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I interviewed Afghan youth about how they saw their future, and spoke with a group of three entrepreneurs, one of whom described why he was supporting the Taliban. I spent time in local newsrooms with Afghan journalists who fear that the Taliban will strangle the nascent independent media in the country. I received briefings from government ministries and US and Afghan military officials about all that was unfolding. Not one of them predicted this stunning collapse; indeed, all of them felt it was extremely unlikely. Their views mirrored the intelligence assessments that were coming out of Washington that estimated as much as 18 months for the end of this war to be achieved and a political solution — perhaps an uneasy power-sharing government — put in place.

Mohammed Nasib, founder and executive director of WADAN, a prominent Afghan nongovernmental organization which focuses on youth education and local democracy initiatives.(Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

My base in Kabul was with the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, WADAN, a prominent Afghan nongovernmental organization which focuses on youth education and local democracy initiatives. The American funding for the school in Logar was distributed through WADAN. The school itself is under the administration of the Afghan Ministry of Education.

WADAN is a hive of local political activity tucked into a well-guarded neighborhood of Kabul, and the place was buzzing under the leadership of its founder and executive director, Mohammed Nasib. Nasib, 57, has a vast network of Afghan government officials and local elected village leaders, known as “maliks,” with whom he works closely. People constantly come and go from the compound with its walled garden and welcoming atmosphere. It is a place where long conversations are measured in seemingly endless cups of tea served from a silver tea set while visitors sit on thick, Afghan carpets. The people drawn to the place offer unique insights into almost every corner of the country, and every level of society. They are farmers and glass blowers, politicians and teachers, government officials and a dedicated staff that cooks and cleans and still joins in daily prayers in the garden alongside Nasib. There is, too, always a steady stream of talented, educated young people who represent the new generation of Afghanistan.

Three young entrepreneurs

One afternoon, three young entrepreneurs gathered for lunch at the Tashabos Educational Organization just down the street from WADAN, where student apprentices are given the skills to build their own businesses.

One of them was Sohil Ahmad Ibrahimi, 22, who had created a mushroom farm where he grew and dried his produce and sold it to restaurants. Sitting across from him were two young women who were also part of the program. One of them made delicious jams which were elegantly packaged; she said she sold them in local markets and was developing a loyal clientele. And the other was Fatima Naserin Aseri, who used recycled fabrics and plastics to make beautiful jewelry and place settings, and said she was also able to make a living through her startup. Her biggest market, she said, was selling to Westerners at a small bazaar just inside the fortress of the US Embassy. That is, until two years ago when a deteriorating security situation ended her ability to sell there and the US Embassy retreated further behind the blast walls and the concertina wire that protected the compound.

And as the discussion turned to the future of Afghanistan with the pending drawdown of US troops, Ibrahimi shared that he was a supporter of the Taliban. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment.

With a long beard and looking out through spectacles from under the bangs of a Dutch boy haircut, he asked, “You believe in free speech, right?”

“So I presume you want me to speak freely and tell you why. I think the Taliban has changed and I think they will bring order and they will be good for businesses like ours. This government is corrupt and when the US leaves, we will have to all work together,” he said.

Sohil Ahmad Ibrahimi (left) is a young entrepreneur who started his own mushroom farm. He supports the Taliban and believes they have changed. Next to him is Fatima Naserin Aseri, who is in the same apprentice program for young entrepreneurs. She doubts that the Taliban have changed and does not believe they will accept her working and getting an education. (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

Aseri, the jewelry maker, looked unconvinced and spoke up.

“I am a woman who gets to work out of the home. That never happened for my mother, and I remember as a young girl seeing the Taliban hang people in our village square. They are like nightmares,” she said.

“I cover myself modestly. And I believe I live my life within Sharia,” she said, referring to Islamic law. “But the Taliban will not see that. They will try to restrict us, and stop girls from getting an education.”

Ibrahimi, trying to look reassuring, said, “If they do that, then I would no longer support the Taliban.”

This dialogue mirrors the conversation the whole country will be having in the months and years ahead, and reveals that this newly educated generation will present a challenge to Taliban rule. Perhaps the Taliban have changed, as Ibrahimi believes, but the question is whether they have changed as profoundly as the country they now rule?

The first draft of history

On-the-ground assessments of the pace of the Taliban’s momentum in the weeks before the collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces were made nearly impossible by the fact that travel into the provinces was too dangerous. But some clarity on the situation could be gleaned in some of the newsrooms in Kabul.

One in particular, known as Hasht e Subh, which translates as “8AM Daily,” had a deeply committed team that was scouring the country for breaking news amid the chaos. If journalism is the first draft of history, these newsrooms were a way to watch it being written live.

On July 24, the reporters were crowded around cubicles in the newsroom and taking in feeds from their correspondents in the provinces. The Taliban fighters had seized at least seven border crossings, they learned. And there was a dispatch that Pakistan was now opening the Taliban-controlled border crossing at Spin Boldak, which the Taliban had seized just a few days earlier. Spin Boldak is a hugely profitable and densely trafficked crossing, and for Pakistan to recognize the Taliban control of it was significant. A reporter sent in a photograph of the white Taliban flag flying at one side of the crossing and the Pakistan flag on the other.

“Wow, this is a very big deal,” said editor-in-chief Mujib Mehrdad, as he began to block a lead headline for the next morning’s edition.

In that moment, he could have no idea just how big these early movements would prove to be.

The kind of independent hard-hitting media that 8AM represents is one of the better accomplishments of the last 20 years in Afghanistan. The US has provided an estimated $150 million investment into the local journalism landscape, according to a soon-to-be-released research paper on the media landscape in Afghanistan published by Samiullah Mahdi, an Afghan journalist and research fellow at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. There are ambitious television news channels, such as Tolo TV, and radio networks that serve communities across the country and a network of daily newspapers and websites that cover the country, Mahdi reports. The news organization 8AM was one of the few that started an investigative unit that Mehrdad said has broken stories about corruption by the government, including ghost schools that were funded but never actually built and military units that were on the payroll but never actually existed.

“We’re the only watchdog,” said Mehrdad, 32, who started as a copy editor and rose to editor-in-chief. ”The only hope our people have for good governance is a healthy independent media,” he added.

Mujib Mehrdad, editor-in-chief of Hasht e Subh, which translates as “8AM Daily.” (Photo by Charles Sennott/GroundTruth)

On Wednesday of last week, as the chaos was erupting around the airport and the reality of Taliban rule was starting to set in, I reconnected with him; he sounded weary and worried. He had just been married, he said, two weeks before the Afghan government collapsed and the military surrendered. The toll taken by the lightning pace of the events was clear in the strain in his voice. He said the newsroom remained open and that he and his reporters were still coming in every day to cover the news. They have not been able to sustain the print edition, he said, but the online edition has seen a surge in audience as the country — and the world — desperately tries to get a handle on how this happened.

“The day you were here you could feel the hope, right? It’s gone. Everything has changed, and it feels like it has changed forever,” he said in a flat voice. “I don’t actually think the Taliban intended to enter Kabul, but unfortunately our president fled like a coward in the night, and left the country in chaos.”

His news organization covered the Taliban’s extraordinary first press conference inside the Ministry of Information, where just weeks earlier government media officials were offering spin to Western reporters that the Taliban victories in the rural districts were actually a “strategic retreat” to “center our forces in the city.” As it turned out, there was no strategy, just stunning defeat. At the press conference, the Taliban were setting out to rebrand themselves and saying that the rights of women and the free press would be respected “within the framework of Islam.”

“So, what does that mean?” Mehrdad asked. “We don’t know. But we do know the international community should be very tough about demanding that the Taliban honor the rights of women and the rights of a free press and make it contingent upon international aid from donors,” he said.

‘After action review’

Bagram Airfield, which was built by the Soviet Union during its decade-long and failed attempt to occupy Afghanistan during the 1980s, became the sprawling nexus of the US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan after the fall of 2001.

The US invaded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with the stated missions of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice, fracturing his Al Qaeda terrorist network, and toppling the Taliban regime that gave them support and safe haven. It was to be a global war on terror. Bagram remained the epicenter of the US military presence for the next 20 years, even after Bin Laden was killed in a raid on a compound in Pakistan, even after the Taliban were drummed out of the country and as Al Qaeda was hunted and brought to ground with its senior leadership assassinated in drone strikes one after the other.

Without warning and with no fanfare, the US military abandoned the Bagram Airfield over the Fourth of July weekend. In the dead of night, they simply turned off the electricity and slipped away; according to the Associated Press, they did so without telling the Afghan commander at the base.

Located one hour’s drive north of Kabul, the base is a sprawling campus of air hangars, runways, barracks, office buildings, a hospital, and vast parking lots. The military had been working for weeks to shrink-wrap attack helicopters, crate hundreds of armored Humvees, pack up the computers, and operate burn pits where sensitive paperwork and classified documents could be destroyed. What they left behind were thousands of vehicles without keys, warehouses filled with cases of energy drinks and bottled water, and crates of PopTarts and the military’s signature ready-made meals known as MREs, which are now on sale in local bazaars.

To see the bleak, looted landscape of Bagram is to re-live the question: Just how could the US military justify the estimated $1 trillion spent in Afghanistan, not to mention the 2,448 American military lives lost and ten-fold number of American wounded as well as the tens of thousands more casualties among Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces, contractors, and NATO allies?

It is question best addressed at the Pentagon, where the walls are decorated with commemorations of past wars and the generals who led them. Where would the war in Afghanistan fit in that history?

It is a question with a more complicated answer than might seem obvious in this moment of defeat and humiliating exit. At a unique and lengthy briefing for The Boston Globe on July 29, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who came of age in Winchester and went to Belmont Hill High School before a highly decorated career in the military, offered candid and thoughtful answers to the question of whether this war was worth it.

Milley surveyed the history of the conflict and spoke broadly about the meaning of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In that context, the chairman spelled out a list of accomplishments that included training and equipping the Afghan military and police, establishing courts with due process, building girls’ schools and educating millions of girls, creating institutions of democracy, funding the freedom of the press.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley listens during a briefing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, about the end of the war in Afghanistan. (Photo by Associated Press/Susan Walsh)

“The question is this,” the chairman said, “Was it worth the sacrifice? Is 20 years of combat in Afghanistan, and not having another 9/11 style attack, worth that sacrifice? I think the answer is yes. … I think in the bottom of my heart, the answer is yes.”

With a painting of General George C. Marshall looming over him, Milley spelled out three possible scenarios for what he had believed might unfold in the first months after the US made its final exit from Afghanistan. One of them was “rapid collapse”; he couldn’t know then that that humbling sequence would be what would unfold.

“One of those was an outright Taliban takeover following a rapid collapse of the Afghan Security Forces and the government. Another was a civil war, and a third was a negotiated settlement. However, the timeframe of the ‘rapid collapse’ scenario widely varied and ranged from weeks, months, and even years following our departure,” he said.

Standing at the podium in the Pentagon last Wednesday, Milley stood under the intense glare of the national media that wanted to know how the US could have so miscalculated the way the war would end and the chaos it would create.

Milley said, “There is plenty of time to do AARs and key lessons learned,” referring to military parlance for After Action Review.

“Right now is not that time. Right now we have to focus on the mission. We have soldiers at risk and we are evacuating American citizens and Afghans who supported us for 20 years. It is personal. We are going to get them out,” he added.

Peppered with questions about the pullout from Bagram and the chaotic collapse of the Afghanistan military, Milley added, “I am very familiar with the intelligence, and in war nothing is ever certain, but I can tell you that there are not reports that I am aware of that predicted a security force of 300,000 would evaporate in 11 days from 6 August to 16 August with the capture of 34 provinces and the capital city of Kabul.

“I did not see, nor did anyone else, the collapse of this military in 11 days,” he said.

Lessons learned at a school for girls

A fixed point for me in Afghanistan has long been the girls’ school in Logar dedicated to the memory of Peter Goodrich.

The school rests amid fields with a sweeping view of the mountains to the east that form the border with Pakistan and it is located along the main road from the south into Kabul. It is a strategic location and the area was fought over during the decades of war here. The Taliban had even used the school at one point in 2009 as a staging area for operations against the US military.

Reconnecting with principal Sadat and some of her teachers and students during my time in country seemed critical. But we could not meet at the school due to the danger that could result from a visit by a Westerner, and so we met in the garden of WADAN, where we could talk away from the watchful eye of local Taliban fighters living nearby.

“Our school is a place of hope,” Sadat said, smiling, on that day when the students were just getting to school. “It is the living memory of Peter. We cried with Sally in this school. He is our hero and he is with us every day.”

Two weeks ago, as the Taliban cemented their hold of the country, via WhatsApp, Sadat reflected further on the evaporation of her sense of possibility.

The Taliban have attacked the school in the past, and that reality undercuts confidence that they will allow it to operate in the future. Through the year, teachers and parents have received threatening “night letters” from the local Taliban militia members, she said. These ominous and hateful notes are left on door steps in the dead of night and meant to instill fear in families that want their girls to have an education. When she was asked about where her hope lies now, there was a long silence over a crackling digital line.

“I want to serve, but it is no longer possible in Afghanistan. I can no longer live here,” she said.

“The Taliban has threatened us so many times. Now they are in power, now they will do whatever they want,” she added.

Sadat and her family were among the thousands of Afghans who were airlifted out of the country and that now contemplate a new life in the U.S. as refugees.

Shima Sadat (center) and her family pose for a photo in Kabul. As part of the harrowing process to get Afghans through the Kabul airport gates, the U.S. military asked them to take a picture so they knew what clothes they were wearing and make their extraction easier from the crowd. (Photo by Shima Sadat/GroundTruth)

After returning home, I reached out to Don Goodrich to fill him in on the latest at the school. His wife, Sally, passed away in 2010 after a long struggle with cancer, and I caught Don driving up to Maine. He was reflective about the meaning of the girls’ school named for his son, about what he and Sally and all those who contributed had achieved, and what together they had failed to achieve.

He described the images he was watching on CNN of the collapse of the government and the military as “very unsettling” but “also somehow predictable.”

“The sad irony of the school is that it is in greater harm’s way because it was built with the help of an American benefactor. It hurts to think about that, but I think we have to think about it.

“The question I guess is was it worth it, what we did to build a school. Did it help? And for all of us who grieve the failures of what we did in Afghanistan and who are troubled by them, we have to ask: What was the alternative? To do nothing?”

He pointed out that as a result of the American presence in Afghanistan, millions of girls across the country have been educated; the country was given an opportunity for a better future; institutions of democracy and courts with due process have been built. The school, he said, stands as one small, and now deeply endangered example of all that has been done.

He added, “To have done something is better than to have done nothing.”