On the eve of the 20th anniversary of US invasion of Afghanistan, a local resident in the capital city of Kabul shared with media his memories and what US presence in the country meant for ordinary Afghans.
When Americans ousted the Taliban* from power in 2001, Raeis, who only wished to be identified by his first name, was a young student in the seventh grade. The biggest changes the Americans brought to his life were the subjects he needed to learn in school.
“Two years before the Americans came, the Taliban introduced Madrasa in schools in Afghanistan. From the fifth grade, my school eliminated some subjects and replaced them with books about Islamic studies. When the Americans came, they stopped such Islamic teachings in schools. We were back to normal,” Raeis, 32, said
Gradually, other freedoms were introduced in Afghanistan as well. Girls were allowed to attend schools and women were allowed to find new jobs. Even democratic elections started to be held in the country.
However, despite the increased individual liberties Afghans could enjoy, what the US presence couldn’t change was the basic social hierarchy in the country. For ordinary Afghans like Raeis, the Americans simply replaced the Taliban with a group of Islamist fighters known as the mujahideens.
“After the Americans came, all those mujahideens who fought against the Taliban came to power again. Most of them were corrupted people. That’s the reality. In 20 years, they corrupted all the government resources in the country,” Raeis said.
The mujahideen fighters Raeis referred to were a group of armed Islamist rebel groups that the United States initially supported to fight against the Afghan government during the Soviet Union’s occupation of the country in the 1980s. The mujahideen fighters took power in Afghanistan in 1992 before being defeated by the Taliban in 1996.
Raeis argued that the United States never intended to help Afghanistan become a modern nation and only went after their specific targets such as the terrorist groups.
“Americans did not bring freedom to Afghanistan. Americans only came for their targets. They made the warlords and the corrupted people stronger than ever. When they reached their goals, they left Afghanistan. They don’t care about people in Afghanistan. [US President] Joe Biden said, ‘We did not come to Afghanistan for nation building. We just wanted to reach our goals,'” Raeis said.
During a speech on the end of the war in Afghanistan on 31 August, Biden described where he saw the US mission in the country gone wrong.”We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan — getting the terrorists and stopping attacks — morph into a counterinsurgency, nation building — trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and unified Afghanistan -– something that has never been done over the many centuries of Afghanistan’s history,” Biden said.
Struggling to Support Family
Raeis was born in a family with a long tradition of serving in the Afghan military. His grandfather was born in 1895 and served as a general in the Afghan military that fought against the British in the War of Independence in the early 20th century.Raeis’ father also served in the Afghan military under the previous government backed by the Soviet Union. But when the Moscow-backed government lost to the mujahideen fighters in 1992, his father became jobless.In order to raise Raeis and his four brothers and sisters, his father relied on income from selling fruits and later brought his own vehicle to transport people between different Afghan cities.Because Raeis’ father served under the previous Afghan government that fought against the mujahideen fighters, his family’s fortunes did not improve when the mujahideen warlords came to power again after the US invasion in 2001.
When Raeis’ father drove people from Kabul to northern Afghan cities, he had to go through old tunnels that were built by the Soviet Union and were damaged during the years of intense fighting in the country. His father had two major accidents in those tunnels that almost killed him.In order to help his father and share the burden of providing for the family, Raeis started to work as young as 18 years old, when he just finished high school.
“I started working in workshops and earned about 200-500 afghani per day. I was able to help support my family,” he recalled.
As the oldest son, Raeis had to try to pay for the education of his younger siblings. Throughout the years, he covered the education expenses for his two younger brothers, who both became police officers, and his two younger sisters, until one became a doctor and another worked in a telecommunications company.In order to make more money for his family and look for a brighter future, Raeis enrolled in a private university that offered night classes, which allowed him to continue to work in the daytime. He also began to dedicate his efforts in learning English as a lot of the new jobs in Afghanistan involved working with Americans.
Eventually, Raeis completed a degree in business administration and obtained a new job to work on projects initiated by US organizations.”When I got a job on a US-backed project, I was paid about $54 per day. That was enough to support myself and my whole family’s expenses. So I told my father to stop working as a driver,” Raeis said.
During the 20 years of US presence in Afghanistan, while ordinary people like Raeis received new job opportunities thanks to foreign investments, the mujahideen warlords and the Afghan elites with dual nationalities were the ones that benefited the most.”Why the Afghan government collapsed so fast [after the US withdrawal]? It those mujahideen warlords and elites with dual nationalities, they call themselves as leaders. But they’re not leaders of the people. They’re the leaders of their own family and their own pockets. Their sons and daughters are studying in the United States,” Raeis said.Despite elected civilian leaders such as Hamid Karzai serving as the president of Afghanistan, the mujahideen warlords such as Mohammad Qasim Fahim held significant influence in the country. Fahim not only received the honorary title of Marshal in 2004, he also served as the vice president and the defense minister of Afghanistan.
That is why opportunities for the younger generation in Afghanistan were still very limited.”Most of the younger generation in Afghanistan who worked hard and studied under tough situations like myself, we couldn’t get any positions in the government. They can only try to escape from the country. That’s why when the European Union began to accept refugees in 2015, a large number of the migrants were young people from Afghanistan. They would even risk their lives to try to reach Europe,” Raeis said.He argued that the rapid collapse of the Afghan government and the swift rise of the Taliban following the US withdrawal were the results of Afghan people’s disgust against the ruling elites’ corruption.”The Afghan government forces had the best equipment provided by the United States, such as the Humvee armored vehicles, helicopters and airplanes. The Taliban forces only had AK47s and motorcycles made in China.
Why the Afghan army with 20 years of training under the US fell so quickly? That’s because all the warlords left Afghanistan with their families and money, when the US forces withdrew,” he said.
Raeis explained that ordinary Afghans did not strongly resist the Taliban because they just wanted peace.
“Ordinary people only wanted peace. When the Taliban came to power, peace also came to Afghanistan. Everything with the corrupted government backed by the Americans was finished. People felt that at least they were safe under the Taliban flag,” he said.However, Raeis pointed out that soon ordinary Afghans would realize how radical the Taliban’s policies were and they would start to resist such policies which he fears could lead to a new civil war in the country.
For the Taliban, they would also face the challenges of providing jobs that could sustain the living standards Afghans got used to during the 20 years of US presence.For ordinary hardworking Afghans like himself, Raeis said they could only try to take care of their own families by trying to escape from the country.