Kabul streets redux, 2009-2011

Sunday morning, I received a message from an Afghan student I had at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, in 2006-2008. She had returned to Afghanistan after her graduation and worked for some time at a U.S. military base as a translator. She said she had applied for Special Immigration Visa, but had not received a response. The deadline for U.S. forces to end its evacuation flights and depart Kabul airport was a little more 24 hours away. In the meantime, she said she was in hiding. Did I have any advice, she asked? (A call to Afghan-American friend with good connections in his homeland confirmed what I already suspected. If she is not at the airport with her visa in hand, there is little chance she will get out of the country, he told me.) I’m sorry, I wrote her. I don’t have any advice.

With that in mind, I am posting what I expect will be my last set of photos from 2009 to 2011, when I was a faculty member at the American University of Afghanistan. What life in Kabul and Afghanistan will be like under Taliban rule is still uncertain, though it is difficult to be optimistic.

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Afghan road trips to Surobi, Istalif in 2009

Travel in Afghanistan outside Kabul became increasingly difficultly as the state of security deteriorated during my time there at the American University of Afghanistan between 2009 and 2011. Two short road trips in the fall of 2009 to Surobi and later Istalif provided me with my first look of the country outside the capital.

Surobi is only about 43 miles west of Kabul , but the highway to it twisted through the narrow Kabul River canyon. Surobi’s significance stems from its location on the busy Kabul-to-Jalalabad highway, a main east-west corridor, and because it is where the Panjshir River empties into the Kabul.

Istalif was closer, only about 30 miles north of Kabul, and was not on a major highway, making it feel quieter and safer for foreigners.

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Traditional music was respite from, and target of, Afghanistan’s “culture wars”

I missed the live music I had grown accustomed to in Albuquerque, so in Kabul I tracked down traditional music performances as best I could between 2009 and 2011. These performances, while few in number, almost invariably occurred at the French cultural center, a gem of a venue and gallery space. The importance of the center was underscored on Dec. 11, 2014, when a Taliban suicide bomber attacked it during a packed screening of a film documentary on violence, killing two people and wounding 20 others, according to published reports at the time.

Disembodied memories: An Afghan university without Afghan students, faculty or staff

Revisiting these photographs of Afghanistan from 2009 through 2011 has given me the chance to bring some historical context to my feelings triggered by the collapse of the Western-backed government and the Taliban’s return to power earlier this month. I am well aware that any image of an Afghan tainted by an association with a foreign military or an international aid agency runs the risk of being used by the new Taliban government as evidence of collaboration with the enemy. Those images were pretty to avoid with the subjects of my last few photo essays. However, trying to fairly depict my work at the American University of Afghanistan without any representation of my Afghan students and colleagues is impossible, so what you have here are impressions of Afghanistan without Afghans, a clearly disembodied and truncated recollection of those years at the university and its neighborhood in southwestern Kabul.

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Momand Foundation focuses on food assistance to displaced Afghans

The immediate priority of the Momand Foundation is to provide food assistance to displaced and hungry Afghans, more specifically “20,000 families (140,000 people) in 20 provinces of Afghanistan,” wrote Abdul Qayum Momand, who I have known and respected for more than a decade. For more information on the foundation, visit its website.

Road tripping through no-man’s land to Jalalabad, April 2020

Many faculty members and staff at the American University of Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011 seized just about any opportunity to get out of Kabul and away from constrictions of the campus and our living quarters to see more of the country. One memorable road trip in April 2010 involved a caravan from Kabul to Jalalabad, a distance of less than 100 miles, along a twisting road through the steep-walled Kabul River canyon and arid terrain, some of which was effectively no-man’s land.

Jalalabad is located close to the Afghan border with Pakistan in the heart of the ethnic Pashtun homeland. The heavily traveled highway carries people, consumer goods, fuel, and military supplies, which at the time made it a target for thieves and Taliban militias. Control of some sections of the highway alternated between Afghan security forces and Taliban militias, which meant our trip included some bursts of speed with no chance for pit stops and limited pullovers for sight-seeing. The security team accompanying us stashed their weapons out of view in the luggage compartment of our bus.

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Panjshir Valley likely center of resistance to Taliban rule in Afghanistan

If a military and political resistance is formed to combat the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, then the Panjshir Valley less than 100 miles north of Kabul is likely to be at is center. The long, narrow valley is the one section of the country that Taliban have failed to subdue since its takeover earlier this month.

The Panjshir Valley was also the base of operations for one of the most successful militias in Afghanistan’s 10-year war against the former Soviet Union, 1979-1989 and, starting again in 1996, as the multi-ethnic Northern Alliance, which was created in opposition to the Taliban’s first attempt to rule. That resistance was led by the “Lion of the Panjshir,” Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was killed on Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks on the United States, by two men widely believed to be Al Qaeda operatives.

Today his son, Ahmed Massoud, has positioned himself as heir to his father’s legacy. Among his allies are Amrullah Saleh, Afghan Vice President under President Asraf Ghani, who fled the country as the Taliban were capturing the Afghan capital, Kabul. Saleh has since declared himself the “acting president” of the country. Other allies, according to published reports, include Abdullah Abdullah, the former Chief Executive of Afghanistan from 2014 to 2020 and leader of the High Council for National Reconciliation since 2020. Abdullah was also a senior member of Northern Alliance and was an advisor to the senior Massoud.

Since the Taliban’s latest takeover, the younger Massoud has publicly declared his intent to engage in peace talks with the Taliban, while also stating his willingness to fight the Taliban if they attempt to invade the Panjshir Valley.

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