43. Afghanistan: What Happens Next? (with Karen J. Greenberg, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Renee Montagne and Gaisu Yari)

With Guests:

  • Karen Joy Greenberg, noted expert on national security, terrorism and civil liberties and the director of the Center on National Security. She’s the author of the recently-released Subtle Tools: the Dismantling of American Democracy, from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. She previously authored Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, which explores the War on Terror’s impact on justice and law in America.  Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The National Interest and Mother Jones among others.
  • Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, award-winning author and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  She is the author of The Daughters of Kobani and Ashley’s War, and writes regularly on Afghanistan’s politics and economy, entrepreneurship in fragile states, the fight to end child marriage, and issues affecting women and girls for publications including the New York Times, Financial Times, Fast Company, Christian Science Monitor and CNN.com.
  • Renee Montagne, NPR correspondent and host.  From 2004 to 2016, Montagne co-hosted NPR’s “Morning Edition,” the most widely heard radio news program in the United States.  Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Montagne has made 10 extended reporting trips to Afghanistan, where she has traveled to every major city, from Kabul to Kandahar. She has profiled Afghanistan’s presidents and power brokers, while also focusing on the stories of Afghans at the heart of their complex country: schoolgirls, farmers, mullahs, poll workers, midwives and warlords.
  • Gaisu Yari, human rights defender from Afghanistan and survivor of child marriage who holds a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern and gender studies from the University of Virginia. Yari is a writer and active speaker on women’s issues in Afghanistan and worked with the government of Afghanistan as a commissioner to the Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan, as well as with national and international organizations. The focus of her expertise is in human rights and gender justice. She has extensive knowledge and professional experience working in both the U.S. and Afghanistan.

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In this Episode:

It’s 20 years after 9/11 and what have we learned?  In May, when U.S. and international troops began to withdraw from Afghanistan, feminists and Afghanistan experts warned of the brutal impact that would likely be felt by women and minorities with the return of the Taliban and in the vacuum of leadership. They were right.

The Taliban have announced their provisional government, which does not include a single woman. Already, reports show the armed group being violent and intimidating women protesters, women journalists and ethnic minorities. Just like in the ’90s, live music is banned throughout the country once again, and Afghan women are banned from playing sports.

What does this mean for national security? The safety of women and girls? What are the geo-political dynamics yet to be sorted?

Have a topic you’d like us to delve into, a guest recommendationor just want to say hi? Drop us a line at ontheissues@msmagazine.com.

Background Reading:

Transcript:

Michele Goodwin:

Welcome to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” at Ms. magazine, a show where we report, rebel and you know we tell it like it is. On this show, we center your concerns about rebuilding our nation and advancing the promise of equality. Join me as we tackle the most compelling issues of our times, including, on today’s show, reflecting on 9/11 20 years later. 

What’s happening now, in Afghanistan? My guests on today’s show are brave. These are women, some who are anonymous, who had agreed to come on to the show, but after the Taliban takeover, could no longer. For example, there’s Anne. That’s not her real name, but it’s the name, out of her security and safety, that we give to her. She wrote to me after agreeing to talk: “Hi, Michelle, I’m not able to. The Taliban control communications, it will be dangerous.”

Another, I’ll call her Teresa: “I cannot talk right now. I’ll let you know if things change.” These are women active in women’s rights and girls’ rights, who had agreed to come on to the show, but after the Taliban takeover in their region to Kabul no longer felt that they could. And we understand why. 

Crimes Against Afghan Women and Girls: “All It Will Take a Talib to Silence Me Is One Bullet”
Students at a midwifery school in Nili, Afghanistan, in July 2009. (Flickr / United Nations Photo, Eric Kanalstein)

In this show, there are some disturbing things that you may hear — the sounds of sirens, bomb going off. You’ll hear past speeches of US presidents, you’ll hear the voices of women who are on the frontlines addressing these issues. And you’ll also hear from others who remain anonymous, but who wanted us to share exactly what they’re going through. 

You’ll also be hearing from Karen Greenberg, a noted expert on national security, terrorism and civil liberties. She’s the author of Subtle Tools: the Dismantling of American Democracy, from the War on Terror to Donald Trump. It’s a book that’s just out now. 

I’m also joined by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She’s an award winning author, you’ll recall The Daughters of Kobani and Ashley’s War as New York Times bestsellers. 

We also have with us Renee Montane. She’s an NPR correspondent and host from 2004 to 2016. Renee Montagne co-hosted NPR’s Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio news program in the United States. And since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she’s made 10 extended reporting trips to Afghanistan. 

I’m also joined by Gaisu Yari. She is a human rights defender from Afghanistan and survivor of child marriage. She was a commissioner to the Civil Service Commission of Afghanistan. She worked with national and international organizations and the focus of her expertise is on human rights and gender justice.

Michele Goodwin:

Gaisu, tell us where you are right now. 

Gaisu Yari:

I am in Poland. I am in a refugee camp that used to be a UNHCR camp. Belonged to the UNHCR in Poland. I think later on, it was given to the Polish government, and they are using for refugees or for specific communities that need to be quarantined for COVID.

Michele Goodwin:

When did you get there?

Gaisu Yari:

I got there last Wednesday. It is my 12th day being in Poland right now.

Michele Goodwin:

And you came directly from Afghanistan?

Gaisu Yari:

I came directly from Afghanistan. Yes, and also, the next day, my family, two of my sisters and two brothers, actually evacuated, too, and joined me here at the camp. That is why I have been staying here, to see if I can find any way to take them to the United States with me, and I’m doing a close coordination with the U.S. Embassy right now. It looks like the State Department is very busy in Washington. They don’t give us any answer.

At the same time, we do have pressure from the Polish government that they have to seek asylum here in Poland. I do have two brothers and a sister. I have the twins, a brother and sister, who are in 10th grade. They are my dependents. The reason I stayed in Afghanistan for a very long time was because of them, because they were not with my mother, and I was taking care of them, and it’s extremely hard to leave them here in Poland because we don’t have anybody in Poland, and I am waiting to see if I can hear anything from the U.S. Embassy to help us out. It seems like positive notes are not coming out.

Michele Goodwin:

How old are they? They’re 15 years old, 16?

Gaisu Yari:

No, so, when my father got kidnapped in 2000 during the Taliban time, my mom was pregnant, two months pregnant. So, they are 20 years old, but they are not growing as normal children because my mom got really sick when she was pregnant with these two. So, if you look at them, they look like 15 or 16, but their age is actually 20. That’s why they need a specialist.

Michele Goodwin:

The special assistance.

Gaisu Yari:

Exactly.

Michele Goodwin:

Special assistance, and it’s an issue that hasn’t significantly surfaced in the conversations about Afghanistan, and that happens to be individuals with disabilities and how those individuals are faring. What was it like trying to leave Afghanistan? Can you tell us a little bit about what you experienced as you tried to get out, and at what point did you think, I need to leave, I need to get out?

Gaisu Yari:

Well, I mean, the experience was terrible. I usually compare it with people who are smuggled from one country to another, but I was smuggled in my own country from my house that was in the west of Kabul to the airport, which is about 45 minutes drive. I was smuggled to enter the gate.

Michele Goodwin:

You were smuggled, and how? Were you in a car, in a trunk of a car? Were you with other people? Did you disguise yourself?

Gaisu Yari:

I think I go to your second question about when I decided to actually leave. My older sister was working with the previous government, but she was a woman leader and very famous, and I was holding a senior leadership position, in the civil service commission of Afghanistan, and I was very well known because I was very outspoken about women’s rights, and my responsibility was to increase women in civil service of Afghanistan, which we ended up having 29 percent before I leave the country, before the government collapsed.

I went to the office on Saturday. I didn’t go to the office on Sunday. That’s when the president left, Sunday afternoon at 4 o’clock. As soon as we got home, the Taliban got in that afternoon. I noticed that they started searching houses, especially houses that are belong to the government officials, and I was asked to leave. So, me and my older sister left our houses because they were coming to search either for armored cars or government cars or government weapons, people who had bodyguards.

And we had to leave because I didn’t want to face them, and we left the house. We went to a corner of Kabul, in the west of Kabul, to my aunt’s house. For three nights, I was hidden with my older sister because I was on my phone and doing a lot of coordinations to leave because my mother was very scared that something bad will happen to me and my older sister, and she was pushing us…

Michele Goodwin:

That you could possibly might die?

Gaisu Yari:

Exactly, because we were so well known, and the Taliban knew every single person who were working, especially in the leadership positions, and specifically women. It was very specific and straightforward, and we had to change our clothes. We had to be as local as possible, and on Sunday, we stopped using government cars, and we used taxis on the ways, and then I had to have big scarfs, and I wouldn’t be able to get out during the day.

I did in the night. I went to my apartment, and then we moved everything at night to my mom’s house, everything in my apartment, and then I got, like, a bag of clothes, 2 or 3 pairs, and I couldn’t get anything else with me, and then I was ready in my aunt’s house.

Michele Goodwin:

We’re hearing from Gaisu Yari. She escaped Afghanistan, along with her partner and also her brother and sister whom she cares for. She’s now in a refugee camp in Poland, having traveled there with just a backpack with a few things inside. Prior to leaving Afghanistan, she had to disguise herself, she couldn’t go out during the day. The Taliban began tracking women, especially women who were in the government, and searching their homes.

Gaisu Yari:

They started immediately searching houses. And then we’re getting a lot of news. I got the news from my friend, and my friend told me that I shouldn’t leave the house or be on the street. I shouldn’t be seen by the Taliban because they were searching women parliamentarians’ houses and apartments. They tried to, and we were extremely scared, and we didn’t have any courage to leave, you know, the apartment and get out.

Michele Goodwin:

And how did you get, then, to the airport? So, I imagine it wasn’t…for some people, when they think about flying someplace, they go online or they pick up the phone, and they buy a ticket. They show up with their passport or their visa, and they leave, but that was not your story. There was not just go online and get a plane ticket. What did you have to do?

Gaisu Yari:

Feminist Majority was trying so hard with the State Department to put me on the list. I had my fiancé with me too, right, and I had my mother and my other sister. I couldn’t put everybody on the list. They told me I can be evacuated by myself, but also, my fiancé was in the Special Force of the previous government. Extremely dangerous for him to stay there, too, and I said if I go, you’re going with me.

Michele Goodwin:

And part of the urgency of that…and we’ll get right back to that. It’s just so the people understand, again, when we’re talking about the Taliban that made their way to Kabul, we’re talking about with machine guns walking down the street and things like that, right?

Gaisu Yari:

We do, because the terrible thing was that, like, when they got on the streets, they would just keep firing everywhere for no reasons, right? You would hear the voice, and then it was terrifying. You didn’t know the reason. You didn’t know why they were fighting. So, that night, I had some Polish friends. They are my best friends. They made a documentary of three sisters, three of us, and then they aired it in 2017. That’s when I got to know them. They helped us to be evacuated.

The reason I decided to get out, because I was the first target, and I was outspoken. I was holding a leadership position. I was a women’s rights activist, and I was publicly saying things against the Taliban. So, my mom and everybody encouraged me and my friends said to get out. So, we sit in a car, and first, we decided to sit in a taxi. We couldn’t promise the taxi. We said let’s go with my brother’s car. So, my brother’s car with us and also my brothers, my older brother’s wife and a kid.

The reason we had to have a child with us who was only 9 months was because we didn’t want to be stopped by the Taliban on the way. 

Michele Goodwin:

Gaisu went on to describe her harrowing escape: the multiple efforts to get through the Taliban blockades right into the airport, they were actually located near the airport. But that didn’t make it easy getting through the gates. The physical assault that her partner experienced. The onslaught of people pushing and shoving just trying to make their way through hoping to get on a plane to get out. And yet Gaisu realizes that she and her partner, they’re part of the lucky ones because they were able to get out, and they were able to get out before the bombing.

[Audio clip from Kabul airport bombing plays. An explosion can be heard, followed by screams and sirens.] 

Joe Biden:

Terrorists attacked, that we’ve been talking about, and worried about, that the intelligence community has assessed, has undertaken. An attack by a group known as ISIS K took the lives of American servicemembers standing guard at the airport and wounded several other seriously. It also wounded a number of civilians, and civilians were killed as well. And my commanders here in Washington, in the field, have been on this with great detail, and you’ve had a chance to speak to some. So far, the situation on the ground is still evolving. And I’m constantly being updated. 

These American service members who gave their lives… it’s an overused word, but it’s totally appropriate here, were heroes. Heroes, who have been engaged in a dangerous, selfless mission to save the lives of others. They’re a part of an airlift and evacuation effort unlike any seen in history, with more than 100,000 American citizens, American partners, Afghans who helped us and others taken to safety in the last 11 days. 

Michele Goodwin:

Gaisu was able to get out, she and her partner. And she realizes that she’s lucky. She’s one of the lucky people who wanted to leave, and was able to do so even though she’s now in a refugee camp. 

Others, like Anna, as you know, that’s not her real name. She wrote to me and said, “They killed our city,” after the bombing. She said, “Kabul is bleeding. Kabul is dead.” She informed me, “We shared photos and videos to the world, but they can’t see us. They are blind,” she wrote, “Stop it, they can’t hear anything from us.” She was a guest that was scheduled to be on our show. She later wrote to me again, sharing a photo of a child. This child was killed in the bombing. 

There was another person who was supposed to be on our show. And just up until a few days before our recording, had to withdraw. Her sister in law died in the bombing, and two of their children were missing.

So now that Gaisu is at a Polish refugee camp, with her family, I wanted to know, what is that experience like for her. 

Gaisu Yari:

It’s funny because people are telling me that I do have a US passport. I’m still experiencing a refugee camp that, I’d never experienced it in my life because I started life from zero in 2007 when I escaped a child marriage to come to the United States, right? And then I went back to Afghanistan and started a life in 2015, and that was destroyed again, and then now I am in a refugees camp, and I am starting from zero again, and it’s heartbroken, and it’s extremely sad. I can’t get out.

The U.S. Embassy told me that they can my ticket and me and Abdullah can come to the United States, but they don’t give me a solution for my siblings. I can’t leave them in this camp that is a refugee camp. They’re giving you food twice a day. Me and Abdullah have only 100 dollar with us. We don’t have anything else with us. The banks were closed when we got out. My older sister with her children, when they got in, they couldn’t make any money…they couldn’t get any money out.

They have only 200 dollars with them. We can’t just go to grocery outside, and then these kids are eating with you twice a day, and the buildings are not very clean, right, and you’re using, you know, a restroom… Today, I was volunteering helping Afghans to go to the clinics because they wouldn’t be able to speak English.

I went to the healthcare, to the clinic, and this doctor yelled at me and kicked me out of the clinic because she was just too tired of people coming in, and she was like, get out, because I don’t have time right now. I have another patient. You are too many people. I said I am not too many people. This is an old man who is sick, and this is her daughter, and I’m a translator. You don’t have the right to yell at us. I mean, you’re a refugee.

Michele Goodwin:

I mean, it’s like your status…so, you’ve gone from being a high-level person in government, respected for the transformative work that you’ve done in the lives of women and girls. People know you, and now you’re in a refugee camp being yelled at.

Gaisu Yari:

Yes.

Michele Goodwin:

So what exactly does Gaisu leave behind? What’s the status unfolding in Afghanistan right now? 

So Gayle Tzemach Lemmon joined us. She’s an award winning author and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also the award winning author of The Daughters of Kobani and Ashley’s War. Gayle, what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan as it relates to women and girls, given the US pull-out of Afghanistan. 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: 

Right now, what you see is is this moment of pause, as young women who were part of a young generation of professional women, women who had been part of contributing… not women from fancy backgrounds, but women from all kinds of backgrounds, and it’s really important to note, who had been deeply fearful about their role and what comes next and had been working to find another option, wait to see what happens with the Taliban. And the world waits to see how the Taliban will rule. 

Michele Goodwin:

And Gayle, why has there been so much attention on the transition and the status of women and girls in Afghanistan? I imagine that from some corners of the world where an education is easily accessible, in fact, expected for children, boys and girls, etcetera, that this is perhaps hard to grasp. Can you help to, you know, set the stage for why it was so profound, that over the last 10, 15, 20 years, education became accessible for women and girls, and leadership positions? 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: 

Well, think about this, right. The female superpower is just getting on with it, and there were women who lived under the Taliban rule. In 1996, the Taliban swept Kabul, first meeting with NGOs put up its list. No women going to school, no women working outside the home. Women would have a chaperone when they went out, must wear a burqa. This…that was 1996. Cut to 2021, after two decades of an international presence in the country, women for themselves have become educated, connected, deeply hopeful, and I have never been one of those people who thought that the quest for human dignity ended at the Afghanistan border. 

Meet those young women. Meet those girls. They are the same as the young women in your family and mine. They have been pushing for themselves to go to school, to achieve their potential, to contribute to their families, and with lots of challenges, have made huge progress in a country that is more urbanized, more connected, and more educated by far than it was two decades ago, and that is why we see the risk right now of this very new generation of professional young women, not knowing whether they can survive under what comes next, and waiting to see what happens. 

Michele Goodwin:

And to your point, it would be the equivalent of take any given city or state in the United States, where there have been girls going to school, playing soccer after school, heading to a coffee shop with friends, and suddenly, there’s a new regime in town, and a new regime in town whose history has been that you don’t get educated, and here are the limitations on what you can do. 

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: 

That’s right. And I think there’s been an otherization that’s gone on around Afghanistan that we all need to be really aware of. And I said, oh, so certain groups of people have deep aspirations for universal human rights? No. Let’s be quite honest with it. These young women have fought for themselves. It’s up to the world whether we continue to enjoy and benefit from their fight, to achieve their potential, and it is up to us, because but there for the grace of God go each one of us. Right? If you and I, Michele, were in this position, we would want people who are listening today to say, what can I do. How do I support? How do I help? And I think that is our role right now. 

George W. Bush:

Good evening. Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices. Secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. 1000s of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge, huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. 

Michele Goodwin:

On one hand, there are those that say that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was long overdue. Trillions of dollars have been spent. American servicemembers have died, civilians, children, women and men in Afghanistan have died. And it’s been 20 years since 9/11. Many have said this was a war that the US could not win. 

And yet on the other hand, there are those that remind us that democracy matters, that in Afghanistan, more women ascended to office than ever before. More girls were educated than ever before. In fact, at colleges and universities, the majority of those applying and attending were girls and women. Afghanistan was transformed for many people and changes did take place. So how do we sort out these competing ideas? And there are those who say that even if the US should have departed and withdrawn from Afghanistan, the way in which the US did so was not mindful and left much harm behind. 

How do we sort out these differing perspectives? Joining me is Karen Joy Greenberg, a noted expert on national security, terrorism and civil liberties. I’m also joined by Renee Montagne, an NPR correspondent and host from 2004 through 2016, Renee Montagne co hosted NPR’s Morning Edition, the most widely heard radio news program in the United States. And since 9/11, she has made more than 10 extended reporting trips to Afghanistan, where she has traveled to every major city from Kabul to Kandahar.

Here’s Renee Montagne, giving us some insight into what’s happening on the ground in Afghanistan. We get the special insight from her from the relationships that she’s built over time. But to be clear, these are not phone conversations. These are private WhatsApp communications, and through other means that people have been able to secret information to her. And we’re also hearing about Renee’s experience over 20 years of reporting on Afghanistan. 

What’s happening on the ground? And what should we be expecting going forward? 

Renee Montagne:

Well, people have fled, that could, have flown out, those who could. 

Michele Goodwin:

There are people clinging to planes and who died. 

Renee Montagne:

Oh my gosh. We all saw that and in a strange way, not sadly, I mean kind of it’s over for the moment. But what’s happening is people are being even to this moment, they’re in Doha, they’re heading for Germany. I’m saying people. I mean the lucky people who are able to get out, which may I say is in a way a select and wonderful group, which is a huge loss for Afghanistan. 

Michele Goodwin:

Break that down a little bit when you say that it’s a select group. What does that mean?

Renee Montagne:

Literally, people with visas. Many, many don’t though. Thousands didn’t have visas. They’d be family members and people who toughed it out and actually got through the Taliban checkpoints and to the gate. But I mean they are a select group of people in one sense. They are the most educated. They are those who did in fact work in some way, shape, or form with the Western powers. Obviously, you’ve got your translators and interpreters that work directly with the military. That is a very select group, which appears to have not all gotten out. If perhaps they started in May they could have all made their way out. Thousands of them have. There were something like 18,000 to begin with in April, May of this last year. I mean that was a pretty known number. Counting their families that was 72 thousand people, 75 thousand people. 

Michele Goodwin:

But then left behind are so many that people have been so deeply concerned about. The women and girls, activists who’ve been fighting on the ground for greater inclusion, greater equality, and one wonders what’s going to happen to them. I’m also joined by Karen Greenberg. Karen, this is also work that you’ve been deeply invested in. Can you give us a sense about what’s happening on the ground with those who’ve been left behind?

Karen J. Greenberg:

Yeah. I mean again, we’re far away from it so we only rely on the reports, but I mean they have been sort of desperate in some ways but it’s not just about…not to minimize what’s going on now, but so much time and effort and energy was put into creating a space for women in Afghanistan and creating a voice for women in Afghanistan and getting them educated and bringing them into an international conversation. By all reports, it’s so interesting. You see the reports that are coming out of the military and the US government that for years were inaccurate. 

It was, were you training the army so that what just happened couldn’t happen? What were you building there? What happened? With the women actually the story is real. The story of building these networks and progressing and coming into their own really did happen. So, this is a piece of it that we have to really figure out. Are there ways now to bring tremendous amount of support. Not just a little bit. Really tremendous amount of support and remedy to what happened. I think there’s a lot of scuffling and I’m hoping there’s a lot of scuffling right now to figuring out…not just the United States, by the way. The globe and just to build on something Renee said and that you said, to me, one of the most profound and interesting things about what’s going on here are the degree to which Americans know personally people in Afghanistan. 

This is not some kind of theoretical, yes, we need to take care of a country that’s falling into chaos, disarray, and brutality. This is a person on person attachment that has grown over the years and very strongly within the corridors of women. So, I just wanted to mention that. 

George W. Bush:

The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities, to find those responsible, and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them. I appreciate so very much the members of Congress who have joined me in strongly condemning these attacks. And on behalf of the American people, I thank the many world leaders who have called to offer their condolences and assistance. America and our friends and allies join with all those who want peace and security in the world. And we stand together to win the war against terrorism.

Former President George W. Bush gives an address at the Pentagon memorial service in Arlington, Va. on Oct. 11, 2001. (Helene C. Stikkel, DOD / Flickr)

Michele Goodwin:

That was president George W. Bush, on the evening of the 9/11 attacks, vowing that he would hunt down the individuals that were responsible, the networks that were responsible for the terroristic killings in the United States. But what unfolded from there — invading of Iraq, the war in Afghanistan — did the US get it right? Trillions of dollars later, thousands of lives lost, where are we now?

So let’s build on all of that because all of that is a good foundation. Renee, when I think about the work that you’ve been doing in Afghanistan since September the 11, the attacks. You’ve made at least 10 extended reporting trips to Afghanistan. You’ve traveled to every major city from Kabul to Kandahar, and you’ve spent time working with school girls, interviewing farmers, so much, poll workers, midwives, warlords, all of that. Tell us a bit about how we got here. I want to back us up so that people understand not just what’s happening now but what led to all of this. 

Renee Montagne:

Yes. And Karen, I just want to say every single thing you said is correct because there’s this strange positive that’s floating out there not quite ready to be worked with because people are so upset and so crushed and so desperate at this exact moment, but in the months to come it’s actually where we have to start looking. 

I got there six months after the Taliban left. In fact, they left on October 7, 2001 and there was still fighting because there were deadenders, if you want to call it, through until about March. I arrived there in May of 2002 when the country emerged from winter and emerged from the Taliban. Two very similar things. And people were flowing back. During the time of the Taliban, and I think people lose track of the fact that the Taliban came in because there was a vicious civil war in the early 1990s that was virtually uncovered by the international press. They had turned their attention elsewhere. South Africa, I know, I was in South Africa at the time. That’s Mandela story, the new South Africa. 

They were also looking at Sarajevo. Well, there was this Sniper Alley in Kabul exactly during the two years…front page news about Sarajevo, not being reported and I can tell you that for sure or not really being reported because I checked it a few months ago. I was just curious and you couldn’t find hardly a story on that. That was bad for women. By the way, let me say, the Taliban came in at a time when you had this chaos. You had warlords who had been the mujahideen during the Soviet war who had turned into warlords. 

You had women being literally taken off the street. Rape was much more of a problem before the Taliban showed up than after they showed up. 

Michele Goodwin:

What accounts for that, Renee?

Renee Montagne:

Well, because the country was full stop out of control in about two years after the Soviets left. I mean nobody needs to know all the dates exactly but the Soviets left in ’89. The Communist government they had been propping up hung in there until ’92. The reason it fell apart was the Soviet Union fell apart and the Russians stopped paying for their army. By the way, that was a big issue this time around because as bad as this ANA, the Afghan National Army was, the idea was it was working its way towards something and if the United States kept paying to have them trained and paid this government, which was I’m sad to say, in a sense, rotten at the top. I mean it was. 

Michele Goodwin:

You’re talking about a really tenuous foundation to begin with even before 9/11. 

Renee Montagne:

Oh, absolutely. Let me move back from the history a little bit. I will just say when I got off the plane in Kabul what you could see was utter devastation. 

Michele Goodwin:

What did it look like? 

Renee Montagne:

I’d never been in any other war like that before but it looked like the whole middle part of the city, there were some houses existing, obviously, but the whole main part of the city was crumbled, buildings that had just been burned or buildings that had been crushed. I mean any building and multiply it times the whole city. It was in ruins. 

Kabul in 2002. (The Children of War / Flickr)

Michele Goodwin:

Rubble all over. The kind of image that one sees after war. 

Renee Montagne:

Yeah. And in fact, when we drove through to the guest house that…actually, we had a house, NPR had its own house for a while. We were driving through to the house. There was even some joking being made, of course everybody felt better in May of 2002, but I mean there was a guy holding a petrol can to put gas into a car, and our translator commented that’s our gas station. It’s our favorite one. I mean they didn’t have phones. We had to go and make appointments or our translators did, or fixers as they’re also called, to make appointments because the phone, which was in the house and hooked up would sometimes ring. 

Michele Goodwin:

It was like an infrastructural nightmare with nothing that was there. That was the starting point. 

Renee Montagne:

That’s why I’m going to talk about rebuilding Afghanistan. The first series I did, we decided to call it Recreating Afghanistan, and the reason we did that was there was little enough to start with. 

Michele Goodwin:

Karen, as you’ve said, one of the things that’s most devastating about what’s happening right now in Afghanistan is the fact that this has been a liberation in many ways for women and girls. In recent years, the advancements that women were able to make. Can you tell folks a little bit about that because Renee has just told us about rubble, dishevelment, the gas station is a guy standing with a can? What’s the picture then in terms of the progress that women were able to make over the last 20 years. 

Karen J. Greenberg:

Well, a lot of it’s tied to education. A lot of it’s tied to opening up schools to girls. To us that might not sound extraordinary but in Afghanistan it was, and it was enough time that actually it’s created a generation of women who are poised to be in the world. I mean Renee knows more about this than me and I’d love to hear her weigh in on this but it’s very interesting. 

I’ve talked to a number of Afghan women who are, say, in their early 20s, right. It’s fascinating to talk to them. They are optimistic. Again, I talked to them before these last couple of months but still, they feel empowered to do a lot of things both internally within Afghanistan and elsewhere. So, I see a lot of this. I’m in education, so I see it from the point of education. I noticed that there has been some outreach from the United States now to find out a way to continue this education virtually in the months and years ahead and there’s been some real progress in that way. 

Recognizing that that’s a foundational piece of it. Whether or not this works, that’s another thing. Women have entered politics in Afghanistan, which is something that’s extraordinary given the picture that Renee just claimed. And also, just to the point we were both making earlier, women have entered the international conversation. These women networks that are tied to Afghan women that have been brought into the global conversation about a number of issues not just about Afghanistan. 

All of this headway has been made. That doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the future except that I wanted to mention this. 

Renee Montagne:

Here’s what I would say, too, is the one thing that bodes well for the future, regardless of who the Taliban turn out to be, which there’s a lot of cynicism, for sure, about the Taliban. You talk to anyone who’s lived through it and they’re like, oh, yeah. But there are a lot of people, as we know, 38 million other people who are still there and half of them are women who have to find out what the Taliban will do. In that sense, it’s hard to say at this early stage, but I think there’s a lot of positives because one of the points I guess I wanted to make or is implied was that when the Taliban walked into a country and a city fully ruined, by the way not by them, by the civil war. The reason they were greeted the first day but never after that with a certain amount of yay was that they did present a possibility of law and order, of order. 

Michele Goodwin:

Especially given the backdrop that you shared with us. 

Renee Montagne:

Terrible. So one should never forget that. The Taliban walk in, a bunch of hicks from the sticks if you want to put it like that. Not so young but young men coming out of madrasas. They knew nothing of the world, not even the village world. These madrasas, these religious schools. They’ve been in the dust themselves for years before that fighting their way to Kabul just as they did this time, and they knew nothing of anything so they had no possibility of…the Taliban knew nothing of anything except they were henchmen, sort of, bullies. 

But the people had no way of getting out. You couldn’t phone anybody. People had some little minor ways of getting out. 

Michele Goodwin:

Plus you’re talking about 20 years ago, right. 

Renee Montagne:

Now the Taliban are walking into a city…when they walked in 20 years ago, the comparisons are very odd. You almost can’t make the comparison. There were 500 thousand people in Kabul out of an original million. The other half had left the country. There’s five to six million people in Kabul right now and they all have cell phones. They all have seen the world. They’ve lived through 20 years, thank you very much, international community. Twenty years of this bubble of access to education, to the world, to dreams. 

Michele Goodwin:

That says something about the children who grew up in that space, too, because that’s a whole generation. What you’re talking about, what a child might have grown up in, in the last 20 years with access to education and so much more, especially if you’re talking about a girl, very different than her mother or grandmother. 

Renee Montagne:

The mother would also have been an 18-year-old or a 20-year-old. The people that I know, many of them are approximately 40 years old because the ones who flowed to us as we all came in, all the NGOs, the journalists, military were these 20-somethings and every one of them has built a life. So, they’re not all young and there is an entire two generations of people who know what is possible and have a lot of courage about what can…

Michele Goodwin:

They see that difference. Karen, one of the multiple hats that you wear is as the director of the Center on National Security, which is located at Fordham Law School, and so as we think about what now are the risks that women in parliament face, that women who are outside of parliament face? One of the things that one must contend with here and as we’ve already talked about, to some extent, those who were able to get out were the elites. Left behind are people that you have to wonder, is there a difference for them between what was and what is now. Can you unpack a little bit of that? Because there have been some that have said so much of the worry about Afghanistan now is being filtered through the lens of people who have a lot of privilege. 

For the everyday folks of Afghanistan, life will go on. Is that true?

Karen J. Greenberg:

I don’t think it’s possible to really predict the future. Maybe Renee could do this better than me, but I do want to say a couple things on this. A couple of conversations that I was in a couple of months ago talking about the withdrawal that was coming and asked women in Afghanistan how are you facing this. The answer was, we’re terrified but we’ve known this was going to happen. We knew there was going to come a point. I think that, in a way, speaks to part of this and part of what’s going to happen next is that there’s been…

I can’t say there’s been direct plans but there’s been a psychological getting ready for this that may speak very well to the kind of inequalities, access to power, etcetera that you’re talking about. I mean I don’t think…I think the issue of women and children in Afghanistan is going to stay prominent and not just inside Afghanistan but by the world community as they try to exercise some kind of diplomatic financial pressure. Obviously, this is going to be one of the focal points, but I just want to mention something else here because we’ve been talking about the Taliban, but it’s not just the Taliban. 

Feminist Leaders Implore Biden-Harris Administration: Don’t Abandon Afghan Women and Girls
An Afghan girl attends a female engagement meeting in Afghanistan’s Balish Kalay Village in the Urgun District on March 27, 2011. (DVIDSHUB / Flickr)

Where the Taliban goes may be actually very, very interesting because the Taliban is facing a country that is in economic chaos if not potential ruin. That provides some kind of leverage at least for a period of time in some ways but there’s also the threat of terrorism and the threat of ISIS K, and what does that actually mean? I just want to make sure that we mention that there is also this threat, and this threat is not attached by, ruled by, or directed by the Taliban. This is a separate threat. How that plays out and whether or not the Taliban can handle that and what this means is also something that women are subject to. I just wanted to broaden that frame a little bit. 

Michele Goodwin:

I think that’s helpful because I think the perspective is that there’s the US, there’s the Taliban and there are the people. There’s so much more to be concerned about there that’s not just that very simplistic reductive view. Renee, what were you going to say to that?

Renee Montagne:

I was going to say I don’t mean to sound a little light about this but there is a level at which the Taliban are like the dog that caught the car. They got there the way they wanted to get there as opposed to the way when you’re speaking, Karen, about women. I’ve also been talking to women these last few months specifically about this and they did expect it. No Afghan you’ll talk to says, oh, what happened? They kind of do but basically they’ll finally admit they knew it was coming. It’s been coming for years. It’s certainly been coming since April, but they didn’t know exactly this was going to happen, which is why I’m extremely shocked. 

Michele Goodwin:

Let’s talk about that. There are people who say how in the world could the Biden administration handle this the way that they did? Others say, as you say, there are folks in Afghanistan who say they knew it was coming. How do we understand how the US pulled out of Afghanistan? Walk us through that. Karen, why don’t you start with that? Was there another way of going about this?

Karen J. Greenberg:

First of all, let me say Renee’s right. They knew the withdrawal might come but what it would actually mean there was no way to know. I think what happened with Afghanistan is, this will not surprise you as the narrative. President Trump made this deal. President Biden decided to stick largely to the framework and was insistent on sticking with this August 31 deadline of pulling out. 

It was messy. They knew it was going to be messy. This kind of gets back to our Afghanistan description. They had no idea how messy, destructive, sort of helter-skelter brutal it was going…

Michele Goodwin:

Could they have predicted that, Karen?

Karen J. Greenberg:

They could have predicted it better. How much they could have predicted, I’m not sure if they predicted it better they would have done differently. I think the decision was made we are getting out, and I think they very much wanted it not to be like this. I think there could have been…they’ve even admitted, when you hear some of the press conferences and more like we did not expect it to be this bad. The other side of that is we should have done other things or maybe we could have done other things.

Michele Goodwin:

We could, and we need to spend so much more time on this. There are many other questions that I’d like to put to you. We’ve come to this time in the show where we’re curious about what comes next and if there’s a silver lining what does that look like. So, I would like to start with you, Karen, on that. 

Given all that we’ve talked about and more that we didn’t even surface on the table, what do you see as any silver lining that comes out of this. Is it the story about women and girls, what was accomplished? Is it about people getting out, the NGOs that have come in? What is it? 

Karen J. Greenberg:

I think the story is this did not work. This task that the United States set itself did not work. At some point, we’ll have to figure out what it was but it clears the deck for trying things that were rejected that might work. Whether or not there can be some kind of leverage held over the Taliban, whether or not they want to be recognized as a government so badly that they’re willing to accommodate to certain conditions, who knows. It is partly a leap of faith but what comes next is that we can’t do what we’ve done in the past. And that in and of itself is an opportunity. 

Michele Goodwin:

Thank you, Karen. Renee?

Renee Montagne:

I would add to that that the silver lining is that, one, the Taliban may or may not have changed but the world has and the world that they’ve stepped into has changed dramatically. They’re working in a whole other game and that in fact much that has sunk into that society is just not going to go away. I don’t know what form it will take. I don’t see anything remotely like an armed uprising. I think the violence comes from other quarters if it proceeds. But with these people also out in the outside world, and Karen pointed this out how close. Many people that we know seem to really have relationships with Afghanistan. This is an entirely new ball game in that sense. They’re out here. There’s not that many of them in the scheme of things but there’s an awfully lot of them more people will come. 

There will be this culture outside of Afghanistan and a different culture inside of Afghanistan. I think somehow that, in some unknown way, will make for a better future than one might think right at this moment in time for that country. I certainly hope so. 

Michele Goodwin:

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin.” It’s a sobering episode, but I want to thank my guests Karen Greenberg, GayleTzemach Lemmon, Renee Montagne and Gaisu Yari for joining us and being part of this critical and insightful conversation. I’d also like to thank our anonymous guests for their bravery and willingness to lend their voices to this conversation. And to you our listeners, I thank you for tuning in for the full story. 

We hope you join us again for our next episode, where we will be reporting rebelling and telling it like it is with a very special guest, Professor Dorothy Roberts on issues related to the Texas abortion ban and the Supreme Court’s order allowing the law to stand. It will be an episode you will not want to miss. 

For more information on what we discussed today, then head to Msmagazine.com and be sure to subscribe to Ms’ print magazine where you’ll find in depth coverage of all the timely issues we discuss on this show, including book reviews, interviews with feminist pioneers, and much much more. Find our latest issue at your local bookstores or subscribe online at msmagazine.com. Now if you believe as we do that women’s voices matter, that equality for all persons cannot be delayed, and that rebuilding America, being unbought and unbossed and reclaiming our time are important, then be sure to rate review and subscribe to “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin” in Apple podcasts, Spotify iHeart Radio, Google podcasts and Stitcher. We are ad free and reader supported, help us reach new listeners and bring the hard hitting content you’ve come to expect by rating, reviewing and subscribing and let us know what you think about our show. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin, reporting, rebelling and telling it like it is. “On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms magazine joint production. Kathy Spillar and Michele Goodwin are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal and Oliver Haug. Our social media intern is Lillian LaSalle. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandy Phipps, editing by Will Alvarez and Marsh Allen, music by Chris J. Lee and social media assistance from Lillian LaSalle. Stephanie Wilner provides executive assistance.