Afghanistan: what has come of the last 20 years?

Parisa Zangeneh, who worked for a human rights agency in Kabul, writes about the latest developments in Afghanistan.

In September 2001, I was an exceptionally naive, exceptionally idealistic 17-year-old who, along with the rest of my classmates, experienced a premature end of our innocence: the September 11 attacks. On October 7th, 2001, something different happened, something that forever changed my generation's perception of the world and our role in it: the United States attacked Afghanistan.

Like those who remember where they were when President Kennedy died, I remember where l was when I heard the news of the attack. I was sitting with my friends in the chorus at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. We were there to sing the Earth Mass, which we did every year.

That year was different. Everyone was still in shock and on edge after the Twin Towers were destroyed by hijacked airplanes crashing into them. We didn’t know if there would be another attack, or what may happen. However, we made the journey from the Swarthmore train station to Penn Station, undeterred and determined to show solidarity with the people of New York.

When we got there, we heard news of another sort - that the United States had launched an attack on Afghanistan. A priest delivered the message from the pulpit to a shocked audience. I do not remember my reaction. I do remember the reactions of my friends: tears, horror, grief, and the realization that the kids we had grown up with would likely be serving in the armed forces - in scary Afghanistan - at some point. This would be our generation's Vietnam. But still, this was different from Vietnam - we were attacked. Not by the Afghan government, but by a shapeless, shadowy, enigmatic menace called al Qaeda. We knew then that nothing would ever be the same.

Fast forward to 20 years later. I am sitting in my home in Galway, Ireland, where I am reading a text on the laws of armed conflict as part of my PhD research. The Taliban has taken over control of Kabul. I can't help but wonder: what has come of the last 20 years? What have we achieved? Was it all a waste? I can look back and see how it has affected my life and development as a young girl and as an adult. I can also see how it motivated and inspired me to go to Kabul briefly in 2015 to work in human rights. Any personal or professional benefit has been far outweighed by the grief and trauma that it imposed on me, along with millions of others around the world.

When I went to Kabul, I went to work for the national human rights institution. And now my work has gone up in smoke. To be honest, countless people - international and Afghan - worked and lost so much more than me at great risk to themselves. At this moment, I don’t even know if my colleagues are alive. I watch in horror as news programs play videos of Talibs walking into the Presidential palace and of a woman being publicly flogged. It is likely that amputations and public executions will resume being imposed by criminal judges and that women will soon disappear from public life. The morality police will return.

This brings me to the question (again) - was it worth it? It was not. It was a nice dream, to quote Radiohead. For nearly 20 years, the possibility of a democratic Afghanistan was more than a nice dream - it was a living dream. But it was just a dream.