I’m late to the funeral that is the news from Afghanistan. I was on holiday, trying not to cry every time I saw the news, and in a UK area with limited connectivity, struggling to connect with Afghan friends – and wondering if I should even be trying in case I drew more attention to them.
I’ve been involved with Afghanistan since 2004. It’s an amazing country with a resilient and inventive people. With hindsight, all of the work I’ve done there, teaching and reporting, was about repairing the damage the Taliban caused to people, society, and culture in Afghanistan. You may say but the Taliban are Afghan and have more right to shape the affairs of a tribal country than I did. And I agree that Afghanistan has suffered from the meddling of western powers throughout its history. But while it may feel like a far away conflict in which the 21st century powers should never have been involved (sound familiar at all?) – we were, and we still are. Even in Northern Ireland we are now inextricably linked to Afghanistan.
When Tom Tugendhat MP told Westminster that he had struggled with anger and grief and rage, I knew exactly what he meant. As well as the Afghans themselves, his pain was for the members of the armed forces who never came back and the military veterans like himself. But he also recognised the development and aid workers who had contributed to trying to rebuild the country after the last time the Taliban were left in charge. Northern Ireland has people from all of those categories, as I explored in 2014, when I made the BBC Radio Ulster Stories in Sound documentary Strangers in a Strange Land: How Afghanistan Changed Our Lives
In 2004 I lived and worked in Afghanistan for six months, working on developing a public service media. Our project was to train journalists to report on the country’s first presidential elections, and I was employed thanks to my experience of reporting for the BBC on Northern Ireland’s post conflict society. We travelled all over the country, working with amazing young people, eager to learn. At that time, the only media Afghanistan had was the former Soviet state broadcaster, Radio Television Afghanistan, which still functioned in a limited way, a small number of aid-funded radio stations and newspapers just starting to function, and the commercial radio station Arman.
Nearly 20 years later and that media landscape is revolutionised. Up until last week, according the NGO Nai Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, there were 464 different media outlets in Afghanistan, a country which had the best media law in the region and one of the top “Access to Information” bills in the world. Radio Arman has expanded into the Tolo TV empire and shows like Afghan Star. It was still a dangerous place for media workers. Since 2001 almost 120 have been killed. But Afghanistan’s young entrepreneurial journalists, particularly the women, had used social media to hit back. In November 2020 a woman journalist established Rukhshana Media—named after the woman who was stoned to death by the Taliban in 2015 – to produce news from the perspective of women. Crowd funders Chuffed are now trying to raise funds to keep this news agency going.
In 2014 I returned to Afghanistan after a long absence, when as well as reporting for the Radio Ulster documentary, I was also working on a women’s writing and oral history project – Afghan Women Spread the Word – as part of my work as a lecturer at Queen’s University and supported by the British Council. I was amazed at the ways Kabul had developed – even taxi drivers and shop workers now spoke English, women were sitting in the parliament, electricity was more reliable. But the women I worked with still highlighted the same old problems – corruption and nepotism. In addition, the competing cultures of the US and UK meant many areas of society were becoming commercial ventures. Universities and hospitals were available to the developing Afghan middle-class, but only because they could pay for them. I wrote a blog almost every day about my experiences, but at that time, despite the fact UK and US troops were still dying in the country, there was little reporting on or interest in Afghanistan.
So what happens now? The Taliban have said women can continue working. But Reporters Sans Frontières, an organisation that I have far more trust in, says it believes fewer than 100 of Kabul’s 700 female journalists are still working and outside of the capital only a handful are continuing to work from home.
We can, and no doubt will, talk endlessly about why the UK and US were still in Afghanistan 20 years after 9/11 and we can discuss when the mission changed from ‘liberation’ to ‘occupation’ and we can ask, as Rory Stewart MP has done, whether intervention can ever work – but at the moment I can only think about my Afghan friends. I want to tell you about these people – but even now I’m wondering if it’s safe and so I’m only giving limited details.
One, who has worked on the popular Afghan radio drama New Home New Life, for decades, is still in Kabul. New Home is like an Afghan version of The Archers, which has broadcast since the mid-90s, then to Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan. It seeks to raise levels of education and social awareness across a broad range of social themes and is very popular. That friend, who is a father and grandfather, speaks English and Russian as well as the local languages of Dari and Pashto, because he was there when the Russians invaded. He survived that, the civil war, the Taliban, the drought, and he has brought up his family and carried on developing the drama throughout the last 20 years. You would think that was enough challenge for anyone for one lifetime – but now his future is again unsure.
My other friend, a woman, has been able to come to the UK with her husband and three young children. She speaks good English and is educated. But she had just lost her father to Covid, and has had to leave her mother behind, and is now in a foreign country with little more than the clothes she was able to bring.
We can say, ‘let’s not do this again, let’s not interfere’. But what we can’t do is walk away from the places we’ve already engaged with. It’s too late.