August in Kabul: America’s Last Days in Afghanistan and the Return of the Taliban is a real-life account of a journalist who returned to Kabul from Dubai to be with his “friends”, to let them know that their well-wishers had not abandoned them, even while the American forces withdrew and the Taliban took over. Most, including President Ghani, were flying out of Kabul while acclaimed photojournalist who had spent eight years there, Andrew Quilty, flew back from Dubai on 14th August, 2021.
His account traces the history of the takeover, the inception of the Taliban, the reactions of the people to their earlier regime dating from 1996 to 2001: “The Taliban were initially welcomed there, and many young, uneducated male residents, enamoured by the group’s piety, joined their ranks. But to Soviet-era communist officials, senior Hezb-i Islami figures and those with tertiary educations or financial means, the Taliban’s devoutness foretold merciless intolerance, and they left the country, travelling to the West through costly smuggling networks or to neighbouring Pakistan or Iran, joining the millions who had moved there during the Soviet war, as refugees.”
He is vocal about the Doha Agreement made by the Trump regime and executed by Biden, where the handing over left gaps which caused suffering not only among foreigners but also the local population of Afghanistan. Citizens died trying to find safety for themselves and their loved ones. Chaos prevailed and both Taliban forces and American soldiers killed innocents. With more than hundred interviews, Quilty brings the plight of these people to light. What touches the heart in this narrative is the human suffering caused by political games and beliefs. This has been captured well in the account.
That the current acknowledged rulers of Afghanistan, the Talibans, have reverted in certain senses to their past stance, especially pertaining to a major issue, the freedom of women has been acknowledged. But is this an issue that is related essentially to Taliban only or does it run deeper within the culture? Through the narrative of a young girl, Nadia, the author relates the equation for Afghani women: “Preserving the safety of women is a common sleight of hand used by Afghan men to keep those within their family under control. Neglecting such a duty and allowing a young woman the freedom to walk when they wish in the streets, to socialise with unrelated men, and to develop their understanding of the world outside the home and their ideas about their place therein, is deduced by many outside the immediate family to imply the woman is what Nadia refers to euphemistically as a ‘bad girl’. Boiled down, a ‘bad girl’ is one who cavorts and sleeps with men out of wedlock—a prostitute in Afghan terms, a great stain on a family’s honour. To avert such a possibility, rather than confront those who deliberately misinterpret the young woman’s ways and use it to undermine her family, instead, her brothers, father and male members of the extended family more often elect to restrain her behaviour.”
Women are not the only victims of a society that balks at liberal or out of the box thinking. The book is an eye-opener and reveals how the events of that August unfolded in 2021. It was an amazing coincidence that the takeover was completed on a date that coincided with the Independence Day celebrations of its neighbours, India (15th August) and Pakistan (14th August).
This account varies from an earlier account of Afghanistan written almost a century ago in its tone – that was humorous essays, a memoir by Syed Mujtaba Ali translated by Nazes Afroz from Bengali, called In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan. This is a journalistic account. But one thing that runs through both the narratives is the bonding both these writers experienced with the locals, perhaps a bond born of friendship with people who have lived in oppressed communities and the need to get the world to hear their voices. The social norms still sound the same with wild gun shots marking celebrations. But what was not mentioned in the earlier were the scars left by Soviets and American weapons – because Mujtaba Ali’s account ended at the start of the civil war (1928-29), long before the superpowers intervened in a major way, even though the then-ruler Amanullah Khan (1892-1960) had abdicated and escaped to British India.
Andrew Quilty who gives a splendid coverage of the current scenario, had been in Afghanistan since 2013. He is the recipient of nine Walkley Awards, including the Gold Walkley, for his work on Afghanistan. He has also received the George Polk Award, the World Press Photo Award and the Overseas Press Club of America award for his investigation into massacres committed by a CIA-backed Afghan militia. In this conversation, Quilty tells us more about the writing of the book and his own responses to the change in regime and the takeover, and most of all what made him return to a conflict zone.
What made you return to Kabul, when others were fleeing from a Taliban takeover?
There were two things: as a journalist and photographer, the days ahead of when I decided to return to Afghanistan were going to be the country’s most pivotal since the US invasion in 2001. Having covered the country for eight years at that point, despite the risk, I really wanted to be present to cover the period that was to follow. But more than that, at the time I really just wanted to be with my friends, both foreign and Afghan, with whom I had experienced so much with in the country over the years leading up to August 2021. While many of my Afghan friends felt the international community was abandoning them, I didn’t want them to feel their friends had as well.
In your ‘Epilogue’, you tell us that the book turned out to be different from what you had thought it would be at the start. What was it that you had wanted to start with and how has it departed from the way you had visualised it earlier?
I had envisaged writing a book about the way international military special forces had, through their tactics of night raids and air strikes, turned much of the rural Afghan population against the central government and the US-led military coalition.
You are a well-known photo-journalist and yet your book is written only in words. Why did you opt to use words instead of photographs this time?
I am currently working on a photo book that will cover the entire time I spent in Afghanistan (2013 – 2022). But my photos of the events of 2021 alone wouldn’t have been sufficient to tell the story of what happened in the detail the way words can.
In the twentieth century, a book had been written by Syed Mujtaba Ali in Bengali and translated by a journalist who was in Afghanistan, Nazes Afroz, talks of the dislodging of Amanullah by Bacha-ye-Saqao (Habibullah Kalakani) during the civil war. Can Bachai-ye-Saquao be seen as some kind of a precursor to the making of Taliban? Please elaborate.
Not really. He was of Tajik descent and so didn’t have the support of the majority Pashtuns. Also, his rule didn’t even last a year. The Taliban that took control of Afghanistan in 1996 are a closer replica of the Taliban that took control of the country in 2021 than Kalakani.
Afghanistan seems to be a country torn by the politics induced by Cold War, which of course is said to have concluded now. How would you compare the Soviet intrusion from 1979 to 1989 with the recent American intrusion which concluded with the Taliban takeover? You have mentioned how bio warfare by Soviets ruined the countryside. Please elaborate.
There are a lot of comparisons that could be made. Both the Soviets and the US-led coalition had superior technology, equipment and training. The Mujahedin and the Taliban (whose fighters call themselves Mujahedin) had poor quality weapons, funding and training, but they had a motive to fight that invading nations could never match. The nature of the style of warfare they used also made them very hard to defeat — ie. an insurgency that lives among the population, whose fighters are very difficult to distinguish from the local non-combatants.
Reading some of the case stories that you have taken up in your non-fiction, the oppression of women seems to be an accepted social norm in Afghanistan and persisted before the current invasion of the Taliban. Can you please comment on this?
While there were improvements for women in Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted in 2001 — education was once again permitted, they were allowed to work in all sectors of the workforce and allowed to own property etc. — across much of the country, especially in rural areas, many women’s lives were still highly restricted by conservative cultural norms. Despite the constitution giving women many more rights than they had previously, culture often overrode the law. That said, the Taliban have now enshrined the most conservative interpretation of cultural norms in law, and so for those families who had permitted women to live under the more permissive post-2001 laws, the choice is no longer theirs to make.
One of the major issues one gathers from various narratives as well as yours in Afghanistan is not only the lack of freedom to women but also extends to freethinkers. Is this a cultural issue, religious issue or Taliban induced?
I think this is more about stamping out dissent as well as ideas that don’t conform to the Taliban’s worldview, like communism or democracy for example. So, it’s both religious as well as a means for the Taliban to enforce those under their control to follow their very strict worldview.
The Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha. Have they changed since then to become more accepting of diverse thought?
I had hope that they might be. Most Afghans cautioned my optimism, and they seem to have been proven vindicated. While the Taliban haven’t yet destroyed any cultural heritage like the Buddhas, it took them five years in control to do that in 2001. The way they have rolled back rights in the 18 months they have been in control, it doesn’t bode well for what the next few years will bring. So far, however, they don’t seem to have been targeting ethnic minorities specifically or systematically.
The Taliban had taken control once earlier to be driven out by Americans in 2001. Can you tell us a bit about the origin of Talibans? Are they the same as Mujahedins?
The Taliban emerged from several groups that, combined, were known internationally as the Mujahedin. Once the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the seven Mujahedin factions fought for control of the country. The Taliban, whose fighters were mostly drawn from religious madrasas, and known to be better-disciplined than the other lawless factions, promised to bring order to the country. Initially they were welcomed.
You had moved to Afghanistan in 2013. Would you think of returning there now? Why?
I hadn’t planned to live in Afghanistan. Initially I went for two weeks to photograph the Afghan cricket team for an Australian magazine. I only planned to stay two weeks but quickly fell in love with the country and my work there and stayed nearly a decade. I have no plans to return as yet, but it will always be close to my heart, and I would love to return one day when it feels right.
Are you planning more books in the future? On Afghanistan?
Yes. As I mentioned, I will publish a photo book on Afghanistan later this year with Melbourne University Press. After that, let’s see.
Thank you for your time.
(This review and the online interview conducted through emails are by Mitali Chakravarty)
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