A teacher at American University in Kabul talks about his hopes for Afghanistan
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Today marks six months since Taliban fighters took control of the capital of Afghanistan. Obaidullah Baheer witnessed the day the capital changed.
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: I think about the day Kabul fell. I walked out, and the world had flipped on its head. Like, there were people running around like it was Armageddon, and the Taliban had reached the gates of Kabul.
FADEL: He's a lecturer of transitional justice at the American University in Kabul, and the 31-year-old was a child when the U.S. war and occupation began and an adult when President Biden ended the ground war just under six months ago.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It is time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.
FADEL: Other Afghans who had the opportunity fled, but Baheer stayed in Kabul. We reached him on a visit to the U.S., and I started by asking what life in the capital is like today under Taliban rule.
BAHEER: Kabul now looks drained, feels tired when you're out on the roads. And it's mostly because of the economy, because people don't really have money to travel with, jobs to go to - feels very grim at times.
FADEL: You know, you talk about people having no work, no job to go to, no money to access. The head of the World Food Programme called Afghanistan the worst humanitarian disaster on Earth right now - millions of people on the brink of starvation. The U.N. estimates that almost the entire population will plunge into poverty by the middle of the year. Why has it gotten so bad?
BAHEER: The warnings have been there, and this was going to happen even in the republic time. WFP and the U.N. had warned of alarming child malnutrition levels in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan already had a very large population under the poverty line. Afghanistan's 70% budget was aid. So keeping all of that in mind, it was a ticking bomb. And then the Taliban coming into power and so many sanctions being put on Afghanistan just meant that whatever was there - it fell apart.
FADEL: So what should be done? I mean, the Taliban is a reality. It's the de facto government of Afghanistan. There is no alternative, but it's also - there are really huge concerns. I mean, the U.N. report says over 100 former Afghan government and coalition officials have been killed since the Taliban takeover. And while the Taliban has made promises towards women, towards minority communities, the trust is not there, and it's not always the same on the ground as what is being said in Kabul. What can happen to move forward so that Afghanistan is not a pariah state?
BAHEER: The failure of the past 20 years was that we kept putting on superficial systems and institutions and expected the whole country to change. First off, the development and the change never trickled down from the urban centers to the larger rural population. But that being said, now is the time to turn towards some indigenous organic solutions, which means that the Afghans themselves have to mobilize. And this is something we're working on, a lot of the academics and people who have a voice in Afghanistan so far. We're getting together. We're organizing ourselves.
And the first step is always for a civil society to exist because then we start taking away the othering from the Taliban. Then we are a face that can sit across the table, and they're forced to acknowledge us. Based on the aid work that I'm doing in Afghanistan, the Taliban are engaging with me now, compared to a few months ago, when they wouldn't let me work, when they would pick up my team members. And secondly, the international community has huge leverages on the Taliban, including the foreign reserves that are frozen, including the Taliban leadership being on blacklists and so on, so forth. Use that leverage rather than turning around and switching the lights off and saying, if I don't see the Taliban, they don't exist.
FADEL: So it also sounds like you feel like there was a squandered opportunity to leverage these frozen funds to create an outcome that will bring the Taliban in line with what the international community expects of it.
BAHEER: The Taliban have been very problematic, but they did try to reach out to the U.N. They did try to reach out to the U.S. and ask for some sort of establishment of diplomatic ties.
FADEL: How does that work? I mean, are you talking about direct talks between the U.S. and Taliban?
BAHEER: I don't know why the whole discussion of direct talks feels so odd when the United States government bypassed the elected Republic of Afghanistan, sat with the Taliban in Qatar for years, gave them legitimacy, helped enable them travel to other countries. Like, they were a government in waiting and all of that. The current administration cannot really sign off on meetings with the Taliban face to face because supposedly there's a reputational cost. There are other alternatives. There's track 1.5 diplomacy. There is track 2 diplomacy, where you send organizations that are American but not really owned by the American government, who sit across the table with the Taliban, who communicate expectations.
FADEL: You chose to stay in Afghanistan. You probably did have an opportunity, if you wanted it, to leave. Why did you say I'm going to stay?
BAHEER: I was called by a friend, saying this government-chartered flight was leaving Kabul in the next one hour, and they had put my name on the list because they were sure that I was going to be one of the first people the Taliban would want to come for. And I refused to go. I could relate, growing up with the Taliban because my father had spent 6 1/2 years in American detention. My grandfather was out fighting the United States incursion into our country, and I had a million and one reasons to hate the United States, to be part of the fighting. So I could very much have grown up on those mountains with the Taliban and have their thinking. I became someone else, and now it makes me understand where those people are coming from. So I would keep thinking that if I could reconcile two very different versions of the world within me, then why can't Afghanistan do it?
FADEL: Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer at the American University in Kabul, and we spoke as he's visiting the United States. Thank you so much for your time.
BAHEER: Take care of yourself.
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