Reflections on my time in Afghanistan
One month ago today (August 15th, 2021) the Taliban marched into Kabul, Afghanistan unopposed and President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. It triggered a panicked evacuation that filled our news media, and many of us no doubt watched in horror and disbelief. Amazed that after two decades of bold promises and expensive commitments, this vast operation came to an abrupt and shocking end. An embarrassing defeat. Or, “mission accomplished” according to press releases coming out of Washington and London. If you repeat something enough and shut out all evidence to the contrary, perhaps it becomes convincing enough in the end. Perhaps. Many of us are not fooled though. The fallout of the treacherous actions of certain sections of the international community will be felt for decades to come.
I would like to use this post to offer a little glimpse into my recent experiences in Afghanistan through my current job. I haven’t written about it previously, but now feels like an appropriate time. I just wish I was able to write with a more promising and positive tone.
On the desk sat this shiny new mug adorned with a black, red and green flag and three simple words. I had just entered the office that I would share with several other teachers, and one of my Afghan colleagues had placed the mug on my desk as a gift to welcome me to his country. A country that fills him with pride, and a country in which he was born, educated and now works and raises a family. A country that I imagine (until recently) filled him with expectations of a more optimistic outlook for his children.
My colleague hoped too perhaps that I would come to embrace his country. To taste its food, hear its songs, learn from its stories and poetry, understand its history, and all being well work closely with its people and participate in some tiny way to its positive future. And of course, as I spent more time in his country I too would come to do as the mug states, Love Afghanistan.
Each day this same colleague would arrive at the office with a bag full of freshly baked bread bought on the way to work. Knowing that many of us were unable to enjoy this simple pleasure due to our circumstances, he took it upon himself to bring it to us. Day after day, week after week. I never got tired of that bread. It filled the office with the most welcoming and delicious aroma, and it connected some of us to a part of Kabul we were unable to experience. Our colleague’s small but deeply kind gesture a constant reminder of how lucky we were to be there and how people consistently reached out to make us welcome, to help us feel at home, and to share their lives with us.
The morning I found that mug on my desk was August 18th, 2019, and two days prior to this I had arrived in Kabul to begin my new teaching role at the American University of Afghanistan. It was a beautiful summer day with a bright and bold blue sky illuminating the mountains surrounding the city. I never got bored of gazing out towards those mountains, and the longing to be able to explore beyond their peaks has certainly not diminished, despite having yet to realize that opportunity. One day, I hope.
As the sun set on my first day in Kabul, it brought a warm, balmy evening and the view beyond the campus (and my new home) sparkled with thousands of little lights emanating from homes that stretched as far as the eye could see up into the hills. There was a calm quiet, and as I sat and chatted with new colleagues, I felt invigorated and buoyant about my new location and job. The campus exuding a homely and welcoming atmosphere despite the huge, reinforced walls that encased it. These walls of course a constant reminder of the challenges faced by so many both within and beyond.
Earlier that day I had landed at Hamid Karzai International Airport (Kabul) to be met by security personnel who would take me (and several other newly arrived colleagues) directly to the university campus. There was no stopping en route. I sat somewhat dazed from a long journey and admittedly a little anxious as a number of instructions and updates (that meant very little to me but seemed important due to the earnest and concentrated expressions on the faces of my armed chaperones), bellowed out of two-way radios.
We weaved forcefully and efficiently through traffic, and I stared out of the window, absorbed by the sights and the streets teeming with activity. This was Kabul. A capital city steeped in a proud history and rich culture of which I was (and am) still largely ignorant. Yet also a city that had time and again received attention and come under intense scrutiny from our frequently prejudiced and ill-informed news media for many years now, obscuring and distorting the lens in which we viewed it. I hoped that my new job would help me in deconstructing some of this misinformation and misrepresentation.
As I sit here now, composing this post, I do so regrettably from the UK and not Kabul. A lot has changed since that August evening just over two years ago when I went to sleep nervously contemplating an exciting new chapter. This post is composed with an extremely heavy heart and an indescribable amount of frustration for what has transpired in recent years, months, weeks and days.
We’ve suffered from the unpredictable and (perhaps) unavoidable pandemic that left no corner of the world un-touched, severely inhibiting, but certainly not deterring our university’s drive to educate our students. However, recent political events in Afghanistan were entirely preventable and reflect an extremely uncomfortable betrayal by the international community and abandonment of a generation of Afghans who deserve better, much better.
These events have also immeasurably changed the way in which we can educate our students and cast an uncertain shadow over our future as an institution of liberal arts higher education. For now though (and hopefully in the long-term) we will continue to teach, as far as we possibly can. Education will prevail.
Our students and Afghan colleagues were promised so much by the international community. Assured that if they worked for the positive development and rebirth of their country, the world would stand by them, shoulder to shoulder and support them every step of the way. Economically, politically, militarily and ideologically. Ensuring Afghans could stand tall and forge ahead with a system to be proud of. A nation emerging from a war that had lasted far too long and caused a whole generation of people to endure often incomprehensible loss and suffering through no fault of their own. For twenty years it certainly was not perfect, but there were tangible signs of progress. Our university was a microcosm of that progress.
To avoid any potential jeopardization of security I had previously been unable to share images of the campus in which I lived and worked in Kabul. One heart-breaking outcome of recent events is the beautiful campus falling into the hands of the Taliban who now occupy and control it. Therefore, I would like to share a few images of how it looked in far more positive days before it became blighted by those who do not seek progress and those who are ignorant, intimidated and fearful of reason, global perspectives and critical thinking.
Merely a few weeks ago this small plot of land in Kabul was still brimming with energy and positivity. The university campus brought together an eclectic group of students and teachers, from all corners of Afghanistan and all corners of the world, full of hopes and dreams. Despite being enclosed inside the intimidating concrete walls, the site within offered a peaceful haven filled with green space and crucially the freedom to converse, learn, debate, build friendships and share ideas and cultures. Having lived there and experienced this first-hand, it is still incredibly difficult to accept this evaporated so swiftly.
My stay in Kabul and Afghanistan was far too brief, cut short by a global pandemic and political events beyond our control. However, over the course of my time there, I met some wonderful people, and I will never forget the generosity and kindness they afforded me. There are numerous moments that stick in my mind, but two in particular stand out.
Firstly, on a day celebrating Afghan culture, a group of students presented my colleague and I with a traditional Salwar Kameez. They had it tailored from a shop outside and gifted it to us so that we could join in and feel part of their celebrations.
On another occasion a group of students invited my colleague and I to join them for lunch. Knowing we were unable to leave the campus and visit local restaurants due to security reasons, they ordered and brought onto campus an array of Afghan cuisine to share with us. We ate delicious food and chatted with our students, learning more about their lives beyond the classroom. Once again, a simple but deeply kind gesture that made us incredibly welcome.
Right now, the future for those students and for the many other students and colleagues I met in Kabul looks highly unpredictable, and that thought leaves me with a feeling of emptiness. A lot different to the hope I felt back in August 2019. Predictably, the mainstream media has moved on and Afghan stories are slowly disappearing. However, there are scores of brave and defiant Afghan journalists, academics, civil rights activists, writers, artists, etc, etc all still working to shine a light on the darkness that has enveloped their society. I urge you to listen to them.
8 thoughts on “Beyond the Mountains”
Very good John and I agree with what you’ve said. Unfortunately interfering in cultures and countries is fraught with problems and we have created a lot in this region and ideology doesn’t help!
A very moving and somewhat sad blog John.
I hope and pray that your students can continue their studies somehow. Lovely to finally be able to see your photos of the campus.
Good to read a blog from you again John and as usual it is very informative and interesting and clearly written from the heart. Afghanistan has always seemed to me to be a troubled country, where the so called ‘big powers’ have failed to sort things out after sticking their noses in. We wait to see how things pan out now, but I fear things will get worse before they get better. Maybe, just maybe, with less interference from other world leaders, it will settle down and become stable one day. I do hope so because I’m sure the majority of Afghan people are good people.
Very interesting John. I spent spent 12 months in Kabul (2008/09) assisting in the planning and training of the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) and 6 months in Helmand (2011), on both occasions as a Ministry of Defence Police Officer and seconded on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). As much as I found the experience rewarding, and one not to forget, I never lost sight of the fact I was there to help the people of this country, more specifically the women and children, particularly girls who were previously denied education and fundamental rights that we enjoy. I have my views on the success of the involvement of the International Community and justification for being there. Your Mum and Dad are great friends of mine and very proud of your achievements and rightly so. I would look forward to speaking with you at some stage to hear of your experiences.
Thanks very much for your comment, Mike. Yes, I’d love to hear about your experiences with the AUP in Helmand. I was never able to really leave the campus much and anywhere outside of Kabul was off limits sadly.
John, I have read your blog, I can feel the emotions you presented. Only last week we took a taxi from Kingston Upon Thames, the driver was an Afghan, he had entered this country with his wife illegally. His journey to arrive in Britain was incredible. Since his arrival in 2001, he learned to speak English, he now has British citizenship, and now works as a taxi driver. He had owned a garage in Afghanistan. He gave up everything because of the Taliban.
Thanks Bob. Yes, I had a similar experience once at Kabul airport. I met an Afghan guy who was traveling back to the UK as he now lives in Camborne and owns a restaurant there. He said he had come to the UK for similar reasons.
It’s tragic that what was promising to be one of the brightest chapters in their long history will now go down as one of the darkest.