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When Photos Don't Tell the Whole Story in Afghanistan
A burqa-clad woman sits in a Kabul street and begs for money or food. She is sitting right outside the entrance to the airport, a mile down the street from what was the U.S. embassy compound and the headquarters of the international military mission in Afghanistan.
In her lap—not visible in this photo—is an infant. Cars pass by spraying dust on them. People walk past indifferent. She might as well not exist.
What goes through your mind when looking at this photo? Outrage, frustration, sadness? Perhaps a feeling of devastation that Afghan women have been stripped of their dignity and reduced to begging in the streets since the Taliban came back into power?
Maybe you feel anger toward former President Trump for signing the deal that led to the Afghan withdrawal, or President Biden for following through with the withdrawal agreement. Maybe you are furious that at this stage in human existence there is still a backward, repressive, misogynistic regime like the Taliban in power today.
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Now, let me give you one more piece of context to this picture. It is not recent—as in since the Taliban returned to power.
I took this photo in 2014. The internationally backed democratic government of Afghanistan was still in power. There were tens of thousands of foreign troops, development workers, humanitarians, and others in the country administering billions of dollars of projects to develop and “reconstruct” Afghanistan.
Now what goes through your mind? Seeing that Afghan women were still covered and begging in the streets of the capital during the height of the international effort in Afghanistan, how does that make you feel about the 20-year campaign?
I am writing about this because yesterday I saw a post on LinkedIn showing photos of Afghan women sleeping in the streets and sitting in the mud and snow with their young children begging for help. The photos were devastating.
And the message from the Afghan who posted it was clear. He was showing the plight of Afghan women “deprived of basic rights and human dignity.”
It was a powerful post, and I think most people seeing it would feel a sense of outrage over what the Taliban has done to Afghanistan, and particularly the Afghan women, since returning to power.
However, I had a different reaction when I saw the photos on LinkedIn. I saw the photos of suffering women and children and my first thought was, “That’s nothing new.” I wondered if they were in fact recent, or if they had been taken in 1993, 2003, 2013, or 2023.
I saw the images less as a statement about women’s rights and more as an indictment of the rampant poverty in Afghanistan that has been the case for decades. Afghanistan has been one of the poorest countries in the world since it became an independent nation in 1919.
Plus, it’s important to note that the Soviet, civil, and American-led wars in Afghanistan created thousands of widows in a nation with no safety net.
During the 20-year international effort to transform the country after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan was still one of the poorest nations in the world with millions living in abject poverty untouched by the aid and support from the international community.
In fact, after an initial drop in the poverty rate after the war started in 2001, poverty steadily worsened, according to the World Bank—the orange dots show the poverty rate.
Despite the billions poured into Afghanistan during two decades of international intervention, the poverty rate was as bad in 2020—before the U.S. withdrawal—as it was at the time of the fall of the Taliban. Plus, the population of the country almost doubled in that time, meaning in real numbers, there were millions more Afghans living in poverty when the United States withdrew than when U.S. troops first entered the country.
During my two trips to Afghanistan in 2009 and then when I lived in the country from 2012 through 2014, I saw suffering women and children in the streets every day. My driver often had to swerve around them as they sat covered in the middle of Kabul streets holding out their hands begging for help.
Frankly, it is like passing homeless people in American cities—it is something so commonplace, so etched into the fabric of daily life, that many of us become numb to it. It’s just part of the urban tableau.
When I lived in Kabul, just outside the walls of the U.S. embassy, Afghan women with sickly looking children sat begging in the streets. Inside the massive embassy compound, well-paid and well-fed—and largely well-intentioned—diplomats and aid workers mingled with privileged Afghans—some of them worked for the embassy or international organizations, others were beneficiaries of training and empowerment programs.
The media were frequently invited into the compound to cover events designed to show the “progress” and “gains” in Afghanistan and how the country was changing into a rights-centric democracy thanks to the beneficence of the western world.
Early in my tenure, before I had a better sense of the disconnect between the programs and life outside the donor bubble, the embassy flew in Lorrie Fair from the U.S. women's soccer team to conduct a clinic with the Afghan women’s team. I was the lone journalist invited to cover the event.
Lorrie and the Afghan women kicked balls around the embassy tennis court as armed guards stood watch along the compound walls. The Afghan women talked about how much they loved the sport and dreamed of playing in the World Cup. Lorrie talked about how moving it was to see the Afghan women overcoming hardship.
It was one of those feel-good stories that reinforced the constant messaging about how a young generation of progressive Afghans was going to transform the country.
My coverage included a nod to the fact that broader Afghan society still wasn’t exactly accepting of women playing sports, but because it was a “good news” story, it glossed over the fact that some of the women on the team had to live in hiding because of threats from their own relatives.
That was one of the ugly realities of women’s empowerment programs in Afghanistan. Outside Afghanistan’s cities, attitudes about women and cultural practices changed little after the Taliban.
As I wrote in May 2021, when it came to women’s rights, Afghanistan was changing on the margins, but it was not transforming as a whole. Empowerment programs were creating bubbles and raising expectations, but they were not changing the nature of the Afghan patriarchy that dominated life outside the urban centers touched by foreign funding. Girls and women who came into Kabul for internationally funded empowerment programs often went home to villages where values were closer to those of the Taliban than the United Nations and girls were still being abused or sold off to pay debts.
Hence, as I have written many times, the gains were largely ephemeral. Women could flourish as long as western guns and money were in the country supporting them. Even if the Afghan government had been able to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban, there would have been some bargaining of women’s rights in the process. Sadly, that would have been a far better outcome than the current situation.
To return to the LinkedIn post, it’s important to understand the full picture. Afghan women are suffering immensely under the brutal rule of the Taliban. The fanatics, despite early claims to the contrary—that no one should have believed—eviscerated the rights and freedoms the international community promised Afghan women.
Because of the Taliban’s cruelty, most of the international community refuses to recognize them as a legitimate government, which has further devastated what was a pitiful economy. The humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is epic. More than half the people—essentially equivalent to the amount the population has grown since 2001—is in distress and needing assistance.
That means there will be more burqa-clad women out in the streets begging for help. And there will continue to be gut-wrenching posts from people calling attention to the situation.
However, the problem remains, what to do about it? This is another discussion altogether and it gets to the topic of a future post—the problem with punditry.
Right now, there is no shortage of people condemning what the Taliban has done and calling for action. Unfortunately, there are few proposing concrete steps to take to solve the problem.
That’s part of the reason that I write about Afghanistan sparingly—I don’t have the answers. Personally, I am tired of pundits and analysts writing pieces about Afghanistan—and other crises—that articulate all the problems and then end with platitudes like, “The international community needs to do more,” or “We must do more.” Thanks, that’s helpful. Again, I plan to discuss this phenomenon in more detail in my next post.
In the meantime, things are likely to get worse in Afghanistan. The Taliban has proven resistant to the carrots of economic aid and international recognition in exchange for moderating their radical views. And there aren’t many sticks not in play already. The Taliban knows the United States isn’t going to return and topple them again.
Hopes for a resistance movement to rise up and take down the Taliban are purely aspirational at this time. I have previously argued that trying to arm, support, and otherwise encourage any resistance is a recipe for more pain and suffering.
Unfortunately, trying to alleviate the suffering in Afghanistan has become more difficult since the Taliban in its ongoing persecution of women issued a ban on Afghan women working for non-governmental organizations. As a result, many aid organizations have had to further dial back their operations in Afghanistan, leaving more people suffering.
Therefore, proposing viable policy recommendations for Afghanistan keeps getting more difficult. The Taliban is so rigid in its ideology that it is immune to reason and acting in any way in the interests of the population. Unless that changes, we are all going to be hard pressed to find ways to help Afghanistan.