How the 20-year war changed Afghanistan | FT Film
An Afghan photojournalist, former politician, young musician, Nato interpreter, female filmmaker, and a student whose mother was assassinated, reveal the impact of war... as US troops pull out and the Taliban gains ground
Produced, directed and edited by Joe Sinclair; co-produced by Bijan Siyamak; filmed by Ahmad Imami, Mumtaz Dildaar, Petros Gioumpasis and Joe Sinclair; graphics by Russell Birkett; additional footage from Reuters, Getty, PA Media
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The war in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead. And al-Qaeda is degraded in Afghanistan. And it's time to end the forever war.
When I'm sleeping, I see war.
You're expecting to be killed any time.
We have to be strong. We only have each other.
Thanks to our military, and our allies, and the brave fighters of Afghanistan, the Taliban regime is coming to an end.
I saw everyone was smiling. And I saw the people with the shaved beards. I was surprised that, what the hell is going on? When I came home and I asked my father and my uncles. So that's because they're showing their happiness. And then they're showing also their disgust for the Taliban that they were making people to grow beards.
The Americans lost 2,500 regular troops and another 3,500 what they call private contractors. But essentially they're there doing military type stuff. And then the Nato allies who went in with the United States lost well over 1,000 troops with 450 British troops amongst them. Perhaps inevitably, the main casualties were taken by Afghans themselves, something like 66,000 Afghan troops killed, over 40,000 Afghan civilian dead.
And indeed, there are now so many different attacks. There's a constant drumbeat of small atrocities I'm afraid now happening in Afghanistan.
Well, my name is Abdull Wahab. I'm 20 years old. I was born in 2001. My mother's name is Qadria Yasini. She was murdered by a terrorist group. So this is the portrait drawn by my brother so that we can remember her by this picture. And this is the handbag she was carrying during that attack. There are some bullet holes in these parts. There are some bullet holes in this particular letter too. And we wrote this on the Mother's Day to her. To our surprise, she kept it for, I think two years, which shows how much she cared about us and how much she was kind.
Once you get into the whole business of nation building, it becomes potentially endless. It's not just securing the cities but also trying to reconstruct the army, trying to reconstruct the economy, eradicating the drug trade, trying to improve rights for women. So you do get this incredible mission creep. But ultimately the reason they stayed 20 years was that they never really felt that they had completely suppressed the Taliban, and therefore, the risk of Islamist terrorism coming back. And they still haven't.
I must say that I'm super impressed and proud of my people with the transformation that we have made in the just two decades as a society and as citizens. We liberated the Afghan people especially the Afghan women. You see thousands and millions of girls going to school despite the security threats that we have. You see many women that they have started business. They are activists. They are working in media. And all of us are trying to rebuild our country.
We demonstrated to the Afghan citizen that they can also have a better life.
My name is Meena Karimi. I'm 16 years old. And I'm a musician. Cello have really deep sound. And I think with cello I can express things that I couldn't with words. With the music, we can show our pain, our happiness, our joy, everything.
My mother always supports me, but my father was a little bit worried. My father was at first like, she's just a girl. She can go just for one year. Then she would be old then. And she wouldn't go. My relatives saw me in the shows, some concerts, and then they start telling my parents that your daughter is into music. They start disturbing my family. And my whole family would always say, no. That's not my daughter. So because they were really against music. So that's why my family would tell them that to protect me.
And my neighbours was really against it. So my family decided to send me to my mum's friend's house. And I lived with her for three years.
As an Afghan woman, when you decide to be active outside the family, or even inside the family, if you want to be part of decision making, it's not easy. Because simply the perception that people are having is that you are a woman. And as long as you are supported and you're provided with the basic needs of life, why you have to bother about other issues? I'll give you one simple example.
Whenever we are invited to a meeting by the authorities or by the international community they prefer to talk to us about women's issues about women's rights and about women engagement in different processes in the country. They never talk to us about issues such as the peace process itself, the political situation, the rampant corruption. What could be the solution for the current conflict that we have in Afghanistan? Somehow, they think that those issues are big and serious issues that they need to discuss with the men.
And this is my first camera. And I worked nine months in a tailor shop to buy this. My name is Massoud Hossaini. I grew up in Iran. But I was born in Afghanistan in Kabul. I'm a photojournalist. Even in the war zone the life is going on. It was important for me to show happiness, sadness, and everything all together.
So it was 2007. It was Eid in Afghanistan. And it was hopeful years for Afghanistan. And we really thought that we are going to be a normal country in the world. Well, actually I saw this girl really happy and with great dresses. Those years girls and women were coming out of the houses, I mean slowly. So I took that picture. And it was a symbol of hope, symbol of freedom, symbol of the young generation in Afghanistan for me.
My name is Nesar Ahmad. I have done too many jobs in Afghanistan, especially working with the NATO forces, as an interpreter, then I came and joined Afghan commandos. People around me, they were saying his son is going to university. So he's enjoying his life. He doesn't give a fuck about his family. Sorry for using bad words. That made me a bit crazy. And I thought I'm supposed to help my family to make some money. And also that's a good help for the Afghan army.
From the cultural side, they can show the foreigners that they came from another culture and they don't know the Afghan one. I heard from other people that being an interpreter, especially in Helmand province, it's a bit weird because that's a dangerous place. And especially when the Taliban catch an interpreter, they will slay you or they will cut the head off. It was a bit hard for me thinking about that.
I click, and then explosion happened. And when the smoke come down I saw that I'm standing in this big circle of all dead and destroyed bodies. So I start taking picture when I was crying. It was a big shock. My heart was beating even more than 200. I knew that it might be another attack or it might be another danger because I was trained as a war photographer. But I decided to stay and cover because I was the only one there.
And when I get in front of her, I saw that she's trying to tell me something. But my ear couldn't hear anything because of the explosion. And I put my camera down for a second. And I told another person that she's saying something. She's telling something. She was pointing to another boy in front of her legs.
So the man lift the boy and the boy's back side of the head was completely destroyed. And he told me that this boy is dead. She start screaming, a lot of screaming. After two three days, when I was checking my photos, I saw that I was standing exactly at the place that the suicide attacker sat on the ground and exploded himself.
These photos are reminding me when I was fighting in the front line always expecting a bullet. Memories from the friends that I was with. And now they're no more existing in this world... They're martyred, they're killed by Taliban. After a bit of time, I heard the Taliban sound on the radio. And they were cursing us. You son of Bush, or son of Obama. If you are a good man, if you're a brave man, so come and face me. So I had no ammunition. I started crying there because of the personnel that got killed there, because of the army.
I started crying because of the weakness that we had there. I said, OK. If it's going like this, I don't want to kill my personnel. I don't want to hand over the tanks and the weapons to Taliban. If you have no ammunition against your enemy, you're nothing. That's why I left. I ran away. I do not... I did not ask them that I'm leaving my job. I ran away.
My mother was one of the few women that were a judge. My mum believed that women are not just created to work in home, but they have a destiny to change the world too. I for sure know that she was the best example for me, for my brother, for my family. And we will always follow her footsteps.
Well, I was eating my breakfast when my neighbour called me. He wanted to ask for my mother's number. It's kind of weird to ask for someone's mother's number. We were kind of terrified and asked the reason. They just didn't want to tell us. And in an hour or so, my uncle called me and said that in her way to work they attacked her car with guns. I was in kind of shock. I said, my uncle to shut up. It's a lie. I even screamed at him. But he said it's something that's happened. There is no changing that.
The Supreme Court proposed for her to get a gun for her defence. But she rejected. We didn't believe that there will be any threat to her because she was not hurting anyone. She was not taking any side in the political climate. And we didn't know that such a thing would happen. But I guess we were wrong.
If an attack that's happening in Afghanistan would happen to any other country but Afghanistan, you would see that people would talk about it for days. You would see that the countries are going to lower their flag half to just share the pain and suffering of that nation. There is going to be emergency meeting in the United Nations. But the violence and the killing has become so normal in Afghanistan nobody's even bothering to talk about it because they think that that's very normal in Afghanistan. It's happening on daily basis.
This whole question of winning the war brought back echoes of Vietnam. Initially, there was this hope that you would totally dismantle the Taliban and al-Qaeda. And then it gets to sort of suppress them. And then it sort of gets into, well, let's try to sort of create a functioning Afghan society. And now, again, in another echo of Vietnam, there's this horrible fear that the US and its allies will pull out. And perhaps at some point the Taliban will return not just to large swathes of the countryside, but even to Kabul itself in an echo of the fall of Saigon in 1975.
When I was in my car, so they were just shooting from both sides. The bullets were going from here both this way to that way. You can see some... I thought that the war would be finished in 2010 or 2011. And then the rest I will record peace. I will record the smile of children, women. Everything would be great. But it didn't happen.
I spent the best years of the life taking the war pictures, taking violence, trying to show that war is bad. But nothing has changed. I am also disappointed. I was wounded 11 times. And I escaped alive 11 times. Only for my country, for my people, destroying my own mentality. When I'm sleeping, I see war. When I'm out, I see war. When I'm here, I see dead bodies. And I always suffer.
So many, many times I receive the threats that they tell me that your name is in the list. You are in the hit list.
They use kafir. Kafir means infidel. It means the one with no religion. It says, your son has worked with kafir, if we catch him, we're going to kill him.
Your car is this model. The number is this model. You go and meet these friends. And because you are against Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan, and you're trying to bring the ideas and culture of the west into Afghanistan, our court kind of finalised to kill you. To execute you.
There are times that I work from home for weeks because of those threats.
Right now, probably it's three month that I don't go much out. And if I go, I do not take my car. I try to bike when it's dark.
I decided to leave the country. I thought it might be the safest place, to live outside of Afghanistan.
Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.
...means for each person his own homeland is a paradise for him. I ended up to here from a shitty place named Camp Moria. So I'm quite happy here.
I believe the American people understand that we've got a mighty struggle on our hands, and that there will be sacrifice.
America's war in Afghanistan will come to a responsible end.
We're coming back. We're almost finished. We're pulling finally these endless wars.
I've concluded that it's time to end America's longest war. It's time for American troops to come home.
I think he feels very personally that you can't take the lives and the service of these American soldiers for granted. But there's also a geopolitical thing. The United States over the last decade has become increasingly preoccupied by the rise of China. Biden and even actually before him, the people in the Trump administration, see this as the defining challenge for the United States. And increasingly, they see conflicts like the one in Afghanistan, or even Syria, as a distraction, as something where they will waste resources, not just financial but even if you like mental, the amount of time they spend thinking about this thing.
The risk is increase in violence, Taliban becoming more aggressive. The states that they are sponsoring Taliban might provide more resources to the Taliban for intensifying their fight. On top of that we see limitations on the side of Afghan national security forces. We also see the organisations of the different militias in different parts of Afghanistan that actually will begin to join the fight against the Taliban for protecting their community.
So as a result, slowly and gradually, we will be moving towards civil war, which is going to be absolutely bloody.
You will see that with determination, with unity, and with the partnership, we will overcome all odds. Thank you, Mr President.
I thought that they betrayed us. If they didn't come here and they just bombed and go and take and arrest Osama bin Laden, and wouldn't touch my life, or other people's life, come to Afghanistan, build a lot of things, change a lot of people's dream, and make a lot of other new dreams for the young people, that was much, much better.
I was two years when the conflict started in Afghanistan. And we're still in that conflict. All we see is intimidation, violence, and injustice, and impunity. So for us the model where you see that the communities are living in harmony with each other, they are trying to resolve their disputes peacefully with each other, is a model that we have not experienced in Afghanistan.
They spent a lot of money for weapons, for a lot of other things. But they never tried to change the culture. They never tried to create the idea of peace. So it means that they didn't want peace happening here. We have dog fightings, we have cock fightings, we have bird fightings, we have everything fighting here. For sure that we should change this culture. This is not a good culture. Right? People are using a lot of violence against each other. We needed to change that. We needed to bring the youth and make them busy with arts.
So I composed a piece named 'Dawn'. And it's about the struggles of women and the problems that they faced in past and the problems that they are facing right now. The name is 'Dawn' because now it's like a dawn and all the women are standing for their rights and fighting for their rights to achieve it. Yeah, it's not finished because we are still fighting for our rights in Afghanistan.
When we achieve all of our rights in Afghanistan I'll definitely finish it, like in the really happy ending.
It's about four decades of war in Afghanistan. Even if you ask a kid, what do you need in your country, they will ask for peace.
Well, the situations these days are really, really bad. But we have to be strong in all these times because we only have each other. It's like, we Afghans have each other.
The change always starts from small things but grow to bigger things. I still think that there is going to be hope. There is going to be a change. And I think Afghanistan will get better. And one day we will experience the freedom that every other country has. And I really hope for that day to arrive. That will be a dream come true.