Why this Afghan academic has decided to stay in Kabul — despite the risks
As the United States has begun the final phase of evacuations of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from the Kabul airport, we speak with Obaidullah Baheer, an Afghan academic who has decided to stay in Kabul despite the risks. Baheer's grandfather, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former mujahideen fighter once nicknamed the "Butcher of Kabul," now among the senior political figures in the country attempting to shape a post-U.S. government with the Taliban. "This country needs more educated people," says Baheer. "They're not going to have enough technocrats for a functioning government to be in place. That's why some of us have to stay behind."
TranscriptThis is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: As the United States begins the final phase of evacuations of U.S. citizens and Afghan allies from Kabul airport, we begin today's show with an Afghan college lecturer who's decided to stay in Kabul while he helps others leave. His name is Obaidullah Baheer. He just wrote a piece for the Australian [Financial] Review titled "My family fought alongside the Taliban. But I'm afraid for my friends."
He begins the piece by writing, "When Kabul fell on Sunday my father went on live TV to congratulate the Taliban on their glorious victory. As I watched him praise the jihadists, my phone buzzed with panicked messages from friends who were terrified that Taliban fighters would kill them in their homes."
Obaidullah's grandfather is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords — he was once nicknamed the "Butcher of Kabul." His father was jailed at a CIA torture site, as well as the Bagram Air Base.
Obaidullah Baheer is a lecturer at American University of Afghanistan, where he teaches a course on transitional justice. He's joining us now from Kabul.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! There's so much to talk about, but if you could start by saying why you have made the decision to stay in Kabul as you help so many of your friends try to race to Kabul airport to leave? And then talk about how that fits into your family's history.
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: Thank you for having me, Amy and Nermeen. I was lucky enough to talk to Nermeen after the initial fall of Kabul, but we've sort of — with everything that was going on, it was difficult to stay in touch. Also, that piece that I wrote was on The Economist, so don't undersell me, Amy. Thank you for having me here.
So, again, just like you said, I do enjoy a certain safety net. That means that I have the privilege to be able to do things other people might not be. And that necessarily means that it incurs responsibility. That means that I have a lot more people who look up to me for hope. I had to go on BBC two hours after Kabul fell, because I was — my students were freaking out, and they needed someone to speak sense to them.
And I know it's bleak, but I am helping my friends who are under physical threat. I have students who are reaching out to me, who I have conversations with. And when I understand that they aren't under any immediate threat, I do encourage them to stay in the country, because this country needs more educated people. The ministries are ghost towns, and they're not going to have enough technocrats for a functioning government to be in place. That's why some of us have to stay behind. I guess it's my way of laying claim to my land, as well.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Obaidullah, could you explain how, you know, as you've talked about, your unique position, given your family's history and also your experience teaching and living in a post-Taliban Afghanistan — what position does that put you in regarding a possible role in the transition from a pre- to post-Taliban — sorry, a Taliban government?
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: I grew up in a very conservative household. That meant that my education was very Salafist, as well, and I could really relate to those who were fighting the U.S. existence in Afghanistan. And that presence sort of meant quite a lot to us, more than just the politics of it. It was a matter of identity. It was a matter of moral obligation to thwart them, to get them to leave our lands and stop occupying them.
But then, as I grew up and my exposure increased, I learned to see this conflict differently. And I realized that if I could be two people at the same time, two people that were vastly different, and I could find a way to reconcile those two worlds within me, then maybe Afghanistan can reconcile the two very different visions or versions of Afghanistan that are face to face with each other right now.
There's a post-2001 generation of Taliban who are roaming the streets of Kabul now, and there's a post-2001 generation of educated Afghans who grew up under the republic, who have interacted with the West. And they have very conflicting images of each other, and it appears like they both cannot coexist. But I guess the difficult and arduous task is, in order to achieve peace or a sustainable Afghanistan, we'll have to find a place to start and then work up from there.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Obaidullah, you've said in a recent interview — you've described the scene, which, of course, has been covered extensively here, at the Kabul airport. You've described the scene as Armageddon. Could you talk about what you know of what's happening there as the August 31st deadline approaches?
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: I've had friends who slept on the floors of an airplane for a week, eating packaged meals, sharing a bathroom amongst 50 other people. I've had other friends who went to the airport quite a few times and were not allowed in. I had a student reach out to me yesterday. She is pregnant with a baby. And when she reached the gate that she was supposed to enter the airport through, she realized that the crowd meant that the risk of being trampled was very high, and she chose the life of her unborn baby over her own safe exit from the country. And the stories go on.
And those who are inside and what they've gone through — imagine yourself, if you had to leave everything you've worked for your whole life. Some people get attached to T-shirts and clothes that they wear. Imagine everything in your household, and you leave all of that behind, pack it in a suitcase. Sometimes you're not even allowed a suitcase; you just wear a backpack. That means these people went into camps in countries they've never seen before with just the shirts on their back.
That, too, after going through hell, because, especially on the first day, when people went to the airport, there was a high-ranking government official who had to see people shattering glasses, going into the pilot's cabin, pulling him out, people pulling out guns, shooting in the air. And so, she had to suffer through trauma worth a lifetime to get out of this country alive. And those are not scenes you want to have in your head or in your life.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Obaidullah, what about recent reports of private chartered planes that are flying out of the airport, including, reportedly, one run by the defense contractor Erik Prince, who is charging — the company is charging as much as $6,500 per person to ensure safe passage? The Wall Street Journal reports that among the people who have flown on one such aircraft — not the one run by the defense contractor, Erik Prince, but another private chartered jet — includes the president of your university, the American University of Afghanistan.
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: I'm no official spokesperson for the university. I'm not sure how Ian flew out of the country. It was a very difficult and complicated task getting the faculty out of the country, as well. And I think if they're charging $6,500, that's amazing, because I've actually had Afghan fixers who have reached out to me asking for $25,000 to move an old, senile woman who had to travel. And so, yeah, this is what you call shadow economies. And the saddest part is that even in such economies where people are making money, the minorities, the weaker people of the population, the disenfranchised end up making none of it. And yeah, it's thriving. And the closer the deadline approaches, the more people are getting desperate, the more they're willing to throw whatever they have at a chance of leaving the country.
And honestly, there's some blame to be taken by the Taliban, as well, because when they took over, they came into a city, to a country that didn't know them, and if they were truly concerned with a brain drain, they had to form a government as soon as possible. They had to roll out policies that really insured whatever they were saying on paper, because people really need a counterfactual to look at. If they are leaving for the West, it's because of the fear that the new regime that will take place, the social order would be the one that the Taliban had 25 years ago. So the Taliban really needed to show them that they're willing to do better. And for now, people don't see it, and they have apprehensions about what a post-U.S. or international troop withdrawal of Afghanistan is going to look like. And no side is really putting effort into alleviating those fears.
AMY GOODMAN: Obaidullah Baheer, if you can talk about what it's like to be in the streets? How many women do you see there? And what is it like for you to communicate with the Taliban, for example, at the checkpoints? What is their response to you?
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: Yeah. First off, I'm not out there to look at the women. Looks aside —
AMY GOODMAN: No, no. But I mean: Are there women in the streets? And also, you know, this warning that the Taliban has just given, that the women should stay home because their men are not trained to respect them yet, the Taliban, they were saying.
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: Yeah. Basically, what happens is, when you — I was joking, obviously. When you go out into the streets, you see women. Women are dressed very conservatively now, out of the fear that the Taliban might interact with them. Again, if you're flying under the radar as a common Afghan with Afghan clothing, traditional clothing, the Taliban don't really engage with you much. But I've heard from friends that they were stopped by Taliban fighters telling them not to wear jeans or pants. I've been stopped in a three-piece suit, and they didn't really comment on what I was wearing. They do ask to check for papers, especially the cars that are bigger and more expensive, because they have to make sure that those aren't stolen cars, because the first one-and-a-half day had a lot of looting involved. So, that's how much they interact with you.
If you go to the restaurants — the restaurants are open again. Banks are slowly opening up. There were a few sites open yesterday. And we're hoping to see more of that, because people really are out of cash. If you go to the restaurants, you don't see many-slash-any women sitting there unless with families. So, it's quite different. It's somber. And we are waiting to see what the actual policies look like.
The Taliban have asked women to not participate in their workforces, but that, too, has been — there has been a disparity in its implementation, because in, I think, Ghazni, they actually put up a separation cloth between the office to make sure that the men and women don't interact. And in Herat University, there was a conversation with the university administration with regard to segregating classes and having female faculty. Those are conversations that are taking place.
And that's why this transition phase is so important, because we need to at least negotiate a breathable space, even if it's a compromise, even if it is not ideal, but at least there's enough space for civil society to exist for some sort of access for work and education for women. And then we take it from there, again. We have case studies of Iran and Saudi Arabia. Those are very conservative societies that, either due to the need of economic diversification or due to the pressure of their own civil societies, had to modify themselves a bit. And the struggle goes on. And the hope is that even if we start marginally at a disadvantage, or majorly at a disadvantage, the hope is that with the advent of social media and mass communication and globalization, that the Afghan people can quickly find their voice, and the Taliban would have to adhere to reconcile these visions and create a third world that is sustainable, is livable for both sides.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me read from your article. "During the six years that my father was incarcerated, my anger brewed. I watched jihadi videos of Western forces maltreating enemy combatants, and imagined what my father was going through. He was released in 2008, just after I turned 18. Soon afterwards, I slid a letter under his bedroom door asking permission to join the insurgency in Afghanistan. … My father wouldn't let me go. If I went, he said, he'd be sent straight back to prison." If you can say what your conversation is with your father now? And what message do you have for President Biden?
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: My conversations with my father now are very difficult, because it appears like we are — we come from two very different worlds. I, by virtue of being his son, don't really argue with him too much with regards to his belief, because the idea is he spent 50 years of his life standing by that, and no way can I argue him out of it or convince him that what he stood for was problematic. But that doesn't mean that I compromise on what I believe in. So, it's difficult, but we try to make it work. The next line from what you read was: If that hadn't happened, I would have been the one marching on Kabul on the day Kabul fell. And I'm glad I didn't.
And the question here is, with regards to President Biden, look, I still have friends — I actually know a person who has spent 15 years in Camp Gitmo. He doesn't have a case against him. He's been there for 15 years. He has a daughter he left while she was a few months old; now she is 15 and preparing for high school very soon. These people will be forgotten. Once the U.S. withdrawal is done, once the airport situation is handled, don't let these people be lost in the pages of history. These are real human beings. If the United States could release prisoners for the Taliban, then why not release these innocents, as well?
Beyond that, Biden should have done more. His excuse that even if he had more time, the evacuation would have been like this, I don't think finds footing in reality, because if they knew, if they had intelligence assessments saying Kabul would fall in 90 days, why didn't the extraction start then? Even now there is room to negotiate and engage with the Taliban.
And remember that vision of Afghanistan that I told you, where we start with whatever we can get and then go beyond it? That is highly contingent on support from the international community, from the U.S. and its allies, to leverage in their recognition or their legitimacy granted to the Taliban, and that sort of consistent, but not overly done pressure, so that the ties between them don't cut off completely, because we don't want Afghans to suffer another isolated Afghanistan through it. So, that, engaging with the Taliban, supporting civil societies, letting Afghanistan become a more sustainable society, even if it takes years, but we start now. This is where we take our stand. And people like you and voices like yours matter. So, really push your governments to take a stand. Even if you don't owe it to Afghanistan, you owe it to humanity for that to happen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Obaidullah, very quickly, before we conclude, under what conditions do you think the U.S. and other countries around the world should recognize the Taliban government? In 1996, there were only three countries that did so, that recognized the Taliban government.
OBAIDULLAH BAHEER: I think the international community, the United States and its allies have been vocal with regards to what their conditions are, and that does make sense. There is just one thing that I want to highlight. It's just that legitimacy is not a one-time thing; it's a continuous process. So, that needs to be communicated to the Taliban, as well, because even if they, for now, promise to have an inclusive government or give access to women rights, not too much should be expected out of them, because they, too, have this reputational cost to their own fighters to create a world that they had promised them, right? So, there has to be some sort of compromise with regards to the world that it's created.
And yeah, then the international community just keeps pressuring that. Tying aid is very important with regards to conditions. And use the incentives and the leverage that you have, but also create a uniform stance. Like, it doesn't really matter if the United States chooses to not recognize the Taliban regime, if Russia and China do. So, unless all of them are on the same page, it's going to be very irrelevant as to whether a lot of countries recognize them or a few really important countries do. So, there has to be some sort of consensus in order for these leverages to work.
AMY GOODMAN: Obaidullah Baheer, I want to thank you for being with us, lecturer of transitional justice at American University of Afghanistan. He just wrote a piece headlined "My family fought alongside the Taliban. But I'm afraid for my friends." And again, he writes, "I was brought up to hate the West and everything it stood for. My grandfather, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was one of Afghanistan's most prominent mujahideen. I'm a lecturer in politics at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, specializing in conflict resolution."
This is Democracy Now! Next up, we speak with Sarah Chayes. She covered the fall of the Taliban for NPR. She went on to run a soap factory in Kandahar and later became a special adviser to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair General Mike Mullen. Stay with us.
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