A family sells beets, turnips, peas and beans, and potatoes and eggs on a morning in Kabul, 2002. Photograph by Jasem Ghazbanpour.

The first time Mohammad Hossein Jafarian went to Afghanistan, he was a teenager, ambling around its shared border with his country of Iran the way kids are wont to wander. Then, in the mid 1980s, he was posted as a young combat soldier to the front lines of the war against Saddam Hussein, in the west of Iran. But he was also moonlighting in the east, joining Iranian border patrols on secret forays into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. For decades thereafter, as a journalist, documentarian, and occasional diplomat, he made countless trips through Afghanistan. He has seen, from the inside, every face external powers have tried to impose on Afghanistan – communist, Taliban, American. He has seen the civil war that followed the Soviets, two Taliban takeovers, and the twenty-year American occupation.

He is also the journalist with the best access to and greatest understanding of the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley – a place the Taliban has never controlled. In 1993, Jafarian met Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Alliance’s legendary resistance leader, who fought off the Russians first, and then the Taliban. Jafarian made a celebrated six-part documentary of Massoud for Iranian TV and was with Massoud six weeks before his assassination — just two days before 9/11 — by Al-Qaeda operatives, who were aided by the Taliban.

In 1995 Jafarian himself was also critically wounded in the border region between Tajikistan and Afghanistan while covering Tajikistan’s civil war and barely made it back to Iran alive. Now, he is documenting the latest chapter in the unfolding crises of this region, following the story of Massoud’s son, who continues the fight in the Panjshir Valley — the only place in Afghanistan that the Taliban (still) does not control.

Salar Abdoh is an Iranian novelist, journalist, and essayist who has known Jafarian for the last decade. Earlier this year, in the spring, Abdoh visited Jafarian in Mashhad, in northeast Iran and close to Afghanistan. “If you’re planning to cross the border, don’t go any later than the early summer,” Jafarian said. “An Afghan army taking orders from Ashraf Ghani won’t even make it to the American withdrawal.”

That’s precisely what happened. In a series of ongoing exchanges, which Guernica is publishing in near-real time, the two writers reflect on the disasters of American imperial power, the deception of “good intentions,” and the deep roots of the crisis unfolding today.

Salar Abdoh: I’ve read my share of books and articles over the years about Afghanistan and talked to people who spent stretches of time there, but it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never come across one person who has more in-the-field experience than you have about a land that few understand but many weigh in on, far too irresponsibly.

The thing that I want to first ask you about, the thing that I suppose has irked me as I listen to Western analyses of the debacle now brought on Afghanistan — the obscene withdrawal, the countless “assets” left behind to fend for themselves, and the general misery that Afghans faced before and will face now with a Taliban that has waited two decades to mete retribution — is this notion of “nation-building” that Americans always talk about. Both left- and right-leaning American politicians take for granted that, in fact, that is what America tried to do in Afghanistan. It’s the premise that everyone begins their conversation with. Do you think that America was ever really engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan?

Mohammad Hossein Jafarian: A false premise. Someone engages in building a nation who understands that nation – its people, what they eat, what they dream, how they walk through a door, what their aspirations are. Instead you go and pluck some guy, Ashraf Ghani, from the World Bank and install him there and imagine you are building a nation? On top of that, you plant a guy whose fanatical tribalism essentially precludes any chance that a nation with the diverse makeup of Afghanistan might be able to “build” itself. If you were to look at the general makeup of Ashraf Ghani’s inner circle and that of the Taliban, they are interchangeable, nearly all Pashtun.

Imagine that you are engaged in a war with an enemy that is fast taking over one province after another in your country, yet your biggest issue of the day is to insist on eliminating Persian — the lingua franca of Afghanistan — from entrances to universities and such. Why? Because you are a Pashtun. The difference between the tribalism of Mr. Ghani and of the Taliban is only one of dress and education. One happened, at one time, to teach at Johns Hopkins University, and the other didn’t. But their frame of reference and ideological commitment is basically the same — Pashtun hegemony at the expense of everyone else. This does not mean that every Pashtun is Taliban (there are in fact many Pashtuns who are vehemently against the Taliban), nor does it mean that every non-Pashtun in Afghanistan is anti-Taliban. People too often talk of Afghanistan as if it is one homogeneous entity, the Afghan people, but this isn’t so, never has been. Yet it never appears to enter the calculations of an occupying power like the United States.

Abdoh: Why not?

Jafarian: Let’s take this another way. First of all, the people of Afghanistan risked their lives for the sake of democracy. The Taliban had threatened that whoever voted would have their finger cut off. What did this mean? It meant if you went to a voting place you had to dip your finger in indelible ink as a sign that you had voted and could not vote again — the ink did not wash off that easily. Yet people went to vote, and a few did lose a finger and more. But how did democracy play out for Ashraf Ghani and his American backers? In a country where 20 million people are eligible to vote, Ghani received just 900,000 [votes] — 300,000 of which were probably the result of fraud, which took place in broad daylight under America’s watch.

Now then, you take a situation where one segment of the population is entirely favored, and you have the ingredients for the troubles that the Afghan people have been facing for years. The 2001 Bonn Conference, which eventually gave us Hamed Karzai, the first post-US invasion president of Afghanistan, was a perfect example of this. Karzai, as a Pashtun, was imposed on the signatories at the meeting. This is democracy? Or nation-building?

So no, the entire premise of nation-building that America argues with itself over has been a phantom; it never existed. The situation that we now have is simply this: the name Ashraf Ghani has been replaced with that of the Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah — both dedicated to the Pashtun agenda.

Abdoh: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that this, more than anything else, is an ethnic issue?

Jafarian: More like an ethnic cleansing and displacement issue that once again may be on our horizons, one that everyone has decided to turn their backs on, like they did in Bosnia for the longest time, and in Rwanda — and I happened to cover the former and saw for myself what happened there.

Abdoh: What exactly could be on the horizon in your opinion?

Jafarian: The past can speak volumes for the future. When the Taliban captured Mazar Sharif in 1996, they slaughtered 2000 Shia of the Hazara ethnic group. A Taliban leader, Abdul Manan Niazi, said back then that Tajiks should go back to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, Turkmens to Turkmenistan, and the Hazaras should go to the cemetery. Those were his exact words.

Abdoh: But aren’t there Shia among the Pashtun also?

Jafarian: Exactly! There are at least 20,000, if not more, Shia who are Pashtun — I’m not sure of the exact numbers. Yet you never hear of a case of the Taliban eliminating Pashtun Shia.

Abdoh: This is a hugely important fact.

Jafarian: It is. It’s from here that you begin to understand this fight is not a religious one at all, but an ethnic one.

Abdoh: You and I have both covered wars where mass murder and carnage of indescribable magnitude became an everyday thing. I’ll never forget, for example, the testimonies that my filming partner took from the few survivors of the Camp Speicher massacre in Iraq in summer of 2014 when ISIS slayed some 1,600 Iraqi cadets — the Shia and the non-Muslims — in a mass summary execution. And now you are saying that, despite the assurance of the so-called “reformed” Taliban, you see in the long term more mass murder and genocide in the wings. This makes one’s blood curdle. Especially after twenty years of an American presence in the land. What was this all about then? So that America could tell the world women could now go skateboarding in Kabul?

I ask this for a specific reason. The other night, in one of your “live” events, a young man called from across the border in Herat, his voice plainly shaking. He said that the Americans kept insisting that under them women made a lot of progress in Afghanistan. What progress? he asked. “We’ve been burning for twenty years and more,” were his exact words.

Jafarian: One big problem with the West is exactly this: they want to reduce notions of freedom and democracy into conveniently packaged platitudes. For example, in the case of women, it would go something like, “As long as women don’t have to wear veils, are allowed to skateboard and play football, then all is well and good.” Americans suppose that examples like these show progress has been made and their presence is validated. Now, say this freed woman that they speak of happens to be a Hazara and wishes to attend university. Under Mr. Ghani’s directives, a Pashtun scoring only 30 percent on the entrance exams still got preference over a Hazara or Tajik who scored 80 percent. This is progress? If you want to put the American experience in Afghanistan in a nutshell, it might go something like this: “We don’t care if you engage in ethnic cleansing and that you have an unjust quota system, and we don’t give a damn at all if every key position in the government is occupied by just one ethnic group — in fact we prefer it that way, since it makes it easier for us — but we assure you that we’ll always make it possible for everyone, man and woman, to go skateboarding.”

Salar Abdoh

Salar Abdoh's last novel, Out of Mesopotamia, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and named a Best Book of 2020 by Publishers Weekly. His latest book is A Nearby Country Called Love (Viking Penguin, 2023). He lives and works between Tehran and New York.

Mohammad Hossein Jafarian

‌Born in 1967 in the city of Mashhad in northeastern Iran, Mohammad Hossein Jafarian is a journalist, war documentarian, and poet. Among his noted books in Persian are Windows Facing the Sea, The Wounded Shoulders of Pamir, and In the Capital of Forgetfulness. He has covered war and combat in various countries including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kashmir, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Among his many documentaries are The Lost Generation (on the war in Kosovo), The Ruby of Badakhshan (on Afghanistan), Why We Fight, and The Unfinished epic (renowned six-part documentary on the life and times of the legendary leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud). Jafarian also twice served as Iranian attaché in Afghanistan and himself was wounded there. He was also a volunteer Basij combat fighter during Iran’s long war against Saddam in the 1980s. He is widely considered in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia as authority par excellence on Afghan history and current affairs and was awarded Massoud’s famous Afghan Pakol hat for his long service to the country.

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