Apr 22 • 6M

Dispatches: A New Content Platform Launching Soon and Afghanistan is Not Forgotten

 
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“There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.”

Khaled Hosseini

I am excited to announce I will be heading Content for a new military/blockchain-centered initiative entitled LIBERTY BLOCKCHAIN. Please follow and support my investigative/adventure/war zone work for LIBERTY DISPATCHES here:

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Updates on Afghanistan.

Please note that you can also pre-order my forthcoming coffee table book with photographer @jakesimkinphotos: Afghanistan: The End of the US Footprint and the Rise of the Taliban Rule

An excerpt from the book:

Unlike many other conflict-drenched countries I have canvassed, where people work ceaselessly to survive and struggle and yet don’t know that life could be any different or better, Afghans have tasted something else. Something different, something more. 

Everyone in Afghanistan has lost someone. Everyone is a survivor. Everyone has a strange story to tell, usually passed on offhandedly as we eat bread and oily rice with our bare hands from plastic mats, our backs against exquisitely patterned cushions.

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There is the Mujahideen commander who told me casually about his encounter with Usama bin Ladin at an orange farm in Jalalabad in 1989. There is the witch doctor who tried to heal my woeful food poisoning by flapping his hands.

And I will not forget the women who boiled water and lathered my hair with soap when there was no electricity or running water. I will not forget the tribal elder who excitedly demonstrated the best way to fold my new checkered, silk hijab as the Taliban waited to take me away.

When I go to sleep most nights, I wonder what is and will become of the flimsy Afghan dream born in the time of the American-led war.

Two days before much of the nation’s north fell to Taliban rule, I met a thin-boned, bubbly young Afghan man by the name of Noorzai Ibrahimi. He is one of Afghanistan’s top skateboarders—having gone from a beggar boy in the streets offering to weigh people with his cracked scale to learning how to wheel and flip and fly.

Noorzai is a long and dear friend of Jake’s, who had plucked him from child poverty and taught him to skateboard years ago. He is twenty and madly in love. He laughs at the end of every sentence.

But in the height of the maddened airport evacuation, Noorzai fled his homeland, his family, his desires, or else his beloved boarding would have been rendered a thing of the past.

Small things. But small things matter inside the Afghan dream.

Everyone wants the bombing and battery to stop. The Taliban says the war is over. Yet we cannot see the peace. Is she there?

Is war ever really over? Or is this just the beginning of another war, another epoch of agony? 

Recent stories from Afghanistan

IF HE CAN GROW A BEARD, HE CAN JOIN

Once relegated to the rugged mountains or remote madrassas, Taliban foot soldiers now swarm Afghanistan’s streets. They freely patrol bustling markets, mosques, checkpoints and restaurants. Many have little idea when they were born, and when asked, generally provide a guesstimate with a possible age range.

Indeed, the former insurgency has long been known to pad its ranks with children – deemed an international war crime. However, now that the Taliban, officially termed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – is the nation’s dominant power and desperately seeking international recognition, they seemingly still have no intention to prohibit minors from joining the ranks.

“They have to be able to grow a beard,” insists Mawlawi Hayat Khan, 49, the reigning Imam at Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar’s mosque in Sange Saar, Kandahar.

Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Sayeed, the Taliban’s newly-appointed Director of Information and Culture in Kandahar, asserts that “recruitment is based on the beard.”

“Men normally grow beards between the ages of 15 to 19,” he explains. “But a good beard can be grown when a man is 18 years old, and that is a normal age for a soldier to be recruited.”

And Akif Muhajer, the 32-year-old Director of Information and Culture for Logar province, says he joined in 2004 – when he was around sixteen and once he had grown a beard. It is a standard he still maintains.

“They (recruits) must have grown a beard. All the leaders, be it at the village level, district level or provincial level – it is compulsory to see the beard, or we can’t allow them (to join),” he explains. “The person (must) have hairs on the face, but not always a full beard.”

Characterized by the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, a child soldier is defined as any person below 18 years old who is utilized by any armed group or force in any capacity – not only in a direct battlefield sense but also any minor used as a spy, cook, driver, guard or as a spoil of war in a sexual capacity.

Haji Abdul Haq Akhond Hamkar, the new Deputy Director for Counter Narcotics under the Ministry of the Interior, concurs that they follow Islamic Law meaning that the recruit “should be eligible for a full beard” and that they have no “set age.”

Yet almost every triumphant Taliban fighter you meet has been with the group for at least several years, and of the dozens I have interviewed, they have almost all attested to joining under the age of 18.

“Afghanistan is an Islamic country, and we stand against any invasion,” stresses Hamas, who carries an AK-47 around a blistered former Afghan Army Base in Logar, and wants his son – now three – to also “serve Islam by any means.”

Hamas says he is around 25 and joined the Taliban around 13 years ago, drawing some rebuke from his watchful commander, who suggests he may be closer to 30 in age.

Moreover, Qudratullah Omar Anas, a Kabul-based Talib, says he is 18 and took up arms five years ago.

“It was part of my bloodline – from my grandparents to my parents, and all my four brothers are mujahadeen,” he continues. “I want to fight until all Muslim communities live in peace – Syria, Palestine and others.”

Throughout the conflict-laden decades past, Afghan children were widely known to have been enlisted from madrassas and taken advantage of by the Taliban not only to tout weapons in the war theater but also to plant IEDs and act as “spotters” or intelligence-gathers on troop movements and the locations of U.S and Afghan government forces. Unsuspecting boys have also carried out terrorist attacks and suicide bombings.

One high-ranking Taliban Intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledges that the beard remains the mandate – even though it runs counter to international norms and standards.

CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT CHILD SOLDIERS IN AFGHANISTAN

CHINA PLANS TO REAP BIG MINING REWARDS

It requires hours of driving through narrow, bumpy tracks southeast of Kabul, cast by white bedsheets used as Taliban flags, blown-out former military bases and numerous checkpoints manned by weathered Taliban fighters.

And then it emerges – the once almost unreachable Mes Aynak mine – adorned by pools of sunlight across the arid landscape, illuminating ancient firepits and stones once melted to make coins, chiseled squares of earth creating bunkers where townsfolk slept and prayed, and piles of earth ascending to enshrine buddhas and temples reminiscent of pre-Islamic eras of antiquity.

“Nothing has been (mined) yet. China hasn’t done anything except for basic investigations,” says Atal Mushwanni, the Taliban’s new Head of Information and Culture for Logar province. “But we want to start soon.”

Although it means “little copper mine,” Mes Aynak hosts the planet’s largest, more unexploited copper deposits, to the value of 11.08 million tones and an estimated worth of $50 billion. Yet, it is also home to Central Asia’s most critical nuggets of archeological value –and the two may not go hand-in-hand, as cash-strapped Afghanistan plunges deeper into economic catastrophe under the Taliban rule.

Abdul Shukoor, the Head of Logar’s Archeology Department – who has been working on extraction sites for six years under the previous government and was brought back by the new Taliban regime, notes that they are ready to resume evacuations – with 24 engineers on-tap and 200 daily laborers identified – if and when World Bank funding comes through.

“There has been no damage to the archaeology yet since they have only done risk mitigation for the mining so far,” Shukoor explains, pointing to the world of chiseled sand-colored buildings and firepits belonging to the Zoroastrian peoples.

Even while the U.S. taxpayer was funding the frail security apparatus amid the surge of the elongated war, China’s Jiangxi Copper Co Ltd and the Metallurgical Corp of China (MCC) inked a three-decade lease at the cost of $3.4 billion for the coveted mine in 2008.

CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT CHINA AND MINING IN AFGHANISTAN

INSIDE AFGHANISTAN’S HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

Gaunt babies lay piled against each other in an assortment of cots and incubators, barely making a sound. The overstuffed wards are strangely quiet as a handful of medical staff with leathered faces and tired eyes float like ghosts from one ward to the next.

There is perhaps no worse feeling in the world than standing helplessly in a Children’s Hospital, staring into the empty eyes of the young and desperate, hamstrung to help the young and the innocent. But sadly, Kabul’s state-run Indira Gandhi Hospital is just one of many medical facilities scattered across the war-torn nation, where too many babies take their last breath.

After decades of endless wars and the Taliban back at the helm, Afghanistan now battles a conflict of a different stripe.

“There aren’t as many patients now with bullet wounds and war injuries,” Dr. Noorulhaq Yousufzai, Associate Professor of Pediatrics for Indira Gandhi, says wearily. “But the number of respiratory infections and pneumonia are becoming very high, as well as viral diseases like measles, mumps and meningitis. We have no money, no medicine.”

As I wander through the wards with peeling walls and teary faces, I see a seemingly endless stream of frail bodies carrying twig-like, purplish limbs and wisps of yellow hair poking out from tiny, balding scalps.

“The situation is not good,” Dr. Humayoon whispers, examining the chart of five-day-old Zainab. “She cannot receive oxygen normally. Her brain has not received enough oxygen, and she cannot take the milk.”

Scores of infants – and their impoverished mothers – suffer from severe malnutrition in Afghanistan. And the situation is only worsening as the harsh cold sets in and the economic crisis deepens in the months after the U.S. withdrawal and the government crumble into Taliban control.

“The mother doesn’t have good health and lacks the necessary vitamins,” Dr. Ahmadullah explains of another patient fighting for her life. “This is due to low income, difficulty obtaining food, and various physical and mental health conditions.”

The lack of medicine coming into Afghanistan is jarring, and what was left is fast running out. Doctors at Indira Gandhi admit that all they have left are supplies to treat “a common cold.” Poor, struggling mothers point out that they have to go out and find their own medicines to bring back for medical staff to administer. Laboratories across Afghanistan lack critical testing equipment. Even basics like hand sanitizer and gloves are in short supply.

CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT THE HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

HOW THE TALIBAN SEES WOMEN

Gold. Land. Sexual objects or a spoon from the kitchen drawer. Depending on where one sits, women have long been perceived as pieces of property through the eyes of the Taliban.

But what does the Taliban 2021 really think of women and their role in serving Islam?

“First, women should serve themselves to earn Allah’s satisfaction; they must understand Islamic rulings,” noted Mawlawi Hayat Khan, 49, a Kandahar native and the Imam who serves at the small Sangesar mosque where Mullah Omar founded the Taliban a quarter of a century ago. “They can do jobs like nursing and medicine, jobs that suit them and fulfill the needs of other women. That is how they can serve Islam.”

Khan also emphasized that women should help other women “understand what Islam is, and what is good and bad,” yet they must not preach religion publicly – meaning they cannot take the helm at the mosque. Inside the home and in the presence of close relatives only, women can partially show their face “to certain limits.” But if they do step outside, it should always be with a burqa or face covering, only exposing their eyes.

“Women should not attract men (by showing their face),” Khan tells me unapologetically. “And women should talk based only on need. Otherwise, it is not needed from them to speak.”

Meanwhile, Mawlawi Noor Ahmad Sayeed, the 40 or 42-year-old Director of Information and Culture in Kandahar, concurred that women “should be educated.”

“If they want to serve Islamic law specifically, they can become teachers, and they can be judges to resolve conflicts. As a mother, she has a family to take care of, and she can guide the family in the right direction,” he explains. “Tell them what’s right, what’s wrong. She can advise the man, big brother and father and advise them to do good things inside and outside the house. So they can work, they can do everything, but under the Islamic Shariah rules.”

CLICK TO READ MORE ABOUT HOW THE TALIBAN SEES WOMEN

For those interested in learning more about the aftermath of war, please pick up a copy of my latest book “Only Cry for the Living: Memos from Inside the ISIS Battlefield.”

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My new coffee table book with the amazing photographer @JakeSimkinPhotos is additionally available for pre-order, slated for release later this Spring: Afghanistan: The End of the US Footprint and the Rise of the Taliban Rule

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