In Afghanistan, a tragedy plays out before our eyes. A few months ago, I read a book by Indie author Mary Smith that provides a heart-breaking background to that tragedy. Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women tells of Smith’s work with a small health education NGO. She works with women in Mazar-i-Sharif and a remote mountain village, as well as later in Kabul. The women need permission from their fathers or husbands to attend classes, but most give it, showing different reactions. The men, and the women, of Afghanistan, are human, they are not all cut from the same cloth. One said of his headstrong wife he might as well because she was going to do it anyway. However, these women face criticism, suspicion, and potential violence as they pursue their education.
Smith teaches women, usually mothers, how to use simple measures to care for their children, to combat infant mortality and chronic sickness. The women are vibrant, often humorous about their situation. Some are skeptical at first, but later become among the best at going out among their neighbors and teaching them these same skills.
Life is uncertain, though. As Taliban advance, many flee to Pakistan and Iran. Smith leaves for Great Britain, her home country. She doesn’t know if the women she worked with and became friends with are able to escape. Later she hears that when Taliban fighters took Mazar-i-Sharif, they killed people on the streets. After 2001, with the United States and allies ending Taliban rule, she returns and hears the stories. Many of those she knows had been able to escape.
The young women have such hope. Their excitement is palpable. Suddenly, their lives have greater meaning as they help not only their families but their communities.
Before I read this book, I had never heard of Mazar-i-Sharif. I knew little about Afghan lives, and how diverse they are: the educated in Kabul, the traders and working people of Mazar city, the farmers in the rugged mountains of Hazara Jat. Her descriptions of traveling through the mountains to Pakistan will stay with you: Taliban checkpoints, no resting places, high passes.
As we watch events in Afghanistan, the accounting begins. Was U. S. involvement worth it? What will happen to the women who experienced freedom in the last twenty years? How many will escape or cope successfully until the next chapter begins? I think that’s all we can hope for in this tragic time, that this is not the end. Instead, the seeds of knowledge and hope will sprout again.
Years ago, I read a book called The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye. Ostensibly a love story set mostly in India, this book ends with a telling account of the British in Afghanistan. Coming through the Northern Frontier, which is now Pakistan, from India, the British have the bright idea they can corral Afghanistan’s resources with impunity. That experiment ends with the British, who have brought their families to live with them in Kabul, fleeing through the Khyber Pass. Afghan fighters ambush and massacre them. In Kabul, the remaining troops are massacred by a mob, including Afghan troops they trained. As they charge toward the barracks, some shout, “Jihad.” The same is heard today from Taliban fighters.
You’d think this would be a cautionary story to other countries. But no. Russia comes in and the Afghans form the Mujahideen, spawning Al Qaeda. Russia is chased back across the border. Then the United States comes in. Rather than only eradicating the training camps, we chase the Taliban across the countryside. Again, the Afghan fighters form an insurgency.
I believe removing Taliban from control was for the best, but we had no long-term plan. We inherited a divided Afghan, with those who became the new government split into factions. Partly because the opposition was and remains so fractured, Taliban could take control in 1996, and again in 2021. I’m no expert in foreign affairs, but I find reading gives me information and insight I wouldn’t otherwise have. I wish the experts at the Pentagon would read these books, and if they have read about Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, they need to realize that doing the same thing and expecting different results isn’t going to happen.