For more than three decades, Afghanistan has been persistently, willfully, and viciously raped by its neighbors, the great powers, its own extremists, and warlords. Its people have paid a terrible price. In Kabul, or any of the provincial towns, you can’t walk down the street for five minutes without seeing someone who has lost their leg to a landmine or their arm to a Kalashnikov bullet. Poverty and violence kept Afghanistan locked up in a completely different century than the one the rest of us inhabited.
As a result, other countries decided to manage Afghanistan’s affairs for it. Russia invaded in December 1979, determined to make sure its surrogates stayed in power. The U.S. funded and armed the most extreme Islamic fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, to resist the Russians and humiliate them. When they left in February 1989, the country fell apart. The Pakistani military backed the worst and most bloodthirsty of the mujahideen groups in order to keep Afghanistan unstable and drain off Pakistan’s own Islamic extremists. Russia, Britain and America continued to back their chosen factions. Iran maneuvered to win back Herat in the west; Pakistan turned the southeast into its economic colony. Explosions, rocket attacks, and assassinations were everyday occurrences. Anyone who could afford to, took refuge in neighboring countries.
In 1996, having fallen through its own corruption and military incompetence, the mujahideen was finally chased out of Kabul by the Taliban. The Taliban, a word that simply means religious students’ had formed themselves into a fighting force in the refugee camps of Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. Most of them had been educated in the religious schools run by the more extreme Pakistani mullahs, and they thirsted for revenge on the men they regarded as sell-outs to the West.
They were never much of an army. Nonetheless, they had the one thing every other group in Afghanistan lacked: a sense of real purpose. They believed in their own strength, and in a cause; they were remarkably successful in persuading the uncommitted warlords of Afghanistan that they alone could dominate the country. In the summer of 1996, having captured the southeastern city of Kandahar, their leader Mullah Omar called together a vast crowd of followers and held up before their enraptured eyes the robe of the Prophet Mohammed, which had been kept in the city for centuries. Then he declared jihad against the mujahideen government. Within a few months, Kabul had fallen.
The Taliban forced the country to conform to the ethics of eighth century Islam. They hung television sets in the streets, banned everything from singing to kite flying, destroyed the representation of any living object, and forced women back into the burkha and the home. “They are,” says a woman interviewed in Harriet Logan’s unmatchable, intelligent and moving book, “jealous and illiterate and know nothing. They are like wild animals.” In this atmosphere of insanity, it was hardly surprising to find that the Taliban Minister of Health, Mullah Balouch, would himself cut off the hands and feet of criminals. Taliban rule seemed like the final, insane twist of Afghanistan’s suicidal downward spiral. Logan visited Kabul soon afterwards. She was subject to all the restrictions the Taliban could impose on here, but she had a powerful determination to show the difficulties women suffered under Taliban rule. She had the help of Mary MacMakin, an American woman who managed to stay in Kabul almost until the end of the Taliban’s rule, and campaigned openly as well as secretly for an improvement in women’s lives, including their education. Under the Taliban, girls could not go to school. It was extremely dangerous to teach them, though a few brave souls continued to give lessons.
The burkha, with its narrow panel of lace, is worn only a little less from when it was made compulsory, now that the Taliban have gone. It does indeed act as a protection, a kind of camouflage. To put it on is to assume a cloak of invisibility; people who were talking to you moments before turn away and address their remarks to someone else. It is stifling in hot weather, and your narrow field of vision makes it hard to know what is happening around you. The burkha’s color, usually a light, metallic blue, suffuses your entire world. You sink into a dull passivity, like a blinkered horse; it was as beasts of burden that the Taliban essentially regarded women.
Harriet Logan’s work is a unique document of that difficult and frightening time. She is a deeply honest reporter, and gives us the women’s opinions as they are. Some women actively preferred life under the Taliban because their army had swept away the bandits and petty warlords who had made life so intolerable. Some felt safer wearing the burkha because it gave them a measure of protection in the street. Others, not necessarily the majority, were stifled by these very things, and despaired of ever being free again.
In 2001, when the Taliban had been routed and she was able to go back, Harriet Logan searched out some of the people she had met four years earlier. Those years had constituted perhaps the most extreme form of religious and political repression in the modern world. With her clear vision and reporting, Harriet Logan shows us bittersweet freedom as perfectly as she shows us life under the Taliban. “The Taliban have gone, but many of our husbands are worse,” says one of the women she speaks to.
The force of the pictures make this by far the best record of life in Kabul, before and after, that I have come across. Logan has come closer than anyone else to the real life of ordinary Afghan women during this terrible time. Her work is a superb affirmation of life as it is, rather than as we would like it to be.
John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. He has known Afghanistan since 1980, and visited it several times during the Taliban years. In 2001 he reported on the overthrow of the Taliban.