Habibullah, a Taliban soldier in Afghanistan, remembers setting land mines at age 17 on his first day of fighting near Kandahar. “I saw a Canadian tank explode and knew I had killed for the first time,” he remembers with remorse.
Three of his friends also died that day in 2009 — at the hands of Canadians, he says.
Habibullah, 30, says he forgives Canada for fighting the Taliban. He hopes Canadians can forgive him, too. “Now we must give our hands to each other,” he says.
More than 40,000 Canadians helped secure Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001. Canadians provided security across Kandahar province, rooting out Taliban insurgents, and helped train Afghanistan’s army and police force. Ending its military mission in 2014, with 158 soldiers killed, Canada shifted to humanitarian support, providing $180 million in assistance until the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.
Since then, the peace Afghanistan has been enjoying seems like a miracle to Habibullah. “I am like a baby coming into a new world,” he says. “I hate fighting.”
But although the country is no longer at war, Afghanistan’s economy is in free fall, and many are without jobs and enough to eat. Habibullah says that 26 family members depend on the pomegranates and grapes he grows with his father. He worries about how long his family can survive.
Afghans like Habibullah who spoke to the Star say they want Canada to recognize the legitimacy of the Taliban government to help get the economy restarted. They say they need more humanitarian aid to stay alive. And they worry about the possibility of a new jihad, or “holy war,” as starving former soldiers idealize their wartime lives and campaign to fight again. (The Star spoke to Afghans in Pashto over WhatsApp and is identifying them only by either their first or last name because they fear for their safety.)
The government of Canada says it has no plans to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. But it has committed to provide $56 million in aid through the United Nations, whose donors insist funds must be tied to progress on human rights.
Afghans we spoke to are divided on whether the international community should tie recognition of the Taliban and humanitarian aid to improved human rights. Some question whether such pressure could make a difference.
Commander Sayed (not his real name), Habibullah’s superior officer, cannot shake 20 years of memories of dead bodies, and of his clothes covered in blood. “I am very happy to enjoy peace for the first time,” he says. But he worries about his soldiers, who are no longer paid. The 30-year-old’s company of 70 solders is waiting at home to be called to fight, he says. Sometimes he calls them to work at checkpoints or for training, but mostly they wait, struggling to feed their families.
One of those soldiers is Rafullah, 22, who is trying keep his family alive while he waits for an opportunity to fight again. Rafullah supports his family of 12 by driving a “tuk-tuk,” a three-wheeled motorized taxi. “We eat just tea and bread,” he says. “There is no work, no job, no money.”
A recent survey by Save the Children found that 82 per cent of Afghans have lost wages since the Taliban returned to power and one in five families must send their children to work. Acute malnutrition is spiking across the country, with 95 per cent of households not having enough to eat, according to the UN.
Remembering the blood and corpses he saw as a young fighter is still very upsetting, Rafullah says. But he would be honoured to continue fighting enemies of Islam, which he believes will be rewarded in the next life.
Soldiers had more to eat and a sense of greatness when fighting jihad, he says. “Most of my friends will be happy to continue to fight.” Some are trying to persuade their commanders to deploy them on the Pakistan border, he says. They would be proud to invade the country that supported the West against them, Rafullah says.
Many in the international community worry the Taliban’s victory will encourage further extremist violence. Western countries also worry that Afghanistan will foster a haven for extremism, according to a report for the European Parliament.
Taliban Mullah Abdul, from Kandahar, says he would also fight the “Pakistan infidels who gave airports and support to the United States” if he could. But fragments from a Canadian shell left the then-36-year-old blind in 2007. And now he just hopes for jobs and food for his family.
“The day Kabul collapsed was the happiest day of my life,” he says. “But now we don’t have enough money to eat.”
Qari Mama, a 65-year-old former Oxfam charity worker from the outskirts of Kandahar, worries that the Taliban are talking about more jihad.
“They are crazy people, saying crazy things,” he says. “Pakistan is an important neighbour, and we need to make relations with the world.”
Taliban human rights abuses also anger Mama. One of his neighbours has disappeared, and he despairs at the “thousands of people killed and detained under brutal conditions.” He tells of police recently shooting and killing two women on a tuk-tuk when their driver did not stop at a checkpoint near his home.
“Now we have peace,” Mama says. “But we have nothing else.”
Jobless, Mama recently sold his car and motorcycle to buy food. His sons have university degrees in law and economics but are also unemployed. Some people must travel kilometres for water, many lack electricity and most are hungry, he says. “Afghanistan has fallen apart.”
Mama hopes the world can convince the Taliban to stop their violence and oppression but doesn’t hold much hope. The educated people have left or are leaving the country, he says. “Taliban like to be narrow-minded. They don’t want relations with non-Muslims.”
Abdullah, a 65-year-old grape farmer who fought against the invading Soviets in the 1980s, bears a grudge against Canadians for destroying his garden to build a road early in the war, but nonetheless pleads for Canada’s help. Afghans need pressure on the Taliban to “please not kill local people, not kill ex-government forces and not kill ex-government officials,” he says.
Mullah Abdul also hopes for help from Canada. Canada’s role was different from that of the United States in Afghanistan, Mullah Abdul says. “Canada did not want to hurt us. They brought us health and education.”
Since 2001, Canada has provided a total of $3.6 billion in international assistance to Afghanistan, focused on security, education, health, human rights and the rights of Afghan women and girls.
Mohammed, a 60-year-old former tribal elder, remembers Canada’s help with gratitude. “Canada created outposts close to my village of Zangiabah,” he says. “They were very polite and very kind. They were helping the people.”
“We need more help from Canadians,” says Mohammed. “We don’t need tanks. We don’t need bullets. We need support … to build our economy.”
But some Afghans say that recognition or financial assistance for the Taliban could punish ordinary Afghans. Mullah Malang, a 65-year-old former Mujahedeen rebel group commander who fought the Soviets, worries that aid money could fund more terrorism. “The world must not forgive the Taliban,” he says. “It will become the heart of extremism in the world.”
The best way to help Afghans is to help them leave the country, Mullah Malang says. “I beg the Canadians. Bring more Afghans to Canada.”
Nabila, a 19-year-old high school teacher, goes further. She says she is prepared to suffer rather than have countries like Canada provide aid or recognition to the Taliban. Nabila’s father, a former government official, is in hiding to avoid the capture and torture he says most of his colleagues have suffered. The only member of her family who is employed, Nabila says her small income must feed five people in two households.
But still Nabila advocates for sanctions on Afghanistan to pressure the Taliban. “People are starving,” she says. “But we want freedom. This government is against women.”
The Taliban reversed their promise to reopen schools for girls above the sixth grade on March 23, 2021.
Yet Nabila hopes the world could find a way to get food directly to Afghans. Like the International Rescue Committee, which says the current humanitarian crisis could lead to more deaths than 20 years of war did, Nabila worries many people will die of starvation.
Every member of her family has fallen into a deep depression, Nabila says. “We don’t know how we will survive. The world must help us.”
Habibullah, the Taliban soldier, worries about the Taliban banning girls education and hopes his young daughters will go to university. “I want them to be a doctor or a scientist,” he says. He hopes Canada will continue to help providing education and health care for girls.
“Ten years ago, we were killing Canadians and they were killing us,” he laments. “Now we have lost everything, and we need to co-operate.”
Katharine Lake Berz is a consultant and writer on Vancouver Island and in Toronto. Sharif Sharaf worked for the Globe and Mail, Vice News, ABC Australia and International Crisis Group in Afghanistan and lives in Toronto.
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