THE year was 1989. Mohd Ali Zakaria and I were in Afghanistan on assignment. We were smuggled into the country by one of the Mujahiddin groups.
While passing through Noringa village in Kunar Province, we spotted an old man reading the Quran, surrounded by boxes of ammunition, seemingly oblivious to what was happening around him.
That iconic photo was captured in April that year when Mohd Ali and I were passing through a valley where the Mujahiddins and the government forces were bombarding each other with mortars. Our driver was convinced that it was the best time for us to pass through. We stopped at one point for the Dewan Masyarakat’s photographer to shoot that image.
We were already a few days in the Kunar Province by then and we got as far as Jalalabad, the last city still held by forces loyal to the then President Najibullah. After the withdrawal of the Russian army, the country was dragged into a protracted civil war. We met many Afghan leaders in Peshawar including Professor Abdul Rabb Rasool Sayyaf who was the President of the Afghan government in exile and Gulbuddin Hekmateyar, the leader of Hisbi Islami, the most organised Mujahiddin group.
The freedom fighters were able to defeat the second biggest military power in the world yet they can’t even sit down to ensure peace. It was around 1994 when students of the masrasah (the talibs) took up arms and the rest was history. By 2001 they were already in control of Afghanistan. Then came 9/11.
The United States believing the Taliban were harbouring the mastermind of the attack, Osama bin Laden, invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban retreated but their fortitude and patience were a stuff of legend. The Americans were there the last 20 years spending more than US$2 trillion (RM8 trillion) only to withdraw in disgrace, just like the Russians did in 1989.
The Taliban swept across the country taking major cities with breakneck speed this month. For the British, the Russians, the Americans and many invaders from earlier times, it is proven that Afghanistan is indeed the “graveyard of empires”.
Like the picture of the old Mujahiddin man captured, the Taliban too have not changed their attire. Perhaps they have better weapons now than the ones we saw 32 years ago. They are still in their shalwar kameez, their distinctive hat, the pakol and the sandals.
What makes these people so brave and formidable? Rasool Sayyaf has this to say about these fighters, “We have only our faith and our love for the country.”
Is this a new dawn for Afghanistan? Will there be any grouping more powerful than the Taliban? Will there be peace and stability in that country? Or is the country on the verge of another all-out civil war created by the vacuum left by the Americans and their allies? Will there be anarchy there? Or will it become a terrorist-habouring state feared by the West?
What have the Americans achieved there? To start with, Western style democracy didn’t come easy there. On the ground Afghans are facing grim reality. The blame game “who lost Afghanistan?” is just beginning. President Joe Biden is now facing the heat for believing that the country will not be overwhelmed by the Taliban.
Of course, I am concerned like everyone else about the Taliban on the rigid interpretation of the Syariah laws, their record on matters pertaining to human rights, their penchant for brutality, their misogynistic views on women and intolerance towards education of girls.
But the Afghan people have been shackled by foreign occupation and civil wars for decades. Millions of Afghans are being displaced. In Pakistan alone there are more than five million of them mostly around Peshawar in the Northwest Province and Quetta in Baluchistan.
The population of Afghanistan is now 38 million, yet the country is one of the poorest in the world.
The country needs rebuilding. While it is true the future of the country is an Afghan responsibility, but the world must help them. The Taliban must work towards engaging all other ethnic groups (they are mostly Pashtuns) in nation-building. Without engaging the Tajiks, the Hazari and others, there will be very little opportunity to move on. National reconciliation must begin.
For now the Afghan people have no choice. And the Taliban have no choice either if they want to see an enduring peace.
They must change their ways for a better Afghanistan. Winning wars is just a baby step, winning the populace is critical and more importantly to ensure hope for the war-torn country.
The old man in the picture probably didn’t survive the ensuing civil wars after we left. He must not die in vain for the values he held on to dearly.
Johan Jaaffar is a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a diehard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.