Why I knew the Taliban would win, and why it’s hard to have hope for Afghanistan.
Sami Yousafzai has worked as a producer for CBS News since 2005. What follows is his personal commentary on the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, and a reflection on the indelible mark that decades of ceaseless warfare have left on his country and its people.
I still can’t believe a year has passed since the Taliban came back to power in Afghanistan. When I recall the previous 12 months under the group’s brutal rule, the 20 years that came before seem like a dream.
We had an elected government — not a perfect one, but an elected one. The press had more freedom to work than in any of the six nations that border Afghanistan. Women and girls were free to go to school and work.
But after two decades of painful progress to become a 21st-century state, albeit with heavy American support, we have traveled through time and arrived back in the Stone Age.
Our country was taken from the Taliban by the Americans in 2001, and then handed back to the Taliban by the Americans with the 2020 deal signed by the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar.
I’m reminded of the time in 2006 when our CBS News crew was given permission from senior Taliban militants to shoot video and meet members at one of their strongholds in central Afghanistan. We were escorted by about 150 heavily armed militants to a site just five miles from the nearest coalition military base.
From that day, I knew the Taliban would ultimately win the war.
We spoke with one of their commanders, Mullah Najib, who’s now the deputy head of the Taliban regime’s General Directorate of Intelligence.
“They have the watches,” he told us, referring to the foreign forces in his country. “We have the time.”
I’ve never been able to get his words out of my head. He was right. The Taliban waited out the world’s most powerful military.
Then-President Donald Trump froze the peace talks in Doha between his administration and the Taliban when the group killed a U.S. soldier in September 2019. But the Taliban were persistent, and before too long the Americans came back to the negotiating table.
My own history with the Taliban goes back to its birth as a movement in 1994. Most of the Taliban’s current senior leaders were then students in the Islamic madrassas of Pakistan. My late father had a bookshop there, and I used to work with him.
Around the time that Taliban founder Mullah Omar and his original 40 or so students stormed Kandahar and overthrew an unpopular warlord who had ruled the Afghan city, many of them used to come to our bookstore. It’s where I met them.
By 1996, when the Taliban emerged as victors of a five-year Afghan civil war and captured Kabul, half of the group’s cabinet were familiar in our store. Some used it as a postal address for deliveries and correspondence.
In early August last year, I predicted in a tweet that the Taliban would be back in power by the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States.
The tweet drew a heavy backlash from pro-government officials and others.
“You are demoralizing our already demoralized national army” declared one.
But reality can be harsh.
I knew the U.S.-backed administration in Kabul was weak, the government’s soldiers had lost confidence in their leadership, and the Taliban’s deadly offensive was spreading across the country, with district after district falling to them.
It was a hard month. I was in London, where my mother had been diagnosed with cancer and was in the middle of chemo and radiotherapy. I’m her only surviving child, so I couldn’t leave her to return home to report on the country’s precipitous slide back into Taliban rule.
My family fled Afghanistan during the 1980s, as the Soviets’ brutal war against the Afghan mujahideen raged on, funded largely by the West and its allies in the region.
I’ve never been able to visit my hometown since I left as a boy. I grew up as a refugee, alongside millions of other Afghan children, in the sprawling refugee camps across the border in Peshawar, Pakistan.
Growing up there wasn’t easy, but the madrassas gave many of us at least a sense of normality. Many of our fathers were absent, back home, fighting against the invaders. I studied journalism at a university that was called “Dawat e Jihad,” or invitation to Jihad.
Many of the religious schools, even with their extremist programs, were supported by the American government and its anti-communist allies. The madrassas were dedicated to gathering young Afghans and preparing them to fight against the Soviets, using religion as a justification.
In 2008, some of the Taliban’s commanders invited me and a Japanese journalist friend for an interview. Instead, they shot me. They fired two shots, one entered my hand between my thumb and index finger and the other hit my chest, skimming past my heart and getting lodged in my left arm.
I was lucky to survive, and I still carry one of the Taliban’s bullets in my body as a souvenir. Sometimes it sets off airport metal detectors.
The fall of Kabul one year ago was also the fall of our hopes and dreams.
Before the 1980s, Afghanistan enjoyed peace for a long time. I was a child when warfare gripped my country. Now, almost 50, I’m a father and grandfather. The impact of ceaseless war is felt by generation after generation of Afghans. Our pain and sorrow never get a chance to abate.
I blame myself, sometimes, for allowing optimism and hope for my country to creep in, because it only makes reality hurt more.