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Afghanistan: Watching It All Fall Apart (NYTimes)

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Taliban gunmen confronting pro-government protesters as they rallied in commemoration of Afghan Independence Day in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday.Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Letter from Douglas Schorzman to NYT readers

August 20, 2021

Dear reader,

Yeah, us, too. We’ve been watching Afghanistan with a sick feeling in our guts, with worry in our hearts about colleagues and friends, and with spinning heads as we try to assess the failures of vision and execution that allowed a 20-year development effort to utterly collapse over just nine days.

I started as an editor at The New York Times in 2001. And after Sept. 11, like a lot of you, my focus suddenly shifted overseas — I joined the International Desk as the first U.S. airstrikes hit Afghanistan, and the war’s turns have largely defined my career. So the headlines we’ve been writing this week feel completely surreal:

It’s hard to sort through those two decades — and all the war’s cost in lives, and living — without anger. Was all that talk about opportunity for a new generation of Afghans just false hope, or simply a lie? Is the world really safer from terrorism?

Was it really all for nothing?

I keep thinking back to a young media manager we talked to in Kabul in 2018. He’s the embodiment of what the West liked to talk about in Afghanistan: a young and worldly intellectual, an ethnic Hazara who took every advantage of the educational and business opportunities that opened up after the Taliban fell.

But times were getting alarming. It was clear the Americans wanted out. Talks were about to open between the Taliban and U.S. envoys, but it seemed the Taliban held all the cards. The Afghan government seemed just a single crisis away from falling.

A colleague asked this young Afghan what he thought would happen if the Americans just walked away. He gave a kind of half-smile and said, without hesitation, “Darkness.”

“Look,” he said, “it’s not a question of whether violence and backslide will happen — it’s when.”

It’s the when that I’m struggling with right now. The Americans left Afghanistan before they were gone, and the Taliban knew it.

The group’s senior leadership is doing victory laps in Kandahar and Kabul, discussing the terms of their control with Afghan leaders who have no leverage left at all, while American officials are trying to rush an evacuation.

For the first time, we all saw the face of the Taliban’s speed-dial spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, telling us on camera that the Taliban were ready to enter the global mainstream. He talked about rights for women. About how the war was finally over now, and everyone wanted peace.

But the veneer was already slipping before they could paint it. For weeks, American veterans’ phones have been blowing up with panicked calls from Afghan interpreters and soldiers whom the Taliban were threatening wouldn’t survive the month. The reports of vengeance killings are coming in more often now, even as the Taliban promise amnesty.

Maybe someday it will start to make sense. But the task now is to keep a spotlight on Afghanistan, and to try to keep the world from looking away.

— Doug

Douglas Schorzman is a deputy international editor for The New York Times.

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