On Tuesday headlines across the globe announced the fall of the first city in Afghanistan to the newly resurgent Taliban. In their greatest success since their overthrow by the U.S. and local Afghan allies in November 2001, the Taliban took the northern plains city of Kunduz. Kunduz, a strategic hub that controls the road to neighboring Tajikistan is home to 300,000 people and a prize for the new Taliban leader Mullah Mansour.
I announced the news Tuesday morning in my class at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth 'The History of Afghanistan from Genghis Khan to the Taliban.' I desperately wanted my students to care about this catastrophic news. In a day and age where people care more about Kim Kardashian's love life than about global issues of the day, such as the course of America's longest war, it was important for me that they be concerned about this setback, and other developments in the world. I framed my discussion as "Why Should You Care" and thought I would lay out the same points here.
The first reason Americans, many of whom are perversely proud of their disconnect from other countries, should care about the fall of Kunduz is that it directly affects their security. Analysts fear that Kunduz could be first of many provincial capitals to fall like "dominoes" as the resurgent Taliban take advantage of last year's withdrawal of most U.S. troops to go on the offensive. As the emboldened Taliban come out of the hills and conquer more and more territory, they are taking control of roads, capturing strategic positions, and moving into the suburbs of towns throughout the north, south and east. In my previous trips to Afghanistan I used U.N.-provided maps that marked the fighting of the day to avoid roads where there was Taliban insurgent activity. Today, most of those roads that I freely drove on as I covered fifteen of Afghanistan's thirty four provinces are now off-limit "red zones" controlled by the Taliban.
In the ranks of the Taliban are many foreign fighters/terrorists from the Al Qaeda organization that planned 9/11 from Taliban-controlled territory. There are also members of a local ISIS offshoot known as the Vilayet of Khorosan. These terrorists, who have long been hiding in small, remote tribal territories in Pakistan where they were hunted by CIA Predator and Reaper drones now have more space to operate freely without fear in newly conquered Taliban territory. They no longer live under the constant scrutiny of drones in a small, easily surveiled region. This means they have greater opportunities to plot new mass-casualty terror plots against the U.S. mainland. The drones, which have disrupted several plots by hunting terrorists in the small tribal zones of Pakistan, can no longer monitor the foreign terrorists who are now at large in Taliban controlled provinces all over Afghanistan.
But on a deeper, human level there are other reasons why the average American, even one who does not give two hoots about global geo-strategy, should care about the latest bad news from Afghanistan. And that is the Afghan people. While I once heard a right wing radio shock jock calling for the "nuking of Afghanistan back to the stone ages" after 9/11 (I called his show and patiently explained to him that no Afghans, not even the local Taliban, were involved in the September 11th plots), the Afghans are indisputably the greatest victims of the Taliban and their Al Qaeda terrorist allies.
Let me give an example. In the summer of 2007 I spent several days in Kunduz and even then the Taliban were attacking in the surrounding countryside. But in the city itself I found beaming school girls carrying American-supplied notepads proudly attending school after a decade of being forbidden from learning by the Taliban, enjoyed warm meals in outdoor kabob restaurants with smiling Afghans--many of whom had learned how to say "hello welcome Americans!" in English, met Afghan policemen and soldiers who bravely defended their home city from the fanatics, and over and over again heard the same refrain from the people of this bustling plains town inhabited by pro-American Uzbek-Mongols, Tajik-Persians, and Aryan Pashtuns (who are both in the ranks of the insurgents and government troops) "Please tell the American soldiers not to leave! The day they go, the Taliban will be back!"
At the time, I thought their desperate pleas were a little dramatic. Not anymore.
In December of last year most U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban are now back. They have burnt the schools we built at such great cost and beheaded the brave teachers who taught in them despite the death threats, they have filled the hospitals with maimed civilians, many of them children, they are already executing "sinners" and looting, and they are unified and galvanized like never before by their stunning victory.
The Afghans of Kunduz, one of whom killed his only lamb and fed it to my wife Feyza and me as a sign of honor and gratitude during our visit to his house, have once again been propelled back into a medieval prison camp. After fourteen years of war and the cost of over 2,000 American lives, the progress America made in promoting democracy, women's rights, freedom from harsh shariah law, and peace, is unraveling and the Afghans who I talk to on Facebook are absolutely terrified. As I go about my safe life in the wealthy country of America where war is a mere abstract, my heart goes out to them. I would ask us all to think about them next time we do something like drink a Starbucks coffee that cost more than an Afghan family spends on food for a week... or hear about such "important" news as the latest Kardashian breakup.
Professor Brian Glyn Williams is author of Afghanistan Declassified. A Guide to America's Longest War, which is a civilian version of manual he wrote for the U.S. Army. For his photos from Kunduz see his website.