By Jeffrey E. Stern
A few months ago, in downtown Kabul, a small man stood on top of a car with a megaphone in a city liberated by American troops, and faced down his government.
His quarrel was with President Ashraf Ghani. Tensions rose, a guard fired on the protestors, the man on the car turned to the man with the gun and said, “You and I are brothers, our argument is not with you.” Behind the gates, the guard lay down his weapon and wiped his eyes.
Although this protest barely registered in the American media, the scene was one Colin Powell might have wishfully imagined 15 years ago: Afghan people responding to a moment of crisis with civil disobedience, while the president to whom they were protesting was not a former warlord or corrupt oligarch, but an accomplished technocrat with decades of experience in democratic governance. He even used to be an American citizen. Overhead, a drone was flying, but not one with a missile or powerful surveillance equipment. Instead, it had a small camera mounted on a gimbal capturing footage for the nightly news broadcast–a local news industry having sprung up to keep the citizenry informed.
But most of all, the crowd’s behavior was what would have seemed too much hope for: they displayed the restraint and organization reminiscent of the most effective practitioners of nonviolent protest. Followers of Gandhi would have felt at home, as would those of Martin Luther King Jr. (who read and was informed by Gandhi, just as the man on top of car that day had read and was informed by them both).
The order was all the more remarkable for the heartbreaking cause they marched about: The protestors carried with them the decapitated bodies of seven civilians, hostages from a minority group called the Hazaras, including a seven-year-old girl, who were beheaded by their captors. The government had done nothing to save them while they were alive—it had, in fact, prevented other Hazaras from trying to save the hostages during the month they were in captivity.
The crowd did not seek some ambitious, impossible wish. They were not trying to replace the president with someone who was more like them, nor were they demanding some sweeping, over-optimistic change impossible to realize. They marched to bring the bodies to the feet of the president, and to issue two specific, eminently practical demands. Things the president might actually be able to do. They asked that he install more military checkpoints along a road frequented by Hazaras, so that the Hazaras might get kidnapped less frequently.
They asked that he move a regional army corps to a territory where many of them live. And that was basically it.
The man who stood on top of the car that day is named Aziz Royesh, and his uncanny ability to lead a crowd, guide its passion, and prevent the protest from becoming violent, moved the New York Times reporter to feature him in last weekend’s “Saturday Profile.” Royesh has been very nearly killed several times. Shot through the stomach during the county’s civil war; surrounded by a mob when he helped argue against a law that would have limited the rights of women. But he has achieved respect as a leader not for his brushes with death, not for being the fiercest warrior; he is not an Imam with a large and loyal congregation. His influence does not flow from any of sources of power American onlookers tend to assume are standard there. He is respected because he is a teacher.
Royesh himself has no schooling beyond the fifth grade, but after 9/11, when US troops invaded Afghanistan and offered a deal—disarm, build institutions for yourself, and we will protect you—he encourage his people to take it. He did not speak for all Hazaras, but Hazaras were generally in agreement with him; they were among the first to sign on to the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration process. They handed over their guns.
Then, in the slums of Kabul, Royesh went about the process of institution building, literally raising a school out of the dust, which the students mixed with water and pounded into bricks. He found ways of paying for teachers and books and buildings, even though his people were the poorest in Afghanistan, enslaved in the 19th century, banned from universities in the 20th. He found ways to bring boys and girls together to study, even when the Ministry of Education threatened him. He found ways to send boys and girls to jobs in the government, into businesses, and to study in foreign countries.
This all happened because of Americans. Royesh was able to build up his school only because America came and vanquished an oppressor, backed up a democratic government in Afghanistan, spent billions of American taxpayer money and sent over a hundred thousand US troops to keep the peace. For about six years after we arrived in 2001, Afghanistan—a country being run by religious extremists and providing a safe haven for terrorists—sprouted green shoots of democracy. People like Aziz thrived. People like Aziz were the ones with the safe haven.
And then we started to leave. This was inevitable. We don’t keep a hundred thousand troops in many places past a few of our election cycles. When President Obama announced the status of the troop withdrawal late last year, he added, as a note of assurance to American voters, that “American forces no longer patrol Afghan villages or valleys. Our troops are not engaged in major ground combat against the Taliban.”
The majority of American forces have now returned home, leaving Aziz and his followers vulnerable once again. They disarmed because we asked them to, they benefited from our support, and now that it is gone, they are targets. They are now associated with us. They kept up their end of the deal. We have not. We left behind a country without a stable government, a military still unprepared, ISIS circling, and the Taliban gaining strength. And we’ve left behind people like Aziz, carrying the beheaded bodies of his fallen kinsman, trying to talk back the bullets from another man’s gun.
The biggest fear American foreign policy experts harbored for Afghanistan, aside from it reverting to a safe haven for terrorists, was it reverting to civil war along ethnic lines. But that day in Kabul, though the reason for the protest was ethnic violence, the response was ecumenical. Aziz Royesh led not just his people out into the streets. Other ethnic groups, other sects, joined him. Here was a remarkable thing: all the varied peoples of a country whose arbitrary borders were drawn by foreigners, who now talk always of ancient tribal hatreds, and that day they came together, following a man whose status comes from building civil society through a school. He is awesomely brave, or he is naive. He’s maybe a bit of a martyr. Like the future of Afghanistan without foreign forces, it doesn’t look good, but it’s too soon to tell for sure.
Jeffrey Stern is known for a compelling narrative approach to complex social and cultural issues. His investigative work has taken him from the Oklahoma prison system to the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak and war zones across the globe – all the while covering subjects with nuance and care. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Jeffrey earned his B.A. in Public Policy from Duke University and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, where he was named a Graduate Fellow at the Stanford Center for International Conflict and Negotiation. He has written for Esquire Magazine, is a regular contributor for Vanity Fair and recently wrote a cover story for the Atlantic Monthly. He is, most recently, author of
The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War (St. Martin’s 2016)