We have the time

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

"They have the Rolexes, we have the time.”

It’s years since I first heard that quote, supposedly spoken by a Taliban fighter. They were always there, waiting to return to power in Kabul, waiting for the US-led forces to leave.

Nearly 25 years ago I got a call from the CNN International news desk in Atlanta. The executive producer warned me that the 24-hour news network was about to broadcast some pictures of my ex-husband, Mark Phillips, being beaten up by the Taliban. He had gone to Afghanistan with Christiane Amanpour to cover the visit of Emma Bonino, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs at the time, to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They visited hospitals for women where there was no running water, let alone adequate health care for the patients. At some point, and for no apparent reason, the heavily-armed Taliban minders’ patience snapped. They wanted to take Mark’s camera. He managed to turn it on and record as they took it and then proceeded to cuff him around the head as he sat inside a mini-van.

I had been living in Atlanta and he in London at the time, but after that call I gave up my job at CNN International and headed to the UK.

I’m remembering those days before 9/11, now that we’re seeking the Taliban striding, unchallenged, back into power in Afghanistan. The horror of their rule is just a blink of an eye away in my mind, though a whole generation has been born and grown up since.

About a year after the Bonino episode, Mark went back to Kabul with correspondent Brent Sadler, producer Robert Wiener (the main character in the “Live From Baghdad” film) and cameraman Christian Streib. Crucially, they wouldn’t have been able to file without the help of an Afghan translator and fixer. I didn’t hear much from him while he was in the country, as I had expected. I had no idea that at one point he thought he was about to be executed, until days afterwards, when he was well away on the other side of the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. This is what I remember when I think about the Taliban.

Every step of their trip had to be negotiated: where they could go, what they could film, who they could talk to. That isn’t unusual covering authoritarian regimes or even in democracies when in sensitive situations. But the Taliban came up with a new one for the group: no images were to be captured of any living being. It sounds impossible and ridiculous, but the team ended up broadcasting an eerie and affecting bit of television history. It was a unique glimpse into life under the Taliban, filmed according to their restrictions but redolent with a sense of isolation and dehumanization that was probably not what the Talibs had planned. There were beautiful pictures of the huge red sun rising and setting against the Kabul skyline to the sound of the call to prayer, pictures of shadows of people, their clothes and shoes, the sound of children’s voices, crying babies – the spaces where people should be but were not.

In the end, I think the Taliban got fed up with dealing with the bother of foreign journalists and kicked them out. Disturbingly, they arrested the translator and fixer who had been working with them and the crew were not able to make sure he was safe before they were forced to leave.

Taliban gunmen accompanied them in a convoy across the border back towards Peshawar in Pakistan. At one point, Mark told me, they stopped all the vehicles next to a cliff, made them get out and blindfolded them, all at gunpoint. It must have been a terrifying few minutes while they tried to figure out what was going on – bear in mind that they didn’t have their translator. In the end it turned out that the Taliban had stopped to pray, and the journalists could heave huge sighs of relief. As did I, pregnant with our first child in London.

Mark went back and forth many more times, after 9/11 he was gone for four months, going in from Tajikistan this time, accompanying the Northern Alliance when they took Kabul back from the Taliban. There was another close shave when he and his translator came under sniper fire at the frontline. Afterwards, warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum took Mark’s face in his hands, impressed with his bravery.

There was the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the harsh conditions of the hills around Tora Bora, and the time when he was sent to acquire bin Laden’s video library. He would come back with appalling stories of getting onto helicopters surrounded by women trying to give him their babies so that they would have a chance away from Afghanistan.

Every time it was absolutely evident that the Taliban were no more and no less than they presented themselves – terrorist allies of terrorists, who seek to deprive their society of basic human rights using extreme violence.

Now, here we are in 2021, with American helicopters securing just enough of an area for their staff to evacuate in images reminiscent of Hugh Van Es’ iconic image of the evacuation from Saigon in 1975.

Twenty years after 9/11, it is very easy to see the US and NATO’s abandonment of the people of Afghanistan as another failed and probably doomed Western adventure. Twenty years and billions of taxpayer dollars spent on arms and development that was meant to try to draw Afghanistan away from the Taliban’s gravitational pull. From Afghanistan, the “war on terror” drew in law enforcement and intelligence agencies in the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, while terrorists radicalized communities and co-opted young people searching for identities.

The worst of it is hearing in the stories and seeing the images of the girls and women whose lives are about to be closed off from the world, deprived of education, health care, opportunity and dignity.

More than a failure, those 20 years must be more than a lesson in American self-centered stupidity. They should also be a starting point to figure out what needs to be done now to strengthen societies against the threat the Taliban pose to the world.


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