Cordaid works in more than a dozen countries, but for many staff, the past six months have been dominated by the crisis in Afghanistan. This was certainly the case for gender expert Anne Kwakkenbos. For years, she has been working with a team of Afghan women to improve women’s rights in the country. In this interview, Anne reflects on a shocking and tragic year for Afghanistan, for women in particular, and also, for herself. “The tragedy didn’t start in August 2021, but many years before.”
While the US troops were preparing to leave Afghanistan, the Taliban had already taken power in some rural regions. Shortly after, the strict Islamic movement, which also ruled the country in the 1990s, began to advance towards the capital Kabul.
After two decades of foreign interference and fragile stability, the Taliban regained power by August 15, to the astonishment and dread of both the international community and a large part of the Afghan population.
In particular, women, who had acquired much more freedom after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and Afghans who had worked for foreign military missions and NGOs, had much to lose, and fear. Anne holds the fate of Afghan women especially dear. “The team I work with is doing everything it can to ensure that not only men with guns, but also those who strive for a peaceful solution, come to the negotiating table. This process has its ups and downs, but we strongly believe in it. We will not achieve peace with weapons.”
You were in Afghanistan when the international troops were getting ready to leave and the Taliban were heading for the capital. How did you experience those days?
“We were supposed to go into the provinces, talk to women and develop our strategies. But this was no longer possible. We were stuck in Kabul. Fortunately, we were able to talk and make plans with many of our partners and colleagues there. But in the meantime, the advance of the Taliban was accelerating and the tension grew. On Tuesday evening, August 3, I was having dinner with friends when we were startled by a huge bang. It was the biggest attack I had ever witnessed. We knew something was seriously wrong. The explosion came from the house of the minister of defence. Later that evening, many Afghans took to the streets. Their cry for peace and their anger at the endless violence was one of the most intense things I’ve ever experienced. We felt the combination of hope, despair and love for Afghanistan. It was harrowing.”
“I stepped into the car to go to the airport with tears in my eyes. It felt so wrong.”
Many spectators in the West were surprised by the speed at which the Taliban rose to power. Were you and your colleagues in Kabul taken by surprise as well?
“We knew time was running out. But that fast? No, we weren’t expecting that. We made haste with our plans and we worked from early morning until late at night. That weekend the embassy adjusted its travel advice. We took it seriously, of course, but we also felt that we couldn’t suddenly jump up and leave everything. There was a lot of work left to be done and we wanted to leave our colleagues behind responsibly.”
Due to the great uncertainty around the time Kabul was about to fall, just about all foreign NGO staff were called upon to leave the country. You also had to go back to the Netherlands. How did you cope with that?
“I stepped into the car to go to the airport with tears in my eyes. It felt so wrong. But if I had stayed, being a blonde, white woman, I could have caused even more problems. What was left, were all the worries. Not only the interpreters who had worked for the Dutch military were at risk, in some provinces, but women’s rights activists had also already been targeted.”
In the weeks that followed, a complex political process arose around the evacuation of Afghans who were linked to the Netherlands through the army or NGOs. How do you look back on that?
“We are very happy that we were able to bring a number of people to the Netherlands. We are still trying to get others to safety as well, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Of course, we would like to move much faster, but it’s a complicated process, with many practical challenges. How do you deal with the Taliban, for example? Or how do we get people across the border who don’t have a passport?”
“Whether we should have gone there in the first place, is irrelevant now. We went there, so now we must deal with the consequences and see what’s still possible.”
What do you think went wrong in the process?
“I think that the chaos and panic couldn’t be fully prevented. There was a motion from parliament, ready to be carried out. Suddenly, there was a new debate and it became difficult to evacuate Afghans to the Netherlands. Foreign Affairs and Defense were already putting everything in place, so it was painful to see that some politicians felt the need to put a stop to that.”
How do you see the role of the Dutch army in Afghanistan, especially in the final phase before the withdrawal?
“The military personnel I’ve met all have strong ties to the country. They’ve worked hard to make it a better place, but unfortunately, there wasn’t a good exit strategy. The NATO allies depended on the United States and there was nothing else they could do. I’m not a military strategist, so I just look at it from a pragmatic point of view. What shall we do next? Whether we should have gone there in the first place, is irrelevant now. We went there, so now we must deal with the consequences and see what’s still possible.”
How are the Afghan Cordaid staff doing?
“We are still trying to get some of our colleagues — those who are most at risk because of their work that the current regime does not particularly appreciate — to the Netherlands and support them as best as we can. Others are already back to work, in relative safety.”
And those who made it to the Netherlands? How are they doing?
“They’re busy learning Dutch and doing volunteer work. While they’re eager to take new steps, they’re just waiting around until they’re being moved to yet another refugee facility. That’s really tough on them.”
“What works best in the long term, is still a question without a clear answer.”
In your work, you mainly focus on women’s rights. What has changed for women in Afghanistan since August 15?
“That’s still hard to say. The schools will be closed until March due to the winter break. Once the schools reopen we will be able to see how many girls are still attending. The Taliban are trying to show themselves at their best and until now the consequences for women of the new regime appear not as bad as we initially feared. At the same time, there are also many worrying voices to the contrary, saying that many basic rights are already vanishing, as happened when the Taliban came to power in the 1990s. For instance, women can’t travel unaccompanied by a male family member anymore. We will need to stay on top of things.”
Meanwhile, the plight of millions of Afghans remains extremely critical. This winter, many fear an unprecedented famine might occur. In what way does Cordaid still support the population?
“In some regions, we provide emergency relief to support people with their basic needs. But we will have to think carefully about how to continue our work in Afghanistan effectively. Many activists still take to the streets to protest against the regime, often risking their own lives. It’s nice to see that this can still happen. And that it does happen. But what works best in the long term, is still a question without a clear answer. What makes me optimistic is that thanks to all the media coverage, much more people are now aware of the situation in Afghanistan. Hopefully, this will create more involvement because the country will desperately need our support.”