In Afghanistan, the freedoms of the press are under attack

Even as Joe Biden was announced as president-elect, many Afghans wondered how a new administration thousands of miles away would affect the course of their own nation and its long-running conflict. After eighteen months of negotiations, the Afghan Taliban and the US government signed an agreement last February in Doha, Qatar, which paved the way for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Afghans and non-Afghans alike saw the deal as a step toward peace in the war-torn country. 

But though the US military ceased most of its operations, the intra-Afghan conflict they entered, escalated, and in many instances precipitated continues unabated. Afghans did most of the fighting and dying prior to the Doha deal; they now do all of it, save for the emergency US air strikes called in to stiffen the resistance of the Afghan national security forces against their ever emboldened Talib enemy.

As always, most victims are civilians caught in the perpetually expanding crossfire. Schools, mosques, and other educational centers are frequently targeted by all parties, each of which reliably blames the other. 

Journalists, writers, and intellectuals are also being specifically targeted not just by both sides, but often also by clandestine forces that remain yet unknown. In November, Yama Siawash, a prominent ex-journalist, was killed in the middle of Kabul by a car bomb. Shortly afterward, Elyas Da‘ee, a reporter who worked with the US-funded Radio Liberty network, known locally as Radio Azadi, was murdered in the southern province of Helmand while his brother, also a journalist, was injured. In December, Malalai Maiwand, another journalist, was killed in Jalalabad. 

I fear a similar fate may befall even me. For months, I have received regular death threats from anonymous accounts on social media. One account that stated it was affiliated with officials in the Afghan government, and which shared government information, kept asking me about my next visit to Kabul. The account had thousands of followers. The messages mentioned my uncle, Waheed Mozhdah, a political analyst, writer, peace activist, and public intellectual, who had been killed in Kabul a year ago. “You will share the same destiny,” it read. 

Mozhdah, gray-haired and sixty-six years old with a melancholy affect, was killed on November 20, 2019, in front of our local mosque in Kabul’s Darul-Aman area by two gunmen on a motorcycle. People from all political backgrounds—liberals, democrats, secularists, former Communists, royalists, and Islamists alike—came to his funeral. “You could not say which political background he had. He was loved by all sides,” his younger brother said.

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His murderers have not been caught. When my cousin and I checked the jacket he had been wearing at the time of his death, we were puzzled. We saw no blood, no signs of a gunshot. When we examined the cloth closely, we found tiny holes—we were told by military analysts that these can be the signs of highly specialized weaponry, not often available on the black market.  

I, and others in my family, suspect that Mozhdah, a well-known critic of the Kabul government and its backers in Washington, was killed by powerful people who considered his uncomfortable views, well-expressed, a threat. The Afghan government did not investigate the assassination. 

 

IN 1979, MOZHDAH had taken up arms in the war against the brutal Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He fought mainly with his pen. He started to work as a journalist and wrote a poetry book about his experiences. In 1992, after the Afghan Communist regime in Kabul collapsed and the Mujahideen rebels took over, Mozhdah started to work in the country’s foreign ministry. In 1996 the Taliban movement, religious extremists who had risen to power promising to defend Afghans against the brutal warlords who oversaw much of the nation, overthrew most of the Mujahideen. 

But Mozhdah, amid the chaos, decided to stay in his post. The experience led him to write a book, Afghanistan Under Five Years of Taliban Rule, which became a crucial work on the militant movement and its roots, quoted by researchers and journalists across the globe. 

He also had deep knowledge about the proliferating jihadist movements in Afghanistan and their chief ideologues, including Abdullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden, whom he met in Peshawar in the late 1980s, before he rose to prominence, without giving him too much thought or attention. 

In 2001, when the Taliban regime collapsed after the United States and its allies entered Afghanistan, Mozhdah still stayed put. But the new rulers in Kabul, the government of Hamid Karzai, kicked him out of the ministry. 

He took a bureaucratic job at the Supreme Court in Kabul and focused on the research, analysis, and writing of his nation’s past and present. He retained a global perspective on the war on terror, and its attendant Islamophobia. 

He understood that extremist movements are a by-product of a larger problem: the chaos, corruption, and inequality that plague majority-Muslim nations across the world, and the brutal regimes that oversee it all. 

He was a vehement critic of the American-led occupation of Afghanistan. He believed in the freedom and sovereignty of his nation. As Kabul became a hot spot for media groups mainly financed by Western governments and NGOs or private investors tied to the political elite, he became a dissident voice. 

His phone calls were monitored by the security services. The newspaper Hashte Sobh, which was then close to those in power, released a conversation he had had with a Taliban official about the dangers of a security agreement with the US. His objection was that the agreement stipulated total impunity for foreign soldiers who were accused of war crimes. The release seemed designed to paint him as an extremist or a radical. But it was quite natural that he talked to people from all sides. He had always done it. 

A wave of stories followed. I sat beside him in our living room in Kabul while media outlets reported that he had fled to Pakistan, the stories designed to imply some nefarious Taliban connection. Later, security officials picked him up and interrogated him for a whole night. 

It did not stop him. He criticized the presidential elections in 2019, a few days before his death, and decried what he saw as the corruption of political elites who were not interested in peace, but in the continuation of war for their own interests. (Many Western observers, including foreign officials working within embassies in Kabul, shared a similar opinion.)

Many of those elites attended after his death. Some of them cried and said they felt partly responsible for what happened. I realized that, though the Afghan media had improved, and the notion of freedom of speech had spread, both were contingent on agreeing with those who wield political power in Kabul. 

It is why, even after American troops leave, even after US president Donald Trump has left office, even after my uncle’s death, Afghanistan will remain a dangerous place to be a writer who dares to question orthodoxy. 

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Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist, author, and the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims.

TOP IMAGE: Waheed Mozhdah, care of his family.