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Director For Human Rights Watch Weighs In On What's Next For Afghanistan


The U.S. military has been fighting in Afghanistan for just shy of 20 years. In just 40 days, U.S. forces will be gone for good. What comes next for Afghans is more or less unknown. Among the big open questions is how to prevent a catastrophic deterioration of human rights in Afghanistan. It's a question Patricia Gossman has been thinking about. She's an associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, and she's spent more than three decades visiting Afghanistan and documenting rights abuses there. Welcome.


KELLY: Before we look ahead, let's look back. You have written about - and I'll use your words - massive human rights abuses and war crimes over these last two decades. And you say it's by all sides. Would you just paint us a picture of the array of things you're talking about?

GOSSMAN: Sure. When the U.S. came into Afghanistan after 9/11, it was an intervention largely driven by the need to retaliate for those attacks. And that shaped what happened next. The U.S. sought out allies on the ground from the warlords and strongmen and other Afghans who'd been fighting the Taliban prior to 9/11, many of whom had long track records on serious human rights abuses, including rape, summary executions, torture and so on. But for the U.S., these were the allies they felt they needed in order to prosecute the war against the Taliban. Of course, the Taliban had its own terrible track record.

KELLY: What would you say to - and I want to ask this carefully, but I'm imagining a U.S. military commander listening might say, look, we didn't have a lot of choices over who we were going to ally with and fight with. You know, Gandhi wasn't available. Saint Peter was not on the ground in Kandahar. You know, nobody who we could ally with was a saint. So choices have to be made in war. And I say I want to ask that carefully because I don't want to excuse or gloss over some of the horrific crimes that that you have helped to document.

GOSSMAN: Well, certainly choices were made, but they were the wrong choices. From the start, The U.S. sort of looked at, how can we put together something that will hold? And so it was expedient to work with people who are already fighting the Taliban. You know, if you look at, for example, the Afghanistan papers that The Washington Post, you know, produced, there are numerous conversations with people in the U.S. - among U.S. officials who are well aware of the problems that this was causing. There's a quote from former Ambassador Crocker about one of the another notorious figure who was minister of defense in the early years, Marshka Fahim (ph), and his involvement in murdering another minister. And U.S. officials entirely aware of this and even describing that as being in the presence of evil.

KELLY: Alongside abuses, there have also been human rights gains, fragile ones, but I'm thinking of women's rights in particular.

GOSSMAN: Yes, there have. And this is part of the fundamental contradiction to the U.S. approach in Afghanistan. There were very important gains and a real commitment to these. I think particularly this - what I describe is it opened up space for women's rights activists to begin to emerge and to pursue reforms. One example I like to refer to is when the constitution was being drafted, women's rights activists really pushed to make sure that that constitution included a clause that stipulated that men and women were equal. Otherwise, it would never have made it in there. Now we're faced with the return of the Taliban, stronger than ever, who have no interest in protecting those - most of those rights. They were fragile, and we're seeing now just exactly how fragile they are.

KELLY: So what, in your view, needs to happen now to hold on to what has been positive and stop things going downhill and downhill fast?

GOSSMAN: Well, I think there's also a mistake now in the way the U.S. is looking at this as the war is over for us. And it's increasingly looking like a general disengagement, regardless of some of the promises that have been made about an enduring partnership.

KELLY: Right. I am compelled to point out President Biden keeps saying, look, we're not leaving you. We will remain engaged. The embassy is open. Financial support will keep flowing.

GOSSMAN: Yes. And I hope that's true. But what we're seeing on the ground is among all embassies, including the U.S., is a downsizing. Their aid is not at the levels it used to be. So I'm afraid that what we may see - and this would be disastrous - is disengagement, a kind of a washing our hands of the whole situation as if, well, we did what we could, now we're going to leave.

KELLY: Yeah. I was going to ask, what's the most important way that the U.S., in your view, needs to engage going forward?

GOSSMAN: Continued financial support. This is the time when Afghanistan needs that continued engagement, needs to be putting pressure on the Taliban, needs financial assistance more than ever to keep vital programs in education and health care going.

KELLY: Patricia Gossman. She is associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch. Thank you very much.

GOSSMAN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.