UU alumna Khatera: 'There may be peace in Afghanistan, but I don’t think that’s a way to live'

Photo: Khatera Shaghasi

In August, you were demonstrating on Dam Square (link to a newspaper article in Dutch, Ed.) together with two thousand other participants. As a member of the Azadi movement, you started a petition for Afghanistan to be placed on the list of unsafe countries. How did that go?
"Azadi's goal is to be the voice of the Afghan diaspora in the Netherlands and use our expertise when needed. Our petition was a success. We managed to present it to a significant number of Members of Parliament, who held a debate on Afghanistan on September 15. Now, a so-called decision and departure moratorium is in place, which ensures that refugees who have exhausted all legal remedies cannot be sent back to Afghanistan for at least six months, which was the case before. We still don’t now how things will go after January, though."

What’s your view on the resignation of outgoing ministers Sigrid Kaag (Foreign Affairs) and Ank Bijleveld (Defense) following the failed evacuation of at least 22 Afghan interpreters and their families?
"Their resignation is great for Dutch democracy and for the trust in that democracy, especially the fact that Kaag did so immediately. The Afghan people, however, have nothing to gain from it (sighs). It might have been better if they’d finished their terms. Now there’s still a lot of Afghan people waiting to be evacuated."

Based on the Dutch government's travel advice, it looks like there's no place in the world worse than Afghanistan right now. It’s almost like the worst case horror scenario (link in Dutch, Ed.). "The safety situation is extremely serious", says the government, and "medical aid and medicines are often not available." How does that make you feel?
"It feels surreal. Afghanistan's colour code has been fire red for an incredibly long time now. And that’s exactly what makes things so crazy: despite this travel advice, the cabinet stated in 2015 that there are places in Afghanistan that are safe enough to send refugees back to."

Have you ever been there?
"Yes, I have. The last time I was there was in 2017, to visit some family. They live in the capital, Kabul. I often talk to them. Although I wasn’t born in Afghanistan, I feel a strong connection to the country. I speak the language, know the culture. Nevertheless, the Netherlands is my home.

My parents fled because they could no longer imagine a future for us there. The civil war began in 1978, followed by the Soviet invasion the following year, during which foreign troops got involved in the conflict. After the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001, foreign interference became even stronger. My parents wanted my three older sisters to be safe."

How do you see the conflict?
"It’s just so painful. Every Afghan’s worst fear became reality. I started mingling in the public debate on Afghanistan in 2020. What the Western world has done to create peace in Afghanistan didn’t work, because the problem wasn’t tackled at its roots: how Taliban obtains its funds. They have been receiving financial and material support from Pakistan, among others, for years. The Afghan State only managed to remain in place because they had help from foreign troops. Everything would collapse as soon as that help was gone. And that's exactly what we saw happening."

Why does Pakistan support the Taliban?
"Afghanistan shares a 2,600-kilometre border with Pakistan. That border was once set up by the colonial Brits, but Afghanistan never acknowledged it as it runs straight through an ethnic group, causing all sorts of emotional issues. In addition, Afghanistan has loads of raw materials and Pakistan is dependent on Afghan water sources. By supporting the Taliban, Pakistan can exert more influence over Afghanistan. This is how they try to maintain control over the border and the raw materials. It’s also a way of limiting the influence of India (Pakistan's rival) in Afghanistan."

Now the worst has happened: the Taliban are in control of the country again. Do you believe that they are milder now, as they say?
"No. They are the same Taliban we know from the 90s. Back then, they also said that they would eventually going to facilitate women’s education. It never happened. The only thing that’s changed is how they’re using propaganda. Now they're using mass media to continue their charm offensive. Spokespersons promising the moon… they’ve become more devious, but their ideology definitely hasn’t changed."

Which Taliban rule has struck you the most?
"The fact that women and girls aren’t allowed to learn and study. From now on, girls no longer have permission to go to school from the fifth grade on. That’s what struck me the most in these past few weeks. My cousins are at home now, with no prospect on further education.

In addition, I think it’s unacceptable that women cannot become a CEO or a minister anymore. There might be peace – as long as you stick to the Taliban rules – but I don’t think that’s a way to live. In the end, this peace isn’t sustainable."

You’ve just finished your Master's in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at UU. Does your choice of Master's have something to do with your country of origin?
"I did my Bachelor’s in Political Science because I was fascinated by political power and theories. Along the way, I got ever more interested in conflict, although initially I was mostly interested in the IS as they were at their peak at the time. But the more you learn, the more you start to apply what you’ve learned to the country you’re emotionally connected to. I wanted to understand it in an academic sense. My papers have often been about Afghanistan."

Are there any things you've studied that apply to the situation there?
"Yes. I think the most important thing I learned from my studies is to have a very nuanced view. How a conflict is structured and how it should be analysed. There is just so much information now and there are so many different opinions that it’s valuable to be able to analyse things objectively, from a distance. The story is always broader and more complicated than you think."

And what are your plans now?
To find a job (laughs). But the Dutch job market doesn’t make it easy for me. I’m hoping to find something closely connected to my study. That would be wonderful.