We Aren’t Ending 20 Years Of War

Photo: Warrick Gilbert
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I moved to Afghanistan in January of 2007, the first chance I got, fresh out of grad school. I studied public health and learned that every 28 minutes a woman in Afghanistan dies in childbirth. And doing something about that felt like the most important thing. I had recently left a career in the Air Force because I didn’t believe in war. And I didn’t want to be in the air. I wanted to be on the ground, with the people who needed our help.

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I was passionate about purpose — and thought I had found mine. I wanted to stop women from dying in childbirth.

I wanted to do good, and be good.

And I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know yet that I would be complicit in the terror we are witnessing as the Taliban resume control of the country.

In 2008 I wrote Winning the Peace — In service of Afghanistan’s most Vulnerable population. And I really thought I had figured out something meaningful. And in fact, I had.

We can’t hold a gun in one hand, and bread in the other — and expect anyone to trust us, or not be confused. We can’t wear the same uniforms, and drive the same vehicles, and expect anyone to tell the difference between our missions of building a nation and fighting a war.

In my research, an Army officer friend shared her honest opinion that “We are well-meaning amateurs. In the Army, humanitarian assistance is measured by the ton.”

The wicked irony was that the military created the conditions for any of us to be there at all. And in trying to help too much, too fast — undermined all of it.

It’s not that we didn’t see it wasn’t working — it’s that doing it different required too much. Too much nuance. Too much complexity. Too much … slowing … down. Too much pausing to be with a heart-wrenching reality, without instantly donning our cape to fix it. Or numbing out and looking away.

And it wasn’t just the United States. The whole goddamn world didn’t — and still doesn’t — know how to be with this kind of pain.

And I didn’t either. So I kept going, trying to help — trying to be good and do good. And I got my dream job — working with Afghan midwives.

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The most fundamental public health intervention to improve maternal mortality is education. Getting girls and boys in school who can grow up and rebuild the infrastructure and institutional capacities has always been the long game.

In the meantime, the only way to prevent a woman or child from dying during childbirth is the ability to offer them emergency obstetric care. Trained and competent midwives can offer that care. And with the support of local and international organizations, and using international donor funding — some 3,000 midwives had been trained and deployed by 2012.

According to the Taliban code of conduct, however, Afghans are forbidden to accept aid from internationals. Including Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) who are, in theory, politically neutral.

A friend of mine relayed a comment from a Taliban leader who said, “If a doctor himself came to our village we would allow him to treat, but if a doctor from an NGO or the Government came to our village, we would kill him.”

It was the Mullahs, and local leaders, who selected the women who would be trained. And for the most part, the communities determined where she would be deployed.

But at the end of the day, everyone understood this was inherently against the Taliban. We were fighting another way. Trying to create a parallel world. Hoping that if we did that long enough, it would be strong enough to hold against them.

Our war was subversive and hopeful. It didn’t just feel urgent, essential, and virtuous — it was. And those midwives did create a new world. Maternal mortality dropped radically from 1,600 deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2005 to 327 per 100,000 in 2010.

The Taliban waited us out because they could. They knew what we were doing wasn’t sustainable — that level of funding and technical assistance would have to stop at some point. And not just for our midwifery program, for all of it.

But only one of us pays the price for this not working.

In the spring of 2012, I was driving home after spending the day huddled in the safe room at our office. It was the first day of the spring offensive, and I heard an NPR reporter say that it was, “the most action Kabul had seen in at least 10 years.” I hadn’t been in our saferoom for safety before. And for me, that day felt different.

On the drive home I was surprised to see people walking on the street, kids splashing in the drainage ditch, bikers weaving through traffic, and drivers aggressively cutting each other off at the three-way intersection — just like every other day.

Our driver called to check on a friend who worked near the parliament, which had been attacked. His friend replied, “Yeah, it’s fine. We are back to work now.” 

Shrugging, our driver almost proudly dismissed the attacks as no big deal. He said that when he was a boy, Kabul took 3,000 rockets in one day. He said it again, still shaking his hand and holding my eye in the rearview mirror, “3,000 rockets in one day.”

It was unimaginable, and my expression must have been incredulous. He needed to say it twice.

This was not new information. I knew well how the mujahideen had defeated the Russians and then destroyed the city and each other. And that the Taliban rose from these ashes. But that day, it hit me hard.

I couldn’t help but think that was the same number of midwives we had trained. And I started to feel like we had stepped on a landmine. We couldn’t keep going like this, but how could we ever stop?

By the time I left Afghanistan in 2014, I couldn’t escape the unflinching reality that I had added to the problem in the very act of trying to fix it and do good. And that even this longing to do good, and be good — was about me.

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Seven years later, and back in the US, my broken heart has me working much closer in. Now I work on alleviating suffering in much more personal ways. And what I know in my bones, is that if we can’t feel it — we can’t heal it.

This morning, like every morning this week, I drove my kids to school and came home, and laid down on my patchwork rug. The beautiful, knotty, torn, sewn-together pieces of Afghanistan — the part I carried home with me. And I let myself weep for a place and a people that I love — that right now, is living in absolute terror.

I keep hearing and reading that we are ending 20 years of war. And there we go again, making it about it us — trying to make it feel better. For us.

In August of 1992, Hamid Karzai is quoted reflecting on the fighting between mujahedin factions after the fall of the Soviet-backed government that dropped 3,000 bombs in Kabul. He said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re just killing each other. It’s senseless.” Which he could also have said in August of 2021.

We promised water, and education, and hope. We promised the Afghans who fought with us that we wouldn’t abandon them. And these weren’t promises we were capable of keeping. It’s easy to see the mistakes we are making now, and much harder to admit the mistakes we’ve made all along.

And let’s be clear, no one was fighting for us. They were fighting for Afghanistan. They were fighting for Massoud’s dream of, “An Afghanistan at peace with itself, and of the Panjshir Valley … once again full of flowering almond trees and laughing children.”

This morning I heard a man still in Kabul being interviewed on the radio. He said with the brave, wise, and war-weary surrender of a man who has known war his entire life, “The Taliban can’t kill the whole country.” Just like we can’t evacuate the whole country.

No one wins in war.

At one of my going away parties, a dear friend and colleague told me that I had built a home in his heart. And I would give anything that that home could keep him safe. That it could be a portal for him and his family and the whole goddamn world to crawl into and stay safe.

The truth is we aren’t supposed to feel better. We should be on the floor weeping. Holding vigil for human suffering.

And it isn’t that we need to choose between doing something to help or attending to our grief. It’s that we need to do both. If we can’t feel our grief, and if we leap into action from that place of not feeling — the actions we take will keep adding harm. And we’ve caused enough harm.

Please light a candle for Afghanistan. Slow down and let all of it pierce your heart. And know that the magnitude of your grief is a measure of love. And that matters.

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Meghann McNiff is a writer and co-founder of Seattle Coaching Collective. Follow her on Instagram.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.