With The Taliban In Power, Best-Selling Author Worries For The Afghan People

Aug 19, 2021

Updated August 19, 2021 at 11:00 AM ET

Khaled Hosseini is all too familiar with the heartbreak of Afghanistan's history. His epic novels, like The Kite Runner, richly portray the ups and downs of a country shattered by decades of war, tribal feuds, coups and corruption.

From his home state of California, Hosseini started a foundation some years ago to support Afghans displaced by war. He believes that the U.S. and the international community have a moral obligation to help tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans leave the country.

This is a group that for 20 years has systematically brutalized and terrorized Afghans ... And now they're back and they're saying there's nothing to be frightened of, and that's very hard to believe. - Khaled Hosseini

Hosseini has family and friends there who he told me are scared for their lives with the Taliban now in control. "This is a group that for 20 years has systematically brutalized and terrorized Afghans, has blown up hospitals and roads and schools, has slaughtered countless Afghans, many of them just ordinary villagers, women and children as well," he says. "And now they're back and they're saying there's nothing to be frightened of, and that's very hard to believe. I'm concerned greatly for ordinary Afghans. I'm concerned for ethnic minorities, for journalists, for people who worked — human rights activists. But especially I'm concerned about women and girls whose rights stand to be curtailed, and all the gains of the last 20 years stand to be lost. So I'm concerned for a large swath of the Afghan population."


Interview Highlights

On the Taliban's claims that they'll lead differently this time.

They'll have to prove it. I'm skeptical until I see it, I'll see when I believe it. I mean, the behavior of the Taliban really going back to the mid 90s, even more than 20 years ago, has been deplorable. They have been brutal. And people see those images of people running alongside those planes on the tarmac of the Kabul airport. I can understand why they're scared, they remember the last time the Taliban were here and they've been watching for 20 years the ruthless and brutal methods the Taliban have used to terrorize people into submission and take over the country.

On how Afghans might be able to express themselves going forward

One of the really pleasant things about Afghanistan the last 20 years plus is, Afghanistan has enjoyed a relatively robust and free press. Afghan leaders were routinely criticized on television, the political debate and dialogue on Afghan television was very lively, and from multiple sides. So that's one of the things that will be a giveaway as to how the Taliban are behaving this time around. What is the Afghan press saying? Are they capable of expressing, you know, reporting the stories in a truthful way or are the Taliban going to essentially control the state media and impose those restrictions? So I think that's one of the markers that I'm going to be looking for.

On President Biden's criticisms of the Afghan government and military

The president is correct to point the finger, but the finger shouldn't just be pointed at the Afghans. They certainly played their part. I do think that one of the the real failures of the last 20 years has been the failure to establish a government that can deliver services to its people, that can protect its people from insurgents, and that has legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. Instead, what they got was Afghan leaders who were greedy and corrupt, and who failed to do those things, and therefore lost any semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. That, when there's no real belief in the state and the government that is asking you to go and risk your lives and fight, a government that is not feeding you, that is not clothing you properly, that's not arming you properly, that's not paying you properly in many cases — not even paying you — but is insisting that you stay and fight against a brutal and powerful united army that's knocking at the gates. Those people who drop their guns and ran, I can't condone that, but certainly I can understand it

On what's stayed with him from his return visits to Afghanistan

It is so surreal to talk about Afghanistan in my childhood, given what's different, what's transpired the last 40 years and particularly in the last few days — but look, I had a wonderful childhood in Afghanistan. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I was lucky enough to live in Afghanistan in those final days of peace and anonymity that Afghanistan enjoyed in the 70s. Kabul was a thriving, open city. You could see signs of progress everywhere. Women were in the workforce. I had women in my own family who were lawyers and doctors and professors who dressed as they wanted, they drove. There was a theatre community and there was music. And it was a very, very different place. I'm just lucky to have been able to live through those years. And I try to recreate at least part of that world in the in my novel The Kite Runner.

Afghanistan isn't just about the Taliban. It's not just about the opium trade and terrorism and so forth. You know, I hope that when people read my books, they will walk away with hopefully a deeper and slightly more nuanced understanding of Afghanistan, and appreciate Afghanistan as a slightly more complicated place than what they've seen on television.

This story was edited for radio by Reena Advani and Nina Kravinsky and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Author Khaled Hosseini is all too familiar with the heartbreak of Afghanistan's history. His epic novels like "The Kite Runner" richly portray the ups and downs of a country shattered by decades of war, tribal feuds, coups and corruption. From his home state of California, Hosseini started a foundation some years ago to support Afghans displaced by war. He believes that the United States and the international community have a moral obligation to help tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans leave the country. Hosseini has family and friends there who he told me are scared for their lives with the Taliban now in control.

KHALED HOSSEINI: This is a group that for 20 years has systematically brutalized and terrorized Afghans, has blown up hospitals and roads and schools, has slaughtered countless Afghans, many of them just ordinary villagers, women and children as well. And now they're back. And they're saying there's nothing to be frightened of. And that's very hard to believe. I'm concerned greatly for ordinary Afghans. I'm concerned for ethnic minorities, for journalists, for people who worked in - human rights activists. But especially I'm concerned about women and girls, whose rights stand to be curtailed. And all the gains of the last 20 years stand to be lost. So I'm concerned for a large swath of the Afghan population.

MARTINEZ: One of our reporters, Jackie Northam, said that right now, the Taliban is on a charm offensive, seemingly saying all those right things. When you heard that the Taliban claims that they're going to lead differently this time, what's the first thing you thought?

HOSSEINI: They'll have to prove it. I'm skeptical until I see it. I'll see it when I believe it. I mean, the behavior of the Taliban, really, going back to the mid-'90s, even more than 20 years ago, has been deplorable. They've been brutal. And people - and you see those images of people running alongside those planes on the tarmac of the Kabul airport. I can understand why they're scared, because they remember the last time the Taliban were here. And they've been watching for 20 years the ruthless and brutal methods the Taliban have used to terrorize people into submission and take over the country.

MARTINEZ: The last 20 years, it seems that, in a lot of cases, Afghans have been able to express themselves, at least, maybe more freely without the fear of too much retribution. How might that change going forward with the Taliban in control?

HOSSEINI: That's one of those markers that we're keeping an eye on. One of the really pleasant things about Afghanistan, the last 20 years plus, is Afghanistan has enjoyed a relatively robust and free press.

MARTINEZ: Yeah.

HOSSEINI: Afghan leaders were routinely criticized on television. The political debate and dialogue on Afghan television was very lively and from multiple sides. So that's one of the things that will be a giveaway as to how the Taliban are behaving this time around. What is the Afghan press saying? Are they capable of expressing, you know, and reporting the stories in a truthful way? Or are the Taliban going to essentially control the state media and impose those restrictions? So I think that's one of the markers that I'm going to be looking for.

MARTINEZ: You know, I think about President Biden pointing the finger toward the Afghan military, toward the Afghan government for, essentially, just laying down when the Taliban started to advance. Were you disappointed in the Afghan government and the military?

HOSSEINI: Well, yes, of course. And the president is correct to point the finger. But the finger shouldn't just be pointed at the Afghans. They certainly played their part. I do think that one of the real failures of the last 20 years has been the failure to establish a government that can deliver services to its people, that can protect its people from insurgents and that has legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. Instead, what they got was Afghan leaders who were greedy and corrupt and who failed to do those things and, therefore, lost any semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. That - when there's no real belief in the state and in the government that is asking you to go and risk your lives and fight, a government that is not feeding you, that is not clothing you properly, that's not arming you properly, that's not paying you properly - in many cases, not even paying you - but is insisting that you stay and fight against a brutal and powerful united army that's knocking at the gates. Those people who drop their guns and ran, I mean, I can't condone that. But certainly, I can understand it.

MARTINEZ: Your family moved to the U.S. when you were a teenager. But you were born in Afghanistan. What experiences have stayed with you from the times that you visited?

HOSSEINI: (Laughter) It's so surreal to talk about Afghanistan and my childhood, given...

MARTINEZ: Much different, yeah.

HOSSEINI: ...What's transpired the last 40 years, and particularly in the last few days. But I had a wonderful childhood in Afghanistan. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I was lucky enough to live in Afghanistan in those final days of peace and anonymity that Afghanistan enjoyed in the '70s. Kabul was a thriving, open city. I could see signs of progress everywhere. Women were in the workforce. I had women in my own family who were lawyers and doctors and professors who dressed as they wanted. They drove. You know, so there was, you know, a theater community and there was music. And it was a very, very different place. And, you know, I'm just lucky to have been able to live through those years. And I tried to recreate sort of at least part of that world in my novel "The Kite Runner."

MARTINEZ: Yeah. And your novels are about relationships - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters - stories about life in Afghanistan, rich stories that can lean outside of the context of war and conflict. What is it you hope readers of your books come to understand about Afghan life?

HOSSEINI: That this isn't all what Afghanistan is about, that Afghanistan isn't just about the Taliban. It's not just about the opium trade and terrorism and so forth. You know, I hope that when people read my books, they walk away with, hopefully, a deeper and slightly more nuanced understanding of Afghanistan and appreciate Afghanistan as a slightly more complicated place than what they've seen on television. And certainly, judging from the letters that I receive from readers, they feel like the books put kind of a human face and a human aspect to Afghanistan.

MARTINEZ: That's Afghan American author Khaled Hosseini. Thank you very much for your time.

HOSSEINI: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOMAYUN SAKHI'S "ALAP ON THE AFGHAN RUBAB: RAGA BHUPALI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.