On 11 February 1988, the Afghan nationalist, Professor Sayed Bahauddin Majrooh, was gunned down in the streets of Peshawar in Pakistan. Months earlier, his organization, the Afghanistan Information Center, had released a survey of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. The majority expressed their preference for an Afghan government under the former king, Zahir Shah, rather than the rule of either the socialist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) or the parties that had formed in exile during the ongoing civil war. Witnesses largely agreed that the militant Islamist party, Hizb-i Islami-yi Afghanistan, was responsible for Majrooh’s death, infuriated by the survey’s veiled critique of local party politics. None of these groups managed to cling on to power, however, and instead civil war in Afghanistan persisted: into the 1990s, through the 2000s, and, as has become clear in recent days, into today.
As peace talks have stalled and Taliban forces have swept through Afghanistan, echoes of Majrooh’s life and death have emerged. In recent days and months, other Afghan visionaries and ideologues who have sought to shape Afghanistan’s institutions and society have been killed, viewed as opponents of the Taliban as it seeks to take charge of Afghanistan’s political future. Not only that, but attention again turns to Afghans living beyond Afghanistan’s borders. While Afghan state leaders now employ social media from abroad to assert their influence, the UNHCR has warned that another humanitarian crisis is imminent, as Afghans flee Taliban forces.
The potential impact of a Taliban takeover can only be truly understood by foregrounding the experiences of Afghans in Afghanistan and abroad, not foreign security concerns. Yet it is frequently the stories of Afghans, themselves, that are overlooked in reporting. This is not a new trend and reflects a longer history of Western engagement with Afghanistan. Much like commentary on current events has focused on the ramifications of a Taliban regime for the United States, international relations, and global terrorism, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan frequently was framed in terms of great power politics and US-Soviet Cold War competition. But as the life of Majrooh and those around him demonstrates, the history of Afghanistan in the 1980s was also that of an accompanying refugee crisis and the daily endangerment of Afghan people.
Majrooh was a towering figure. He was a cosmopolitan intellectual who spoke multiple languages and was known for his poetry and writing. Educated in France and a former government official under Zahir Shah, he spent much of the 1980s bringing international attention to a civil war that put millions of Afghans at risk. His Afghan Information Center published a regular newsletter detailing Afghan rebels’ fight against the PDPA and their Soviet backers. Majrooh also found time to document the experiences of Afghan refugees living in and around Peshawar. The posthumously published anthology, Le suicide et le chant: poésie populaire des femmes pachtounes (translated into English as Songs of Love and War) contained more than 100 landays, or short, spoken poems, which Majrooh had collected from Afghan refugee women. These landays revealed women’s anguish in exile, sorrow at the death of their loved ones, and longing for watan, or homeland.
The April 1978 coup that brought the PDPA to power and the subsequent December 1979 Soviet invasion created one of the biggest refugee crises of the twentieth century. At its peak, the UNHCR estimated that 6.2 million Afghans had fled to Pakistan and Iran, while tens of thousands more resettled in Europe and North America. Working with the government of Pakistan, and with financial backing from the United States and countries across the world, the UNHCR built a vast network of refugee camps across Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (what is now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Baluchistan. In these camps, humanitarian workers sought to oversee many facets of Afghan daily life, monitoring diets, medical records, and belongings, creating schools for young and old, establishing economic programs to ‘develop skills’ and make Afghans ‘self-sufficient’.
Extensive humanitarian assistance to Afghan refugees unsurprisingly resulted in a correspondingly large official archive: at the UNHCR and UN, in US and other state archives, in collections from partnering NGOs. Much of this documents official concerns about overcrowding, competition with local Pakistani populations, or fears that the severity of the Afghan civil war would produce a prolonged refugee crisis akin to that what had happened to Palestinians. Other papers reveal the ways in which foreign powers saw the refugee crisis as a way to amplify their own prestige. One US diplomat, for example, suggested that all US-provided aid have ‘American markings’ to ensure that refugees recognized their benefactors. Such sources, if not read carefully, reinforce an altogether too common – and false – narrative of Afghan history in which foreign actors have taken the lead in guiding and caring for Afghans, in determining Afghanistan’s course.
The work of Majrooh and countless other Afghans belies such a history, shedding light on the ways in which Afghans experienced a brutal civil war and exile abroad and how they asserted control of their lives amid widespread uncertainty. Some Afghans turned to existing ethnic and religious identities to make sense of their experiences, for example justifying their decision to flee based on Pashtunwali (a shared ethnic Pashtun code of honor and conduct) or identifying themselves as mohajirin taking refuge in Dar al-Islam (land of Islam). Some turned focus to their nuclear families, using purdah, or female seclusion, as a form of continuity and shelter within the refugee camp. Others adopted the Western language of humanitarianism to take advantage of new economic and social resources offered by camp administrators. Organizations like the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan mobilized to expand opportunities for women’s education and employment. Exiled political parties set themselves up as intermediaries between camp officials and refugees, served as community leaders, and built their own schools and clinics, using refugee camps to lay claim to their future governance in Afghanistan. In many ways, an alternative Afghan nation emerged in refugee camps as social and political dynamics were reordered.
The Afghan civil war of the 1980s pitted Afghans against each other, as they vied to reshape Afghanistan’s political future. While the PDPA, with their Soviet backers, sought a socialist future, other groups envisioned an Islamist, constitutionalist, monarchist, or democratic Afghanistan and likewise were subsidized by foreign powers, the United States and Pakistan chief among them. The competition to define Afghan modernity had a much longer history, but in the violence of the 1980s, it was Afghan citizens who suffered, who adapted, and who also dwelled on what a future Afghanistan might look like. War and humanitarian assistance did not merely happen to Afghans. Refugees and combatants alike wrestled with what it meant to be Afghan, and how experiences of war and exile might shape their future participation in an Afghan nation-state. Majrooh demonstrated the ways that Afghan intellectuals could amplify the experiences of ordinary Afghans, and he stressed the importance of Afghanistan’s national history and culture, creating a space in his newsletters for the representation of different views of Afghanistan’s potential futures.
Focusing on refugee camps and ordinary Afghans reveals the humanitarian costs of the 1980s civil war and reemphasizes the centrality of Afghan citizens, intellectuals, and elites, and their ideas and lived experiences, in seeking to determine the future of Afghan society and politics. One of the reasons the PDPA failed to gain international legitimacy was that millions of Afghans rejected the party by leaving Afghanistan. As camp life showed, Afghans at home and abroad debated what Afghanistan should look like and how this could be achieved. Through his life and work, Majrooh demonstrated Afghans shared the same universal concerns and aspirations as other global citizens: a sense of history and belonging, a desire for a better future. Afghanistan was not some exception or outlier in the international system, and Afghans expected and deserved the same rights to life and security.
The killing of Afghan civilians continued long after the February 1989 Soviet troop withdrawal, revealing the human costs of civil war and authoritarianism, as well as the ability of Afghan citizens to adapt and persist. The potential impacts of a Taliban regime have been under-analyzed in Western media stories which have focused too heavily on US choices and the safety of foreign nationals fleeing Afghanistan. Afghans are central to what happens next, and the threat of renewed civil war, a refugee crisis, and rights abuses reveal that the human angle is vital. But as countries, particularly in the West, increasingly close their doors to migrants, even deporting Afghans, what opportunities are there for exiled Afghans to shape Afghanistan’s future? In a world less interested in humanitarian aid and resettlement, what will happen to a new potential generation of Afghan refugees? In what spaces, and how, will alternative visions of Afghanistan emerge? It is important to recall the longer-term humanitarian crises that have paralleled foreign interventions in Afghanistan and to focus on the ways that Afghans, not foreign leaders, have led the debates about the nature of Afghan nationhood and citizenship. Only by remembering individuals like Sayed Bahouddin Majrooh and his successors can we understand Afghanistan’s potential futures as well as its past.
Elisabeth Leake is Associate Professor of International History at the University of Leeds. She is the author of Afghan Crucible: The Soviet Invasion and the Making of Modern Afghanistan (Oxford University Press, 2022), a global history of the Afghan civil war of the 1980s, and The Defiant Border: The Afghan-Pakistan Borderlands in the Era of Decolonization, 1936-65 (Cambridge University Press, 2016). She tweets @elisabeth_leake.