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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 34, New Delhi, August 8, 2020

‘My hero’: the complexity of Afghan society | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 7 August 2020, by Apratim Mukarji


Qamar Gul, 15 and married, became modern Afghanistan’s hero overnight after her bravery in gunning down Taliban attackers was reported to the media by the local government in mid-July. Since then, the incident, which happened on the midnight on July 17, and its aftermath are being talked about, and commented upon not only in the country but outside as well. Her act of instant and highly risky bravery brought her wholehearted appreciations from the head of the Afghan state, from millions of fellow-citizens who were till then ignorant of this girl, and from the world around.

The government is now protecting her and her 12-year-old brother in a safe haven as severe revenge by the Taliban fighters is anticipated at every moment. The incident was as follows: Taliban insurgents stormed the house of Qamar Gul, a teenager from a village in the Central Province of Ghor.

The attackers were looking for Qamar’s father, the village head. He was a supporter of the government in Kabul and was, thus, considered an enemy of the Taliban. He was dragged out of the house to be killed. His wife rushed out to defend him but the insurgents shot both of them dead right outside the residence.

Qamar Gul, who was busy with household chores inside, heard of the commotion, realised that her parents were about to be killed, snatched an AK-47 rifle the family possessed, came out and killed the two insurgents who had dragged her father, and then sprayed bullets on the other miscreants.

The Taliban soon returned for revenge but by then the villagers had organised themselves and along with pro-government militia threw a stiff resistance, and the attackers retreated after some fighting. Thereafter, the government decided to give protection of Qamar and her brother and took them away to a safe place.
This incident has become an important development in the recent history of Afghanistan because of several factors. Firstly, this was the first incident when a single young girl entirely on her own took out on the feared Taliban in an area where the insurgents held sway at will, the region being mountainous and largely inaccessible. Group resistance and fighting by local militia had been a common occurrence over the decades; but Qamar Gul’s instant bravery which also proved to be highly effective in sending the right kind of message to the Taliban, was certainly a first. It was bound to attract attention, appreciation and the Taliban’s wrath.

Secondly, the incident revealed the deeply flawed society of Afghanistan. To understand this, one has to learn the history of Qamar’s family. One of the two men who were the main attackers was her husband. Qamar had fought with her husband, a local commander of the Taliban, and left him protesting against the manner in which she was being treated. As the New York Times reported at the time, “…the story of her heroism is steeped in pain, in a culture that often treats women as properties, and in the confusion of an Afghan war that has twisted families into knots of complex loyalties and feuds.” (A 15-year-old girl’s battle against the Taliban was also a family feud, July 23, 2020)

Qamar’s husband had been pressuring her family to return her to him after he had quarrelled with her family. Qamar Gul’s mother, who was killed along with the girl’s father, had been married twice before she married Shafi Gul Rahimi, her third husband. This man married her after his elder brother, her second husband, was killed by the Taliban in the 1990s. In recent years, he gradually assumed the responsibilities of the village chief.

Nearly four years back, Rahimi struck an agreement with a resident of a nearby village, named Mohamed Naeem, under which the latter would marry his daughter Qamar Gul and, in exchange, Rahimi would take Naeem’s niece, also a teenager, as his second wife. To the outside world, this kind of comfortable marital exchange between two families would appear to be highly bizarre but in Afghan society where local clan loyalty and age-old close relationships between families are an ordinary affair, such an arrangement would not even raise an eyebrow.

It was sometime around this time that Naeem joined the Taliban fighters but the circumstances under which this happened are not clear. This in effect rendered the father-in-law and the son-in-law into each other’s sworn enemies. However, Naeem had other troubles brewing for him, too. His parents refused to allow his new wife in as they accused him of treating his first wife unfairly. Thus, Qamar Gul’s married life began on an unhappy and unsatisfactory note. Unable to persuade his parents to accept the fait accompli, Naeem soon left his parents’ home taking his new wife with him. But, Qamar, who had returned to her parents to stay for a while, refused to go back and live with her husband alleging constant ill-treatment. This in soured the relations between Rahimi and Naeem further.

Later informtion showed that Rahimi’s second wife who was Naeem’s niece had stayed back with her parents, and Rahimi kept asking for her return. Finally, a truce of sorts was struck when Naeem agreed to pay a $ 3,000 debt to free Rahimi from an obligation. This further heightened the bad blood between the two.

Naeem, meanwhile, secretly nurtured an unquenchable desire to take revenge on Rahimi. To achieve this, he turned close to a Taliban commander who was feared in the region for his utter ruthlessness. Their plan was to abduct Qamar and escape without Naeem honouring his word of paying Rahimi’s debt. With that intention, Naeem and his associates raided Rahimi’s house on the midnight of July 17. But things went wrong. Rahimi and his wife had to be killed and, in turn, Qamar killed Naeem and one of his associates and injured severely others accompanying the team. The rest became a local legend with the girl being honoured as a national hero. Much later, local government officials found out that Naeem had originally planned to allow Rahimi time to get his hand on his gun but the latter, on hearing sounds outside as the Taliban gathered, went out outright to investigate the source of the sounds, and taking no further chance the attackers shot him dead. As his wife ran out and shouted to neighbours for help to save him, she was also killed. Then, Qamar snatched her father’s gun and killed them in turn. Among those killed was the Taliban’s local commander who was conducting the surprise raid.

The overall significance of this story of revenge attack and gore lies in the reality that Afghans are now visibly tired of the continuing blood bath in their country and want their government to put a stop to the Taliban eventually succeeding in acquiring the seat of power in Kabul.

Thousands of highly vocal Twitter have taken to social media to impress upon the Ashraf Ghani government that the Taliban must not be allowed to sneak back into power through the highly unpopular U.S.-inspired peace talks. Their posts show they feel that the insurgents, who have not budged an inch from their rank religious fundamentalism and are certain to resume their Medieval Age barbarism if installed once again in power, must be stopped in their track. They want their government to take the initiative in regard to this.

One of the posts read, “giving in to terror and appeasing the Taliban is not the solution.” A regular online movement campaign against surrendering to the fundamentalists, which they feel the weak and shaky government is now engaged in, is now tagged as “Do not redeem the Taliban.” (AFP, Do not redeem the Taliban, July 20, 2020). It has already gathered thousands of enthusiastic Afghans bolstering the campaign.

* Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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