Khaled Hosseini’s novels show readers around the world a side of Afghanistan that goes beyond war and terror.
His debut best-seller “The Kite Runner” was published in 2003, two years after the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US operation in Afghanistan. Millions of people were captivated by the tale of Amir and Hassan, two young boys from opposite ends of society whose lives take very different trajectories after the Soviet invasion.
His subsequent novels, “A Thousand Spendid Suns” and “And the Mountains Echoed,” both also set at least partially in Afghanistan, achieved similar success.
The world’s attention is once again on Afghanistan after the Taliban’s stunning takeover. For Hosseini, watching the situation unfold over the last week has been utterly gut wrenching.
Though Hosseini left his birthplace in 1976, his ties to the country and its people run deep. The author, who came with his parents to the US in 1980 and still lives in Northern California, describes the past week as the bleakest days Afghanistan has seen in decades.
“I have no idea what the future holds for Afghanistan,” he told CNN in a phone interview.
He worries about his friends and family who are still there, the people he’s met on his trips back to the country, the aid workers who assisted refugees and the activists who have been most vocal about human rights.
CNN spoke to Hosseini about the Taliban’s return to power, what responsibility the US has to Afghanistan and what he wishes Americans understood about the country and its people.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did it feel to watch your childhood home of Kabul fall to the Taliban again?
It’s gut wrenching. I woke up one day, turned on my phone and saw that Kabul had fallen. I’ve been to Afghanistan a number of times since 9/11 and the American invasion of Afghanistan, and it’s just absolutely gut wrenching.
I have a very strong emotional bond to the country, to the city, to its people. I actually haven’t lived Afghanistan since 1976, but those formative years were spent there. It’s just heartbreaking to see the Taliban flag fly over that city.
What do you remember about your early years there?
It’s surreal how different it was. [There were] hippies lounging in tea houses and women smoking in public and wearing short skirts and driving cars and working in the government as lawyers and doctors and so forth. It was a very different society. Kabul was a thriving city and by the standards of a conservative religious country, it was quite liberal.
It’s been one of the toughest places on the planet to be a child for forty years, but I had a really lovely childhood there. I’m just so grateful to have lived in Afghanistan in that era. I’ve been able to see the final few years of peace and stability in Afghanistan before the Soviets invaded and triggered this entire domino of events that have culminated in the event that we all watched the last few days on television.
What are you hearing from your family and friends who are still in Afghanistan?
They’re telling me what you might expect: Namely, that they’re gravely concerned about their safety, about the safety of their friends, about the future of the country, about what the arrival of the Taliban means now for the many rights and gains that were achieved painstakingly over the last 20 years.
Where did you feel Afghanistan was headed after the Taliban was initially driven out of power in 2001?
My sentiments echoed those of millions of Afghans: that the Taliban had left and there was an opening for a better future – for a more stable, more prosperous, more peaceful country moving forward.
I was there in Kabul in 2003. It was the first time I had returned to Afghanistan in 27 years. There was this very heady atmosphere. Everyone was a little bit giddy with the possibility. There was not as yet any semblance of an insurgency. People were quite hopeful.
It’s a stark contrast to today. For me, these are the bleakest days [in Afghanistan] of the last 20 years and probably the bleakest days since the civil war between 1992 and 1996. I have no idea what the future holds for Afghanistan.
When did those feelings of hope begin to change? Did you ever anticipate that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan again in the way it has?
When I was in Afghanistan and spoke to local people, it was quite remarkable how they all echoed the same thing: That if the Americans were to leave, they did not have faith that the Afghan state could protect them and uphold the country. That was even more true years later.
I think the majority of Afghans have worried that without the presence of the international troops in Afghanistan, the Afghan state would fall in the hands of insurgent groups like the Taliban. I did not think it would fall as quickly as it did. But in a matter of 11 days, the country fell into the hands of the Taliban and here we are. It’s absolutely stunning.
Other foreign powers have invaded Afghanistan only to have their missions end in failure. Was it inevitable that the US operation would end the same way? Would a sustained US troop presence have made a meaningful difference?
I initially supported the American operation in Afghanistan – millions of Afghans did.
There were legitimate grievances about the way the Americans did business in Afghanistan. There were incidents over the years that eroded some of the Afghan goodwill and confidence of the Americans. But for the most part, most Afghans realized that the American presence in Afghanistan was a buffer against the fall of the country into the hands of insurgents. That’s proving to be prophetically true.
President Biden gave a speech the other day, and I guess I would ask him: What is the legacy of the last 20 years? What was all this for? On the American side, the country’s back in the hands of the very people that we went there to throw out. On the Afghan side, thousands and thousands of civilians died, so many people became displaced, so many villages were bombed, so many people suffered in the hope that the country might have a better future.
Now, they’re at the mercy of a group that the US itself has designated as a terrorist group, who enforced a real rule of terror on the Afghan people in the mid ’90s and made Afghanistan into a safe haven for terrorist groups. So it’s a very bitter pill to swallow. And from the Afghan perspective, it’s hard to blame them for feeling betrayed.
What responsibility does the world now have to Afghanistan and its people?
We can expect displacement of Afghans over the coming days, weeks and months. Already there’s a humanitarian crisis inside Afghanistan. In these early days, it’s absolutely essential that aid workers and aid organizations like UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and others have access to those people to deliver lifesaving services.
And I think I would call on all countries to keep their borders open and to welcome Afghan refugees who are fleeing 40 years of violence and persecution. This moment is not the time to give up on Afghanistan. It is not the time to turn your backs on Afghans and Afghan refugees.
The United States owes the Afghans – those who are left behind, who aligned themselves with US objectives, who believed in US initiatives, who at the risk of their own lives worked alongside us and other foreign troops. We mustn’t turn our back on those people.
What do you make of the Taliban saying that their rule this time will be different?
My feelings on that echo that of many other Afghans. I’m deeply skeptical. We feel that that Taliban have to prove it with deeds and not with words.
The world’s attention is on the Taliban right now, so it’s not quite surprising that they’re saying that they’re going to respect human rights and that they’re going to respect women’s rights. They’re very careful to say “within the boundaries of Islamic law,” however, which leaves that entirely open to interpretation.
Your books introduced so many readers around the world to Afghanistan. To what extent can fiction foster an understanding of a country’s culture and its people?
It’s a window into it. It’s one person’s experience. I’ve been very blessed that people have read my books and have formed a personal connection with the plight of Afghans and with with Afghanistan as a land itself, because for many, many years Afghanistan has primarily been associated with the Taliban and the war, terrorism and drug trade. I hope people walk away from my books with a more nuanced and complicated understanding of Afghanistan.
That said, I don’t see myself as a representative for Afghanistan. I care deeply about Afghan people in Afghanistan and have a deep stake in what’s happening there, but I have lived in exile for a very, very long time. I hope my novels are an entry point into learning more about Afghanistan, but that shouldn’t be the end of it.
What other Afghan authors should we be reading right now?
Fariba Nawa, who is a journalist and a wonderful writer, has written a book called “Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan.” It’s a family memoir about the opium trade in Afghanistan. It also provides a perspective on Afghanistan over the last 30 years or so.
For those who want to understand not only Afghan history but also the experience of Afghans living in exile, I would recommend Tamim Ansary’s “West of Kabul, East of New York.”
What Afghan voices are being overlooked in this moment?
One of my grave concerns is that the voices that are going to be overlooked are those of women. When the Taliban were in charge in Afghanistan back in the 1990s, the Taliban essentially barred women from any meaningful participation in Afghan societal life. It was maybe the worst place on the planet to be a woman.
Right now, the Taliban are saying the right things but I echo many fellow Afghans in saying that I hope the voices of women in Afghanistan are not silenced. They are the bravest, the most resilient, the most resourceful group of people in Afghanistan and I have enormous respect for them.
What do you wish more people understood about Afghanistan?
They are a people that are tired of war. They’re fatigued. They’re exhausted. They’ve been through 40 years of turmoil and displacements and one crisis after another.
I ask people to not abandon the Afghan people once the spotlight goes away. Those millions of people will still be there.
The US called the Afghans our partners for the last 20 years, and then we left. Millions of Afghans are now at the mercy of a group that has for 20 years systematically brutalized and terrorized the country.
It’s entirely possible that we will see a large influx of Afghans who will run for the border, fleeing violence. It’s absolutely essential that those people have access to territory and access to asylum procedures, and that they are protected. So please support those organizations that safeguard the rights and the well-being of refugees.