‘Leaving Afghanistan’ Review: Illuminating Frontline Doc Examines Country After U.S. Withdrawal

“It’s worse than what I’ve seen in my life,” said Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi. “I grew up in the war and I’ve seen everything with my own eyes, but this time is more dangerous than in the past. I can see a civil war in Afghanistan again.”

That statement closes out “Leaving Afghanistan,” the latest documentary from PBS’ Frontline regarding the ongoing violence in the Middle Eastern country. Quraishi’s 30-minute investigative report details the violent developments in Afghanistan following the United States’ recent decision to withdraw its forces from the country by the end of August. It’s a bleak, albeit informative and timely dispatch on Afghanistan that describes the violent forces at play in the region while offering perspectives on the situation that are typically overlooked in Western media coverage of Middle Eastern issues.

Though the documentary’s title suggests an American-oriented look at the country, “Leaving Afghanistan” is primarily focused on how the United States’ exit is affecting the country’s militarized groups and marginalized people, rather than the policy reasons and possible Western political ramifications behind the United States’ decision to withdraw. Though the United States is leaving the country, uncertainty remains about the Afghan government’s ability to defend its land from the Taliban, which has regained control of around 80 percent of the country and vows to continue attacking it.

The first third of the documentary follows Quraishi as he visits a Taliban stronghold near the Iranian border to interview Abdul Manan Niazi, one of the Taliban’s original leaders, to determine the organization’s thoughts about the United States’ withdrawal and its next steps. Although Niazi — who was assassinated by unknown individuals around two weeks after the interview — primarily uses the opportunity to tout “the Taliban’s defeat of America” and satisfaction that the United States is leaving the country, he also notes that the Taliban has a new enemy in Afghanistan: Iran, which is supporting a military network in the country.

Although the interview with Niazi is not especially illuminating, Quraishi’s journey to the Taliban compound makes for a thoroughly gripping segment nonetheless. As with Quraishi’s past projects, such as his excellent 2020 “Taliban Country” dispatch for Frontline, ample time is dedicated to the surreal events leading up to his interview with the Taliban leader. In “Taliban Country,” Quraishi noted in voiceover that he aimed to complete his interviews as fast as possible, as the large Taliban group he was meeting was at risk of being struck by a drone; in “Leaving Afghanistan,” Quraishi describes hiking to Niazi’s base with heavily armed Taliban members for 90 minutes. Quraishi later leaves a cell he was placed in to pray with the Taliban members prior to the interview to prove that he is a “proper Muslim” and not a spy.

Niazi tells Quraishi that Iran is backing Fatemiyoun, an Afghan militia that previously fought in Syria for Bashar al-Assad. Members of Fatemiyoun, which is primarily comprised of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority group, have infiltrated Afghanistan’s government and military and have a presence in some of the country’s most important positions, according to Niazi. Iran anticipates that a civil war is brewing in Afghanistan and is sending Fatemiyoun soldiers into Afghanistan. The Taliban, which aims to kill all Hazara individuals regardless of their association with Fatemiyoun, has responded by killing scores of the group’s members.

Quraishi interviews a Taliban soldier who manufactures explosives to ambush the Fatemiyoun; the Taliban soldier claims that over 4,000 explosives were created in one month and Quraishi later travels with Taliban members as they plant explosives to ambush Fatemiyoun soldiers.

Niazi’s violent crusade against the Fatemiyoun and the Hazari people haunted Quraishi for days and the journalist spends the remainder of the documentary interviewing others to determine the military influence that Iran and Fatemiyoun have on Afghanistan. A Fatemiyoun recruiter tells Quraishi that the group has around 10,000 men in Afghanistan and is directly supported by Iran, while another Fatemiyoun source tells him that the group has men in every branch of Afghanistan’s military and government, including 3,000 individuals in the country’s police force, all of whom have been ordered by Iranian officers to prepare for fighting.

Quraishi also interviews several Hazaras, the ethnic group that has long been persecuted and hunted by the Taliban, in part due to their association with Iran and Fatemiyoun. A Hazara woman, who says her grandson and husband were killed defending themselves from the Taliban, states the situation plainly: “We are poor and have nowhere to go. The Taliban are after us, and the government does not support us.”

In response, the Hazaras have begun to militarize recently, which has resulted in more violence. Thousands of Hazaras held a demonstration in January, but the Afghan government responded by razing their buildings and killing 11 people. A Hazara militia responded several weeks later by shooting down an Afghan helicopter, which left nine people dead. Now the Hazaras are in conflict with the Taliban and the Afghan government.

“Leaving Afghanistan” paints a grim portrait of the country and suggests that the worst is yet to come. It’s also not a situation where any of the involved governments appear willing or able to intervene to stop the escalating violence. Iran’s foreign minister denies that Fatemiyoun are active in Afghanistan during a television interview, but states that they could be deployed to the country as needed. Though the Afghan government refuses to speak with Quraishi, an Afghan government member and Hazara spiritual leader tells him that he is fearful about the consequences of the United States’ withdrawal.

“Afghanistan is on the brink of a very dangerous civil war. I am in favor of a responsible NATO withdrawal, but leaving a situation where everyone is fighting each other, that’s not right,” the government member tells Quraishi. “They should only leave when peace and security in Afghanistan are assured.”

That belief is one of the documentary’s few direct references to the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan but serves as a fitting summary for “Leaving Afghanistan.” Western media outlets and pundits will debate the merits of the United States’ exit from Afghanistan for years to come, but “Leaving Afghanistan” is refreshingly focused on how the decision has directly impacted Afghanistan and its people and military entities in the short-term. It’s a heavy watch. It’s also stellar journalism.

Grade: B+

“Leaving Afghanistan” premieres Tuesday, July 20 at 10 p.m. ET on PBS. The documentary will also be available to stream for free via YouTube and the PBS Video App.

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