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'Afghanistan's tragedy is in its geopolitics and not genes': Ex-Afghan president's daughter

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Ms Muska Najibullah (right) as a child with her father, former Afghan president Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai. PHOTO: MUSKA NAJIBULLAH

When the Taliban rolled unopposed into Kabul on Aug 15, formalising its takeover of Afghanistan, 38-year-old Muska Najibullah could not help but think how despairingly similar the events were to those that upturned her life 25 years ago.

It was in September 1996 that the Taliban first seized the capital city. One of its earliest actions was to kill her father, Mr Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai, the former president of Afghanistan, as well as her uncle.

Their bodies were hung as a warning outside the presidential palace.

Recollecting these macabre events in a piece for The Guardian published on Sept 27, the day her father and uncle were killed in 1996, Ms Najibullah wrote: "And 25 years ago, today my life, and those of so many others of my generation, changed forever - and not all for the better."

It was in 1992 that Mr Najibullah resigned as president, moving into the United Nations' compound in Kabul. It was an attempt at ending a protracted civil war and making way for a new coalition government.

While her father was caught up in tumultuous political changes, Ms Najibullah, along with her mother and sisters, came to India earlier that year.

What she described as a break during a school holiday turned into exile - the Afghan-born writer and visual storyteller has not returned to her country since 1992 and has lived in India for many of these years.

In an e-mail interview with The Straits Times, she shared her concerns about Afghanistan's future and her hope of returning to her homeland one day.

While Afghanistan gradually slips away from global headlines, Ms Najibullah warned that the situation there is "getting worse, day by day".

Besides feeling "bewildered" and "abandoned" at losing their home to a group that "doesn't represent them", Afghans face a looming economic and humanitarian crisis.

Millions could run out of food as winter sets in and one million children are at risk of starvation and death if their immediate needs are not met, United Nations officials warned last month.

"Winter is coming, and it will be a harsh one for Afghans. We need to act fast," Ms Najibullah told The Straits Times, calling for a clear road map and accountability.

With the Taliban entrenched for now, stability "must precede dogmatic ideologies'', she said.

If the group intends to govern Afghanistan successfully, it will have to negotiate with Afghans who have different views, she added, and address its promises more to Afghans than to the rest of the world.

Attempts to secure the 2020 peace deal between the United States and Afghanistan also failed to factor in voices of ordinary Afghans and were guided by a "predetermined agenda", she argued.

"Reconciliation was premised on the assumption that the Afghan conflict was a political contest of wills between the (Afghan) government, the United States and the Taliban."

Afghanistan's tragedy is in its geopolitics and not genes, she added, referring to cliches such as "inherently ungovernable" that are often deployed by foreigners to describe Afghanistan, a country that has found itself reduced to being used as an accessory and a battlefield for great power rivalries.

What is needed is a global discussion through which international actors figure out a way to keep their political interests out of Afghanistan, she said. "A peace process that is predominantly Afghan-led and Afghan-owned is the only way to secure a future for my country."

An indigenously driven peace settlement is something her father, who was the last communist president of Afghanistan, also tried to put in motion as he attempted to set the country on a stable path after the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

Two years prior to their exit, he launched a National Reconciliation Policy to reunify the nation but the offer was spurned by the Afghan mujahideen.

It is because of this reconciliatory approach that his legacy underwent a revival among violence-weary Afghans in the past decade despite accusations of a brutal and fearsome past.

"Had my father been still alive, he would have pushed for a consensus among international actors on peace in Afghanistan and ensured that there is a strong guarantor to implement the peace agreement," she said.

Even while in exile, Ms Najibullah has pursued her father's dream of a "peaceful and united Afghanistan".

A series of photographs she shot documenting the lives of Kabuliwalas - Afghan traders who have settled in Calcutta for decades - is one such effort. Titled From Kabul To Kolkata, it explores how these traders have preserved their Afghan identity while rebuilding their homes in a foreign land.

She has also contributed to the process of nation building in her own way through other projects that sensitise non-Afghans about Afghanistan and busting stereotypical notions about her country and its people.

She believes doing so is critical for the future of her country's identity politics.

"The search for stability in Afghanistan strongly depends on maintaining a strong national identity, and as an Afghan, it's important for me to highlight and point out all the elements that define my country's identity to the outside world - it's heritage, history, culture, traditions and customs," said the author of a 2013 cultural guidebook on Afghanistan aimed at foreigners.

She has had a short professional stint in Singapore but did not give more details. She praised the city state as one that "keeps reinventing itself and continues to stay ahead of its time".

"I hope we Afghans have the means to speak with policymakers and experts from Singapore to learn and glean insights on nation building," she said.

Ms Najibullah hopes to visit Singapore to catch up with her friends and sip a cup of kopi-c kosong, which she misses terribly.

Visiting Afghanistan is also something she continues to wish for - the country she was born in and a cradle for some of her finest childhood memories. It is a land she also remains tethered to because her father and uncle are laid to rest there.

"I hope that someday, the path to my country will open for me," said Ms Najibullah, who has all these years recreated her homeland "through a suitcase of memories and stories" as well as actions such as cooking an Afghan meal or listening to old melodies from her country.

"And the day I am able to visit, I want to spend time with my own community, smell that fresh mountainous air, let my feet touch its soil and just soak myself into the world that I was born in to make up for all the time I lost living there."