In April, President Joe Biden announced that he would be pulling out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11. Biden is the 4th American President under which the United States War in Afghanistan has been fought over the course of 20 years. Within the past week, the Taliban started sweeping across the country, storming one provincial capital after another, president Ashraf Ghani fled the country, his government collapsed, and the Afghan security forces melted away as the Taliban moved into the capital. During the war, nearly 2400 United States service members have lost their lives, more than 20,000 have been wounded, between 35,000 and 40,00 civilians have been killed and the operation has had a total price tag in the realm of $2 trillion dollars. But as violence continues in the country what America has achieved with all the years and money involved is being called into question.
Afghanistan is a country whose history is one of war and invasion. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the Mughals, and the British, have all come and gone over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1919 that Afghanistan became a sovereign and independent country. And before the Americans came in 2001, it was the Soviet Union who last invaded, just over 40 years ago. In 1978 Afghanistan’s communist party staged a coup and took control of the country. The new government enacted policies that were very unpopular and led to fighting between the government and the Mujahideen, who were a loose coalition of opposition groups. The early fighting quickly turned into open warfare in large parts of the country. The government was being backed by Russia, but after numerous political assassinations, there were rumors that the Afghan government was going to switch sides and seek help from America. On December 24th, 1979 the Soviet Army invaded to try and quash the rebels and stabilize the government by throwing their own coup and installing a government more loyal to Moscow.
It is into this situation that photographer Edward Grazda began photographing Afghanistan during the early days of the Soviet-Afghan War. On a trip through Asia in 1980, Grazda headed to the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to photograph the refugees that were coming into Pakistan after the Soviet invasion. It would be the first of many trips to photograph what was going on in Afghanistan.
“In 1982 I made a trip with the Mujahideen into Afghanistan, great people, who wanted to be photographed to show their fight against the Russians. The Afghans loved photos.” And fortunately for Grazda, the Russian occupation did not cause issues for his work. “Except for one bombing raid, I had no problems with the Russians.”
Grazda was born in Flushing, Queens and his introduction to photography came from his family. His father was an amateur photographer and photographed in India and China during World War II. Growing up in New York City, Grazda also spent a lot of time looking at photographs in museums. “I went to MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art) during high school and was looking at Walker Evans and the Farm Security Administration Photographers.” He went on to study photography at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1969. Before his trips to Afghanistan, Grazda was also a well-healed photojournalist and traveler, having photographed life on the Bowery in New York City, the folk music scene in the mid-1960s around the U.S., and traveled around Peru and Latin America.
After almost a decade of fighting in Afghanistan, and the deaths of roughly 15,000 soldiers, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, with the last soldiers and tanks rolling back into Russian territory on February 15, 1989. But this withdrawal did not end the fighting. The Mujahideen turned their attention to overthrowing the Russian-backed government, which eventually fell in March 1992, when then-President Mohammad Najibullah agreed to resign to make way for a national coalition government. But the Mujahideen, who had never been a completely unified force, failed to form a new government, leading to Civil War. Meanwhile, foreign countries who had backed the Mujahideen forces during their fight with Russia, also pulled out their support for the country, leaving Afghanistan with no support to rebuild its shattered infrastructure, leaving the populations in dire straits. Out of the various groups involved in the fighting, the Taliban, who believe in a very harsh fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law, rose to power, promising to bring stability to the country. They eventually took control of almost all of Afghanistan by 1996.
“In 1997, I applied for a visa to Taliban Afghanistan in Pakistan. It was granted for two weeks. Photography of living things had just been declared illegal, but I was able to work. I returned in 2000, but it was much harder to work then”
During their rule, the Taliban banned many things, including television, movies, music, and in the case of photographers, all visual representations of living creatures, including people. Women were barred from school, were forced to wear a burka when outside of their homes and be accompanied by a male relative. The Taliban also destroyed cultural treasures throughout Afghanistan that it saw as un-Islamic.
The Taliban rule came to an end with the American invasion in 2001. And Edward Grazda made his last trip to Afghanistan in 2004. “The Afghan people are wonderful, and in 2001 everyone loved the Americans. But after that, it went downhill. Like Vietnam, it was a big mistake. From 2002 the U.S. involvement was a mistake, it only served military contractors and suppliers. It had nothing to do with stopping “terrorists.” “
As America is withdrawing its own forces, the Taliban are now gaining ground and taking back full control of Afghanistan, which they had lost during the 20 years that American forces were in the country.
Edward Grazda’s photographs from the Soviet-Afghan War through the rise and rule of the Taliban present a view of Afghanistan in a time that has had major impacts on today’s world. It is an era that is rapidly coming to look like a mirror of what is happening today. The photographs are not a prediction of what will happen, but they show what could happen if the world has not learned from the past.
Grazda’s work on Afghanistan has been published in two books, Afghanistan 1980 – 1989, published in 1990, and in Afghanistan Diary 1992-2000 published in 2000. This September PowerHouse Books will be publishing Asia Calling: A Photographer’s Notebook 1980 – 1997. This book will present a recap of Edward Grazda’s work from around Asia during a time period of great change on the continent. It includes work from Hong Kong, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Laos, India, China, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
By Robert E. Gerhardt, Jr.
Robert Gerhardt is a New York-based photographer and freelance writer. His photographs and writings have been published nationally and internationally including in The Hong Kong Free Press, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Diplomat.