No invading nation has ever conquered Afghanistan — not even the United States, which boasts a military budget of $721.5 billion for 2020 alone. On April 13, President Biden announced the nation would withdraw troops by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, bringing to an end the country’s longest war on foreign soil. Despite the fact that Afghanistan ranks 169 out of 189 on the United Nations Human Development Index, the rugged mountainous nation has held its own against the U.S., which deployed almost 800,000 troops in a war that cost an estimated $2 trillion. “We have won the war and America has lost,” Taliban’s shadow mayor in the Baikh district told the BBC.
The money, military, and manpower of global empires are simply no match for the people of Afghanistan, a grim truth the British Empire and the Soviet Union discovered for themselves in the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. Rudyard Kipling recognized as much, penning the poem “The Young British Soldier” in 1895, advising in the final verse: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains, / And the women come out to cut up what remains, / Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains / An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
But what of the cost of defending oneself from attack, of standing up to trespass and maintaining sovereignty of the land? This is a history of trauma and survival rarely given its proper due in the West. But American photographer Edward Grazda, who has documented Afghanistan since 1980, understands those who lived to tell the tale must be heard. With the publication of the new book, Disasters of War (Fraglich), Grazda brings together the portraits Afghan photographer Khalid Hadi made between 1992-1994 documenting the wounded fighters, civilians, and orphans who survived the Soviet-Afghan War.
A Portrait of a War Torn People
On February 16, 1989, the last Soviet soldier wake across the steel Friendship Bridge into Uzbekistan, putting to end a nine-year war that cost claimed 15,000 Soviet lives and resulted in the death of more than two million Afghan citizens. The war began in 1979 when Soviet troops invaded Kabul and assassinated Hafizullah Amin, the second President of Afghanistan, in order to install a Communist regime. The Afghan government toppled and fell, but the people rose, organizing themselves as Mujahideen who were able to blend in with the local population and fight from within, forcing the Soviet withdrawal and ultimately precipitating the collapse of the USSR.
In 1990, Haji Mullah Akhond started a foundation to help Afghan victims of the Soviet war. Recognizing the need to document the people who had survived, he hired Khalid Hadi, then just 11-year-old, to create portraits and manage record keeping for more than 10,000 people over a two-year period. By that time, Hadi was already an experienced photographer, having learned to use a wooden box camera, widely popular in Afghanistan, to make street portraits for money. His father, an Afghan Army officer, helped him get a job photographing wounded Mujahideen.
When the Taliban rose to power in 1996, they took Kandahar and established it as the capital of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. With the transfer of power, Hadi became the “official Taliban photographer” as a means of survival under their brutal regime. Although the Taliban had banned photography of all living things, they used it to propagandize public works such as the construction of a new mosque or the repair of an orphanage through two magazines published by the Ministry of Culture. With a press pass, Hadi could introduce banned videotapes and music cassettes into the country and pass them secretly from person to person.
NEW YORK, August 19, 2001—
As fate would have it, Grazda and Hadi first crossed paths at an Afghan Independence Day celebration in Queens, New York, on August 19, 2001 — less than one month before the 9/11 attacks. At a table alongside a friend selling Afghan newspapers Grazda sold copies of his book, Afghanistan Diary: 1992–2000 (powerHouse, 2000), a pictorial look at the nation after the Soviet-Afghan War came to an end and the conditions that brought about the rise of the Taliban.
“The Afghan community is relatively small,” Grazda says, “I ran into Khalid. He was 20 or 21 at the time, very upbeat. He saw my camera and we talked. We were both journalists and I totally believed his story.”
Among Hadi’s collection of portraits was an image of Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960–2013), the mujahideen commander who became the Supreme Leader of the Taliban and founded the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Although the
United States government accused Mullah Omar of harboring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda militants no one knew what he looked like — until they learned of Hadi’s photograph.
A Survivor’s Story
Hadi later brought the full collection of portraits to Grazda’s Chelsea studio. “I edited them down, put them in a dummy, and showed them around in 2002 or 2003. It just sat on the shelf because there wasn’t much interest in it,” he says.
All things considered it was par for the course; Grazda mentions he had little success showing or selling work made in Afghanistan in the 1980s and ‘90s in the United States. Afghanistan Diary went largely ignored until the 9/11 attacks. But Hadi’s work stands apart from anything else made during that time; his portraits are poignant and powerful studies of humanity and the will to survive.
“Khalid was just a kid taking pictures of people who probably had never been photographed before,” Grazda say. “That’s what’s amazing. Everything is open and free. There’s nothing in between the photographer and the sitter. They are just presenting themselves as they are.”
Today Hadi remains a journalist, running Benawa, a news and media website providing Pashto materials and resources. He does not do press or speak publicly about this work. Instead he allows the pictures to bare witness to the impact of war, allowing us to see the climate such devastation cultivated among survivors. Of the book’s simple, straightforward presentation, Grazda observes, “I’m a firm believer in showing something for history. This is what it looked like, uneditorialized.”
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, including Time, Vogue, Aperture, and Vice, among others.
Disasters of War: Portraits by Khalid Hadi, edited by Edward Grazda, published by Fraglich, 28 €. Available here.