Rod Nordland on Afghanistan and its Romeo and Juliet

Q&A with New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland

Afghanistan is being methodically overrun by the Taliban as the US and NATO draw down their troops, and the country is not yet ready to stand on its own feet without outside help, according to Rod Nordland, the New York Times bureau chief in Kabul. As the Taliban advance in the provinces, more people are dying, other terrorist groups like ISIS are gaining a foothold, and human rights - notably the rights of women - are being trampled.

Foreign forces have been reduced from 140,000 in 2011 to some 13,000 today, including 9,800 US troops. Afghan casualties have increased enormously - twice as many Afghan security forces were killed by the Taliban in 2015 compared to 2014. President Obama had intended to reduce the US contingent in Afghanistan to 1,000 by the time he leaves office in 2017, but last October he announced he would maintain the current levels because of the deteriorating security situation. Nordland says even that will not be enough. "Afghanistan will collapse unless we send more forces," Nordland told a Global Café breakfast meeting of the Los Angeles World Affairs Council on February 5th.

"The prognosis is really bad," said Nordland, outlining a government that is paralyzed by corruption and ethnic disputes, a military force that is plagued with desertion and low morale and a general population that lives in daily fear of returning to the bad old days when Taliban extremists would re-impose their harsh fundamentalist views. Particularly anxious are Afghan women, who have acquired a modicum of freedom and the right to an education since the US pushed the Taliban out after 9/11 - all those gains may be lost. A foretaste of what might be coming was seen when the Taliban overran the northern provincial capital of Kunduz last September, the first major city they had controlled since being ousted from power in 2001. "The first thing they did was to go to the Womens' Shelter and burn it down," and they went hunting for the woman in charge whom they said they wanted to hang from a lamp post.

In the midst of this gloomy situation, Nordland in 2014 came across the story of Ali and Zakia, a young couple separated by religion and ethnicity, who have courted death simply for wanting to get married. Ali is a Hazara from the central province of Bamian, and like most Hazaras is a Shiite Muslim. Zakia comes from a Tajik family and is a Sunni Muslim. Although the couple grew up in neighboring fields in Bamian, Zakia's father would not give his daughter permission to marry a man of a different ethnicity and faith, and when she tried to run away he publicly called for her to be killed, in a so-called "honor killing" that is sadly not uncommon across Afghanistan. Nordland wrote about the couple's predicament in the New York Times, as they fled from the provinces to the capital Kabul, barely one step ahead of Zakia's male relatives who wanted to kill them both. Ultimately Nordland found himself choosing to step out of his role as a journalist to help the couple to escape - something which he says he still has "mixed feelings about - some stories you have to opt for humanity over journalistic ethics."

As news of Zakia and Ali's story spread inside and outside Afghanistan, Nordland subsequently became involved in attempts to get them visas to leave the country. However the US and other western embassies have been very reluctant to help, because if they were to give Ali and Zakia humanitarian visas so they could leave, "it would be creating an example by admitting all their efforts and investments to boost the rule of law in Afghanistan could not save one couple from being killed." He has written about the couple's story and the larger issues of women's rights in Afghanistan in his new book, The Lovers - Afghanistan's Romeo and Juliet.

Ali and Zakia remain in hiding, and the threats to women in general are on the increase as the areas of government control in the provinces shrink and the Taliban advance - girls' schools are being closed down, women are being returned to their prior status as possessions of their menfolk, and corrupt government officials with bank accounts in Dubai simply look the other way. Both Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton have spoken out in support of Afghan women's rights in the past, but it remains to be seen if the US will be prepared or even capable of following through on pledges not to abandon women in Afghanistan in the future.