Award-winning Australian photojournalist, Andrew Quilty, has launched This is Afghanistan, a comprehensive photo book that serves as a visual record of his nine years covering daily life in Afghanistan.
As both a writer and photographer, Quilty established himself as one of Australia’s finest journalists during his time in Afghanistan. The photographer remained deeply committed to the region, with his almost decade-long tenure making him the longest serving foreign photographer based in Afghanistan since 2001.
Quilty stayed in Afghanistan until after the country’s collapse following the US withdrawal in August 2021, one of the handful of foreign journalists to bear witness to the Taliban takeover. Despite still being a hot conflict zone, Quilty called Kabul home during a relatively peaceful period in the country’s recent history, as the US military slowly began its withdrawal. The American boots on the ground were gradually replaced by Afghan military and militia units, and of course a ruthless air strike program. Global news interest in Afghanistan waned, almost completely falling off the radar after ISIS emerged as the new terror threat, resulting in the departure of many war reporters and foreign correspondents. As successive US presidents became increasingly impatient with re-building their ideal version of Afghanistan, in distant territories the Taliban gradually regrouped, with far more endurance than their Western enemy.
This is Afghanistan is an Afghan explanation for the juxtapositions, the confounding paradoxes and macabre absurdities of day-to-day life there,’ writes Quilty in the book’s introduction. Passengers aboard a commercial flight forced to wait an hour for the arrival of a local politician; a high-speed, head-on collision between a crowded bus and a petrol tanker; the face of a suicide bomber torn from his skull and found amidst the festive detritus of the wedding he eviscerated. ‘This is Afghanistan’, an attitude somewhere between the fatalistic logic of ‘Inshallah’, God’s will, and the cliched notion of Afghan resilience. As if invoking the name of the country itself is the only way to rationalise what cannot otherwise be rationalised’.
Quilty was most interested in the experience of Afghans ‘for whom neither innocence nor neutrality were enough to protect them from the war’. By extension his work documents the complex everyday life of the Afghan people during these years. His award-winning work, such as the Gold Walkley-winning Man on the Operating Table, explores the tragic outcomes of people undeservedly living with the tragedy of war, death and destruction. His lesser-known photography expands upon the life for Afghan people who, like anyone else around the world, enjoy beautiful, peaceful and even mundane moments.
This is Afghanistan serves as a visual retrospective of Quilty’s time in the country. It contains 182 pictures, whittled down from an archive of over 320,000. Accompanying the pictures are vignettes that contextualise the period. The photo book is a follow up to Quilty’s first book, August In Kabul, which chronicles the country’s collapse and is told via first-hand accounts of people caught up in the dramatic historic events. Below is an excerpt from This is Afghanistan (republished with Andrew’s permission) recounting the 2018 Taliban ambulance suicide bombing that Quilty witnessed first hand, and the events that followed…
‘Talking While Fighting’ from This is Afghanistan by Andrew Quilty
It was a cold Saturday in January and a thin layer of smoke hung over Kabul. I rode my motorcycle to Chicken Street, a strip of antique shops linking the commercial zone in Shahr-e Naw with a secure road whose residents included the Ministry of Interior and the European Union. I was shopping for my friends Sune and Danielle, with whom I’d lived in Kabul for the past couple of years. They had moved to Beirut and asked me to buy a carpet for the apartment they’d rented there.
Pamir Carpets was below ground, and while it was frigid inside, with thousands of carpets folded and stacked in piles as high as me, it was somehow cosy. As the shopkeeper unfurled the carpets I wanted to see on the floor, his thirteen-year-old son brought me a cup of green tea. I hadn’t yet taken a sip when a deep thump and a rush of pressure shook the room. The shopkeeper and I ducked, reaching for one another to steady ourselves. Then he closed up the shop as I turned on my camera and made my way up the stairs to the street.
Three weeks earlier President Trump had suspended security aid to Pakistan, which had long harboured the Afghan Taliban. It was the economic pressure Trump had alluded to in announcing his South Asia Strategy the year before, and Afghanistan had since been bracing for retaliation from the Taliban. By this time the military aspect of the strategy had also been brought to bear, and Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid would later point to it as justification for the bombing that had just occurred: ‘If you go ahead with a policy of aggression and speak from the barrel of a gun, don’t expect Afghans to grow flowers in response.’
It hadn’t been more than twenty seconds since the explosion, but the cloud of smoke was already dispersing at the southern end of the street. So were the people—some walking, others running, all fleeing the blast site, heading towards and then past me. Shopkeepers were pulling their shutters down and joining the exodus. I looked at the sky, then checked my camera settings as I began walking against the flow, giving any follow-up attackers time to arrive before I did.
Some people held bloodied scarves to their heads, but most appeared unharmed.One man carrying a briefcase reminded me of images of office workers escaping Lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers came down. Fifty metres from the blast site parked cars had had their panels caved in and their windows blown out by the force of the explosion. A layer of dust had already settled over the crumpled surfaces, making them seem long-abandoned. A man hobbled away using a paling as a crutch, glossy blood trickling down through the dull grime on his forehead to the point of his nose. Another was struggling to get out of a deep gutter and I pulled him free, then let him lie in the road.
Uninjured policemen were taking long, urgent strides, pistols drawn, yelling, pointing with hand-held radios. Between them and me, sunk into the road, was a mass of tangled bodies that seemed to be squirming in slow motion. One man was propped on his side holding a phone—white, pristine against the muck—to his mouth. His eyes were open but his face was expressionless. The bomb had been in a van painted to look like an ambulance. Its driver was believed to have been trying to reach the Interior Ministry, where hundreds of off-duty police had been collecting their wages, but he was stopped by officers at the busy Chicken Street intersection. One hundred and three people were killed, mostly civilians.
The rest of 2018 would offer a brief but glorious taste of peace and moves towards a diplomatic solution to the war. Despite all the talk of peace, however, the violence on Afghanistan’s battlefields was escalating to new heights.
Five months after the ambulance bomb, with casualties rising to the highest levels since the beginning of the war, the Taliban’s agreement to a ceasefire over the Eid al-Fitr holiday at the end of Ramadan brought a welcome hiatus. The three-day detente was the first in seventeen years of war. Both sides were wary in the lead-up, but on 15 June, the first day of Eid, the prevailing brutality, hatred and fear were replaced by the holiday’s tenets of peace, forgiveness and mercy.
On the final day of the ceasefire I left Kabul and travelled down Highway One with a carload of Afghan friends to Maidan Wardak province. On any other day our Kabuli cohort would only have driven the two lanes of mangled bitumen, dubbed the ‘Highway of Death’, if it was of the utmost importance to do so—especially with a foreigner. But on this day the atmosphere of unity was so pronounced, and the adherence to the ceasefire so absolute, that, at a junction less than 100 kilometres from Kabul, government soldiers and Taliban fighters embraced, posed for photos and flew one another’s flags side by side. ‘We want peace; we want unity … we want an alliance,’ cried a pro-Taliban Islamic scholar, thrusting a Taliban flag into the air with each invocation. More troublingly, he added, ‘The government are slaves to foreigners; death to foreigners.’
The tenuous peace was short-lived. As if shaken from a dream, the combatants returned to war at the stroke of midnight. But the ceasefire provided some hope among American diplomats of a will for peace among the Taliban’s ranks.
In October, peace talks in Doha, where the Taliban leadership had established an office, began to coalesce around two key issues: the US demand for counter-terrorism assurances, and the Taliban demand for the withdrawal of foreign troops. But as the talks got underway the US military took off the gloves in Afghanistan. As US brigadier general Lance R Bunch had told the media in June, ‘The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation, and help them realise that peace talks are their best option.’
In late November I visited a surgical centre for war victims run by the Italian NGO Emergency in Lashkar Gah, Helmand. On the afternoon of the 24th a teenage boy was wheeled into the emergency room, covered head to toe in dirt and dried blood. His clothes were shredded and a bandage around his calf was coming loose. Then a teenage girl arrived in a wheelchair, her face covered in a web of blood. Then another boy, younger, bile pooling around his shirt collar and foam bubbling from his mouth. They kept coming until the emergency room was overflowing.
The home of Obaidullah and his wife Qarara had been used by two Taliban fighters to fire on a passing US–Afghan convoy, despite Obaidullah’s pleas. After the fighters had fled, an American A-10 warplane—a ‘flying gun’—strafed the house with hundreds of rounds, leaving watermelon-sized holes in the ceiling. Obaidullah was killed and thirteen members of his extended family were seriously wounded. Fourteen-year-old Ehsanullah, who had been wheeled in first, lost both his eyes.
The following year the US Department of Defense would release its accounting of civilian casualties caused by its forces in 2018. For 24 November, in Helmand, the report stated ‘Killed: 0. Injured: 4’.
After police had led me away from the scene at the end of Chicken Street, I began walking the long way to my motorcycle. A journalist friend who was just arriving asked me if I was okay. I said I was fine, the blood on my clothes and hands wasn’t my own. As I turned to keep walking, a bystander regarded me and cried, ‘Death to America.’
– This is Afghanistan is available now from Melbourne University Press, and book shops around the country.