Afghanistan will host its first soccer match in 10 years. Neighboring Pakistan will be the visiting team and the match will be played in Kabul on Tuesday.
“The fact that we are hosting our first international game in 10 years, and the first against Pakistan in Kabul since 1977, represents a major highlight for football in our country,” Afghan Football Federation (AFF) Secretary-General Sayed Aghazada told FIFA.
The last team to visit Afghanistan was Turkmenistan back in 2003 — the same year that saw a resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda following their initial retreat due to the NATO backed intervention.
Although certain parts of the country, especially in the south and southeastern provinces, remain dominated by the Taliban, the country has come a long way since 2001. It has witnessed a degree of normality emerge in a few main cities that are well protected by NATO and Afghan security forces, a degree of normality that must be examined by keeping in mind Afghanistan’s war-ravaged history, its conservative societal norms, and rampant poverty.
However, with the NATO forces leaving in 2014 and the Taliban seeking a negotiated power settlement, the clock could be turned back on Afghanistan's fragile and extremely limited societal gains.
Over the past few years, amidst the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, a few daring efforts were made by locals to pursue their interests and ambitions. 2008 saw Afghanistan's first-ever rock band, Kabul Dreams, emerge. The band performed behind tall barbed wired walls and delighted many youthful Afghan rock and metal fans. 2012 saw Soosan Firooz come out challenging societal norms and the traditional role of Afghan women as the first female rapper of Afghanistan. The same year also saw another brave woman, Meena Rahmani, open a full 12-lane bowling alley in Kabul, an instant hit with the Kabul youth.
Similarly plans have been made to improve sport programs across the country. The AFF plans to start an annual national soccer league comprising six local teams. Ironically, during their rule the Taliban once used a crowded soccer stadium in the heart of Kabul to carry out public executions.
Currently the Afghan security forces are not disciplined or trained enough to withstand a full-fledged Taliban assault. Corruption, drug use, and defection to the Taliban remain rampant among their ranks. After the NATO forces leave the country and if the Taliban manage to gain enough control to carry out their writ, the societal landscape could return to what it looked like during their rule in the 1990s.
The Taliban with their strict religious interpretations of social norms and willingness to enact harsh social controls will never allow for music or bowling alleys. During their rule in the 90s cinemas and music shops were closed. Movement of women was restricted to their homes, and their right to an active role in society maligned. Any form of modernization or westernization was seen as un-Islamic, sinful, and something that had to be done away with at once. Anyone who digressed was given the harshest of punishments, including public hangings.
Hence, it must be remembered that should the Taliban return to power, the limited societal changes made in Afghanistan over the past few years could well be undone. As long as the Taliban remain a force to be reckoned with, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future of Afghanistan and the Afghan people.