Everyone Failed Us
VOL. 2 ISSUE 1
Solidarity failed when it came to a dire Afghan refugee crisis, decades in the making.
· IRENE BENEDICTO
“A group of women leaders are badly in danger and one of them is my mom. I really searching for a person who can help us. They attack our home at first…. I hope you can help us. Every one of us really get depressed, please help us to get out of here.”
THE BARRAGE of messages I receive, like the one above from western Afghanistan on almost a daily basis has not stopped, even a year later. Desperate daily emails from Afghans seeking refuge and safety flood our inboxes. Some are social activists, human rights defenders, former interpreters, and women leaders at risk of retribution from the Taliban. Other marginalized groups such as Hazaras and Shias have already been victims of ethnic cleansing by the Taliban and remain targets of ISIS attacks. Women activists have been disappeared by the Taliban authorities. Afghans seeking evacuation hold onto hope in what seems to be a hopeless situation. No longer expecting the international community to come to their rescue, for governments and institutions to do what they’re supposed to do, they rely on community organizers like myself and others.
For two decades, America bragged about what it was building in Afghanistan. Last summer, the “Afghanistan project” was exposed for the facade that it was: a hollow rentier-state that only held ever legitimacy with Western donors and not with the Afghan people. Despite obvious bubbles of progress where hope flourished amidst the violence, the impending threat of a drone strike or Taliban suicide blast was always around the corner. Some rural areas were battered and mired in misery due to violence and poverty; others flourished, led by Afghan women and marginalized communities. The only constant was never-ending conflict.
It seems as if the U.S. built a house of cards in Afghanistan, created in its own image, a house that started falling when the chains of dependency were challenged. The alliance with human rights abusers, the elevation of notorious pedophiles, and funding of endemic corruption brought back to power an oppressive, authoritarian regime that is erasing women, marginalized ethnic groups, and the disabled from public and daily life. The U.S. ran prisons where innocent Afghans were tortured. Entire villages were wiped off the map, and this was excused away as collateral damage. The U.S. spent years telling Afghans to pursue their dreams, break barriers, and challenge cultural norms. Then, it turned its back on them and betrayed them.
Perhaps those of us who dreamt of a better Afghanistan were at fault for having expectations of a country whose very existence was kickstarted by genocide, a country where American presidents attempt brazen coups and its own citizens storm its political headquarters.
The grim reality that we bore witness to these past few months is one that anyone who has paid attention to Afghanistan could have seen coming. There is even a U.S. agency–the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)--which is dedicated to overseeing how reconstruction money was used in Afghanistan. In report after report, year after year, quarter after quarter, SIGAR wrote about the ghosts that the U.S. created–schools and hospitals that didn’t exist and a 300,000-man army that only functioned on paper. The Washington Post even devoted a series titled “The Afghanistan Papers,” to showcase how policymakers and Pentagon officials had lied and deceived the American people about its success and accomplishments for 20 successive years.
The failure to value Afghan lives, however, lies not just with policymakers and elected officials. Certainly, the list of those responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan is long, ranging from Afghan elites to American elected officials from both parties going back four decades. Administration after administration has deprioritized Afghan lives and centered the needs of American hegemony. Congress held hearings on Afghanistan and yet rarely featured any Afghans. Policy discussions on Afghanistan in Washington D.C. at influential think tanks left out Afghans entirely. Afghans were left invisible in an occupation that lasted so long that it became not the “forever war” but rather the “forgotten war.”
Afghanistan had disappeared from the psyche of the American people. Even when SIGAR released a report on rampant corruption that was wasting billions or when the Washington Post talked about lie after lie coming from the Pentagon, America just didn’t seem to care. The right-wing was too busy destroying democracy, the Democratic party was too busy fundraising from defense contractors, and the anti-war Left was too white to put Afghans and other impacted communities at the forefront. In our own Afghan American community, too many in our diaspora were profiting off the occupation. Their kids will go to prestigious American colleges, while Afghan girls will not be able to go to school at all and are robbed of a future.
An international audience did finally pay attention to us last summer. American media, though, centered on the feelings of almost a million veterans who served in Afghanistan rather than asking Afghans how a withdrawal would impact them. The images of Afghans clinging onto the bottom of a military cargo plane had the world hooked. What does it say about our humanity that it took those tragic images for everyone to ask what we can do to help? For just a few days, people across the globe valued Afghan life. But moments like that are fleeting–Afghan history is littered with broken promises.
Some of us have read enough history to know that the international community will not learn the lessons of its failure in Afghanistan and begin centering on the needs of the Afghan people. The Taliban spends every day perfecting its repression while the world has moved on, despite empty tweets and statements of solidarity.
Today, as a year has passed since the chaotic withdrawal, wide-ranging sanctions on Afghanistan and theft of Afghan assets by the U.S. continue to inflict immense pain on innocent Afghan people, causing a humanitarian crisis that will likely lead to mass-scale death through malnutrition and starvation, a policy that disproportionately impacts Afghan girls and women. The United States’ attitude remains the same: focusing only on self-interest, even if it harms Afghans, except now it is done through economic warfare rather than through bombs built by defense contractor companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Afghans deserve justice and reparations for the harm America has caused in my home country. Despite that vision for the future, what America leaves behind are closed immigration pathways and a desire to pretend Afghans don’t exist in the first place.
Perhaps if a few more Afghans clung onto a plane leaving the Kabul airport, someone would care. ▢
ALSO IN THIS ISSUE:
Photograph courtesy of Arash Azizzada (November 2019).
The Failure of the Diaspora
ARASH AZIZZADA is a writer, photographer, and community organizer based in Los Angeles, CA. The children of Afghan refugees, Arash is deeply committed to social justice and building communities. He co-founded Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress (ADEP) in 2016, aimed at elevating and empowering changemakers within the Afghan community. He recently co-launched Afghans For A Better Tomorrow (AFBT), and has focused on evacuation and rapid response coordination efforts in the wake of America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has written for the New York Times, Newsweek, and been featured on NPR and Vice News.
IRENE BENEDICTO is an investigative and data reporter with ten years of experience working as a journalist. She has covered breaking news and written in-depth long-form stories, local and international news from eight different countries on three continents, including the political hubs of Washington DC and Brussels, and three investigative data projects on migration, public health, and social inequities.