Afghan refugees need help. Will the U.S. again fall short?

Nick DeMarchis, Print Managing Co-Editor

The Taliban’s quick rise to control in Afghanistan was a surprise for much of the watching world. Less of a surprise, however, are the abiding fears of human rights abuses and conflict in the country which just saw the end of a 20-year war. Female, LGBTQ+, and religious minority voices had a rare opportunity to flourish under the previous Western-friendly Afghan Republic. However, under Afghanistan’s new (and old) government, their calls to the international community for support have been overwhelming. In the face of these terrifying realities, the United States should take the diplomatic initiative and help ensure that Afghan dissidents can safely escape the Taliban’s governance.

Here, I am not commenting on the Biden administration’s justification for the nature of the U.S. military’s departure, nor the Bush administration’s reasons for invasion in the first place. Those actions are history now. United States withdrawal, and Taliban control, is the current situation – a diplomatic, sociopolitical and cultural minefield which the international community must now work around. That is, the political occupation itself is now essentially a given, but the likely impending repression coming to millions of Afghan civilians is not, should other nations take appropriate action.

It’s clear that the international response to the plight of these marginalized groups has been positively underwhelming. It was terrifying to watch humans with families cling to the side of an American plane leaving Kabul’s airport in the hopes of refugee or asylum status. Such an action clearly signals the Afghan public’s lingering fears of their new government. Why? Nearly all involved parties have recognized the unreliability of the Taliban’s promises to provide amnesty to prior U.S. and Afghan government contacts. Conservative pundits have latched onto the heart-wrenching reports that those identities were disclosed to the Taliban by Americans. After 20 years of ouster from government by the American military and its allies, what would the Taliban do with that information?

Whether fears carried over from the situation prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion are well founded or not, the widely-publicized scenes of last month’s exit do little to truly describe the growing dread of the Afghan people. Instead, it’s clear that life for those in Afghanistan could soon be fully unrecognizable once it is under the control of an all-male government with worrying institutions like the “Ministry for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” What would this mean for minority groups in Afghanistan?

An anonymous Afghan student, writing for the BBC, noted that the Taliban has “attacked schools for [girls of my minority ethnicity] before, killing hundreds. So they will surely kill us, probably rape us, kill us. As a girl and also as a minority, there is no space for me in my own country.” Another said, “As a gay person in Afghanistan… If I reveal myself to my family, maybe they will beat me, maybe they will kill me. […] I don’t think I will ever continue my education. My friends, I have lost contact with them. I don’t know if they’re okay.”

What will happen to their identity? Their life?

Many more women, LGBTQ+ people, and Afghan religious minorities have expressed terror at the Taliban’s takeover for those exact same reasons: fear of censorship, punishment, imprisonment or worse, for living the way they did under the previous government. They are faced with oppressive regimes likely to violate fundamental human rights and prevent political dissidents from seeking asylum elsewhere. What can be done to help them?

Most observers would agree that the answer is not continued occupation of a foreign country, nor the “nation-building” recently disavowed by Biden. The purported reason for the United States’ continued Afghan presence is to fight terrorist groups and those that enable them. But, as with most matters of foreign policy, “those that enable them” isn’t a clear cut category from the other side of the world. Instead, Western-style republican governments have many more challenges in an area in which they don’t naturally arise. Thousands of arms across dozens of unique militia groups combined with famously mismanaged foreign aid have made such groups highly competitive with state and national governments for regional authority. In the Taliban’s case, August showed that they and their allies were more than competitive with the Afghan fighters and their allies.

A former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan described Pakistani officials as repeatedly stressing, “We know you. We know you don’t have patience for the long fight. We know the day will come when you just get tired and go home — it’s what you do. But we aren’t going anywhere — this is where we live. So if you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy.”

That is, the incentive for Afghanistan’s neighbors to work against the Taliban — even those neighbors that are often allied with the United States — might not be nearly as intense as one would expect. Purporting to be a benevolent power in a foreign country doesn’t mean much in the face of historically tribal and militant Afghan leadership. Instead, for a country like the United States, examining the nature of these human rights abuses and working on the ground becomes all the more important.

Now the moral imperative for the United States shifts: if we actually believe the Taliban’s actions in Afghanistan are all that reprehensible, then we should actually act upon our lofty purported values. That means supporting Afghan families who are looking for a new home by granting them asylum status, with a path to citizenship. That means spending money to alleviate the notorious visa application backlog. That means funding NGOs that support the egress of dissidents and their families from Afghanistan. That means appropriately sanctioning oppressive regimes and moving business elsewhere, to states that share the United States’ values of free speech and expression.

Neo-imperialist nation building only adds fuel to the fire of years-long hypocritical oppression of foreign countries. For the time being, it appears that the United States has learned that lesson the hard way: the Afghanistan War led to the death of 174,000 people, including over 47,245 civilians and 2,420 Americans. While it may be a relief to write that in the past tense, it doesn’t excuse the sheer human loss of continued brutal war.

The United States should use its power in the world not to conquer more nations, as was exceedingly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but instead to use its outsize global influence to help those who do not wish to live under the Taliban.

The protection of human rights for those under the foot of oppressive regimes should ring true for United States lawmakers. Moving forward we should expound upon the Statue of Liberty’s promise. We must work to be the nation that can confidently say, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” and make good on that vow.

The Afghan people, along with refugees around the world, are looking to the United States to breathe free again. Will we let them?

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