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Sifting Through the Wreckage After the Forever War

By News Creatives Authors , in Leadership , at August 19, 2021

As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan after 20 years and following a breakneck Taliban takeover, the casualties of its longest war – the people of Afghanistan – are uncertain of the future and what to expect from a returning Taliban regime that seeks a new image and worldwide legitimacy. As the situation unravels and aid workers scramble to mitigate the growing humanitarian crisis, devastated Afghans point to Pakistan’s sanctuary and support as the source of Taliban strength. 

As part of a hasty and chaotic withdrawal, the United States is evacuating American and allied personnel from a tarmac at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International airport. Videos show a swarm of desperate civilians clinging to a taxiing U.S. military airplane. For viewers, these visuals may become as haunting and iconic as those of American helicopters conducting rooftop evacuations in 1975 Saigon. After 20 years, the loss of 71,000 Afghan civilians, 2,400 American soldiers and the expenditure of two trillion dollars, it is clear the U.S. had failed to create a functioning government in Afghanistan. 

“When the Biden administration came into power, I thought there would be some more nuance to the decision. Frankly, I thought there would be a delay while they figured out how to do this in a responsible way, assessing what the dynamic is on the ground and what the sentiments are,” said Joseph Azam, a board member of Afghan American Foundation. “Anybody familiar with the situation on the ground would be able to predict what happened. This is an abysmal decision and an avoidable catastrophe.”

During the Soviet-Afghan War, Awaz was smuggled out of Afghanistan as a child and traveled through India and Germany before reaching New York City, where he grew up. 

Azam says many Afghans saw the writing on the wall, and are scared, exhausted, and confused about the speed of the Taliban’s victory.

The Afghan American Foundation is focusing on coalition building and mobilization within the diaspora, and working with policymakers to demand assistance to Afghanistan. 

“First of all, we want to ensure that people start holding the Taliban accountable immediately for how it’s conducting itself, particularly with regard to human rights, international norms and inclusivity. We need to start getting regional players like China, Pakistan, Iran and India to pay attention and to get engaged in developing humanitarian corridors or aiding with the security situation,” explains Azam. 

The more immediate concerns that the Afghan American Foundation is tackling are displacement and immigration issues, such as making sure that the United States keeps its commitment to Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), and facilitating the arrival of those who qualify for P1 and P2 visas. In the same vein, they are requesting Depart of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to designate Afghanistan as part of the Temporary Protected Status Program.

Many Afghans who worked with Americans and coalition allies understandably fear retribution from the Taliban. Especially nervous are the interpreters who worked with news agencies, civil society, contractors, and the military. Despite Taliban promises of general amnesty, vulnerable Afghanis who qualify for SIVs now anxiously await evacuation and resettlement options. 

“We are asking the world to be flexible and to be extraordinary in the response from a policy perspective given how extraordinary the situation in Afghanistan is,” states Azam.

He asserts that the players that have historically been involved in Afghanistan’s destabilization and particularly in the Taliban’s survival are obligated to help stabilize the country now. He believes the United States – given its outsize role in recent decades – has a responsibility to provide humanitarian aid and be diplomatically involved. Azam notes that there is now a power vacuum, one which will surely be exploited by other regional states.

Neighboring Pakistan has a sizable population of Pashtuns – the predominant ethnic group in Afghanistan – and has for decades been the largest power broker in Afghanistan and a sponsor of the Taliban. Its military and intelligence apparatus – which many identify as the de facto rulers of the country – has been hypersensitive to calls for a  “Pashtunistan” from Afghan nationalists who reject the boundary separating the two countries – known as the Durand Line – as a colonial relic that bisects ethnic Pashtun areas. Pakistan’s rivalry with India – its neighbor to the east – is also a factor. Pakistan’s national security establishment has always sought a friendly, malleable regime on its western flank. 

According to a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aqil Shah, “Pakistan is the prime backer of the Taliban. The Pakistani Prime Minister, aptly nicknamed Taliban Khan, said the Afghans have broken the shackles of slavery. That was as obvious an endorsement as can be.” “Beyond that, cabinet ministers and retired generals who are very close to the current Army High Command and Islamist parties, have all celebrated the Taliban capture of Kabul.”

Shah adds that Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus has successfully leveraged their strategic location and that the United States shied away from pushing the Pakistan military intelligence to press the Taliban for a genuine political settlement and deny sanctuaries to the Taliban. 

“Pakistanis were not honest brokers; they knew what the Taliban were doing on the ground, and they had been providing them with logistical support, they were facilitating the Taliban’s cross-border movements, and their wounded fighters were treated in Pakistani hospitals,” said Shah. “The families of Taliban leaders live in Quetta, in the Balochistan provinces, and even the suburbs of Islamabad according to Pakistan’s interior minister. They own real estate, operate bank accounts and have extensive business interests.”

According to Shah, instead of any targeted sanctions, Americans announced their exit and pressured the Afghan government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners preceding the Taliban takeover. “The ruling generals of Pakistan see this as a strategic victory, a kind of restoration of what Pakistan considers to be its sphere of influence, that they believe had been earlier hijacked by India through support to the deposed Afghan government.” 

Until four days ago before the Taliban took control, Shah says it has been a vicious cycle, “The Americans were giving the Pakistan military billions of dollars for anti-terror cooperation, while the Pakistani intelligence service was in turn giving money and resources to militants who were fighting the American and NATO forces.”

The Taliban have rid Afghanistan of a foreign military presence, but have not yet disproved fears of reprisals and persecution. Nor will Pakistan atone for its continuing support of the Taliban. 

Shah states “Pakistan’s ruling generals are unlikely to pay a price for their facilitation of the Taliban. They will likely extract their pound of flesh in the form of more influence over Afghanistan, and perhaps even future international humanitarian aid and other channels to pocket from. 

Those paying for the decades of violence are Afghans yet again. 

Many Afghans insist that the Taliban are not Afghan nationalists but Islamists who are unleashing a charm offensive for the press in Kabul and in other urban areas whilst governing unrepentantly in rural areas where journalistic coverage is nonexistent and where over 80% of the Afghan population lives. 

“ Taliban’s greatest trick on the world is getting people to think that they are not sophisticated,” said Azam.

Aid organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have been on the frontlines in Afghanistan since 1988, with Afghans making up nearly all 1,700 staff members on the ground. They have decades of experience working in Taliban-controlled or Taliban-contested provinces.

“We have to be careful about how we present and introduce the programs that we deliver, and really focus on the needs of the population, as they’re articulated by the population,” said Bob Kitchen, Director for Emergencies at the IRC. 

The IRC suspended its work last week as the Taliban rapidly asserted control. However, given recent Taliban assurances to NGOs, they will restart within the next week in parts of Afghanistan At this moment, they are operating in nine provinces. 

According to the IRC, 18.4 million Afghans are in need of humanitarian support and more than one million are internally displaced due to warfare and natural disasters in the region. They have recently launched a $10 million appeal for emergency response programs in Afghanistan.

“We’re going to have to be careful about how we do that, to make sure that the programs remain rooted in the needs of the people rather than what we’re told to do by the Taliban. But we’ve navigated that challenge in the past. We’re confident we can do it again now.”

The IRC aims to continue its traditional work of meeting urgent humanitarian needs and providing large-scale education and emergency response programs. However, a more immediate priority is providing cash assistance for food and supplies to the thousands of internally displaced persons that have flooded into Kabul in the last week and who are now squatting in parks and public spaces. The IRC aims to eventually expand this program beyond Kabul to those who have lost their homes due to the fighting. 

“Afghanistan is facing a huge food insecurity crisis so we want to put cash into the hands of farmers so they can bring in their harvest, get it to market, which again kickstarts the market, and then also buy new inputs for next year,” said Kitchen. “Another priority is to really bring support online to the health system. We’re very aware that the Ministry of Health has now been cut off from support and thousands of clinics across the country are now on their own so we’re really worried about the continuity of service.”

The IRC will be reaching out to the clinics to keep them open and running.

The IRC also partners with the United States government to resettle refugees stateside in 25 cities. Their work includes but is not limited to finding accomodation, developing language skills, securing jobs, and getting credit scores. 

Kitchen says the IRC staff are worried about their safety but have so far not experienced any challenges aside from a logistical one: bank closures, which make paying staff or financing programs difficult. Until banks resume their operations, IRC will resort to informal money transfer processes.

“We are a deeply, deeply traumatized people. We have generations that don’t know peace. Generations who are able to, very easily, recognize war. I would like for that to not be the case. I would like for Afghans and Afghan children to not be able to recognize the sound of helicopter rotors. I would like for them to not be able to recognize the sound of gunfire. I’d like to have them breathe air that’s free of diesel fumes. That’s my hope,” said Azam. 

Azam describes the American presence as providing what Afghans called an imperfect respite, one where the people could live loudly and freely amidst a blossoming of culture, travel, and expressions, even amongst a continuing insurgency.

Now all that remains is the distant hope of a more durable peace.

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