The South Asia Channel
America’s Afghan Refugee Crisis
After 50 plus years, the United States has caused more harm than good in Afghanistan. By accepting responsibility for the refugee crisis, it can begin to reverse this trend.
The humanitarian catastrophe that has brought more than a million refugees to Europe over the past year is not just a European crisis. The American public has remained detached from this tragedy, assured that it is some other nation’s problem but ignorant of the tangled origins of the calamity. The case of the Afghans, one of the world’s largest refugee communities and the second-largest group – behind Syrians – to arrive in Europe recently, should serve as a reminder that the origins of today’s predicament are neither recent nor confined to the refugees’ home countries.
Since the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, repatriation efforts allowed nearly six million Afghans who fled revolution and foreign intervention in the late 1970s and early 1980s to return to their country. However, insecurity forced many to leave again. Approximately 2.5 million Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, and over a million continue to reside in Iran. Over the past two years, the withdrawal of most U.S. and NATO forces and many international organizations, together with the growing strength of insurgent groups, has prompted another desperate wave of emigration. According to Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, violence and instability in 21 out of 34 provinces displaced more than 1.2 million Afghans in 2015. 154,000 Afghans were registered in Germany alone last year.
But this disaster has received little attention in the United States, where a war-weary public and the political elite prefer to carry on as if these developments were just the chaos of Afghan politics as usual. In Washington, it has become common to view Afghanistan as a country defined by a never-ending struggle among warlords, tribal chiefs, and religious fanatics. Lieutenant General John Nicholson, the next head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, referred to Afghans as “born fighters” at his recent Senate confirmation hearing. Seen through this lens, Afghans are imagined as a primitive lot, wholly untouched by modern times. This gloss on Afghanistan has been particularly attractive as a way of explaining why the American intervention, despite costing over 2,300 American lives and roughly a trillion dollars, has achieved so few of its goals in over 14 years.
Instead, it has been easier to shift blame to the Afghans, casting them as too backward, tribal, or ungrateful for the gifts of American progress, than to accept responsibility for policies that have fueled the Afghan exodus.
A first step toward setting the record straight is to understand how Afghan and American history came to be intertwined, and to acknowledge the extent to which U.S. influence has shaped Afghanistan over the past seven decades. Long before 2001, Americans came to Afghanistan with the goal of remaking their lives along lines that would advance U.S. interests.
As the United States established its position to exert influence in Afghanistan at the onset of the Cold War, American anxieties about the threat emanating from the country focused on Soviet expansionism. To counter Moscow, Washington dispatched development experts and costly loans. They built up infrastructure in Afghanistan through showy projects designed to persuade Afghans and Soviets alike that the Americans and their way of life could compete for primacy in every corner of the globe. But American engineering projects proved a double burden: they drained the Afghan treasury and wreaked environmental havoc. Resentment followed.
Meanwhile, American backing for the king in Kabul further polarized Afghan society. Marginalized intellectuals simmered, condemning the corruption bred by the superpowers’ self-interested largesse and lamenting the poverty of the masses. To these critics, the presence of American and Soviet advisors in nearly all spheres of Afghan life looked like proof of the imperialist subjugation of the Afghan nation.
By the time protestors in Kabul greeted U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew with rocks and eggs in 1970, Afghanistan had become entangled with American power in innumerable ways. The capital was awash with foreign experts armed with the latest technocratic wisdom about how to reorder the Afghan economy and society. Organizations like the Asia Society and International Planned Parenthood sponsored education and family planning projects targeting women. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency soon took Richard Nixon’s war on drugs to Afghanistan, where thousands of young Western tourists seeking cheap drugs had spurred a sharp increase in opium and cannabis production.
In 1978, a leftist coup in Kabul triggered a proxy war between Moscow and Washington. The Afghan communists unleashed a wave of violence and, starting in 1979, the Red Army and its Afghan allies waged a brutal campaign against opponents of the new regime. Afghan society still bears the psychological and physical scars of the Soviet intervention. Thousands of landmines buried during the 1980s still litter the Afghan landscape, swelling the ranks of the disabled and traumatized and regularly claiming children as victims. One-third of Afghans reported tragic encounters with mines and unexploded ordinance in their communities last year.
Yet it bears emphasizing that U.S. backing for the mujahedeen — the Islamist groups that mounted resistance to the leftist government and its Soviet backers in the 1980s — would have fateful consequences for Afghanistan and the world for years to come. Washington’s insistence on total victory for its Islamist clients dealt a fatal blow to alternative political visions for the future of the country. It is an overstatement to conclude that American policies led to the rise of the Taliban, but it is fair to say that the mujahedeen party leaders and their families who received U.S. backing during the anti-Soviet jihad continue to dominate Afghan politics to this very day. Whether they support the current government, as in the case of numerous provincial governors and officials in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, or fight against it, as in the case of the Haqqanis, those once supported by the United States continue to influence Afghanistan’s future.
American claims of victory in Afghanistan in 2001 proved fleeting. Military intervention destroyed the Taliban government, fracturing the movement and scattering its forces. In its aftermath, the Americans bear considerable responsibility for a government whose rule has been authoritarian, corrupt, and, in the eyes of so many Afghans, illegitimate. Electoral fraud, cronyism, and financial abuses have been the shared handiwork of Afghan and American officials. The scathing reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have only begun to scratch the surface of U.S. complicity and incompetence – and to burst any remaining illusions about Afghans’ supposedly unique penchant for venality.
When the Bush administration decreed Afghanistan a place that was beyond international law, Washington was merely ratifying what many officials had already concluded: that this was a wild place, where force was the only language of communication. Reliance on Afghan militias, night raids, assassinations, and imprisonment without charge at Bagram, Guantánamo, and many other CIA “black sites,” were the logical outcomes. The new Afghan state was built on an American legacy of torture and impunity.
Under President Barack Obama, reliance on predatory militias, assassinations, and drone strikes increased. More civilians suffered at the hands of the Taliban, of course, but many questions remain about the human costs of this strategy. Compensation paid by the United States to civilians is a stark measure of official thinking: According to data analyzed by Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group, the military paid nearly $9 million dollars to Afghan victims between 2005 and 2014. The average was roughly $2,500 per fatality caused by U.S. actions; but much lower figures, of $197.59 for a woman killed in Nimruz, for instance, were not uncommon.
Stingy constraints on Afghan immigration to the United States, even for those who aided the U.S. war effort, are another source of despair. American veterans have taken up the cause of thousands of interpreters and guides seeking visas to escape reprisal at home. Between October 2006 and November 2015, the United States issued only 17,619 visas earmarked for this special category, though many more of these applicants remain in limbo. During this same period, only 5,375 Afghans received visas through conventional channels. Washington remains deeply suspicious of Afghan visa applicants from all walks of life.
Unable to receive documents to migrate legally, and confronting deteriorating security conditions and rising unemployment, growing numbers of Afghan families are struggling to survive. Their last resort has been the desperate trek to Europe, a destination that many Afghan men, women, and children will never live to see.
Over the decades, the United States has not only lacked the capacity to fix Afghan society, but has played an essential role in breaking it. The current American approach — maintaining a modest contingent of special operations forces to prevent total victory for the Taliban or other insurgents — is unlikely to forestall the downward spiral of the Afghan state. It is a formula for war without end.
One of the remaining alternatives, long-neglected by Washington, is a sustained commitment to a political settlement to Afghanistan’s civil war and its regional entanglements. This is a challenging but not impossible proposition. Each side will have to sacrifice something, including America’s myths about Afghanistan and “the good war.” Shaping the precise contours of such a settlement may be beyond Washington’s power.
In the meantime, though, what the United States could and should do is accept that it has a historic, moral, and political responsibility to Afghan refugees, and not just to those who aided U.S. operations. Unable to remake Afghans on the Hindu Kush, the United States should undertake a more realistic project with a longer track record of success: the mass resettlement of Afghan migrants here, in a land where Afghan immigrants from an earlier wave of migration have long flourished.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images