North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

What the US exit from Kabul tells us about the value of Afghan lives

The West has declared an end to its war. For Afghans, the war is far from over

Robert Crews
Nasema Zeerak Robert Crews
31 August 2021, 10.57am
US marines process Afghan evacuees at Kabul airport, 28 August
Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via CNP/MediaPunch/Alamy

The desperate scenes from Kabul International Airport dramatized Afghans’ sense of betrayal at the hands of the US and the world.

It was not just the horrific sight of 19-year-old Zaki Anwari and others falling from an American C-17 cargo plane leaving Afghanistan, or the image of an infant being passed over concertina wire at the airport gates. The suicide bombing that claimed the lives of more than 169 Afghan men, women and children, as well as 13 US servicemen, on 26 August was another horrific blow. It was all the more painful because it is possible that faulty security left these people completely vulnerable, and the ensuing media coverage has focused squarely on the dead Americans, relegating Afghan casualties to an afterthought.

Collage: Politico, Al Jazeera, The Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times/ openDemocracy

Those seeking evacuation have had to endure an onset of Taliban fighters and then the crush of thousands anxious to escape the Taliban. Once at the airport, they have faced a cruel bureaucratic process. Waiting in the open air for days, some forced to stand in a sewage canal, clinging to documents and a handful of belongings, civilians have been left exposed to extraordinary brutality.

The luckiest have made it on a plane. But many have faced new indignities when forced to wait in squalor in a make-shift facility in Qatar. At every stage, US passport holders have been filtered out from those holding Afghan passports or identity cards. The color of one’s passport is the difference between escape and potential death.

‘To the last Afghan’

The airport crisis dramatizes the stark reality of paperwork deciding one’s fate. But for Afghans, it presses upon a deeper wound, a profound sense of despair at how the world sees their worth. The chaotic policing of the airport gates shows proximity to Americanness, demonstrated by a US passport, or a special visa, to be the index of an Afghan person’s value.

For all the tragic urgency of these scenes, this calculus is hardly new. During the Cold War in the 1980s, Washington maintained a bipartisan consensus supporting Afghanistan’s Mujahideen rebels against the occupying Red Army. The US pressed the most brutal of them to fight “to the last Afghan”, even if they harmed Afghan civilians in the process.

Similarly, when the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in 2001, US strategy was always focused on American security interests. Despite lip service about women’s rights and democracy, American forces repeatedly bombed civilians. Relying on torture, night raids, and often rapacious Afghan allies, they terrorized and brutalized many rural communities. Yet these victims went mostly unnamed, their voices rarely heard.

The plight of Afghan civilians was not a central focus of international attention, either. Their steadily rising numbers proved impossible to ignore. Yet it was only in 2009 that the United Nations even began to count in a systematic way the number of civilian casualties.

When in 2009 the Obama administration shifted to a campaign for “hearts and minds”, American forces offered ‘condolence payments’ for survivors whose relatives they had killed or wounded. Some family members received as little as $131. Others received nothing.

Dehumanizing Afghans

It should also be recalled that since 2001, foreign commentators recycled dehumanizing stereotypes about Afghans. They portrayed Afghanistan as a primitive place stuck in ancient times. When the US and NATO strategies failed, observers doubled down on the ‘difficulty’ of Afghan politics. Not modern politics, but ‘tribalism’ became the go-to metaphor to explain this supposedly backward and crude society, a trope that President Biden repeated on 26 August, asserting that the country was “made up of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another.”

In 2010, three major US news networks spent just five minutes on Afghanistan

Over the past decade, Afghanistan has steadily faded from the news in the US and Europe. In 2010, three major American news networks spent just five minutes covering Afghanistan.

Western popular culture is another important index of the dehumanization of Afghans over the past 20 years. While many have relished Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’, it’s important to recall that its chief Afghan protagonist is legible precisely because he is simultaneously a Californian.

In Hollywood, sympathetic Afghans have been almost entirely invisible. Consider ‘Lone Survivor’, Mark Wahlberg’s 2013 blockbuster (which grossed over $154m) about a SEAL team that gets stuck in Taliban territory. Over the course of two hours, the film does not portray a single sympathetic Afghan character – until the dramatic conclusion, when Wahlberg’s character is sheltered by an Afghan family.

But here, too, these Afghans are portrayed in a different light only because they side with an American. And, yet, as the film concludes, it subverts our appreciation of their humanity by explaining that the inhabitants of this village acted based on an ancient ‘code of honor’. Not a shared humanity or political agency, but the supposed strictures of being “tribal” explain their motivations.

Real impact

Such thinking has had practical effects. In 2020 the US resettled just 1,592 Afghan refugees. Even before the chaotic withdrawal of American forces, Afghans lucky enough to be in a position to apply for a Special Immigration Visa, because they had worked with the US military, faced a processing time of 658 days, resulting in a backlog of more than 18,000 cases.

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Since the February 2020 US agreement with the Taliban and the subsequent unceremonious US departure from Bagram Airbase, many Afghans feel as if the world has told them they have no choice but to accept Taliban rule. And after hearing the rhetoric of human rights for two decades, they now confront the true meaning of these words at the gates of the Kabul airport.

A US drone strike that killed ten Afghan civilians, seven young children among them, on 29 August in Kabul will be remembered as one of the last acts of American involvement in the war. US Central Command claimed that this “defensive strike” stopped “an imminent ISIS-K threat to the airport”. In a statement prompted by media scrutiny in Kabul, American authorities pledged to look into the incident and suggested that the targeted vehicle may have been carrying explosives that ultimately caused the deaths of these bystanders, which included a two-year-old girl, Somaya, and a 12-year-old boy, Farid. But few expect an investigation or further reflection upon their stolen lives.

By now, Americans and, with them, most foreigners, have caught the last flights out of Afghanistan. They have declared an end to their war. For Afghans, the suffering will only continue.

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