The American interest in Afghanistan goes back to the Cold War era, when its intervention was considered apt to contain the strain of Communism flowing from the Soviet land to Afghanistan’s politics.
This was followed by an array of events — from USSR’s presence in the region — to Operation Cyclone — to Pakistan’s politics in Afghanistan — to 9/11.
Truth be told, all was not rosy in Afghanistan before some of these countries came into the picture. To a significant extent, civil wars and political upheavals characterized the country — but the 1950s and 1960s were a time when a welcome wave of liberalism and westernization entered the region, and co-existed with the conservative Islamic group.
It soon withered under the weight of regional and international politics. The Taliban emerged from Northern Pakistan and dictated Afghan politics from 1996-2001. This led to the oppression of Afghan civilians and had repercussions throughout the world. America’s involvement was a crucial step toward curbing the hundred-headed-hydra that Cold War politics had created. But, as the recent decision to withdraw American troops has exposed, the Taliban persisted and has now turned the entire country into a biopolitical site — a camp.
Camps, in all their variety, have existed throughout history (camps for the Jews, camps for persecuted Hindus, etc.). They still exist (Uighurs in China), but what happens when an entire country begins to assume the characteristics of a camp?
At its current state, with Afghans dying of suffocation in overcrowded airports, dying of bullet wounds, dying of fear as they clutch onto flying planes and hopes of escape as the Talibs have surrounded the airport, the country resembles a camp. An Afghan student from my college, like many others I interviewed over the course of these few days, informed me of how dispensable human life has become under the current circumstances.
Here is what some of our Afghan students here have to say:
Student 1: “The Talibs have a list. They have been looking for people who worked for the U.S. government. My family is on the run because my father worked for the U.S. army. It’s been three days since my family has been in hiding, not been able to catch any sleep or eat properly. Once the Talibs are in the neighborhood they have escaped to, they have to flee, whether it’s night or it’s day.”
Student 2: “My friends and family do not have any way to escape from Afghanistan. They are in bad condition. Their salaries have not been paid for a long time because the government doesn’t exist. The Taliban want food from them, but my father can’t even feed my family.”
Student 3: “If the USA really wanted to help the people of Afghanistan, there were ways better than a sudden withdrawal of soldiers … My brother is living hidden with his family back home with no hope and unknown future. He has sent a few emails to USA Embassy and SIV, but no reply. My brother says, ‘how long will I be this hidden because finally they will find me.’ The world doesn’t know the real face of the Taliban. They are showing very good impressions in front of media, but behind the scenes, there are many people that have been assassinated.”
Student 4: “The Taliban are publicly executing top Afghan government officials. My uncle, a general in the army, had to flee to Tajikistan when his colleague was publicly executed. His family is in hiding now.”
All these voices constantly harp on entrapment and the dire hopelessness of the situation. The people in hiding bring back memories of the holocaust. But what is concerning is how callous international politics continues to be.
As some of the interviewees pointed out, it is surprising to see certain media outlets whitewashing the Talib image — building a new narrative. On being asked if it was true that the Taliban now support female education, and want more women in the government and the work force, an interviewee replied, “If that were true, why are there no women on the streets of Talib-controlled territory? Why are women shot publicly on their way to university? Why are they killing innocent children and women?”
That being said, it is not only the media that is to blame. What is heart-breaking to see is that there are countries willing to negotiate with or overlook the new power-bearers.
China has unabashedly expressed its willingness to rebuild Afghanistan with the “clear-headed and rational” Taliban. China believes that the past does not define the future, and it “welcomes” and considers supporting a new government that would hopefully be “open, inclusive and broadly representative.”
While China is busy eyeing the vast mineral deposits in Afghanistan and perhaps strategizing the expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative, Pakistan — once accused of recognizing and aiding the Taliban — is hopeful of demonstrating a “constructive role” in establishing peace in the region. UAE and Saudi Arabia, countries that share a past with Afghanistan, are busy maintaining a safe distance from the issue in the meantime. Russia seems open to negotiations with the Taliban while simultaneously being cautious of security issues.
“Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end,” writes Neil Gaiman in “American Gods.” The Taliban did not win the war against U.S., but the Taliban idea/ideology did.
What was propagated through people was an idea that proved more powerful than tanks and missiles. Though the U.S. army had given some sense of hope to the Afghans during its 20-year stay, as one of the interviewees pointed out, “We Afghans know that the Taliban already had power everywhere. They were just afraid of the U.S. army and so would not show themselves as they do right now.”
This only goes on to prove how the idea of Taliban was never strategically countered.
The sudden withdrawal of the U.S. troops thus led the idea to create the conditions of a camp in the region. Though Afghanistan has once again proven to be a graveyard for Western civilizations as well as its own people, all that Afghans hope for is timely help. They want to be saved.
One way to achieve that is to grant them asylum. The other way (which is more powerful) is to help them fight for their rights and to fight against the idea that threatens it.
Here’s a powerful suggestion an Afghan student made: “If NATO and the U.S. can recognize and aid civilian resistance movements like the Northern Alliance, and Afghan leaders like Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud, we can still go somewhere. We will win the war.”
Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray serves as Faculty of English at Highline College. Her research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India.