Taliban Takeover Ignites Afghan Plight
Updated: Sep 28, 2021
- Brianna Mortimer, Harrison Getches, and Ashton Granger
With August 31st passing, every United States military member has officially been pulled out of Afghanistan, marking the end of the longest war in United States history, one that had US militia waging on for nineteen years and ten months. Despite the United States ending their role in the conflict, their withdrawal from the region destabilized the region and allowed the Taliban to gain control over most of Afghanistan, and ultimately mobilized hundreds of thousands of refugees looking to escape the Taliban-controlled lands. White House officials have reported that over 110,000 people have been relocated by the United States, with undoubtedly countless more attempting to escape on their own.
To learn more about what life is like for those escaping Afghanistan, we spoke with Zainab Hashem, a second-grade teacher at Hulstrom K-8 in Northglenn, Colorado. Zainab is a second-generation immigrant from Afghanistan who is deeply involved with the issue and supporting Colorado’s refugees.
“How are you feeling in light of recent events?”
Zainab: “So much has happened. My emotions have been a rollercoaster of sadness and a loss of hope. I feel helpless. One thing keeps happening after another, and I ask “When will it stop?” Especially living in America, I feel like I can’t do anything. I was born here, and my parents fled as refugees from Afghanistan. There’s this survivor's guilt that a lot of the generation that was born or grew up here feels. It’s like our people have gone through so much, and we live this life of luxury. It’s heartbreaking.”
Zainab got into refugee work because of her family, and she says that it motivates her. “My mom fled in the eighties with her family - eight kids in the middle of the night. She lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan for two years. She was finally able to come to America, but even then it was so hard. The trauma that comes along with it, and then being in an unfamiliar country, it’s very difficult. Afghans come from a collective society, and that sense of community is often lost when they arrive here. It’s a culture shock when refugees realize that they can’t really ask their neighbors for help, and they don’t know who to go to. So now I work for an organization called “Adopt a Family” that helps with that transition.” Zainab is also well versed in the immigration process and is able to provide an up-close perspective on the experiences Afghan refugees are having, in the US and abroad. We asked about that next.
“What are the biggest barriers to seeking asylum in the US?”
Zainab: “The refugee process is very long, most of the time. What people have to go through to even come to this country is insane. It’s interviews after interviews and so much paperwork, and the paperwork requires familial information that many people don’t know. It’s such an intense process. Some people are on the list for years. It’s also so expensive. You need a lawyer and you have to be sponsored by someone.”
Sometimes refugees can be sponsored by churches, but at the cost of their religious autonomy. It’s not uncommon for mandated bible study/church attendance to be a condition of asylum support. Missionaries that visit countries that we receive refugees from will sometimes withhold certain services until people complete religious tasks, like reading the bible. There are also a few companies, just about three in Colorado, that are allowed to sponsor refugees, but they all come with their own terms. “We need more, and more without religious conditions,” Zainab says.
“What have been your experiences with recently arrived refugees?”
Zainab: “Most of them are still on their way. There were so many Afghans that left at once, so now they’re stuck on military bases until their paperwork gets processed. Most of them are in Qatar. There’s also a large number of Afghans in Wisconsin who can’t leave either. Right now, our mosque, North Denver Islamic Center, has been organizing a lot of refugee drives. There have been a few families who have come, but the majority of them are still being processed. We are sending donations to camps in Wisconsin because many of them have nothing. At times, these camps are worse than Afghanistan itself. You’re in a small room with hundreds of people, and each family might have seven to eight kids. You share two bathrooms with everyone, and you’re lucky if you get a bed. For some people, it's almost like their life in Afghanistan is better, and they wonder why they left. People need to be aware that this is not enough. This is not treating people with dignity, it’s completely dehumanizing.”
Reports of Wisconsonian refugee camps also show abysmal food services. Zainab’s friend, who spent time in a camp, recalls receiving one 300 calorie meal daily - an amount only nutritionally sufficient for an infant. Taking action on this issue is the instinctive next step here. We asked what we can do to help, as citizens and a state.
Zainab: “We are definitely one of the states that is more accepting of refugees. I think awareness of the situation is important. People lack empathy when it comes to refugees, and I don’t think they realize that everything is new for these people. They often have intense PTSD. It’s not fair to judge them so harshly. Please volunteer and show up for us. Donations are great too, a lot of these people need money just to get started.”
This tragedy leaves us with an important question to ask about our past: why? What has triggered this withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, sparking the plights of so many Afghans, and why were troops there in the first place? Answering that question requires us to go back, and not just to the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, but further, all the way to the 1970s, as the Cold War is raging, and Afghanistan’s President Mohammad Daoud Khan began to get closer and closer with the Soviet Union, which worried the United States. That fear proved to come true in 1978 when Daoud Khan was overthrown by Marxist-Leninists in the Saur Revolution, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed as a communist government. With that, the United States began to fund resistance groups fairly discreetly, because they worried that too much presence would aggravate the Soviets, which eventually did happen, and sparked a Soviet invasion. After the Soviets invaded, the United States backed resistance groups much more seriously, and ultimately the Mujahideen received much of the support. The Mujahideen was a blanket term for Muslims who were fighting on behalf of the faith of the Muslim community, working to fight against communist forces in Afghanistan. The United States began to exploit these freedom fighters, by leveraging money over them. Some leadership of the militant groups in the Mujahideen even received some form of training from the United States. As the Cold War finally calmed down in the late 1980s, The Geneva Accords were signed between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the agreement was guaranteed by the Soviets, saying that they would withdraw from the region and the United States who agreed to stop funding the Mujahideen.
Within three years of this agreement, Civil War had broken out in Afghanistan between the Mujahideen factions and the ‘Interim Government’. From this Civil War, the Taliban was born as a completely new actor, a group of Afghans born and raised in refugee camps. They ended up taking over most of Afghanistan by 1998, minus a section in the North, held out by a group called the Northern Alliance. At this time Osama bin Laden and four other militant groups leaders signed the 1998 fatwā, a declaration of a holy war against things that go against their god’s will. These men were dubbed, "the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," with Crusaders referring to American action in the Middle East. In 1999 the United States connected Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as terrorist groups and sanctioned them. This sentiment later developed into terror attacks being launched towards America, resulting in 9/11. Investigators later linked Osama bin Laden’s motives for 9/11 to the 1998 fatwā.
Many saw this as the darkest point in modern American history, as nearly three thousand Americans' lives were lost that day. It is safe to say that American emotions did not end with grief, and on September 18, 2001, just one week after the attack, President George W. Bush signed a joint resolution, authorizing the use of force against those responsible for 9/11. The hunt for Osama bin Laden had begun, and it started out with airstrikes against the militant groups, which worked extremely well against a group with no Air Force, or Air defenses. This led the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to pursue peace early on, even offering to hand over Osama bin Laden in October of 2001. The Bush administration surprisingly declined this offer, with his reasoning twofold. First, the Taliban requested to give bin Laden to a third party for a trial, a stipulation President Bush felt Americans would not be satisfied with, and second, an invasion was felt as necessary to halt terror groups. The Taliban retreated heavily and almost vanished into the mountains, and lost most of the power they once held. Their hideouts were sieged, and a bloody battle, killing a few hundred people left bin Laden with just enough time to escape to Pakistan on horseback. Things calmed down for a couple of years with the United States attempting to build up infrastructure in Afghanistan, essentially focusing on their military bases as an effort to extend power, and propping up a democratic government in place of the insurgent groups. In October of 2004, just weeks before President Bush’s reelection bid, bin Laden resurfaces with a video taunting the Bush administration. This video almost seems to reawaken terror and suicide attacks over the next couple of years. Bush’s term came and went, and President Obama gained control of the White House, and the decision of what to do with Afghanistan. He chose to increase presence and hoped for results to finally materialize in 2010 and 2011. Eventually, it worked: after almost a decade of efforts, United States soldiers had finally closed in and eliminated Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Pakistan. After the success, Obama pulled out additional troops from Afghanistan, but still hundreds of thousands of soldiers remained. The occupation remained steady with the Trump administration viewing ISIS as a new threat.
After enough of an occupation, Americans were getting tired of keeping troops in Afghanistan, and eventually, in February of 2020, Trump authorized a United States envoy to sign a peace deal with a Taliban official, and seven long months later, the Afghanistan government was finally included in talks. Despite the non-ideal communication, the deals seemed to be going well, and just a couple of months before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, The United States Defense Secretary announced the beginning of a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This deal and claim were passed on to President Biden, who delayed the complete withdrawal for a few months, but finally at the end of August this year, for the first time in almost two decades, the United States military was out of Afghanistan. Sadly that is not the end of the story, as the withdrawal of troops did what many feared: pulling the resistance away from the Taliban and allowing them to gain control. Despite this, Biden held firm with his decision to withdraw, even through a terror attack at the Kabul airport that killed thirteen US service members.
With all United States personnel out of Afghanistan, the country is left in a precarious spot. We, as nations and individuals, sit on a chessboard - not because of a need for underhanded strategy, but rather our multitude of options. The good news is that they’re not all mutually exclusive, but the weighing aspect is that considering them requires us to reconcile our moral and diplomatic priorities. The most burning question is what’s next, and it’s one that has no answer. With the withdrawal of US troops and subsequent insurgence of the Taliban, Afghanistan citizens are watching their worst nightmare come true. The country has flipped upside down, displacing millions and killing thousands. Of all the unknowns, that of the future of women stands out. Many Afghans distrust the Taliban, and for good reason. There is an incongruence between what the Taliban promises and what it does - statements made guarantee women’s rights as stated under Islamic law, but many fear restrictions on clothing, work, and general freedoms. Those who recall the militant group’s history of turning a nation into a terrorism breeding ground fear a reoccurrence. The Taliban is also holding negotiations with the former government, but ties to al-Qaeda make it difficult to believe they could fulfill promises of a better future. It’s also important to note that the Taliban isn’t fully centralized - leaders vary in what they want for Afghanistan.
The safety of Afghan refugees lies in uncertainty as well, earnest efforts to flee the country and completion of rigorous background checks have not prevented plagues of xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is imperative that we do our part in accepting refugees, but doing so requires us to confront our deeply tangled partisan conflicts on foreign policy. The cooperative abilities of our legislators, as well as our ability to evaluate our own shortcomings, will be tested. In regard to diplomatic concerns, many wonder how Biden’s recent choices will impact his future approaches. The president has stated that he will continue tackling terrorism, but that he “doesn’t need to fight a ground war to do it.” It’s apparent that President Biden wants us to view his efforts against terrorism as altered, not diminished, but only time will show us if that perspective is accurate. That’s the thing - we can speculate as much as we want, but time is the only remedy to our uncertainty. What we know for sure, though, is that we’re not powerless. The disconnect between our hopes and our government’s actions may be demoralizing, but Americans as people can help.
Donate to local refugee aid organizations and volunteer with them if you’re able. Earnestly educate yourself on the issue and have conversations with those around you about what’s happening - don’t let it go untold. Reach out to those you know who are personally connected to the issue and let them know that they have your support, in whatever form they need. If you’re one of those who are personally connected, know that your classmates are here for you. In these times, the best we can do is to seek collaboration over division - a choice that will require cognizant effort after the last five years. The task ahead of our nations and ourselves is daunting, but perhaps there is hope in our universal desire for peace. Once again: only time will tell.