Putting Afghans Back in the Afghanistan Debate
While talk of Afghanistan is hotter than ever in media today, Afghans themselves are strangely absent from the debate.
From left to right: Rashad Saljuke, Zalmi Niayz, Hamidi Abdul and M. Nadir Atash talk outside the Mustafa Center about the present situation in Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002 in Annandale, Va. Washington and its suburbs have an unusually high number of prominent Afghan-Americans who fled their nation during two decades of war but retain a keen interest in seeing their native land restored. (AP Photo, Linda Spillers)
As an Afghan-born child in the United States in the 1980s, I remember asking my older cousin why Afghanistan was never in the news. The lack of Afghanistan coverage was particularly odd to me because at any Afghan American gathering, the topic of discussion will almost always be about politics in Afghanistan. There was such a dearth of news coverage on Afghanistan that whenever the country was in the news or would appear in jokes on popular TV shows, our extended family would call one another so we could all tune in. My cousin told me that the war in Afghanistan has been going on for many years and the U.S. press—which at the time meant CNN to me—only cares about what is current or what involves the U.S. directly. He was right, and the few times Afghanistan appeared in the headlines again, during the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the Taliban capture of Kabul in 1996, proved it.
Today, press coverage of Afghanistan has been increasing exponentially each day. My family no longer calls each other to say that Charlie Gibson mentioned Afghanistan in a 30-second story. Today, top U.S. officials and reporters are constantly discussing Afghanistan. But while Afghanistan is in the news more than ever, Afghans themselves are strangely absent.
According to the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C., there are roughly 300,000 Afghans living in America today. The largest populations of Afghan Americans reside near Fremont, California, and in northern Virginia. For those Afghan Americans, their concerns reach beyond the endless discussions of terrorism and Al Qaeda.
“It’s not just the terrorists and Taliban that threaten the safety of the Afghan people,” says Said Tayeb Jawad, the Afghan Ambassador to the United States, in an interview with Campus Progress. “There are other factors: poverty, unemployment, and warlords. That narrow definition which leaves out those factors is what frustrates the Afghan people.”
The biggest obstacle to ensuring safety and security in Afghanistan is Afghanistan’s neighbors. “We live in a predatory environment,” Jawad says. “All of the neighbors have intentions for Afghanistan.”
Kamran Faizi, the host of the popular Afghan Football Support Organization television show, says that the first step in disarming the Taliban is to maintain security so that a sense of normalcy can return. “Make them [Afghans] feel safe to go to the market. To send their kids to school,” Faizi says. “If they feel that life is normal they won’t have to fall for Taliban propaganda.”
An Afghan American, Khalida Sarwari, who grew up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area made a similar observation. “The United States and Afghanistan share the same goals as all countries,” she said. “Citizens of both countries value liberty, justice, religious freedom, peace, safety, and education [for its people]. These are all universal goals.”
One path to normalcy could be a stronger civilian police force in Afghanistan. Often, the Afghan police force is seen as a pseudo-military rather than an actual civilian task force, but Ambassador Jawad says it points to the lack of resources and security rather than an overt plan on the part of the Afghan government. He sees a future where that civilian police force has resources to deal with the country’s problems. “If someone’s daughter gets raped, they go to the police. If someone’s land is stolen, they go to the police. If someone’s shop is being robbed, they go to the police. If there are warlords or Taliban lurking, they go to the police. The other institutions are not in place,” he says.
Jawad estimates that 90 to 100 police officers die each month in conflicts with the Taliban. “Even if you have the police as a functioning civilian force and you don’t give them a weapon or only arm them with a baton or pistol that will not work,” he says. “The Taliban will come with RPG-7s and kill them in five minutes.”
Another Afghan American, Faraidoon Shadan, who is a Williams College student and a former intern in the Afghanistan embassy in Washington, says that the problem in Afghanistan might be rooted in popular opinion. “The Afghan and American publics see the war as unjustified, as an attack on culture, religion, and independence,” Shadan says. “The people have to trust the war is for a good cause and to ensure the stability and security of the Afghan people as well as the international community.”
One reason the U.S. mission in Afghanistan might be unpopular among Afghans is because of the push for Western-style democracy. Ali Mehmoudzai, An Afghan-American doctor who grew up in Chicago, is weary of the current Afghan government and critical of the democracy in Afghanistan. He says the U.S. government must accept the fact that all democracy will not be the same. “Democracy simply means the rule of the people, nothing more and nothing less. The U.S. must stop expecting Western-style secularism,” he says. “The rural people who have stayed in the country over the last 30 years are very conservative and religion matters to them. They don’t want the extremist garbage of the Taliban, but they don’t want our secularism either.”
Alex Strick Van Linschoten, a journalist who has been covering Afghanistan for American press, says “the overwhelmingly negative news coming out of Afghanistan” is having an effect on U.S. public opinion. A poll conducted by CNN in September 2009 showed only 39 percent of Americans supported a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
But as problematic as some people find the Afghanistan war, what to do next isn’t as easy. Ambassador Jawad believes a U.S. withdrawal would create a power void that terrorists would quickly fill. “The next day it’s either the warlords or the Taliban. Will the Afghan moderates and the women be able to stand the brutality of the Taliban or the power of the warlords and narco-traffickers? Absolutely not. [They] should know that if the United States pulls out it’s not only the Taliban but also the warlords that will fill the void,” said Jawad.
Khalida Sarwari, who grew up in the Bay Area, initially supported an immediate withdrawal of American troops. “I don’t buy the assertion that keeping troops there is safer for the people. I would take them out, not gradually, but right away,” she says. But Sarwari took a different perspective in a follow-up email after thinking about it for a few weeks. “How realistic is it to withdraw troops suddenly? I couldn’t say,” she writes.
Sarwari’s reconsideration of the American troop presence in Afghanistan might be telling of the fact that the Afghan people may not have all of the answers; they too must ask themselves difficult questions to check their reactions against all of the realities of a very complex situation. By learning about the state of their nation, even through American media sources, Afghans in the United States are themselves trying to reconstruct Afghanistan in their minds separating the truth of today’s Afghanistan from the nostalgic tales of their parents and grandparents.
Sarwari acknowledged this fact in her follow-up email. “I have never been [to Afghanistan] … Everything I know about the current situation in Afghanistan, I learn from the media and occasionally second-hand accounts.” Sarwari stresses the importance of engagement on both sides of the conflict. “Your survey made me realize this responsibility and obligation to learn as much as I can about Afghanistan, even if 90 percent of the news is bleak,” she says.
There is no consensus among Afghans in America. But as people with a vested interest, their voices matter. Still, Sarwari’s voice shows that Afghan Americans are valuable in adding a more realistic, human perspective to the puzzle that is Afghanistan.
Ali Muhammad Latifi is a graduate student at American University’s international media program. He is a former Special Assistant to the Senior VP of Online Communications at the Center for American Progress.