You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 45: What Do We Get Wrong About Afghanistan?

What Do We Get Wrong About Afghanistan?

On August 30, 2021, nearly 20 years after they arrived, the last US troops left Afghanistan. Now, some six months later, the world has largely moved on from the story of Afghanistan and the people who remain there in the wake of the US withdrawal and the reinstatement of Taliban control. In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Tazreena Sajjad joins us to discuss what we get wrong about Afghanistan when we only talk about the ways that other nations, including the US, intersect with it.

Professor Sajjad shares how she become interested in Afghanistan, both personally and professionally (1:59), and explains the historical events that have resulted in Afghanistan’s long-standing displacement crisis (4:05). She also describes factors that have led to forcible displacement from the country during the last 20 years of ongoing occupation (5:24) and points out which countries are currently hosting refugees from Afghanistan (7:42).  

What is happening to the Afghans who are displaced or remain within the country’s borders, including ethnic minorities, journalists, government workers, educators, human rights activists, and women and girls (15:57)? What would Professor Sajjad like to see for the people of Afghanistan, both those who remain and those who felt they had no choice but to leave (22:31)? Professor Sajjad answers these questions and takes on the trope that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires” (23:56).

During our “Take Five” segment, Professor Sajjad shares the first five things she would do to help displaced Afghans and others seeking refuge (11:52).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters.

0:14      KS: On August 30, 2021, nearly 20 years after they got there, the last US troops left Afghanistan. It was not an orderly departure. The whole world watched in horrified fascination as people, including many Afghan citizens, attempted to leave the country before it completely reverted to Taliban control. Terrible scenes included people holding onto and falling off a US plane as it took off and a suicide bombing at the Kabul Airport that killed nearly 100 people, most of them Afghan citizens. Now, some six months later, for the most part, the world has stopped looking, stopped paying attention, and, it must be assumed, stopped caring about Afghanistan and the people who remain there.

1:01      KS: So today, we're talking about Afghanistan. And I'm joined by Tazreena Sajjad. Tazreena is a professor here at the School of International Service. She's also an expert in refugees and forced displacement and post-conflict governance. Before she came to SIS, Tazreena worked in the Afghanistan program at Global Rights in Afghanistan.

1:20      KS: Tazreena, thank you for joining Big World.

1:23      Tazreena Sajjad: Thank you so much for having me back on your show, Kay.

1:27      KS: I'm so thrilled that you came back and that we can talk about this important subject, Tazreena. Because, as I mentioned in the intro, prior to joining SIS you worked in the Afghanistan program at Global Rights in Afghanistan. You also served as a research consultant at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. And you wrote a book titled "Transitional Justice in South Asia: A Study of Afghanistan and Nepal" which was published in 2013. So this is pretty close to your work, this subject.

1:55      KS: How did you become interested in Afghanistan?

1:59      TS: If I had to reflect on my ongoing interest and commitment to Afghanistan, I'd have to actually go back a long way into my past. My earliest memory of Afghanistan is probably being introduced to Rabindranath Tagore, who was a Nobel laureate's book, "Kabuliwala." Which was a poignant story between a little girl and an Afghan migrant.

2:24      TS: But the story was also striking, and it is a powerful read, because it's a reflection on the loneliness, the isolation, the alienation of the migrant experience, the need for hope and belonging, and the fear and suspicion associated with whoever is considered the other. And that really helped me reflect a lot on my experiences and my family's experiences, but also knowing individuals who were Afghan, who traced their ancestry back to Afghanistan, and my own family members, who did seek shelter in Afghanistan at different moments in time in political turbulence in my country of birth.

3:01      TS: But professionally speaking, I would say that my work on Afghanistan began in 2001, right after the fall of the Taliban and the signing of the Bonn Agreement. The project I was working on was with regard to the rule of law and democracy promotion in the country. After that, I, as you mentioned, worked with the Global Rights Rule of Law and Transitional Justice Program in Afghanistan, and then shifted to work with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

3:28      KS: And of course, when we talk about Afghanistan, we do have to talk about both the country and the people who live there now and the displaced people. According to the UN High Commissioner For Refugees, Afghans make up one of the largest refugee populations worldwide.

3:44      KS: People are obviously aware of the scenes from this past summer, when the US withdrew and everyone was paying attention. But which other events, both historically and more recently, have contributed to this longstanding displacement crisis, where there are so many Afghans who do not feel that they can live in Afghanistan?

4:05      TS: I'm not a historian by training. And I approach the subject of Afghanistan's history with great humility, considering there is so much to unpack about the country's rich past when examining its different periods of political upheaval. But if I were to offer a quick overview, I would identify a few specific periods of time when large-scale displacement has taken place.

4:26      TS: So in contemporary history, I would say that Afghanistan's forcible displacement crisis began with the former Soviet Union's invasion of the country that lasted for almost a decade, and then it's withdrawal, the violent civil war that erupted after the Soviet withdrawal, and the infighting that began between the different Mujahideen leaders, and finally, of course, the arrival of the Taliban.

4:50      TS: And the Taliban was formed in the early 1990s by the Afghan Mujahideen, who had resisted the Soviet occupation, receiving covert backing from the CIA and its Pakistani counterpart, the Inter-services Intelligence Directorate, the ISI, and comprised of largely younger Pashtun tribesman who had studied in Pakistani madrassas. The Taliban entered Kandahar in 1994. And by September 1996, it had captured Kabul from then president Burhānuddīn Rabbānī.

5:24      TS: And in the last 20 years of an ongoing occupation, there have also been periods of heightened levels of insurgency and turmoil, particularly following 2004. And so Afghans have continued to flee from different provinces because of complex and intertwined reasons. And the list is actually quite long. And if I were to offer a few of the factors as to why there has been ongoing forcible displacement from Afghanistan, one is of course the reemergence of the Taliban. The other factors are: the rise of other armed groups and violent networks; generalized violence in the country; political and targeted assassinations; persecution, harassment and intimidation; severe economic uncertainty; lack of employment opportunities and educational opportunities; endemic and systemic corruption together with poor governance and weak rule of law; and then of course ongoing US drone strikes, US and NATO military operations and counterterrorism operations that have also disrupted the lives of people.

6:27      TS: And then, of course, while there is still prevalence of talking about climate change or the climate crisis as a depoliticized and a separate and independent factor that is causing displacement, climate crisis of course is a product of a result of complex factors, including internal and external political factors and the failure to respond to these outcomes, together with the realities of corruption, poor governance, weak rule of law; they have also been a source of major displacement over the recent years from Afghanistan.

7:02      KS: And one more question about refugees and then I want to turn to Afghanistan itself. But as we all know, the Taliban did take back control of Afghanistan in 2021. And the US did completely withdraw from the country. And it's likely that the number of displaced people will continue to rise.

7:19      KS: I know that you've written in the past, and we talked about this in a previous episode on this program, that, in general, refugees who end up in wealthy countries receive most of the media attention, or the wealthy countries receive the attention, while the truth is that most refugees end up in neighboring countries that can ill afford to house them. So where are most Afghan refugees going?

7:42      TS: There's been an overt focus, international media focus, certainly US media focus, on the thousands of people who have been trying to flee Afghanistan. And a lot of that focus has been on the harrowing images we have seen from Kabul Airport.

7:55      TS: Today, we have about 74,000, or a little more, Afghans who have been given permission to live in the United States. And they are struggling with different types of legal status and also facing a complex web of obstacles and uncertainties upon their arrival.

8:13      TS: But the focus, as you rightly pointed out, has been extremely disproportionate. Because, in the broader context, refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan are trying to flee within a global climate which is dictated by anti-immigrant sentiments for sure. But there are also twin challenges right now, that is they're being produced during the period of time of a global pandemic, and then there are also economic pressures and uncertainties that are compounded by the pandemic.

8:42      TS: The three countries in the actual front lines with regard to receiving Afghan refugees and have been playing the largest role, are, of course, Pakistan, Iran, and to some extent Turkey. In fact, at the time of the US withdrawal there were more than 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees alone in Pakistan, and then nearly about 800,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran. But both these countries have also hosted a large population of unregistered Afghan refugees, which means in Pakistan there have been over 3 million Afghans. In Iran, taking into account 2.3 million unregistered Afghans, the total number has also been upward of 3 million.

9:26      TS: Today, of course, the numbers are still sketchy because the situation is fluid. This is happening despite the fact that in recent years Pakistan has attempted to push Afghans back across the border using different strategies, including trying to close down the camps, the Pakistani military building a fence along what is known as the Durand Line, which is a 1600+ mile border with Afghanistan.

9:53      TS: And that despite Iran being one of the countries that have been deeply impacted by COVID, together with of course its own internal challenges, another at least about 300,000 Afghans have already entered Iran. And the rate is close to about between 4,000 to 5,000 a day. And they're largely crossing informally across the border.

10:18      TS: Compared to Pakistan and Iran, there are a smaller number of Afghans who are trying to enter Turkey. And Turkey, as we already know, is the world's largest refugee host, with 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees. Many of the Afghan refugees in Turkey, because they are not able to find any kind of protection or any form of economic stability, have tried to move on to Europe. But we already also know that, largely speaking, Europe and the European Union are very disinterested in taking in more refugees and asylum seekers.

10:55      TS: And then there are smaller numbers of Afghan refugees who have managed to cross Afghan borders, and they're still trying to attempt to enter countries in Central Asia. But this has been extremely challenging, particularly during COVID times, because there's quite a number of border closures. So countries like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kurdistan, and Turkmenistan are some of countries where the Afghans try and cross into. And many of them are not able to do so.

11:32      KS: Tazreena Sajjad, it's time to Take Five. And this is when you, our guest, get to blue sky it and change the world as you'd like it to be by single-handedly instituting five policies or practice that you believe would change the world for the better.

11:45      KS: For you, what are the first five things that you would do to help displaced Afghans and others seeking refuge?

11:52      TS: First, tens of thousands of Afghans remain at risk and have been left behind. And there are 40,000 applications for humanitarian parole that have been filed. So there are several things that can be done, for instance: continuing of evacuation efforts, including of expanding capacity for flights and visa processing; stopping asking special immigrant visa recipients to get their passports, birth or marriage certificates from the Taliban; allowing virtual visa interviews; waving the humanitarian parole fee; refunding fees for Afghans who are denied visas. And then, of course, through the priority, or P-2 program, thinking of alternative ways in which third countries, this requirement can be waived so that people who qualify for the P-2 program can enter the United States. And then, of course, creating new pathways of protection, including a designated humanitarian parole program.

12:49      TS: Number two, for those who are already in the United States there needs to be emergency funding for the rapid expansion of the resettlement agencies, along with national organizations and local affiliates. They require a lot more access to funding to provide for different kinds of facilities for Afghans, including of course trauma and emergency services.

13:13      TS: There's an Afghanistan Adjustment Act that there's a great push for. And that would allow for legal protections for Afghans who are being paroled into the country to allow them to have permanent residency. And then establishing a permanent unit to obviously support Afghan refugees coming in. And there's an important need to, of course, extend and maximize housing capacity.

13:35      TS: Number three is, of course, keeping the focus on countries that are actually in the front lines. They have their own security concerns, their own political struggles, economic struggles, and yet they need an incredible amount of support to provide the kind of support structure and sanctuary that is needed and required by Afghan refugees.

13:57      TS: Number four is, as many as there are Afghan refugees in the world there are so many more who are internally displaced. And it's important to listen to the demands of the Afghans on the ground and to keep that attention and commitment focus. And long after Afghanistan fades from the news there are millions of people who will continue to need assistance, but in ways that will give them ownership over their lives in the country.

14:25      TS: And the fifth is, more broadly speaking about refugees and asylum seekers. There has to be a lot of soul-searching. And there needs to be a step back in trying to reflect on how we have come to this point, where the long history of criminalization and politicization of refugees, asylum seekers, and, more broadly speaking, migrants, have now become so institutionalized.

14:49      TS: A broader approach needs to be rethought of, where pat one's self on the back in terms of receiving a small number of refugees but ensuring systems and structures are sustained which allow for the human suffering to be naturalized and normalized. Those need to be challenged, only then can we talk about addressing questions of migration in a whole other way. Without that, of course we are still obviously locked in a lose-lose situation, where the politics of fear wins every time.

15:25      KS: Thank you.

15:29      KS: So looking inside Afghanistan, there is growing concern for the safety of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, its journalists, government workers, educators, human rights activists, and especially Afghanistan's women and girls, who remain in the country after the Taliban takeover. What is happening to the Afghans who are displaced or remain within its borders, particularly those groups that I mentioned?

15:57      TS: So this is a pretty complex question. In a way it's impossible to answer it, in providing a comprehensive picture. Because, first of all, I'm not in Afghanistan, and of course things on the ground are actually quite fluid.

16:15      TS: Let me engage with this with the utmost humility, because I recognize that Afghanistan of course comprises of 34 provinces. It's a pretty big country, and there are notable differences, economic, social, political, between and among each of these provinces, between Kabul, the capital, and the other cities, between urban and rural areas, and between the diverse people with a complex interplay of ethnic, tribal, class identities, and political affiliations who live in each of these provinces, cities, and urban areas.

16:49      TS: I do want to say that even prior to the US withdrawal, the number of Afghans who were forcibly uprooted but confined within the country's borders was very high. And so by the end of 2020, there were 3.5 million internally displaced people. And that was actually an 18 percent increase compared to the figures we had in 2019, and the highest figures we have seen in more than a decade.

17:14      TS: In short, even prior to the recent crisis that was precipitated by the US withdrawal, Afghanistan was already facing one of the world's most acute internal displacement crises. And most of these factors are still actually ongoing, as well as their consequences.

17:32      TS: More than about half a million people have actually been displaced since President Biden announced troop withdrawals in April of last year. And since the withdrawal, the situation in the country, for many Afghans, have been extremely dire. So at one level there has been threat, intimidation, persecution, assassinations, arbitrary detentions, beatings, beheadings, being carried out largely by the Taliban, against, as you mentioned, the ethnic Hazara population, journalists, female judges, female lawyers, political leaders, students, members of the Afghan military and Afghan police, and certainly those who have served, or who are suspected to have served, with the US military and NATO forces, along with of course international NGOs and any other external actors.

18:24      TS: And despite the fact that the Taliban had announced a general amnesty, there have been at least more than 100 killings of former Afghan national security forces and others associated with the former government, majority of which have been perpetrated by the Taliban. And then there are horrifying anecdotes of the Taliban sending threatening letters of intimidation, in the past they used to be called "night letters." There are circulating blacklists. They're conducting door-to-door searches. There are executions at checkpoints and in public spaces. There's the beating of journalists. There's posting of false information to draw out whoever is considered a dissident or individuals who are desperate to leave Afghanistan through the use of social media. There's a severe monitoring of social media, which means a lot of people are really afraid to express their political opinion and to engage with each other over this platform. And even students, such as the alumni of the now dissolved American University of Kabul, which was established via USAID funding, are being labeled as traitors and collaborators of the United States. And they're also being hunted down, forcing many of them to go into hiding.

19:43      TS: But all of this is also unfolding at a time when UN and other major agencies, including the World Food Programme, for instance, has already declared that Afghanistan is facing a dire humanitarian crisis. And this is compounded by the winter weather, and of course COVID-19. UN and international agencies have already calculated that at least 23 million people will be facing hunger. And then the UN Children's Fund has estimated that 1 million Afghan children are at risk of starvation.

20:15      TS: Over 4 million children are out of school, 60 percent of whom are girls. Because the Taliban also has very rigid stipulations about school attendance, particularly of girls. And so there's been a decline in girls' secondary school attendance.

20:32      TS: But there are other things also we need to pay attention to. There has been resistance against the Taliban, particularly in the Panjshir Valley. There's been courageous resistance of journalists who have, despite the fact that they have faced so many threats, intimidations, and violence, continue to try and capture some of the developments in the country.

20:56      TS: And there has been a resistance of women's rights activists and human rights activists and articulation of specific demands made to the international community. Perhaps there are some things that may be in the works, with regarding trying to think of creative ways to reach humanitarian assistance, circumventing the Taliban. Because the freezing of Afghan assets is ultimately, of course, impacting the Afghan population the most.

21:25      KS: So, last question. And I want to make sure that we focus on the most important thing. Tazreena, I believe from reading things that you've written and hearing you talk, that it's safe to say, I think, that one of the parts about this that is so troublesome—which is an understatement—is the fact that the actual Afghan people and the future of their country has seemed to get lost in the story of the US withdrawal and all the drama. And you just spoke about groups living in the country who are living with increasing hardship and fear.

22:07      KS: So my last question is: what would you like to see for the people of Afghanistan, both in terms of those who remain and those who felt they had no choice but to leave? And I don't know if this is in terms of self-determination or how you would frame it, but what would you most like to see for this country and its people?

22:31      TS: That is such a powerful question. And I'm very hesitant to answer it because, first of all, I think that answer best comes from the Afghan people. And the Afghan people do not necessarily speak with one voice. And I think in this effort of state building and peace building, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere, there has been a privileging of elite voices. And in some ways, of course, I am part of that because I am part of the intellectual elite. Even though, in many other ways, I am not part of the elite structure.

23:05      TS: But I think that when we only focus on those who are on the outside, talking about what is next for the Afghan people and what should be done, I think we lose focus on the fact that this country is an independent autonomous country with an incredibly rich history. With an incredibly rich history of intellectual development and growth; scholarship of historians, of philosophers, of writers and thinkers, of people from all walks of life who are best poised, given the opportunity, to be able to shape a trajectory for themselves.

23:56      TS: Unfortunately, for Afghanistan...I do want to say one thing. And I think it's very important that I say it. Because whenever the conversation about Afghanistan actually comes up it is almost always wrapped up in some kind of mythology or in some kind of clichéd trope. One of them obviously is the fact that Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires. And this has been challenged so many times by Afghan historians and post-colonial scholars, as well as, of course, serious scholars of Afghanistan. But this myth absolutely refuses to die.

24:34      TS: I think, first and foremost, it is important to really pay attention to what exactly is going on in the country. It is important to pay attention to the diverse range of voices and demands being placed with the multiple challenges that the country is facing, but at the same time not holding the people hostage to great power politics, which has always been the case. It is important to consider, in terms of the people who have left Afghanistan, they are facing multiple kinds of challenges. What are their needs? What are their priorities? What are the challenges they are facing, in terms of every border they're encountering? And how best to support them, in terms of being able to seek sanctuary?

25:29      TS: And then, of course, in terms of moving forward. I mean, the Taliban will not be there forever. And it is important to think about where and how leadership, Afghan leadership in all its various forms, can be supported. The resistance is there, it will go through ebbs and flows. But it needs to be supported in different ways, it needs to be acknowledged in different ways.

25:57      TS: And the challenge in Afghanistan is not just the Taliban. It is not so simple as that. And so those opportunities should be encouraged, should be created. And Afghan people should be in the driving seat of the ongoing project of nation and state building at every step of the way. It is not for outsiders to wax and wane about the future of Afghanistan without centering the people of Afghanistan through every step of the way.

26:27      KS: Tazreena Sajjad, thank you for joining Big World to discuss Afghanistan. It's been really informative to speak with you. Thank you.

26:34      TS: Thank you so much.

26:36      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our podcast is available on our website, on iTunes, Spotify, and wherever else you listen to podcasts. If you'll leave us a good rating or a review, it'll be like finding an unopened holiday present in the back of the closet with your name on it. Our theme song is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman.

26:58      KS: Until next time.

Episode Guest

Tazreena Sajjad,
senior professorial lecturer, SIS

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