Twenty years ago, my refugee parents and I watched in horror as the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, detonating thousands-of-years-old Buddhas in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, laying the country’s history and strength to rubble. We watched as our brothers and sisters were subdued and beaten. We felt helpless, staring at a television screen. Our safety was guaranteed here in the United States. The same could not be said for the people we were watching, people who looked remarkably like us, who shared our history and our lineage.
Today, we are reliving this trauma. Once again, my family’s eyes are glued to the news, watching in silent despair as history repeats itself. This story is not unique to me; it lives in all Afghan Americans. We all have a tale of pain. Yet our people are resilient and strong.
I grew up watching my father organizing meetings in our community. He was constantly fighting for the rights of the people he had so heart wrenchingly been forced to leave. He and his colleagues met with US government officials and spoke to congress, trying to rally support. These people were fighting for something real—something that had roots in our country’s past. “I admired and respected my women colleagues,” my uncle told me. “I went to them for advice.” That was before the 1990s, when it was not unusual for women to be highly educated and working in leadership positions.
When the United States went to Afghanistan in 2001, we hoped that we could recover this legacy of our culture once again. Many Afghan Americans had the opportunity to go in and help make things better. We had the opportunity to revive Afghanistan’s past glory.
Investing in a Generation of Women
We didn’t waste our time in Afghanistan. No matter what others say, our struggles were not in vain. The progress that has been made these past twenty years is substantial. I witnessed it while helping women judges access the internet and technology. Their strength and dedication inspired me. It showed me everything we were fighting for. This was not a mission to be completed or failed, but an investment in an entire generation who have been given opportunities, skills, and knowledge they would never have otherwise acquired.
Progress for women and girls, gains that helped stabilize the country, were made possible by the coalition forces’ security presence. The United States and its partners provided impactful protection for civil society to emerge and grow. The gains civil society forged, such as equality of opportunity for women, need to be capitalized on and expanded, not abandoned. Human rights, including women’s rights, are not determined by whoever is in charge. They are perpetual and fundamental. American calls for gender equality around the world ring hollow without hard security to back them up.
Twenty years ago, the United States embarked on the most ambitious and successful gender equality effort in its history, including programming by the Departments of State, Defense, and USAID. The strides made are astounding—and fragile. Their policies and impact allowed women into positions of power again, because they deserved it and belonged there. Finally, there were women judges, journalists, and members of ministries working and stating their opinions freely again. Americans in both government and civil society cultivated relationships with these advocates and activists as they campaigned for women’s rights in Afghanistan. They were encouraged by the strength of our lead and took a stand that, without US backing, has become a deadly liability. These women, whose only dream was of freedom and equality, are now in immense danger precisely because they risked their lives working alongside us for two long decades.
We Must Not Abandon Them
These brave women leaders, some of whom served among the 300,000 who supported the US-led counterterrorism and stability agenda, must not be left stranded. Afghan forces, too, fought for US ideals and interests as well as their own. Fifty thousand of them died alongside 2,400 Americans. The handling of these lifesaving evacuations, and moreover the entire process of troop withdrawal, has been manifestly hasty and uncoordinated. Sadly, it revealed the Biden administration’s weaknesses and callous disregard for the gravity of the US-Afghan alliance, hiding the last-minute efforts behind the guise of bureaucratic order. Order and structure are meant to hold governments accountable for their actions. Instead, they are being used as excuses.
The most important thing a government can do is protect and invest in the next generation: provide for them education, health, and opportunity. The United States took part in this most important mission, to create a more just and safer Afghanistan so that those who inherit it can flourish and those that would abuse it, such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, would flee.
Today, along with many other Afghan Americans, I watch helplessly as Kabul is ransacked and destroyed. We feel helpless, as if half of our identity is abandoned by the other. Afghan American pride runs deep. I saw it in the eyes of my father and mother, both refugees who still pine for peace in their birthplace. We see two countries, the United States and Afghanistan, connected by the desire to eradicate terrorism and let freedom flourish.
The World Is Watching Us
Despite this goal, there is an effort now to give diplomatic recognition to a Taliban government. Taliban leaders tell the press they have changed, are more tolerant and lenient. They market themselves like politicians and swagger in the uniforms of US military and Afghan armed forces. But during their march to Kabul this year, they assassinated women jurists, attacked a girls’ school, and killed midwives at a maternity hospital. Even now, they turn women away from work, university, and schooling beyond the sixth grade. We have seen this all before, all those years ago.
The United States and its allies must not recognize the Taliban unless and until women’s human rights, and those of all Afghans, are manifestly guaranteed. Until then, the United States should focus on evacuating the 100,000 Afghan allies left behind to fend for themselves, and on delivering humanitarian aid—food and medicine that the Afghan people need so desperately now. Threading the needle between giving the Taliban liquidity and withholding official recognition will not be easy for governments and international organization, but they must do it. This is the mission we Americans must turn to next, and it is our moral obligation to do so.
The world is watching us Americans. Many are shocked by our abandonment of these women, like the ammunition, weaponry, and armored vehicles we left behind. They search these acts for a sign of the hope we promised. In spite of all that has happened, we still must deliver on that promise. It is not too late to keep hope alive for the next generation of Afghan women.