Screams From Northern Afghanistan Have Been Silenced
The news from northern Afghanistan was grim.
Though over 6,000 miles away and safely back in the U.S., I have been hearing cries from Kunduz, the strategic northern province in Afghanistan recently taken over by the Taliban. They are the desperate calls for help from the Afghan staff I left behind who had risked their lives promoting American programs.
Suddenly, these voices have stopped.
Three years ago I was in Kunduz as part of a U.S. State Department-funded rule of law program. We employed a dozen Afghans as legal experts, translators, administrative staff and security officers. Working alongside one another, our team taught legal seminars, visited local justice institutions, and mentored Afghan attorneys, judges, and police officers.
Even back then, my local staff complained of death threats, manifested in the forms of phone calls, text messages, and in-person warnings from insurgents who had observed them working with the Americans, the “infidels”. Sometimes these threats were so menacing that our staff member would work from home for days, staying out of sight in hopes the insurgent would lose his trail.
In recent months Mohammad Abdul*, a former staffer who had been leading the same program wholly-run by Afghans, revealed that he had been receiving an increasing high number of in-person threats and phone calls. After coming home one night to a death notice tacked to his door, he moved his family to a dwelling right in front of his office. As a result their movements are severely restricted. In a tone of desperation he asked for my help with the Special Immigrant Visa to the U.S. He reminded me that should anything happen to his job, he would no longer have the protection of the security officers and the armored car provided during work hours.
Another former employee, Hassan Ali,* reached out too. He related how almost daily he could hear explosions from his office. Due to the threats he had received, he no longer appeared in public for fear of being recognized as one who had associated with the Americans. Instead, he used his brother for errands. Zahir revealed he had already applied for the Special Immigrant Visa and had been waiting for it ever since.
Now the time has come and those Afghans who have helped us are in grave danger. In their hour of need and in recognition of their loyal service, should the U.S. promptly offer a safe haven? Arguably, these Afghans aren’t American responsibility because they chose this line of work and should have known ahead of time that they were putting themselves and their families at risk.
Still without their guidance, cultural savvy, language skills, eyes and ears, how far would our programs be? Would some have even begun? If we do not respond to their cries for help, how would this affect our current and future goals in Afghanistan?
Even though America has, in fact, taken in a number of Afghans on the Special Immigrant Visa program, the process has been criticized for its slowness. In my rule of law program few have been resettled and those who have were appalled by the cost of living in the States. Furthermore, since their skills and degrees did not translate across borders, many had to accept minimum-wage jobs. Fahim Siddiqi*, an Afghan judge who worked for our Kabul office, is now a convenience store clerk in northern California.
Ironically these Afghans, who theoretically support democratic values, are also the same ones our government wished to stay in Afghanistan to lead it into a new era of progress. They have the skills, knowledge, and the training --- but many want to leave and make a new life in the U.S., even at the risk of anti-Islamic sentiment.
In the last few days, the silence has been deafening.
Can and should the U.S. be doing more?
* Name changed to protect identity