America Must Protect the Most Vulnerable in Afghanistan | Opinion

We are the children of Afghan refugees in America.

We know little of our homeland, Afghanistan. What we do know comes from our mothers' stories of childhood and our own tense, fleeting visits to the country to see relatives.

Staying up to date with the situation in Afghanistan is complicated. It requires a lot of email, texts and scrolling through Facebook and Twitter. Despite the fact that the war has been all we've known, we still get that sinking feeling each time we read news of another suicide bombing, kidnapping, or roadside attack. Right after the sinking feeling, comes panic over the possibility that it was a friend or family member who was injured or even killed and a sense of relief when we finally confirm they're okay. But they aren't really OK, of course.

You can never be "OK" in a war zone. Beyond the sinking feeling and the panic is guilt that we got out of the nightmarish war zone—that we survived—and that others may not.

When President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan by September 11, we had mixed feelings. We dared to hope that the welcomed end of the U.S. war would help bring peace, but as people with deep ties in the Afghan American community, we know the fallacy of that premise. Just because the United States is ending its military presence in Afghanistan does not mean the conflict will end. In fact, the exit of U.S. troops will likely heighten the possibility of a long and bloody civil war. So for us, the announcement had us thinking of the people that America will leave behind.

A view of the Karte Shaki district and the Sakhi Shah-e Mardan Shrine in Kabul, Afghanistan, taken by Arash Azizzada on his very first visit to Afghanistan in the fall of 2019. Arash Azizzada

Most experts agree that after the U.S. withdrawal, much of the country could return to the cruel rule of the Taliban. Despite their lackluster participation in diplomatic talks, the Taliban remain a violent, oppressive, fundamentalist organization with no regard for human life. Even now, with American forces still on the ground and in the sky, they continue to commit unspeakable violence against minorities, prevent women from attending school, murder journalists, torture prisoners and bomb hospitals. This kind of behavior will only increase after the U.S. withdrawal.

Women, girls and minorities have been the most vulnerable in the war and their plight will only get worse. Despite being in talks with the U.S. for nearly a year, the Taliban has still not committed to protecting these groups; a worrisome sign. The danger becomes even clearer when we consider what happened in Afghanistan in the 1990s, during the brief interregnum between Soviet and U.S. occupation. The Taliban ran much of the country and imposed a rigid interpretation of Sharia law that rendered females subservient and viewed ethnic and religious minorities as non-entities. They rounded up defiant women and executed them in soccer stadiums in Kabul and slaughtered Hazaras and other ethnic groups in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Thus far, the Biden administration appears to be taking the threat to women and minorities seriously. Protecting them will be a complex and difficult task. There are many steps the administration can take between now and September 11 to protect vulnerable communities. Speaking as Afghan Americans and the children of war refugees, we recommend three policy priorities.

First, the United States should accept more refugees from Afghanistan by opening our borders, as we did in the wake of the Vietnam War. We have a unique opportunity to reposition ourselves by welcoming refugees fleeing conflict and seeking an opportunity to start again. Recent data shows the U.S. only let in a mere 90 Afghan asylum seekers in the past 6 months. We can turn a new page by living up to our moral obligations. After 20 years of war, the U.S. has a responsibility to take nonviolent steps to alleviate suffering.

Women voting for the first time in Herat, Afghanistan in 2010. Women ran their own polling stations and presided over the counting and certification of ballots. Emily Blout

Second, the United States must make it known to the Taliban and its supporters that this withdrawal does not mean that we are abandoning the Afghan people. Now is the time to double down on all diplomatic efforts and engage in a full-court press to show the world that it will not tolerate the Taliban returning to their pattern of brutal rule. This effort needs to include a push for the equitable inclusion of Afghan women, youth and minorities in any future negotiations for a political settlement and a commitment to safeguarding the gains made for these groups.

Third, the Biden administration and Congress must recommit financial assistance to the Afghan people. This isn't the time to lessen aid that the Afghan people rely so heavily on for survival, and certainly not in the midst of a pandemic. Most of this aid should focus on development. Focusing on Afghan civil society will be needed to keep resources out of the hands of the Taliban. We can avoid a repeat of what happened to the Afghan nation-state, which fully collapsed once aid dried up from Moscow in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.

America will never be remotely successful in restraining the darkest impulses of the Taliban if our current military operations are simply replaced by ongoing drone strikes and special operations. We need to be actively involved in contributing to a more peaceful future and that means significantly increasing the refugee quota for Afghanistan, doubling down on diplomatic engagement and committing financial assistance to the Afghan people.

In the last two decades, the Afghan people and civil society got a glimpse of freedom and prosperity. They have an unrelenting hunger for peace, despite all the agony that surrounds them. After 20 long years, America is right to end its military presence in Afghanistan, but it must also take steps to protect the vulnerable communities it leaves behind. Afghan Americans and the Afghan people are counting on it.

Arash Azizzada and Lida Azim are second-generation Afghan Americans and founders of the non-profit grassroots group Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress (ADEP).

Azizzada is a community organizer, freelance journalist and author of the newsletter, What's Up Afghanistan.

Azim is a nationwide community organizer combating Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.