Those Left Behind in Afghanistan | Opinion

Later today, President Joe Biden will deliver his first address to the United Nations General Assembly. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield previewed President Biden's speech on Friday, noting that it will speak to the administration's three top foreign policy priorities: "ending the COVID-19 pandemic; combating climate change...and defending human rights, democracy and the international rules-based order."

Notably absent from the list of important subjects likely to be addressed by the president is the situation in Afghanistan. That topic was a mere footnote in the ambassador's remarks, listed alongside other general references to crises in Burma, Yemen and Syria.

The Biden administration likely hopes to shift media coverage away from Afghanistan—and especially from its poorly executed withdrawal of U.S. forces. White House officials were reportedly expressing their hopes for media fatigue several weeks ago. To some extent, their predictions have borne out. The public has paid surprisingly little attention to the astonishing facts and stories coming to light about the botched evacuation of Americans and Afghans.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken's testimony on Afghanistan before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee early last week highlighted some of the disturbing data. Of the 18,000 SIV applicants, we evacuated a mere 705. Of the 60,000 at-risk Afghans, we evacuated half. Estimates indicate that 75 percent of the people evacuated from Afghanistan were not American citizens, green card holders, SIV applicants or P1 or P2 visa holders.

These numbers demonstrate not only the immensely chaotic nature of the evacuation effort—and the potential dangers of not knowing whom exactly we were evacuating from Afghanistan—but also the tragic reality that the most vulnerable Afghans, including those who risked their lives to aid American efforts, were left behind to fend for themselves against the Taliban.

Biden, Blinken and Thomas-Greenfield
US President Joe Biden (L), flanked by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (C) and Linda Thomas-Greenfield (R), Ambassador of the United States to the United Nations, and United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres (out of frame) hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York, September 20, 2021. Brendan Smialowski / AFP/Getty Images

As thousands fear for their lives in Afghanistan because of U.S. incompetence, the Biden team hopes to discuss the end of the pandemic, the evergreen talking point of combating climate change and a commitment to human rights that apparently does not include the preservation of life for those we promised to protect.

The passing of time will make it easier for all of us to turn our attention away from the Afghanistan crisis. Yet the media, the public and the foreign policy community should not let the Biden administration shift the narrative while innocents are still in danger in Afghanistan.

The Biblical story of Queen Esther offers a potentially useful lesson for the present. In the account, Esther—the unlikely queen of Persia whose Jewish identity remains a secret—is warned by her cousin Mordecai that the king's adviser plans to exterminate all Jews in the kingdom. Mordecai pleads with Esther to intercede with the king, but Esther hesitates, fearing she will be put to death for approaching him unsummoned. Mordecai cautions that her place in the king's palace will not protect her, and Esther eventually risks her life to save her people.

Over the past several weeks, those who have escaped the desolation in Afghanistan undoubtedly felt much like Esther, looking down from the windows of planes at those left behind, more vulnerable and likely to suffer a different, more harrowing fate than themselves. The United States too must wrestle with this eternally human question. It would be much easier for all of us to go on with our lives, turning our attention away from the anguish in Afghanistan. As the Biden administration hopes to shift the media narrative away from this crisis and the terrible mistakes made in executing the withdrawal, how many of us will instead turn our attention toward the suffering like Esther?

The chaotic evacuation has meant that Americans and Afghans who should have been swept to safety well in advance of U.S. withdrawal were abandoned and remain in grave danger. Perhaps in this moment, the story of Queen Esther can remind us all not only of the profound bravery of an unlikely hero, but also of our holy human instinct to turn toward those left behind.

Dr. Amanda Rothschild is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and Senior Policy Director of the Vandenberg Coalition. She served at the White House as a Special Assistant to the President and Senior National Security Speechwriter and as a Member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff during the Trump administration.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.