Why Don't Afghan Lives Matter? | Opinion

Afghanistan's country code is +93. My phone lights up—day and night. I cannot bear to answer, knowing I have no answers. I cannot bear to ignore them. "I hope you are not tired," they say. "Sorry to bother you," "Thank you for thinking of us," and "If they find me, they'll rip me apart, please take my children." Their graciousness, dignity, apologies for disturbing our lives, to help save theirs, are humbling and haunting.

I run a nonprofit supporting women's peacebuilding organizations in 40 conflict-affected countries worldwide. We've had Afghan partners for years. They dedicate their lives to caring for their communities, running shelters for violence survivors, training women police officers, documenting the failures of the allied efforts for the security sector, advocating for rights and justice and setting up networks of men to prevent violence. Their reach extends nationwide.

As women peacebuilders they always fought for a seat at the tables of negotiations, to ensure the protection of civilians and the rights of women and minorities, but for 20 years they were sidelined by diplomats and politicians. They persisted because they knew when the political elite—those with the power of guns and money—cut deals, the people, especially women and minorities, are forgotten and forsaken. They've been proven right.

Since the fall of Kabul, my small team and I—alongside a band of colleagues, working in NGOs and academia, as diplomats, civil servants and volunteer military personnel—have frantically tried to get names on lists, lists to government contacts, for their evacuation convoys and plane manifests, assuming they would take on the responsibility to protect the Afghans they have now put at high risk.

Those calling us are also policewomen, scholars, politicians, journalists and judges. "They have a target on their back" said one sympathetic Pentagon contact. Actually, most have three targets: for being women, as public, political or security figures and as a Hazara. Our preliminary list has grown to hundreds and even thousands. Why come to us? Because no one has come for them.

Since no help came, we took the plunge with cowboys who offered flights to Uganda. We begged for the U.S. to open the airport gates. They said, "Get governments to bus them in." We begged countries to sponsor buses. No one did. The planes left three-quarters empty.

As last week ended and some countries finished evacuating their own people, we were asked to "give two to three names." That glimmer of hope diminished, as the U.S. refused its NATO allies' offers to evacuate these Afghan nationals.

Why did the U.S. prevent others from evacuating Afghans? We heard different answers. The military needed the airport to evacuate their own; the security threat is high. But there are deeper factors at play. That nationals being left behind is indicative of not just incompetence on a tactical level but colonialism, white supremacy, misogyny and much worse. To put it blankly: The U.S. and U.K. allowed a British man to evacuate 200 Afghan cats and dogs, but not Afghan people.

It shows how "Afghanistan" for the U.S. and its allies was "a war" and not a country with multiple cultures and peoples. The "theater of war" has been people's homes, villages, schools and clinics. Yet in these 20 years of occupation, few in Washington have respected Afghans as equals. Those who supported the U.S.' war were evacuated, but Afghans who built peace—fostering justice and democracy—were not.

Afghan women walk past a Taliban fighter
Afghan women walk past a Taliban fighter along a street in Kabul on Sept. 2, 2021. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

People may wonder how this entire debacle came to be. The failure of leadership and inconsistencies are as old as the occupation. NATO countries turned a blind eye to Pakistan as it harbored the Taliban. In early 2012, there was silence when Qatar invited the Taliban, allowing them to fly their flag and feign legitimacy. There was no outcry in 2018, when Trump struck a deal with Taliban and forced the Afghan government to release 5,000 prisoners. The effect is evident now: With prisoners out, the prosecutors who convicted Talibs for terrorism and murder are at risk. One was murdered already. MPs homes ransacked. Some 240 USAID trained female prosecutors in dealing with violence against women are particularly threatened. Women in shelters—many on our list—must be terrified.

Amid the inconsistency, there are also consistencies: Zalmay Khalilzad, special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, was always in the thick of U.S. decision making; U.S. and other private contractors and the Afghan elite were enriching themselves; many officials knew the truth but stayed silent, while Afghan women warned but were silenced.

So here we are: avoidable chaos and signs of more atrocities. Assurance from the Taliban may convince governments, but not us.

In the coming days, many of us, inside Afghanistan and worldwide, won't stop. We will continue to knock on every door, try every turn to protect those at risk, if they need to leave, and if they must stay. But it is traumatic and life-changing for us all. When this horrible chapter of history is written, it will show that we, as private citizens, with no power, shouldered this responsibility to protect lives, while the most powerful leaders in the world, shirked theirs.

We do need help. We ask the Taliban to stop assaulting and killing people. We ask their allies—Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—who strengthened and legitimized them to stop these attacks. Neighboring countries must give Afghans safe access and waive visa requirements. From NATO countries and others, we need expedited visas and resettlement for this wealth of human talent the Taliban have now put at risk.

As the world and people, we must stay with Afghans, in and out of Afghanistan. Trying to prevent this man-made disaster is not benevolence, it is salvaging our own humanity.

It is definitely too little, but it is not too late.

Sanam Naraghi Anderlini, MBE, is founder/CEO of International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) and director of the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security.

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