Following the Taliban’s seizure of power, people across the political spectrum have expressed concern about the fate of Afghans who helped the United States and are therefore at risk of retribution. (This concern is not universal: We are also seeing a rise in far-right, anti-Afghan refugee sentiment.) Pundits and politicians who gave little attention to civilian deaths in Afghanistan during 20 years of U.S. occupation are joining in this outpouring — a dynamic that is building pressure for the Biden administration to extend the U.S. military presence.
The Biden administration has stopped evacuating Afghans by air, citing the bombings on the airport, but continues to airlift Americans from the country as the August 31 deadline approaches. Biden claims evacuations of Afghan allies will resume post-withdrawal.
Missing from this conversation have been the voices of Afghan anti-war activists like Nematullah Ahangosh, a 26-year-old originally from the Malistan district of Ghazni province in Afghanistan. In a conversation with In These Times, he called attention to two vulnerable populations largely being left out of this newfound U.S. concern. The first are those who were harmed by the U.S.-backed Afghan government or directly by the United States — which was responsible for bombings, night raids, drone strikes, CIA death squads, and high civilian death counts. The second are Ahangosh’s fellow activists who opposed both the Taliban and the U.S. military occupation of their country, and now face Taliban reprisal.
Ahangosh is not only a fierce opponent of the U.S. war, but also of the Taliban and what he calls the “corrupt Afghan government.” In 2018, Ahangosh moved to India to study social work, with the hope of eventually returning to Afghanistan to “to start my dream project for empowering the physically disabled and those who lost limbs in bomb blasts.” But now that the Taliban is in power, he says, “I lost hope. Now I fear returning due to my working background with a charity for refugees.” Ahangosh is not alone in his displacement: In addition to those uprooted by the Taliban’s recent seizure of power, at least 5.9 million Afghans have been internally or externally displaced as a result of 20 years of war, according to a report released in September 2020 by Brown University’s Costs of War project.
Ahangosh is involved in another organization, Afghan peace group (the name has been changed for security reasons), that aims to create a world without war. The group, based in Afghanistan but with active Afghan members in the diaspora, opposes the U.S. military occupation, as well as the violence of the Taliban and the Afghan army. Afghan peace group is well-known and lauded among some corners of the U.S. anti-war movement for speaking out against a U.S. occupation that, until weeks ago, had largely become background noise in this country. From 2014 to 2018, Ahangosh was coordinator of different teams of Afghan peace group in Kabul and, while in India, he has been organizing with members of the group who are abroad. For his own protection, he is working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in India to attain resettlement for himself and his family in a third country. But many of his friends in Afghan peace group are in more dire straits: Ineligible for U.S. evacuation because they did not help the U.S. military, they are in Afghanistan fearing for their lives.
In These Times spoke with Ahangosh about the violence of the U.S. occupation, the hardships survivors of that war face, and the shortcomings of U.S. media coverage of the American exit. He is adamant that everyone deserves safety and refuge, not just those who aided in this occupation. “I do have a problem,” he says, “with giving safety only to those who served U.S. troops.” He is equally adamant that the United States should not extend its military occupation.
We are seeing a lot of talk in the United States about how people who help the military and help the United States deserve refuge and sanctuary. What about people who didn’t help the United States? What about people who were injured or lost family members due to the U.S. military?
Nematullah Ahangosh: Well, I don’t think refugee status will just give them their family members back. They can never get their limb back if they lost it in a bomb explosion, or if they were targeted by U.S. drones or military planes or helicopters. I have friends who’ve lost their loved ones in drone attacks. [Drone operators] always confuse the Taliban and the ordinary people. There is no way that you could recognize who is who on the ground.
I do have a problem with giving safety only to those who served U.S. troops. Other people also deserve refuge. Of course. Not everybody can make it to Europe, or to other countries, or to America. What should others do who worked with other foreign NGOs and are now in danger? It’s our human right to be free from all forms of violence.
My understanding is that Afghan peace group did not support the U.S. military or the Taliban, and was an anti-militarist organization. Are your colleagues in Afghan peace group eligible for refugee status? Are they being prioritized for evacuations?
Nematullah Ahangosh: No, they are not unfortunately considered. And yes, you’re right. They are the only organization I know of opposing the militaries of all sides. They need protection, too. Such organizations should never be forgotten and their members should never be left behind and left in danger.
Do you oppose the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan?
Nematullah Ahangosh: Of course I oppose it. Because it’s an invasion. They bombarded our country without any permission from the United Nations Security Council. And that’s a direct invasion.
And when they were there, they used to go to people’s houses during the night in search of Taliban. So, there were a lot of rape cases that happened. And the drones that they used and the bomb that they’d drop killed civilians. And the Trump administration dropped “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan. [Editors’ note: “The mother of all bombs” refers to the most powerful conventional bomb in the U.S. military’s possession, the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) — it contains 18,000 pounds of explosives, and it’s so large it must be released from a cargo plane. In April 2017, the U.S. military dropped one of these bombs in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, stating that the strike was aimed at targeting the Islamic State. The strike allegedly killed at least two civilians and destroyed a cave system, flattening houses and trees.]
To me, it doesn’t look like helping: It looks more like destroying.
This was a stupid occupation and invasion where nobody received anything — not even the Americans — they didn’t get anything. And the only thing that people got was badness. That does not justify the irresponsible withdrawal.
What do you mean by irresponsible?
They [the United States] could have brought the Taliban and the corrupt Afghan government together to solve the issue. But they failed. Or they didn’t want to solve the problem. The Afghan government was also very corrupt.
One of the things that’s happening in the United States is a lot of our media outlets have been ignoring the Afghanistan war for 20 years. But now that the United States is withdrawing, there’s an uproar and suddenly the press is worried about how it will affect the Afghans. Do you have any comment on that dynamic?
Nematullah Ahangosh: You mean, now that this situation got out of control, they are covering the news, and they are trying to show that they are very concerned about it? Well, I think there is also a lot of campaigning going on in the Western media — showing them how Afghans are miserable right now. But the Afghans were miserable in the 20 years of invasion, too.
One more thing that the media is still not actually covering is the situation people who lose limbs and people who are victims of bombings and attacks [and wish to flee]. Were do they go? There are also disabled people that were caused by direct gunshot and bomb blasts. I say that because I’m disabled, and I can understand what they go through.
They find only the airport very interesting. Whatever happens there, they report. But they don’t report the situations in the refugee camps in other countries where Afghans are staying, or what happens to the disabled, or the child soldiers that are taken by the Taliban and other terrorist groups — what about them? [The airport reporting] doesn’t show the reality to me. Even if it does, it’s not completely accurate.