The desire of many Afghans to obtain refuge in the U.S. after the Taliban takeover of their country evokes several themes previously discussed on this site. As with Syria, Central America, and Haiti, the U.S. bears significant responsibility for the conditions in Afghanistan which are impelling people to emigrate. Accepting Afghans into the U.S. would bolster America’s ability to counter terrorist groups. Women would especially benefit from being able to emigrate from Afghanistan to America. Finally, a liberal policy towards admitting Afghan refugees aligns with generally positive American attitudes towards refugees and immigrants. Within the current constraints imposed on immigration policy by the primacy of maintaining American liberal democracy, the U.S. should rescue and admit as many Afghan refugees as possible.
Fortunately, many Americans are pressuring the Biden administration to rescue Afghans who collaborated with the U.S. during the American occupation over the last two decades. These individuals aided U.S. efforts to combat the Taliban and to improve the lives of fellow Afghans.
However, absent from the American conversation about the Afghan refugees is acknowledgement of a broader U.S. responsibility for Afghanistan’s travails dating to before the 2001 American and NATO intervention there. In the 20th century, Afghanistan was generally peaceful until it was invaded in 1979 by the Soviet Union. During much of this period before and after the invasion, many Afghan women had occupations outside their homes and gained more freedom. The Soviet Union’s occupation of the country lead to armed conflict, and the U.S. provided weapons to Afghans who were resisting the Soviets. While this aid helped to push out the Soviets, it exacerbated the conflict and strengthened radical Islamist forces. Moreover, after the Soviets left Afghanistan, the U.S. neglected the country, and it descended into a civil war which culminated in Taliban rule in the late 1990s, as related in a Vox article:
“While experts argue over how much of an impact America actually had in post-Soviet Afghanistan, many agree that arming dozens of mujahideen factions for a decade and then leaving those heavily armed groups to figure out peace directly contributed to the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.”
The lives of many Afghans, especially women, improved because of the U.S. intervention since 2001. Yet the U.S. has allowed the Taliban to regain control, possibly undoing the gains of the last two decades. This decision, combined with major American culpability for Afghanistan’s suffering since 1979, obligates the U.S. to admit many Afghan refugees, including both those who directly assisted Americans in Afghanistan and others who need to flee their troubled homeland.
There are fears that the Taliban takeover will increase the risk that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will attack the U.S. from Afghanistan. Admitting Afghan refugees, especially those who have proven their commitment to liberal values, provides the U.S. with the human capital essential to combating terrorism. When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, American military and intelligence personnel were largely deficient in the language proficiencies and cultural knowledge that would have made the intervention more successful. Afghan refugees could provide indispensable support to the U.S. in gathering information on potentially threatening activity in Afghanistan and in any future American interventions.
In addition, the success of American foreign policy in general depends considerably on the willingness of allies to collaborate with the U.S. This willingness is based on trust that the U.S. will look out for the interests of the allies. According to former diplomat Earl Anthony Wayne of the Wilson Center, the debacle in Afghanistan has damaged the credibility of the U.S., and he suggests that protecting and evacuating vulnerable Afghans will mitigate this damage. On the other hand, Nathan Smith notes in an email that if Afghan allies of the U.S. are “stuck in Afghanistan to face the wrath of the Taliban, their fate will be a cautionary tale for any who consider helping the Americans in the future. Immigration restrictionists are the clear enemies of US national security.”
Protecting Afghan Women
Female Afghans have much to gain by being allowed to immigrate to the United States. While some in the Taliban have stated that women’s rights will be respected, the group does not have a good record. Bret Stephens makes this prediction:
“There are roughly 18 million women and girls in Afghanistan. They will now be subject to laws from the seventh century. They will not be able to walk about with uncovered faces or be seen in public without a male relative. They will not be able to hold the kinds of jobs they’ve fought so hard to get over the last 20 years: as journalists, teachers, parliamentarians, entrepreneurs. Their daughters will not be allowed to go to school or play sports or consent to the choice of a husband.”
Public Support for the Afghan Refugees
Happily, Americans seem to be receptive to the idea of bringing some Afghan refugees into the U.S. According to a poll, strong bipartisan majorities want the U.S. government to take in Afghans who assisted the American effort in the country. At the same time, it is unclear how far this welcoming attitude extends. Would most Americans be willing to admit ordinary Afghan soldiers who fought against the Taliban? What about women who were empowered during the U.S. occupation but might be persecuted by the Taliban?
I would support the admission to the U.S. of all Afghans who desire to immigrate, plus the effort required to evacuate them, were it not for the precarity of American liberal democracy. Instead, the Biden administration should admit as many refugees from Afghanistan as is politically possible, which hopefully includes both those who worked directly with Americans over the last two decades and those who face persecution for other reasons.