My Afghan friend Josh Shahryar called me the other day, super upset. Josh (who uses they/them pronouns) wanted to talk about how the U.S. media covers Afghanistan and how that has affected American policy toward the country. As a former editor in Kabul who is now in graduate school in the U.S., Josh has been shouting for years about the public perception of the invasion—and how the media has shaped it. But I think that right now, in particular, Josh’s thoughts deserve a megaphone.
A couple of weeks ago, the International Rescue Committee released a list of the “top 10 crises the world can’t ignore in 2022.” Topping the watchlist was Afghanistan. Extreme hunger is ravaging the population of nearly 40 million—especially children—and the country could reach near-universal poverty in 2022, the IRC says, with 97 percent of Afghans at risk. The Taliban has confirmed that girls are no longer allowed to attend secondary school, and women have been pulled from the workforce; there was a recent case, for instance, of one broadcaster showing up for work only to find that a Taliban member had replaced her. Banks don’t have enough cash for citizens to withdraw, and severe economic sanctions have only just this week been eased, but only a little bit.
Human rights activists say the relief is not nearly enough to stave off what appears to be a fast-approaching catastrophe.
“We need a bigger humanitarian response but without a functioning economy and banking system we are facing terrible odds,” David Miliband, the president and chief executive of the IRC, wrote on Twitter. “Need massive economic stabilization package to stop the rip current.”
Over the years, American politicians on the left argued about how withdrawing from Afghanistan would save billions of dollars, money that could go toward domestic programs instead. In May, 23 House Democrats estimated in a letter to President Joe Biden that “as much as $50 billion will be freed up by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.” The authors suggested that funds be reallocated to “domestic priorities and human needs [that] would expand your Build Back Better agenda.”
Then, in mid-December, Congress approved a $768 billion defense bill, which is $24 billion more than Biden even requested. In other words, we’re out of Afghanistan, but the $50 billion that was supposed to have been saved—well, that rabbit is back in the top hat.
The U.S. spent more than $34 billion to maintain a presence of over 80,000 troops in Japan and South Korea between 2016 and 2019. Germany hosts about 35,000 U.S. soldiers. When Biden took office, there were just 2,500 American military personnel left in Afghanistan. All it took for the Taliban to move in and crush the past 20 years of progress—toward democracy, women’s rights, access to education, a sustainable health system, and so much more—was their removal.
Part of the reason Josh was so angry when we spoke was that they have watched as left-leaning mainstream U.S. media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post spent the last couple of decades mainly giving space to non-Afghan opinion writers who advocated military withdrawal from the country, ASAP.
There were few (if any) published Afghan voices in such outlets saying, “Yes, the Taliban is bad, but you can’t just pull out of my country,” Josh said.
To the American right, Josh explained, everything we did over there was good—this was a Bush war, after all. On the left, Josh said, everything we did over there was bad—this was a Bush war, after all. If you admit that some good came out of the war, then the narrative that the entire thing was evil falls apart. So journalists and politicians remained in their lanes, blinders on, and in a political echo chamber.
What Josh wants you to know, however, is that while journalists were perpetuating a chronicle of gloom, the voices of a broader set of Afghans were going ignored.
Josh, for example, is the consummate example of an Afghan whose point of view was neglected by the American press. After leaving Afghanistan when they were five, Josh lived in Pakistan for many years, only returning to Kabul when they were 19. Josh lost a cousin during that time. Another cousin was murdered just this year. When the U.S. invaded in 2001, Josh and the Afghans around them “all cheered,” they said. These were the Afghans who had endured extreme hardship and violence for decades. And they were the ones who, after the invasion, repeatedly elected leaders who supported keeping U.S. troops in the country. “The Afghan people were freed from terrorists, and they wanted the Americans to stay,” Josh said.
Other Afghans I’ve met over many years of reporting have expressed the same thing.
Of course, Americans are not known for our subtle understanding of complex central Asian or Middle Eastern politics, and there has long been a conflation of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in too many people’s minds. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was not about oil; it was a direct response to terror attacks on our soil that quickly turned, for a large part, toward training the Afghan military to sustain itself. Too often, the media failed to emphasize this distinction.
“I will never forgive American journalists for the fact that this stark difference was never accounted for,” Josh said of the comparison between what happened in Afghanistan versus in Iraq.
Whether an Afghanistan led by a Taliban 2.0 poses a threat of more extremist violence around the world, including potential attacks on American soil, remains to be seen. Before looking to the future, however, let’s look at the recent past. The truth is that just 2,500 U.S. troops were staving off the fall of the country into the hands of men who have zero interest in the safety and security of their own people.
Biden said at the end of August, “I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan.”
That may well be true, but as the U.S. government scrambled to evacuate military personnel from the Kabul airport, we left behind on the runway an open Pandora’s box for the people of Afghanistan.