The Agony of Afghans Left Behind
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As scenes of desperate chaos unfold at Kabul Airport, some of us watching are heartbroken and angry, others dismayed and apprehensive. (“Raise your hand if you want this plane landing in your town,” Newsmax host Steve Cortes tweeted.) And then there’s a third group that can’t hide its schadenfreude. These are the Russian regime’s star propagandists, who aren’t so much celebrating the Taliban’s victory — the group is still banned as terrorist in Russia — or even the defeat of the Putin regime’s archenemy, the U.S., as they are relishing in the plight of those Afghans who are trying to flee but facing the West’s inability, and often open unwillingness, to accept them in any reasonable numbers.
“It’s those who helped the Stars and Stripes reach its ill-thought-out goals that slide off the sides of the departing planes as their nails give out,” Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of the Russian government propaganda network RT, wrote on her Telegram channel. “The lesson: Do not help the Stars and Stripes. It’ll use you, then abandon you.”
When Viktoria Nikiforova, a columnist for the Russian state-owned propaganda agency RIA Novosti, fired a similar salvo at the U.S. and its “betrayed collaborators,” she seemed to be talking more about Russian westernized intelligentsia than about Afghan military interpreters:
At first, these are simply adherents to a progressive global agenda. Activists, fighters for everything that’s good against everything that’s evil. Many of them will do their wonderful work throughout their lives and remain honest citizens. But some of them suddenly realize at some point that their own country and its stubbornly wrongheaded people are the biggest enemies of progress.
It is then, Nikiforova went on, that they start dreaming of U.S. tanks on the streets of their cities — but they are doomed because the U.S. will never stand up for them: “They may drink vegan lattes and speak English like Oxford dons, but that won’t make their Western contacts recognize them as equal partners. If necessary, they’ll be eliminated with the same indifference as the rest of the population and betrayed with incredible cynicism.”
The message is meant for Russian independent journalists, already declared “foreign agents” or living in fear of it; for local activists whose Western grants have helped run educational programs; for pro-U.S. and pro-European politicians in Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and Moldova: The U.S. and its allies will pull out at the worst possible moment and leave you sprinting hopelessly after the last evacuation plane.
Some Westerners, politicians and commentators alike, seem eager to reinforce Nikiforova’s and Simonyan’s warnings. “Is it really our responsibility to welcome thousands of potentially unvetted refugees from Afghanistan?” asked Fox News host Laura Ingraham. “All day we heard phrases like ‘we promised them.’ Well, who did? Did you?” The German conservatives’ unpopular candidate for chancellor, Armin Laschet, tweeted that although some Afghans should be granted refuge in Europe and the U.S., “The mistakes of handling the Syrian civil war should not be made again. 2015 should not repeat itself.” He was referring to the flood of refugees from the Middle East who mostly ended up in Germany that year. The current chancellor, Angela Merkel, named the number of Afghans her government would accept: 10,000. In 2015, when Afghanistan was still largely run by the U.S. and its local allies and a Bundeswehr contingent was stationed there, Germany received 31,382 asylum applications from Afghans.
In 2015, preacher’s daughter Merkel couldn’t just watch the refugees’ suffering and do nothing, so she let them come. In 2021, no Western leaders appear susceptible to such emotion. The U.S., German, Dutch and other governments want to be selective about whom they take, and they want proof that the potential refugees actually did something tangible for them in Afghanistan. The U.S. promise to Afghan allies, reflected in the bureaucracy-mired Special Immigrant Visa program and in President Joe Biden’s words in July — “There is a home for you in the United States if you so choose, and we will stand with you just as you stood with us” — is narrow: it concerns only those who worked for the U.S., and can prove that they did. The same is true of U.S. allies’ promises. The British Council, for example, has acknowledged that some of its present and former staff have been rejected under the U.K.’s Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy.
And yet in reality, everyone who enjoyed quasi-Western freedoms in Afghanistan during the NATO occupation now has reason to fear. A former military translator is perhaps in more danger than a local journalist, and the journalist runs a greater risk than a female student who chose to wear lipstick rather than a burqa. But all these people have strong reasons to want out — and only a chosen few will be reluctantly offered a new life elsewhere.
They all were change agents in a country that has found it excruciatingly hard to change, as the Taliban victory proves. The translation services, the investigative journalism, the lipstick, the college education for girls all were contributions to a society more open than Afghanistan had been — or could become, just yet. You don’t have to be a “foreign agent” to be a change agent; it’s true that Western money — be it in the form of grants or profit-seeking investment — often funds change toward greater openness, permissiveness, and political and economic competition. But, as someone who once sought such change in my home country, Russia, I can bear witness that the money was always less important than the knowledge, the rules, the practices we studied and followed. And more important than that was the sense that more should be allowed, that more should be possible, that an open world would be better than a border-constrained one, and that freedom in general was better than its opposite.
In the change agent’s worldview, those who are pulling the country backward, making it more oppressive, forcing it to close in on itself are the traitors.
As Russian propagandists well know, change agents often fail because no change is irreversible. And then the soul-searching starts among their Western employers and mentors: What do I owe my defeated allies? What promises did I make, or hint at? Will my conscience trouble me later if I don't help, or at least call on the powers that be to help? Is there some kind of broad, implicit promise, reflected, for example, in Merkel’s willingness to bring to Germany a number of journalists and activists as well (within the 10,000 quota)? But then, what are all the written and unwritten promises worth in a Taliban-overrun country where the U.S. struggles to control even the airport? The first German and Dutch evacuation efforts have failed abjectly amid the chaos.
The harsh truth is that no reliable promise is ever made, or can be made, to a change agent — not even to the military translators who put their lives on the line. Even those who now feel abandoned by the West know in their hearts that they didn’t do what they did in exchange for a promise of safety. They made a choice — many out of idealism, others because they picked the side that seemed more likely to win, still others because it promised a better life in the here and now. They knew that the choice was risky, that it could all go wrong.
The millions of Afghan change agents who won’t be able to flee, or who simply don’t want to, will now have to make another choice. After the initial adrenaline rush of despair, a soldier can serve new masters, a journalist can get another job or even join the winning side’s propaganda machine, a young woman can hide her books and rouge and don a burqa. They can join the remnants of the defeated government and fight another day, without much hope of winning. Or they can leave the country later, before the Taliban gets to them — it may actually be easier when the panic subsides, and mass reprisals aren’t coming in a matter of days.
This is a tough choice that has little to do with actual or perceived Western promises. For people who have sought to change their homeland, refuge in the West is often only a temporary solution. Most change agents have a sense of national identity as strong as that of their opponents, and don’t really want to blend in with their Western allies. In their eyes, they didn’t so much help Americans, Germans or Brits; they were trying to help their own country, and a life in the West is not what they would freely choose.
When change fails, its agents always stand alone with their painful choices. There is no safety or certainty in defeat, no reliable Plan B.
The Russian state propagandists assume that the Afghans — and the Russians, Ukrainians, Balts, etc. — who ally themselves with American or European institutions — do that only because they’re certain theirs is the winning side. That’s a flawed assumption. These people play to win, but they also know what they're in for if they lose. No one who bets on change is risk-averse or risk-ignorant.
Yes, the West should help them as much as it can, and take in as many of them as necessary — but not because of any binding promise. These are the kind of people it needs, and often lacks: The Afghan crisis provides ample evidence of that.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."
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