Two months after President Joe Biden pulled American troops out of Afghanistan in August, the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy hosted an event to discuss the implications of the move for U.S. foreign policy.
Robin Wright, a contributing writer and columnist for The New Yorker, joined Jawad Sukhanyar, former journalist for The New York Times and 2019 Wallace House fellow at the University, on Wednesday for the virtual event.
Sukhanyar left Afghanistan in August after narrowly escaping gunfire at the Kabul airport with help from The Times. He said prior to his departure, everyone’s focus was on whether they should leave the country.
“It’s just (like) when you’re waiting for a storm to hit you or the city or town that you live in, that’s what people were doing,” Sukhanyar said. “Days and weeks before the collapse of Kabul, the conversations over dinner was all about who left the country, who was leaving, where are the places that we can live.”
Sukhanyar recalls feeling “betrayed” by Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan altogether, as he initially hoped a small force would be left behind or at least that political and economic aid would be continued. He also said he was frustrated and felt that the fate of Afghanistan had just been decided unilaterally by a foreign nation.
“(People felt like) America is abandoning us … the same way that other powers have come to Afghanistan and left without asking the people and without caring about what they had done and what would happen to the people who lived in that country,” Sukhanyar said. “It was a moment of frustration and heartbreak.”
Wright said the U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq have proven that the U.S. does not know how to leave wars.
“It does not know how to create new militaries, and it doesn’t know how to build real nations,” Wright said.
Wright also discussed the Taliban’s swift takeover of Kabul, attributing it to an ability to strategize and better understand Afghan culture. She said American efforts often misunderstand Afghan culture.
“America is a big country and we … are so powerful militarily, economically, but we don’t really know much about the rest of the world,” Wright said. “Afghans assimilate into American culture. We don’t absorb them — their ways, their language, their traditions — into ours. And so we go into these places … and we think we’re gonna get rid of the bad guys, Sadam Hussein in Iraq, the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan, and then we really don’t know what to do.”
Sukhanyar and Wright both said they think the future looks grim for Afghanistan since many people in positions of power who opposed the Taliban — such as journalists and intellectuals — have left.
“The tragedy of Afghanistan is so many of those people, including Jawad, are now out of the country,” Wright said. “They are not there to push for women’s rights and to challenge the Taliban when the penalties are too high.”
The future of those who managed to escape is also uncertain. The U.S. government has been relying on charity organizations and religious groups to help those arriving in the U.S., but it is unclear what their new lives will look like after leaving so much in Afghanistan.
“Many of them are living in tents on army bases … it’s really a makeshift existence,” Wright said. “And this is going into winter.”
Sukhanyar said he was nervous the U.S. would not realize or fulfill what he sees as a “moral obligation” to assist those impacted by the situation it helped create. He said he hopes the government will help not only the Afghans who have moved to the U.S., but also those who were unable to leave.
For Sukhanyar and others awaiting decisions on their immigration status, it is unclear how the government will handle the influx. He hopes to become a scholar in residence as part of a research fellowship offered to him, sponsored by Wallace House, and is considering writing a book about his experiences.
Daily News Contributor Patrick Hullman can be reached at email@example.com.