What Afghanistan Portends for Syria
As of this writing, Afghanistan remains in crisis with victims reeling from ISIS-Khoresan’s attacks on civilians and U.S. soldiers at the Kabul airport. Numerous efforts are underway to evacuate U.S. citizens, as well as Afghans whose assistance was crucial in facilitating the work of the U.S. efforts at state-building. The disturbing reality of the Taliban’s control has now left Afghans to exercise the resilience for which they are deservedly known, despite the uncertain changes ahead. But for whatever sympathy the international community has expressed for Afghans these last few weeks, governments have been too quick to create strategies for bypassing their international legal obligations and too slow to rectify the damage they have caused. Attention should be centered on minimizing the damage of the U.S. withdrawal and protecting innocent Afghans who may be targeted due to their connections to the U.S. military mission.
However, it is also appropriate to take a moment for broader reflection. The situation in Afghanistan is reflective of the cyclical violence found throughout the Global South, including in Syria where foreign intervention and shifting political strategies have wreaked havoc on the lives of civilians. Accordingly, lessons learned from the common patterns of violence should be highlighted and states should consider how the consequences of their decisions in Afghanistan can be avoided in Syria, starting with issues of migration and amends.
The United States and its partners have evacuated thousands of internally displaced Afghans. Those selected for evacuation were linked to Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) granted by the Department of State to individuals who were employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government (as of June 2021, nearly 77,000 Afghans had immigrated to the United States on an SIV). Many SIV holders boarded charter planes and military aircrafts destined for Gulf countries which agreed to serve as processing locations for Afghans in transit to the U.S., including Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Notably, Gulf states have expressly stated their disinterest in hosting Afghan refugees indefinitely. Other refugees were flown to Europe or directly to the U.S.
Undoubtedly, the relocation of SIV holders is critical given their well-founded fear of persecution stemming from their affiliation to the U.S. while living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Domestically, civil society organizations will quickly be asked to fill service gaps and to provide necessary support for refugees to acclimate to their new lives in the U.S.—from language instruction to psychosocial support—just as they did upon the influx of Iraqi refugees after 2007. This will be particularly difficult given refugees’ abrupt departure and the fact that many people were unable to secure cash prior to leaving, much less emotionally prepare.
For the majority of Afghans for whom SIVs are not an option, the pathway to asylum is being blocked. Just hours after disturbing footage of Afghans trying to flee the country from the Kabul Airport was circulated by the international press, French President Emmanuel Macron made a televised address during which he emphasized the need to “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of [Afghan] migrants.” His words were echoed by Greece’s Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarachi, who noted that “[w]e…will not and cannot be the gateway of Europe for the refugees and migrants who could try to come to the European Union…We cannot have millions of people leaving Afghanistan and coming to the European Union … and certainly not through Greece.” Simply put, European countries are already preparing to block the influx of Afghans to their borders out of fear of 2015 repeating itself, despite the fact that Afghanistan’s neighbors have made fleeing nearly impossible.
The present chaos in Afghanistan demonstrates what could happen in Syria should the U.S. decide to withdraw as it nearly did in October 2019. Aside from the obvious potential for a resurgence of ISIS, neither Syria’s neighbors nor their European counterparts have the political will or public support for managing the inevitable influx of refugees, many of whom would have been displaced multiple times. Complicating matters further, Congress has yet to approve an SIV program for Syrians who worked for or on behalf of the Coalition as proposed by SJAC in 2019. Should the military withdraw, these people would presumably be left to fend for themselves amid a vacuum of violence.
Consequently, Congress should amend the National Defense Authorization Act to include a Syrian SIV program that enables individuals and their families who have supported the U.S. military, humanitarian missions, or American NGOs since 2014. Eligibility should be granted to translators, interpreters, soldiers, advisors, and others whose lives were threatened because of their support for the U.S. mission to defeat ISIS. Bearing in mind the barriers to accessing the Afghan program, the Syrian program should be widely accessible, well-publicized, and incorporate amends beyond monetary payments. Further, B-2 visas should be granted to individuals with serious health concerns resulting from their support of the U.S. mission to defeat ISIS, in addition to civilians harmed because of the mission. Upon their arrival to the U.S., refugees should benefit from integration programs that help newcomers assimilate to their new life.
During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States developed programs to make amends to victims of U.S. military operations. Making amends is “the practice of recognizing and/or providing assistance to civilians that have been harmed in war due to the presence, activities, and operations of armed actors.” Amends can take various forms: from financial payments to material assistance to a formally expressed apology. However, they do not constitute an admission of fault. They are simply meant to “expression contrition and recognize the agency and dignity of civilian victims.”
The U.S. established two amends programs in Afghanistan: (1) Conflict Mitigation Assistance for Civilians (COMAC) which is funded by USAID and provides non-monetary emergency food and medical assistance to victims, and (2) an ex gratia payment program through the military which provides compensation to individuals who were killed, injured, or whose property was damaged during military operations. But limited accessibility has left thousands of Afghans to cope with their hardships without proper acknowledgement or support. For example, the Center for Victims in Conflict found that COMAC was restricted to Afghans who could travel to provincial centers to apply. It also found that many civilians did not know how to apply for the military ex gratia program, or that either program exists.
Yet regardless of logistical flaws, the creation of an amends program in Afghanistan is laudable and should be carried over to Syria where the U.S. has acknowledged its responsibility for civilian deaths, injuries, and property damage, but has yet to establish an amends program beyond rarely granted condolence payments. This is despite the regional limitations in which the Coalition operated and the array of non-financial options for alleviating the hardships resulting from the Coalition’s actions. More specifically, the U.S. should establish an amends program in the Northeast that is implemented by the Department of State and which provides targeted support to those who were injured or lost a loved one during U.S. airstrikes, as well as community level support to help deal with the aftermath of the destruction caused by Coalition airstrikes.
If Afghanistan is the historical place “where empires go to die,” then it must now be the place that inspires conversations about imperial politics, hegemony, and orientalism. The consequences of these concepts are astonishingly clear and should not be ignored. What is more, the lessons learned by the international community in Afghanistan must be applied to other conflicts when applicable, such as in Syria where civilians continue to suffer in the tenth year of the conflict. Most importantly, states must proactively consider the humanitarian consequences of their actions prior to implementation and be willing to rectify the subsequent damage.
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