Afghanistan and Humanity's Need for Empathy
Can you share in the empathic exercise with somebody who holds policy views opposed to yours and grieve together without devolving into an argument? If you can’t, then you are failing.
When lawyers take on a case, we tend to use the language that we “helped the client” on that matter. Outcome doesn’t really seem to change the language. Even if a client loses, you still “helped” them with their case. Yet after my experience on a humanitarian parole claim for the family of an Afghan translator targeted by the Taliban for working with the American military, I didn’t feel like I had helped anyone. I worked on this case back in law school as a student-attorney, but it still weighs on me today. And recent events in Afghanistan have brought it back to the forefront of my mind.
Before I touched the case, the Taliban had already murdered the translator’s sister. His mother and younger brother were in hiding, and it was our goal to bring them to the US to where the translator had already relocated. Humanitarian parole was the final possible avenue to accomplishing that goal. We failed. The US government's attitude in this rejection was characteristic bureaucratic callousness—“You can seek asylum in India.” In other words, we don’t care if your family aids our military against a dangerous enemy and you are consequently targeted for execution by that enemy. Look somewhere else for help.
I don’t know if that family ever succeeded in fleeing to India or if the Taliban succeeded in killing them. Worse, this story is depressingly emblematic of an entire population of people now at the mercy of a resurgent regime that summarily executes dissident citizens as a matter of course. Even if our bureaucratic behemoth were less Kafkaesque and more efficiently benevolent, it would be impossible at this event horizon to protect the people left behind who we induced (at their peril) to rely on our protection. The conclusion is as simple as it is mortifying—there will be a massive surge in systematic, senseless, unjust repression and killing in Afghanistan and we bear responsibility.
Depending on your preconceived stance on the US invasion of Afghanistan, our continued involvement there, and the right and wrong way to leave, you are either nodding your head in emphatic agreement while slotting the story into your argument for a continued American presence there, or frustratedly focusing on who to blame and how “there was no good way to leave, but we had to.”
Either way, just stop.
Putting aside for a moment whether the outpouring of very real human suffering in Afghanistan is convenient or inconvenient for your preferred political view, the very fact of it is tragic and merits both public attention and collective solemnity. Forget about Joe Biden for a moment. Forget about Donald Trump. Forget about all the politicians you may want to vindicate or condemn. The suffering and death in Afghanistan now aren’t about our domestic ideological war, although they are undoubtedly downwind of it in tragic ways. In fact, our pathological impulse to interpret everything in the world through the lens of the American ideological war is precisely the phenomenological framework under which people 7,000 miles away in Kabul or Kandahar were unwittingly cast as expendable roles in the ideology porn of our political theater in the first place.
Take this as an exercise in mindfulness. Seek out stories of people living, struggling, and dying in Afghanistan right now. Try to sit with their experience free from the impulse to shoehorn it into your political narrative.
Sit with our Afghan allies, like my former client, who risked life and limb to help the US in our efforts in Afghanistan, just or unjust. While we read news of the Taliban decrees sentencing them to death, we do not learn their names (they are redacted from reports to protect the identities of those still living). Sit with the men and women who clung to the outside of airplanes taking off in their attempts to flee the Taliban resurgence. Sit with the untold number who were not able to leave Afghanistan before the Taliban swept back over the country and now have no avenue of escape after the Taliban sealed off the airport in Kabul.
Sit with the Americans in Afghanistan now who don’t want to evacuate without their Afghan families who have no way out. Sit with the 169 Afghans and 13 Americans killed in the suicide bombing at Kabul’s airport last week. Sit with Mohammed Jan Sultani, a 25-year-old martial arts champion. Mohammed was killed in the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport this week. Sit with Najma Sadeqi, a 20-year-old journalist student who died in the same attack.
Sit with the generation of Afghan women who were educated and “came of age believing they were free to pursue their dreams” free from the Taliban’s brutal oppression of women. Sit with the more than 300 of those women who have been killed this year alone. Sit with those who survived to see the resurgent Taliban, same as the old Taliban, and to see citizens of Kabul scramble to paint over pictures of women in Kabul the day the Taliban took the city. Sit with Shirin Tabriq, a female teacher who tried to flee Afghanistan as the Taliban retook control. Shirin spent five days outside the airport in Kabul attempting to leave before giving up hope and returning home resigned to her new life under Taliban rule.
Sit with the artists of Afghanistan whose creative calling imbues the culture with vibrance and life. Sit with Malina Suliman, an artist who fled Kandahar seven years ago to escape Taliban oppression and now looks back home to a new wave of artists under the ever-greater threat of death. Sit with Fawad Andarabi, a folk singer who sang that “There is no country in the world like my homeland, a proud nation. Our beautiful valley, our great-grandparents’ homeland.” Fawad was shot in the head by the Taliban days after a Taliban spokesperson said in an interview with The New York Times that music would once again be banned in Afghanistan.
To be clear, I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t have opinions on the wisdom of entering Iraq, of our continued presence there, or the right and wrong way to leave. It’s an important issue and citizens of a democratic society should think deeply about the decisions they help influence, however weakly. Nor am I invoking the “school shooting grievance period” argument from the political right (as some hawkish left outlets appear to be doing) that we should wait to have any policy views for some arbitrary period of time. On the contrary, emotion can validly inform reasoning.
What I mean to say is that there is intrinsic value in seeing human suffering and seeking to connect with that suffering in an exercise of pure empathy without compulsively, narcissistically seeking to fit it into our own political narratives thousands of miles removed from life and death in Afghanistan. Our citizenship demands of us to think through policy issues carefully. But our humanity demands of us to strive to empathize with the lives of others. When any exercise of empathy must be tied to our own agendas, we lose a bit of our humanity.
By all means, think about what these tragedies mean for domestic policy. But don’t just do that. A good litmus test is whether you can share in the empathic exercise with somebody who holds policy views opposed to yours and grieve together without devolving into an argument. If you can’t, then you are failing.
Do not let your perceived democratic duty or your preoccupation with ideological gamesmanship encroach on your humanity. Whatever your narrative, be able to set it down and sit with these people.