“Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed.’
But not on us!’ the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!”
I still deal with Afghanistan almost every day. Today it was a holocaust survivor who was trying to help the children of a presidential guard. Yesterday a conversation on Afghan immigration. It’s certainly not full time – just a stead drip of frustration and bad news and unanswered questions. Like the news coming out of Afghanistan itself. “Hunger and despair mount” reads one story. “Afghans forced to sell children, organs” reads another. “Aid workers rush to save Afghans amid freezing temperatures” all the while “Taliban sentences TV to death, smashes harmonium” because God forbid people should have anything to distract from their misery – that is literally what the Talibs believe.
While the world has mostly moved on, the plight of Afghans abandoned by the west – by us – has largely been forgotten. Who cares? Didn’t we try for twenty years? And didn’t we fail? Or did we? The day before yesterday I read a story from Hollywood Reporter about the work of film producers (including a woman named Muffy, who I worked with in Nigeria to make the amazing miniseries “In Love and Ashes” about Boko Haram) and how they are trying to salvage and save the tremendous Afghan television talent who spent the last 20 years telling the story of an Afghanistan that yearned to live free until the Talibs again declared a death sentence upon TV.
The great, tragic, incomprehensible irony is that America is a great freedom loving land. If a similar plight were to befall any other country in the world, our activists and religious leaders and Hollywood stars would be leading the charge – and our government would respond – to try and be the voice of those now-voiceless starving seated along the cold silent mountain roads of Afghanistan. But when it comes to this – an unnecessary totalitarianism, an avoidable famine, we want to just move on. It’s probably because this is our fault. We like to be the white knights riding in to the rescue. But owning up to our own mistake is sometimes harder. That, at least, is super clear. We have plenty of statements ready about Ethiopia’s civil war and Sudan’s coup and the Uyghur genocide, but a mess of our own making? Best not say anything too loudly. It has perhaps become facile, our ‘humanitarianism’ – moral hazard has always been the greatest danger of our activist foreign policy, protected as we are by our vast oceans, our privileged geography.
I was once in Kabul, but never worked directly on Afghanistan (until now, that is). I did do Nigeria and Pakistan and Uganda and Mali and others – so the problem sets are not unknown. Afghanistan, the last conversation I recall (before Kabul fell) was with a colleague who wanted lessons learned from my peace process in Mali and how those might be applied to put pressure on the Taliban (like we so successfully did the Tuaregs). I gave some ideas, told how I would go about suing for peace. All ignored, Afghanistan policy suffered from too many cooks in the kitchen, Mali’s peace process was a success because of the lack of people who cared, not in spite of it.
There is of course nothing to do now. Afghanistan has joined, in 24 hours, the ranks of the most oxygenless totalitarian states. North Korea – even Cuba has more flexibility. That is hard to comprehend – but harder still for the people who were planning one day for their next marriage or vacation or Iftar and 24 hours later were desperately searching the shops for a burka. Who today starve to death slowly, without even TV to take their minds away from the pain of an empty belly. And as this gets worse, we must not look away. Because this is our fault, and these deaths, this misery is on us. Least we can do is square our shoulders and look the misery in the face. In a democracy, we own the actions of our government. That is what consent of the governed means. Which makes Afghanistan’s failure our own fault as well.