By Michael Copperman
In the video of the bombing of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul airport Aug. 26, we see hundreds of people milling about a long concrete expanse, their belongings piled high and kept near. There are young boys and girls, infants, elderly folks — entire families — waiting, patiently as they can manage, under a thin blue sky. In the scenes of aftermath, there is nobody left standing. Bodies, body parts, the contents of their suitcases bearing their most prized possessions, litter the bloodied tarmac. The camera pans and pans, and all is flattened to carnage.
There were five bombs, all similar in their toll, claimed by ISIS-K — and in all, 13 U.S. troops lost their lives. As with so much of the news of civilian deaths and bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. casualties made the headlines. When I saw the video, I wept, because I understood that those families gathered there at the airport, trying desperately to get out, were someone’s father or mother or uncle or cousin — we had been trying, until that morning, to find a way to get my partner’s family to the airport in the hope that we could get them on a plane.
Mashal and her family are Hazara, a people indigenous to Central Asia who have experienced historical and continued systemic violence under the Afghan state. Their features, unlike other ethnic groups in Afghanistan, are distinctly Central Asian. In the 1890s, when the current borders of Afghanistan were agreed to by the British and Russians, they installed a Pashtun king named Abdul Rahman who conducted a genocidal land-grab against the Hazara,a scorched-earth campaign that killed 62 percent of the population and displaced them from their ancestral homes.
Since that time, the Hazara have been enslaved, relegated to a servant-class, excluded from the government and from representation, and have experienced frequent acts of violent ethnic cleansing, including the Taliban’s 1998 actions in the city of Mazari Sharif when they systematically slaughtered some ten thousand Hazara men and engaged in widespread sexual violence against Hazara women.
In these last years of U.S. occupation, the Hazara have borne the brunt of the violence, as the Taliban gave notice through bombings and massacres that they would indeed take the whole country by force as soon as the U.S. left. Unfortunately, the media failed to note who the 33 terrorist attacks of the last half-decade were directed against: not just an all-girls school, but a Hazara girl’s school; not just a maternity ward, but a maternity ward in a Hazara neighborhood; not just 10 mine clearance workers murdered, but 10 Hazara mine workers who were separated from their peers and then executed.
These erasures are as if, in an American context, we said that a man was killed by police and neglected to mention their minority racial background. The international community must recognize that this is a part of a historical and ongoing genocide of Hazaras, and act to prevent history from repeating itself.
By directing this violence against the Hazara community, the Taliban assured other groups, especially the politically dominant Pashtuns, that their violence would remain strategic. Most Americans fail to understand that most of the Taliban are Pashtun, and are ethno-nationalist even though their Sunni religious extremism outstrips their Pashtun supremacy.
Most other ethnic groups in Afghanistan are Sunni, while the Hazara are dominantly Shia, which is why the Taliban (and ISIS, also Sunni) want to ethnically cleanse them. All of this was why, in the evacuation that Biden celebrates as a success, few Hazara were able to make it to the airport past the Taliban checkpoints. This is also why, at the Pakistan border today, they separate the Hazaras from the Pashtuns (remember that there is a significant Pashtun population in Pakistani; the Taliban has been training in Pakistan for more than 20 years), beating them and turning them back.
When you hear, on the radio or cable news, “Afghan” news personalities and “Afghan” experts speak of how the Taliban need to be included, how peace must be “inclusive,” how the Taliban have changed, how they will allow women to go to school “in line with Muslim law,” how there has been relatively little violence so far, you are almost always hearing from Pashtuns who can read the signals that the Taliban will let them be. I am not denying that many Pashtuns have suffered immensely under the Taliban, and many educated and outspoken Pashtun women have been threatened, hunted, and assassinated, but it is best understood as lateral and intra-religious misogynist violence.
Biden does not bear sole responsibility for what is happening — looking at you, Dubya and Obama and his drones, and certainly Trump and his willingness to sit down and make nice with the Taliban. Yet Biden did not have to honor Trump’s deal with the Taliban any more than he persisted with other Trump-era policies. After 20 years of sacrifice on behalf of American service members, he could have committed to a steady, strategic troop withdrawal on a timeline less symbolic than Sept.11 and prevented this collapse. An anti-colonial reading of what has happened as a sign that “Afghanistan cannot be conquered!” misses the point. Most of the worst violence in Afghan history has indeed happened in collusion with and in reaction to foreign and colonialist intervention — that is indisputable — but a strategic and competent withdrawal could have prevented what may be hundreds of thousands of deaths, most directed against the most vulnerable groups in Afghan society: Hazara ethnic cleansing and genocide, violence against Afghan Hindus and Sikhs, murder of LGTBQ individuals, rape and the systemic subjugation of all women.
The political, and even the systemic, recede in the face of personal responsibility: Mashal does not possess that most American privilege, to remain ignorant and distant from death and loss, because her family could be killed at any time. She has 34 family members caught in Kabul, including family on the Taliban’s death lists for involvement with past governments, elders with severe health conditions and disabilities, pregnant women, and children. They are not faceless masses or statistics, but people whose voices she knows, speaking of their fear and their struggle, hesitant to leave the only life they’ve known. I hope you, too, will choose to acknowledge their humanity — please support Mashal in any way you can.
Mashal Rahmati is raising money to save her family’s lives, with a $50,000 goal. Venmo: MashalRahmati, PayPal.me/MashalRahmati, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org