Four years ago, Afghanistan was at the forefront of debate in the race for the White House. This year, neither candidate appears willing to make more than a passing reference to what has become America’s longest war on record. Journalist and author Fariba Nawa says that reticence stems from a desire on the part of a majority of Americans to “get out and move on.” Nawa was born in Afghanistan and came to the United States at the age of 10. She is the author of "Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman's Journey Through Afghanistan."
The term "forgotten war" is increasingly being applied to America's ongoing involvement in Afghanistan. Is it accurate?
Fariba Nawa: When a country loses a war, of course, people want to forget about it. I hate to say it but unless Americans have had some type of personal involvement in Afghanistan, or they identify with a certain cause, i.e. women's rights, they have stopped caring. Also, there have been many comparisons made between Vietnam and Afghanistan, and I think it's a crude comparison. Vietnam involved the draft, serious anti-war marches, a critical media and 50,000 dead soldiers. Vietnam is etched in America's consciousness, but not Iraq or Afghanistan. Afghanistan has unfolded like a video game, one in which America is the loser but can pretend it didn't happen. The [U.S.] government and public sentiment is about getting out and moving on. Forget about the 2,000 dead American soldiers, forget about the billions of dollars spent in reconstruction money, forget about the women and children of Afghanistan. The distance and lack of media coverage makes it easier to forget. Iraq has been forgotten and so will Afghanistan it seems.
So-called "green-on-blue" killings, involving Afghan allies turning their guns on American and NATO service members, are on the rise. How will this effect American thinking on the war?
It makes the American public want to pull out the troops sooner. The insurgents are outwitting the foreign troops. They use sheer fear and religious hatred to convince Afghans to support them. But the Taliban also point to NATO as responsible for civilian casualties, corruption in the Afghan government and the lack of jobs in the country, to draw support for itself. The Taliban have become media savvy. They were even on Twitter not too long ago. The fact is that the insurgents are responsible for more civilian casualties than NATO's attacks.
Public support for the foreign presence is wearing thin in Afghanistan as well, but that doesn't mean they want Americans out. Americans see it this way: They don't seem to want us there and we don't want to be there. So why are we there? That's a simplistic view that fails to understand the multi-dimensional reality. It's a specific population that doesn't want U.S. troops there. Many [Afghans who hold this view] are supported by Pakistan's military establishment. Ask the women, men with jobs, the educated and technocrats how they feel, and they will beg for [U.S.] troops to remain, though they want the focus to shift from combat to reconstruction and nation building. There's been a call for peacekeeping troops from Afghans but NATO is not engaging in that conversation.
You mentioned an acquaintance of yours is returning to be with family in Kabul. What is your sense of day-to-day realities there?
Afghans here come and go all year-round to visit family, to sell and buy land, and to work. Afghans live life despite the dangers. After 30 years of ongoing violence, there's a resilience that allows them to pick up and move on. They have lavish weddings, and now there are concerts in some cities and festivals in Kabul. Kids go to school where it's relatively safe and men and women both work if they have jobs. People listen to music, they watch TV, they visit each other’s homes. I'm in daily contact with Afghans on Facebook and Twitter.
What is the Afghan American community looking or hoping to hear from the presidential race here in the United States?
We want to hear the candidates address the issue more. Both candidates are too quiet. The public's apathy has allowed the government to stay mute. Again, it's hard to discuss a losing war. But we need to know what will happen once the troops pull out. Several thousand troops will remain to train the Afghan National Army. What if a bloody civil war breaks out? What will these "non-combatant" troops do? How much aid money will continue to reach Afghanistan and for what projects? What will happen to women and minorities who are in grave danger when the Taliban return? We need the candidates to give us the answers to these questions. The candidates cannot only talk about domestic issues and forget about the rest of the world. The American public's desire to ignore the world will not make the rest of the world go away.
Do you see significant differences between Republicans and Democrats in their approach to Afghanistan?
Not really. The differences are minimal. I think both parties want to wash their hands of the problem because it's too complicated and costly.
What is your thinking on 2014, the planned withdrawal date for NATO and American forces?
It's going to happen so let's talk about the next chapter. We need to prevent a civil war like the one that occurred in the 1990s. Afghanistan's biggest menace – aside from ethnic tensions inside the country -- is its neighbors. Pakistan's secret service has won the Afghan war through manipulation, blatant lies and betrayal. Pakistan received billions in U.S. aid money while it trained Taliban troops to attack NATO troops in Afghanistan, and it continues to do so. Iran has its own insidious agenda. Neither are looking out for Afghanistan's interest.
Afghanistan was geographically determined as a buffer zone and that needs to change for it to become a successful nation-state. It can happen if these neighbors are "convinced" to stop supporting rival factions and a strong Afghan leader (not Karzai) encourages national unity. Afghanistan has billions in natural resources, including minerals, gems and natural gas. Opium and heroin cannot remain the staple of the economy like it is now. The Taliban will probably legalize that trade once again. They outlawed cultivation, but they made their money from trafficking and processing of opium into heroin in the 1990s.
I think the US and NATO need to stay engaged politically and continue with reconstruction efforts, support a growing youth movement fighting against extremism, support the media boom that's educating Afghans all across the country, support the millions of girls and boys going to school. Much good has happened in the last 11 years and I'd like to see that progress continue and spread across the country. I'm afraid if the U.S. and the international community turn their back and forget Afghanistan, all that good will be undone. And worst, those al Qaeda terror camps we once saw on TV footage will easily return. If not al Qaeda, then some other rogue group out to hurt innocent Americans.