FAIR Issue Brief | Thinking Outside the Box: How to Help Our Afghan Allies Closer to Their Home
Pawel Styrna, Senior Researcher | August 2021
With the radical Islamist Taliban rapidly taking over the vast majority of Afghanistan in the wake of President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces and personnel, a geopolitical catastrophe immediately bled into a humanitarian disaster. As many Afghans, especially our local allies and those who worked with U.S. forces during our two-decade presence there, desperately scramble to get out of the country and escape the Taliban, America and the West face the urgent problem of developing a solution that is humane and compassionate yet simultaneously pragmatic and realistic. We cannot simply abandon our Afghan allies to a horrific fate at the hands of the Taliban. However, a rushed and large-scale resettlement of Afghans to the United States is also not a viable, long-term answer. Following a brief introduction to Afghanistan and its recent history, this issue brief will outline a workable plan that eschews both extremes.
Historical and Political Background
The current debacle in Afghanistan is only the latest development in the Central Asian country’s four-decade continuum of crisis. It began in April 1978, when the communists seized power in a coup. Their attempts to impose radical policies on a largely traditional and tribal Muslim society led to widespread resistance. To help the local communists crush it, the Soviet Union invaded the country in December 1979, plunging Afghanistan into a decade of war. The Reagan administration eventually helped turn the tide in favor of the anti-communist Afghan insurgents during the 1980s (e.g., by sending the Afghans anti-aircraft Stinger missiles).
Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1988 – 1989, the great powers lost interest in Afghanistan, which devolved into chaos and warlordism. The vacuum was subsequently filled by the extremist Taliban, which enjoyed the backing of neighboring Pakistan. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. intervened in the country because the Taliban had provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda. America and its local allies managed to push the Taliban into the countryside, but the brutal Islamist organization was not completely eliminated and continued to wage a guerrilla war. Afghanistan meanwhile remained mired in corruption, which weakened the country’s government and military. As a result, millions of Afghans left their country during the past four decades.
As the U.S. scaled down its presence in Afghanistan this year, the Taliban launched a major offensive and began re-taking the vast majority of the country. In mid-August, the Western-backed Afghan government collapsed and the Taliban entered the capital city of Kabul, prompting many people to flee to the airport, while others attempted to cross into neighboring countries.
Regional Resettlement Options
The Biden administration handled the withdrawal from Afghanistan with a similar lack of preparation and foresight as the ongoing and self-inflicted crisis at the southwestern border – with similarly disastrous consequences. To stem the bleeding and keep the situation from getting even worse, the White House should consider implementing a regional resettlement plan for Afghans fleeing the Taliban, rather than heeding the calls of those who, for example, wish us to parole large numbers of Afghans into the country or to allow in a minimum of 200,000 Afghans as refugees.
With the proper diplomatic preparation – and the necessary logistical and financial help – Afghans fleeing the Taliban should primarily be settled in neighboring nations, in particular, the Central Asian countries to the north of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south. In addition to geographic proximity, there are also cultural, ethnic, and linguistic arguments for doing so.
Since Afghanistan – a country that remains largely tribal – has a large number of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and some Turkmen, offering some Afghans a safe haven in neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan makes sense. Moreover, since the lingua franca in Afghanistan is Dari, a dialect of Persian, even non-Tajik Afghans would encounter a significantly lowered linguistic barrier in Tajikistan, where most of the population speaks the Tajik dialect of Persian. The Turkic Muslim Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan might also be recruited to play a role.
In addition, Afghans can be resettled in Pakistan, which was traditionally a major destination for them ever since the Soviet invasion. Not only do the Pashtun and Baloch ethno-tribal groups live on both sides of the long Afghan-Pakistani border, but there are actually more Pashtuns and Balochis living in Pakistan than in Afghanistan. Moreover, given its long history of supporting the Taliban, Islamabad undoubtedly has a moral duty to help contain the consequences.
In both the Central Asian and Pakistani cases, it is also important to point out the religious affinities: like Afghanistan, the Central Asian countries and Pakistan are Muslim-majority nations, which makes it easier for Afghan refugees to at least temporarily integrate into the host societies. Similarly, the wealthy nations of the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, can also be called upon to either host some refugees, help financially, or both, although it is important to note that Afghans are not ethnically or linguistically Arab.
If the above arrangements are not quickly negotiated and implemented, there is a real threat of uncontrollable, destabilizing waves of Afghan migrants heading to Europe through either Central Asia, Russia, and Central-Eastern Europe, or via Iran and Turkey. Governments that are hostile to the U.S. – such as the Islamist regime in Tehran – may wave migrants through and push them further to the West (where many, no doubt, wish to go anyway). Turkey, which is a NATO ally but is simultaneously ruled by the anti-Western Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is so far refusing to take in Afghan refugees and beefing up its eastern border with Iran. However, Erdogan has, in the past, opened his western borders and allowed droves of Middle Eastern migrants to make their way westward to Europe for political reasons. Thus, Afghans need to have safe havens available to them closer to home.
While some of the nations in question (notably, Pakistan) have been reluctant to accept Afghan refugees, the U.S. and its Western allies may still incentivize them to change their minds through a combination of “carrot and stick” policies and methods.
Moreover, it should be noted that helping refugees in neighboring countries can be much more cost-effective and several times cheaper than it would be if they were brought to the United States or Western Europe. In fact, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Immigration Studies, “[f]or what it costs to resettle one Middle Eastern refugee in the United States for five years, about 12 refugees can be helped in the Middle East for five years, or 61 refugees can be helped for one year.” This proportion is no doubt similar in the case of Afghanistan and its neighbors. This is not a matter of penny-pinching (although that is an important issue to consider since the U.S. economy is still recovering from the economic impacts of COVID-19), but rather a reflection that many more people can be helped for the same amount of money.
Culture, Integration, and Security
While most Americans understandably empathize with the current plight of the Afghan people, it is also important to be clear-eyed about the interrelated issues of culture and security. While no doubt some of the evacuees worked with us in a common struggle against the Taliban or are sympathetic to the United States, it is crucial to conduct proper vetting. The threat of the Taliban infiltrating the evacuee flow and sending its operatives to the U.S. is real. In fact, biometric scanning has already flagged hundreds of the refugees flown out of Afghanistan for potential ties to terrorist organizations. As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, we should remember that it took only 19 terrorists – affiliated with al-Qaeda, which at that point was being hosted by the Taliban – to cause the deaths of almost 3,000 Americans.
It should also not be assumed that those Afghans who are anti-Taliban or want to escape Taliban rule are necessarily secular and democratic liberals who will integrate easily into Western society. Some are likely fleeing for tribal or sectarian reasons, others may simply wish to live in a prosperous Western nation, and others yet hold Islamist views that are at odds with Western values but simply not as extreme as the radical Taliban. For instance, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center worldwide survey, 99 percent of Afghans believe that Sharia should be the official legal system, and almost 40 percent agree with the view that “suicide bombing in defense of Islam” is “often/sometimes justified.” Sympathy must be tempered by a sober realism, and the rush to get out as many people as quickly as possible while “sorting things out” later is not conducive to proper vetting.
The Afghanistan debacle demonstrates the important overlap between international politics and immigration policy, as well as the impact of the former on the latter. Misguided foreign policy decisions all too often result in refugee crises and migrant waves. What has been done in Afghanistan cannot be undone, but the United States can – and should – significantly mitigate the situation by helping as many Afghan nationals as possible, our local allies in particular, closer to home. And this can be done without the need for large-scale resettlement to the U.S. or the West.