STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAMI L. RICE
I spent a May afternoon rushing through the wide halls of the U.S. Senate office buildings. It wasn’t the first time I was on Capitol Hill this past spring, but this time I chanced being late for an important flight because the clock was ticking on the issue that kept me coming back to the Hill. The next morning, I learned my meetings had seemingly been for naught.
Since last August, when Kabul fell to the Taliban, my team and I have been laboring alongside Afghans whose lives overnight became a lot more precarious thanks to the takeover of their country by a regime promising it had turned over a new leaf. Each day since has shown this regime’s words to be empty.
But empty words aren’t the territory of only that new (again) government.
My government—the one I’ve always been taught is virtuous and noble—also makes a lot of promises. But sometimes it too is really bad at keeping them. This is one of those times.
The U.S. government promised not to leave its allies behind. But they’ve been left behind in a big way. Even if more allies’ visas are eventually processed, so little has been done too late that even many of the “luckiest” Afghans who fought with us will have to manage to stay alive for years while the enemy they were in combat against controls the country we’ve skedaddled from and abandoned them in.
I was accompanied to the Hill that day by a member of the U.S. military that is so well-supported—at least in rhetoric—by members of Congress. Especially at election time, associating with those in uniform is a form of litmus test for how American a candidate is. Yet when talking with congressional staffers about why this legislation for Afghans matters so deeply to service members, we often felt unheard, or at best, insincerely placated. Disappointing votes the next day reinforced our perception that partisan politics trump true concern for issues veterans and service members care about.
Most of us still working this crisis—splitting time between advocacy work like these Hill visits and casework that has us in daily contact with Afghans in desperate situations—are volunteers trying to uphold our government’s promise to its Afghan allies (while we also uphold our day jobs).
In a democracy we are our government, right? While this is theoretically true, it’s problematic when we’re doing our government’s work without its resources and power.
As a frontline civilian, I’ve learned how personal this effort is for my new military friends. They are advocating for Afghans who served with them as closely as did any of their American colleagues. Because of this, while the world’s eyes and pocketbooks have turned elsewhere, the bank accounts of many veterans, active-duty military, and civilian volunteers continue to hemorrhage assistance for left-behind allies in a relief effort that has no end in sight.
Months after the official evacuation ended on August 30, these allies are still hunted by the Taliban—whether in deadly retribution for working with the U.S. military or because their U.S.-trained skills at jobs like flying and fixing planes are needed by an insurgency organization that must now run a country.
U.S. soldiers’ brothers- and sisters-in-arms live in a collapsed economy where food is scarce and expensive, a situation on a whole other scale of magnitude from the real pain Americans are currently feeling at gas pumps and in grocery stores. Endangered families are forced to pay for safe houses in Afghanistan or in unwelcoming neighboring countries, or to frequently change locations to evade capture. They’ve been doing this for 10 months and counting.
To leave Afghanistan legally for a nearby country with embassies that can process applications for visas to safer locations (the U.S. and other embassies in Kabul are closed and unable to conduct the in-person interviews required for most long-term visas), Afghans must somehow procure passports, though passport offices that were closed for months are operated by the forces they’re running from. While waiting for these embassy interviews, they must also somehow support themselves for an unknown number of months in countries weary with floods of refugees, where they can’t work legally. It’s a catch-22 of epic proportions.
If, in desperation, some Afghans cave to the need for food and funds by returning to work for their new government—taking their chances with dubious offers of amnesty and creating further national security issues for the U.S.—they become people who have been employed by terrorists, a security-vetting flag that will seal their fate against future moves to safer countries. This is true of teachers and doctors too—not just trained fighters—though this month the Biden administration announced exemptions intended to insert some common sense to the immigration process so that, for example, people “required to pay service fees to the Taliban…to obtain a passport” won’t be barred from the U.S. because of overly broad applications of terrorism-related inadmissibility grounds that flag things like providing material support to a terrorism organization.
My team has seen more forward movement for our civilian roster of lawyers, judges, and journalists than we have for Afghan military members who worked directly alongside the U.S. military. Sometimes we even have to explain to U.S. government staffers that Afghan allies they assume are eligible for certain U.S. visas are in fact not eligible, due to narrow visa rules.
However much we volunteers are happy to be our government in a symbolic way, we don’t have power to change laws, smooth out ill-drawn immigration systems, or negotiate with foreign governments to host Afghans temporarily while our government’s understaffed consular offices so very slowly process massively backlogged visa cases.
The result of all of these layers of deadly frustration and literal dead ends is a sense of moral injury for U.S. service members I now know.
From my Capitol Hill meetings to, for example, a State of the Union address that failed to acknowledge the disastrous end of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan and the resulting humanitarian crisis, it’s been disillusioning to encounter so much evidence of so many of our elected officials’ lack of will to uphold our country’s promises. They could take action to make the situation better, but too many of our representatives are unwilling to take such action and make good on our government’s promises, especially if it involves an iota of political risk.
We get it: governing is no easy job; competing interests abound; and you’re never going to be able to do right by everyone. But it has been jolting and disappointing to naively enter congressional offices with good will and simple hope for real conversations about solutions—and be met too often with polite smiles that never extend to sincere interest in working together to solve the emergency. In the face of a massive crisis our country is partly complicit in, it is not okay to wash our hands, blame others, and move on to sexier issues, all while boasting of how much military lives matter.
Facing our government’s empty promises is even sadder to me because my country is supposed to be the good guys. What do good guys do? They stand up for their kin. They face down bullies. They exude honor and charity and courage. They don’t seek power for the sake of power.
They are people of their word.
How I wish for more elected officials who model the sacrificial good-guys behavior of so many of their constituent volunteers who are still working insanely long hours to keep their country’s word. How I wish for more elected officials who would have the backs of the military they flaunt support for by passing the legislation so desperately needed by its left-behind Afghan colleagues. How I wish more of our elected officials would do the job only they can do to uphold our country’s promises to our allies.
Most of all, how I wish my visits to Capitol Hill this spring had encouraged and inspired me the way my work with dedicated volunteers and brave Afghans has.
If you too wish for the U.S. government to stand by its promises to our allies, contact your representatives and senators and express your desire for their action. Non-Americans can advocate for Afghan allies with their governments too.
Kami Rice, Anthrow Circus’s editor, plies her insatiable curiosity from a base in northern France and from perches in coffeehouses, cafés, and friends' homes the world over. As a freelance journalist, she has reported for the Washington Post, The Telegraph, The Tennessean, Nashville Arts Magazine, and Christianity Today, among many others. Her more creative work has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, The High Calling, and Washington Institute's Missio. Her French to English translation has been published by Éditions Beaux-Arts de Paris. She also edits manuscripts and articles for a variety of clients and loves learning about the lives of regular, real people wherever she finds herself.