Afghans Paid Heavy Price in War on Terror, Yet Are Ignored by Media Now

Afghans Paid Heavy Price in War on Terror, Yet Are Ignored by Media Now

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The killing of Osama bin Laden has triggered sentiments of relief, joy and redemption in the United States, leading to the publication of self-congratulatory editorials praising the CIA and the Pakistan intelligence service.

It is striking that the role of the Afghan people, whose country has for a decade been the key battleground of the War on Terror, is hardly acknowledged in any of these commentaries, even though it was the Afghan population that carried the brunt of this war. The story of Sher Akbar, an Afghan trader from the village of Bagh-e Metal who was repeatedly arrested by the U.S. army because he happened to resemble bin Laden; the tales of innocent Afghan civilians, including teenagers and elderly men, who were transported to Guantanamo Bay and kept there imprisoned for years; the nightmares of villagers whose homes were bombed in U.S. air strikes are all testimony to the fact that Afghans have paid the heaviest price in the war on terror. Yet, they are the people who are given minimum acknowledgement in the current atmosphere of euphoria in the United States.

The United States has always played an ambiguous role in Afghanistan. Its friendship has been far from reliable, its attitude ranging mostly between pity, contempt and indifference. The country never fully acknowledged the Afghans’ sacrifices in the 1980s and the 2000s, which ultimately resulted in Afghanistan’s destruction, but served to protect the United States’ interests as a global power. After all, the Soviet Empire and the international terrorism spearheaded by Osama bin Laden were both fought on the ground in Afghanistan, resulting in a tragedy of immense proportions. The United States was a key beneficiary of the successful end of both wars, but never fully acknowledged the Afghans’ role in this. The present neglect of the Afghans’ role in the bin Laden hunt is a continuation of an old story.

The fact that the Afghans’ suffering in this war is all but erased from the official U.S. narrative of the Osama bin Laden story is not only unfair, but smacks of profound ingratitude. After all, while the United States had the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001, for Afghans the war on terror has consisted of a series of traumatic attacks. While civilians in southern and eastern villages endured night raids and air strikes, here in the United States, Afghan schoolchildren often encountered prejudice and hostility, overnight finding themselves treated as the enemy even though they were born in the United States and had never set foot in Afghanistan.

Within the Afghan community in the United States, stories abound of young Afghan-American girls who started to wear the hijab because hostile reactions from their fellow Americans made them realize that their American identity could be taken from them overnight—just because the regime in their ancestral homeland happened to host the man who master-minded the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The fact that neither of the hijackers was an Afghan national, and the evidence that the attack was organized in Germany and carried out by Arab nationals, did not stop the United States from targeting Afghanistan, a country that had already been bombed for decades. Yet despite these injustices, Afghans initially welcomed the U.S. intervention, hoping that this time around, Washington might prove a more reliable partner and remain committed to Afghanistan beyond its “war on terror” mission.

Such hopes turned out to be in vain. Washington’s early promise that the United States would not abandon Afghanistan again has already been forgotten, and the current coverage of the Osama bin Laden story shows that once again, there’s no recognition of the sacrifices made by the Afghan people in the war on terror.

In a scenario that eerily resembles the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington’s attitude to the bin Laden story shows that it is about to resume its traditional role as a reluctant partner that would rather forget the Afghan side of the story now that it has achieved its key goal: a symbolic victory over international terrorism. As it turned out, Afghans were once again used as tools in a proxy war that had everything to do with the United States and little to do with Afghans.

Once bitten, twice shy, we can only hope that Afghans learn their lesson, weighing their options carefully before readily siding with Washington in its next proxy war.

Nushin Arbabzdah is a visiting scholar at UCLA's International Institute