The US Owes Reparations to Afghan Women, Starting With an Open Borders Policy

My family escaped Afghanistan and resettled in the U.S. in the early 1990s, when I was a child. Even as I grew accustomed to life in the United States, I mourned the separation from my beautiful home country. Hardly a decade had passed before my new home country waged war on Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

From the very beginning of the war on Afghanistan Afghan women have been selectively and opportunistically used as pawns to justify military intervention and nation building. For example, less than two months after the launch of the war, First Lady Laura Bush gave a speech saying, “The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.” Fast-forward 20 years, and former president George W. Bush, who launched the war on Afghanistan, expressed concern for Afghan women in response to the news that Biden was withdrawing troops, saying “I’m afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm.” However, U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was never actually about protecting Afghans. That the Bush administration used an illegal war to feign concern for Afghan women was yet another level of violence that that the U.S. government inflicted on Afghanistan and its people.

In my visits to Afghanistan in 2011, 2012 and 2013, I witnessed the violence of the U.S. military occupation firsthand. The capital city of Kabul felt like an open-air prison with U.S. military and NATO forces surrounding and blockading the city. U.S. soldiers and vehicles had priority over everyone and everything; Afghans had to stand back and give them right of way. I never felt safe during these visits, and it wasn’t the norm for any Afghan, regardless of gender identity, to speak of feeling safe. There were a handful of suicide attacks while I was there. One day I was shopping in a well-known and heavily populated market; 24 hours later, that exact market was attacked by a suicide bomber and suffered high casualties. The fact that I was in that exact location just 24 hours ago really impacted me for the remainder of my trip, and it still haunts me to this day. That was life in Afghanistan under the U.S. occupation.

I spent most of my time in Kabul, supposedly the safest city in all of Afghanistan. But when I traveled outside Kabul, it was another world, free of occupation and violence; the mountains, rivers, and rural landscape were so breathtakingly beautiful and calming. That’s the Afghanistan I like to remember. The military occupation did nothing for my country or my people, especially women. Now the country has completely fallen to the mercy of the misogynistic and brutal Taliban, and as an Afghan in the diaspora, I honestly wonder if I will ever be able to set foot on Afghan soil again.

While I never believed the U.S. to be the savior of Afghan women, the U.S. failure to prevent the Taliban from once again assuming power shows that the stated mission articulated by the U.S. in the early days of the war has not been “accomplished” in the last two decades, especially in relation to women. Instead, women have been harmed by the Taliban and the U.S. alike. The fear, anxiety and despair that has gripped Afghans both in Afghanistan and in the diaspora is impossible to express in words. The Afghan people are urgently in need of the protection and support of the international community. The rapid advancement of the Taliban has proven how precarious the current situation is. The most extreme members of the Taliban are ruthless fanatics vowing once again to subjugate Afghan women to extreme human rights abuses. Their dominance threatens to yield systematic persecution against individuals based on gender, ethnic background and religious beliefs. This past week, the U.S. abandoned Afghan women abruptly and without sufficient aid or support for evacuation, proving that they never cared about women’s rights and security in Afghanistan. In the last few weeks, numerous Afghan women have gone into hiding in Kabul. Women’s rights activists, journalists, young students and women NGO workers are all fearing backlash from the Taliban. My heart has always bled for my Afghan sisters, and even more so now. And as an Afghan American woman, I feel it is my responsibility to be a voice for women in Afghanistan and hold the international community accountable for their safety and security.

The perpetual narrative that the U.S. has always put forth is that it is saving Afghans from themselves. But we don’t need to be saved by the U.S. — we are the ones who will determine our future. As young Afghan American influencers are making noise and spreading awareness on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook, this new generation, born and raised in the U.S., express their American roots but have not forgotten their ancestral roots either. Their voices matter and I beg my fellow Americans to listen to them first and foremost. The U.S. has demonstrated a lack of care for the Afghan people time and time again, both by waging war on Afghanistan in the first place and in the way paternalistic government and media narratives have drowned out the voices of actual Afghan and Afghan American women.

In 2001, Donald Rumsfeld, who was an architect of the war in Afghanistan, stated, “We did not start the war… So let there be not doubt, responsibility for every single casualty in this war, be they innocent Afghans or innocent Americans, rests at the feet of Taliban and Al Qaeda.” From the beginning therefore, the U.S. has always deflected responsibility and accountability for the war in Afghanistan. This has resulted in callous disregard for the destruction the United States has caused in Afghanistan and the harm and pain it has caused Afghan women.

The U.S. is responsible for the state violence it has inflicted on Afghanistan, and it is imperative for accountability to be included in the discourse surrounding the war. One aspect of accountability is clear: The U.S. must implement an “open borders” policy pertaining to incoming Afghan refugees. This means that the U.S. in addition to the international community must open their borders to Afghan women and other vulnerable groups in Afghanistan that are fleeing the country. This is critical as many are fleeing from the violence in Afghanistan that the U.S. caused over the course of 20 years of perpetual warfare and destruction that only legitimized and paved the way for the return of the Taliban. Providing assistance to Afghan refugees, especially Afghan women, is not an act of benevolence by the U.S.; rather, it is what is owed.

On September 1, the Costs of War Project out of Brown University released its findings on the number of deaths in the post-9/11 wars. Their findings indicate that, in the almost 20 years of the War on Afghanistan, over 46,000 Afghan civilians were killed. This is almost certainly a conservative estimate and the real cost of lives lost is likely much, much higher, particularly when one includes deaths driven by displacement, starvation and other consequences of war. Despite this human cost, the United States has made no effort to acknowledge these deaths in any serious way. This violence must be reckoned with, and that reckoning must include compensation to the families of deceased loved ones and a serious mechanism of accountability for those who caused the war in the first place — namely Bush and his administration officials.

We need accountability from the U.S., for the violence that it has both perpetrated and facilitated and for the everlasting facade of caring about and protecting Afghan women. If U.S. leaders really care about Afghan women, it’s time to implement an open borders policy for refugees. This is the only way forward.