By Fariba Nawa
July 30, 1996
Pacific News Service
EDITOR’S NOTE: Afghanistan’s victory over the Soviet Union paved the way for the end of the Cold War and America’s emergence as the world’s solo-superpower. Today, as Afghanistan disintegrates into anarchy, few in America care about its fate except Afghan exiles. PNS commentator Fariba Nawa, born and raised in Afghanistan, spent her teen years in Fremont, Ca., which is home to the largest Afghan exile community in the U.S. Nawa is a founding editor of YO! (Youth Outlook), a newspaper by and about youth published by Pacific News Service.
After 17 years, Afghan exiles all over the world are still waiting for peace. But dreams of returning to Afghanistan have turned to despair as our homeland disintegrates into a war-ravaged, drug-infested haven for terrorism. Does anyone care? Does America care?
The young — like my 20-year-old cousin — feign apathy as a way to cope. The old — like my father who once was “somebody” in Afghanistan — stay tuned to Afghan radio, CNN and our community’s widely-read Persian-language weekly Hope.
In Hope, exiled Afghan intellectuals write prescriptions for peace and the rest of us cling to their every word. Last year I visited a refugee Afghan family of seven living on top of a roof in Delhi, India. “We live hand to mouth but we pay fifty rupees (about $1.50) to buy Hope,” the husband said.
Each new development towards peace sets off an excited buzz within the community — only to die out when another rocket kills more Afghans. In 1989 when the Soviets pulled out, we exiles couldn’t wipe the smile off our faces. “We beat the Russians!” became our universal greeting. Then in 1992 the puppet communist regime fell as the Mujahids — our holy brothers who had fought the war against the “red devil” — took control. Family friends packed their bags, ready to return home.
Before they could buy their plane tickets, the so-called civil war broke out. Those we once hailed as Afghanistan’s friends — Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the rebels themselves — suddenly became our enemies as each outside power began supplying rival factions with weapons and promises. Thousands of miles away, we watched speechless and confused. A grandmother in the Bay Area who had knitted sweaters as gifts to take her grandchildren in Kabul unraveled the yarn as Kabul was gradually reduced to rubble.
The Soviet Union’s defeat in Afghanistan paved the way for the end of the Cold War and America’s emergence as solo super-power in the world. But America quickly forgot the Silk Road and its hapless people.
“America owes us more than nothing. How can they leave us like this after we defeated their greatest enemy?” asks an Afghan neighbor in California who lost two sons in the Afghan-Soviet war.
Abdul Ali Ahrari, former advisor to the one-time warlord of Herat, fled in exile to the Bay Area after Taliban rebel forces seized the city last year. He blames Afghans for their own problems. “Afghans don’t understand that America helped them fight its war, not theirs,” he says. “It’s our own backwardness, our own ignorance. No Iranians or Pakistanis or Arabs are fighting on our soil. We ourselves are serving these countries.”
Afghan expert Alam Payind of Ohio State University says Washington’s concern right now centers on Afghanistan’s growing drug problem, its support of terrorism and the access it provides Iran to central Asian oil and natural resources. “In the eyes of policy makers, as long as Afghanistan is in that kind of a mess, nothing good can come out of it.”
In late June, two Republican congressmen arranged a conference in Washington, D.C. — the first serious peace initiative by the U.S. government since the Soviet withdrawal. Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.) and Rep. Dana Rohrbacher (R-Calif.) invited representatives from nearly every faction and party in Afghanistan with several U.S. based non-profit Afghan organizations to discuss ideas for building a stable government.
The Afghan radio program in my home town of Fremont, Ca., covered the conference. For three days my father sat close to our ancient hi-fi radio listening to every word. Although the Clinton administration did not participate, the Senate Foreign Relations Asia subcommittee reached an agreement with the Afghans to work for a national peace assembly representing every Afghan ethnic group and party under UN auspices.
“America’s going to finally do something, Dad,” I said, waiting for his reassurance. He shook his head. “No, there’s not enough interest for the U.S. and bringing peace to that country is not easy. America’s not going to do a thing unless it has an important investment like it did in Kuwait.”
Then, unable to bear my silence, he added: “But maybe America is finally giving us some attention.”