This week I attended an asylum interview for my Afghan client. He was a high-ranking government worker and a member of a secular political party. His daughters were educated and one of his sons was a diplomat. Because my client worked for the government and educated his daughters, he and his family became targets for the Taliban. They kidnapped and brutally murdered my client's young son. They kidnapped a second son and held him for over two years, until he was finally freed during a military operation. That son has not been the same mentally or physically since his return. A third son was severely injured in a Taliban suicide bombing. In addition, a Taliban soldier beat up my client's wife and repeatedly threatened my client and members of his family. During our practice session, my client's wife sat nearby weeping as her husband recited their family's story. As of this writing, my client has not been able to contact his adult daughters in Afghanistan, and he fears they could be subject to forced Taliban marriages or worse.

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan happened more quickly than anyone predicted, but perhaps this result was inevitable. Or perhaps not. As we hear from all the Monday-morning quarterbacks about what should have happened, I notice that the voices of one important group are largely missing--the Afghan people themselves. We heard little or nothing from them when we invaded Afghanistan in 2001, as we shifted strategies and generals over the intervening years and decades, and during the draw-down that has been on-going for I-don't-know-how-long. Why is it that we seem never to hear from the Afghan people?

First, this phenomena--of invading a country we don't understand, thinking we can "fix" it, and then leaving a worse mess than we started with--seems to be a pattern in U.S. history. The most obvious analogy is Vietnam. I started my career helping resettle refugees from our conflict in that country. This was the early 1990s and my clients included Vietnamese Christians, South Vietnamese soldiers, and Amerasians, who are the children of Vietnamese women and American servicemen. By the time I met them, most Amerasians were probably in their 20s. They had been treated horribly in Vietnam, and only managed to come to the U.S. after a successful campaign to help resettle them.

You would think that we would try to learn from our past mistakes, but it doesn't seem to be that way. Go to any bookstore or library and look in the history section. You'll find many books about the war in Vietnam, but my guess is you won't find even one book written by a person from North Vietnam (and I doubt you will find one written by anyone from our ally South Vietnam either).

The same goes for our more recent conflicts. The book and movie Black Hawk Down is the story of American soldiers trapped in Somalia, fighting local militiamen. Nineteen Americans, one Malaysian, and one Pakistani were killed and over 75 people (mostly American) were wounded. On the other side, as many as 2,000 Somalis were injured and killed. The book Black Hawk Down is based on interviews with American soldiers who survived the fight. It's an exciting story, but at a very fundamental level, it is not interesting. We know the motivation of the Americans--to survive the battle. What would have been much more interesting--and instructive--would be to interview the Somalis involved in the fight. Why did scores of them run to their deaths to fight the Americans? Why were they so opposed to our supposed efforts to help them?

Unless we are prepared to listen to the voices of "the other," I fear we are doomed to repeat our foreign policy failures. The cost to us is billions of dollars and thousands of lives, not to mention national prestige. The cost to the nations that we claim to "help" is far worse: Hundreds of thousands dead in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, many more injured, property destroyed, lives disrupted, dreams shattered.

I wish our media had presented more Afghan voices in the months and years leading up to the present moment. I wish we bothered to gain a better understanding of how our presence affected the people of Afghanistan. In the end, I do not know whether it would have made much difference, but I can't help but think that we are ill served by listening to American "experts" who get it wrong again and again and again, while ignoring people from the countries we purport to help.

Maybe if we tried to understand the people and issues of other countries, we could avoid conflicts and better manage those conflicts that we cannot avoid. A starting point is to listen to the voices of people from those countries. Listening requires that we as a nation learn to be a bit more humble. But despite our current humiliation in Afghanistan (and Vietnam and Iraq and Somalia), I fear that humility is a lesson we have yet to learn.
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The situation in Afghanistan is still chaotic and we have little information about how the U.S. government will process pending SIV cases, immigrant visas, and follow-to join asylum cases (I-730 cases). The best source of information and potential assistance that I have seen is the International Refugee Assistance Project, Legal Resources for Afghans (see also the HIAS web page, which discusses ways to access this legal resource). I have also heard about some members of Congress who are collecting information to try to help Afghans who worked with the U.S. and who want to leave the country: Senator Tom Cotton and Representative Jason Crow are two names that have been mentioned. These members are not typically "pro-immigrant" and it is unclear whether they can do much to help, but perhaps it is worth reaching out to their offices to see what they can do. In addition, the American Immigration Lawyers Association has held a couple online briefings about the situation in Afghanistan as it pertains to immigration. Those are available here, but I believe they can only be accessed by AILA members (many immigration lawyers are members).

Finally, for those who want to help Afghan refugees, you can donate or volunteer with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: