Pushing Afghans Away: A Misguided American Policy

for the Afghans of Middlebury and Simons, the Afghan Writers (in Afghanistan), and friends of Afghanistan in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and in Kabul

I received a text message a few weeks back from one of my Middlebury students. She is an Afghan and she texted me from Pakistan where she had entered illegally. She and her two sisters, one younger and one older, snuck across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to obtain American visas from the US Embassy in Islamabad. Many Afghans–our allies–risk their lives to obtain visas to the US. It’s a way of life so far from our own.

Police in Islamabad held them. No documentation. They talked themselves out of the mess without even paying a bribe, she told me with a “ha ha ha” and a “;-)”, her texting forms for a special–and delightful–grin she has that always says, “I can get out of this,” something in her special DNA that has evolved from confrontations with war and aggression, the reality that someone is always looking, especially if you’re a woman; someone is always coming after you.

They hid in Islamabad for three days waiting for their visas. This is American diplomacy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, two of the three young women did not receive visas. They applied as “tourists.” Now they must re-enter this process, only this time with their I-20’s in hand, the only conceivable way to begin their dreams of being vital citizens contributing to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Let’s not forget that we’re speaking about women, here, who are routinely deprived of basic rights and necessities. (See also: the Plight of Women in Afghanistan and (very disturbing) Images of Women in Afghanistan). We know from studies done by the United Nations that when women are educated, the quality of life increases.

Why do we advocate for women’s rights on the pulpit but act in contradiction when called to action?

It’s always innocence that suffers most in times of war and violence. The main function of war is to suppress, even destroy the organic process–and promise–of change brought about by the basic human rights of education and knowledge. War turns allies away, the opposite approach we need in Afghanistan.

This past summer I received an email from the same student, this time she was guiding an Afghan-Middlebury freshman into Pakistan–same thing, visas (before the US Embassy began issuing visas in Kabul). Anything can happen on this treacherous border crossing. “We saw the Taliban waiting in Pakistan,” she said. The young women scurried, eyes down and heads covered, and got as close as they could to a family, making believe that they were all one group. The Taliban let them through.

Then comes the very dangerous job of choosing a driver to take them into Islamabad. “You never know where you’ll end up,” she wrote.“They ask for money. They can hold you hostage.”

An American Embassy exists in Kabul and this past summer began issuing single entry visas to Afghans coming to the U.S. to study. Students from all over the world obtain multiple entry visas. Not Afghans. When I wrote to my representatives in Vermont about this—Leahy, Sanders and Welch—I received a long letter from the US State Department saying that the reason for not issuing multiple entry visas to Afghans is security but that they were doing their best.

Presumably, a terrorist can enter the US from any point of entry, no? Terrorist cells can exist anywhere, yes, that’s the definition? Three years ago when I was in Buenos Aires Argentina doing some work with Middlebury students at the AMIA, bombed in 1994 by Iranian terrorists, it is now known, I learned about the triangle, a lawless tri-border region in Northern Argentina, Iguazu Falls , a hot bed of potential terrorist threat, where Islamic fundamentalist groups–Hezbollah profiting from the drug trade–exist in the jungles of Paraguay just a short walk across the water where it’s knee high in spots. It was believed then that at least one 9/11 terrorist crossed that border. I stood and stared, almost touching Brazil and Paraguay beyond the dense subtropical foliage, the wild sounds of exotic birds high in the trees.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban train in Pakistan9/11’s evil seed was grown here and in Afghanistan but we turned to Iraq instead and left causalities behind. (see also: Pakistan Loosing Fight and Pakistan Surrenders — the paper trail on this issue is extensive). Pakistan’s government and military are rife with rogue elements. We’ve turned a blind eye and we’re living with the consequences, deceit and confusion–and corruption in Afghanistan (see also, “Winning the Battle, Losing the Faith“).

We need to collaborate with the Afghans; we need to work closely with them at the village level, helping with governance and infrastructure, education and healthcare, otherwise we’re not going anywhere. Afghans need to come here, too, this way honing skills and gaining knowledge that will serve their society–and on their terms, not ours, such as we’ve learned from Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea (see, for instance, “Military Finds an Unlikely Adviser in School-Building Humanitarian | by Yochi J. Dreazen“.)

In “The Other Front,” Sarah Chayes, the former NPR correspondent, author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban and living and working in Kandahar where, in collaboration with locals, she has created a cooperative, Arghand, as a means to fight back the poppy business, wrote for the Washington Post that, “The solution is to call to account the officials we installed here beginning in 2001 — to reach beyond the power brokers to ordinary Afghan citizens and give their grievances a fair hearing.”

Not being able to enter the United States with multi-entry visas is a grievance–as is the humiliation experienced at the hands of Homeland Security, particularly by women.

Our policy has been to force Afghans into the hands of the Taliban. (We did this 50 years ago when we drove Fidel Castro into the hands of the Russians.) “More and more are severing contact with the Karzai regime and all it stands for, rejecting even development assistance,” says Chayes. “When Taliban thugs come to their mosques demanding money or food, they pay up. Many actively collaborate, as a means of protest.”

The solution, says Chayes, is to bring perpetrators who want to carve up Afghanistan to the table.

But in order to do this we Americans must take responsibility for the way we treat our friends, the Afghan people. We cannot want protection from illegal immigrants in our country while then creating illegal immigrants in other parts of the world. The consequences of war are exile, differenchisement and the creation of helpless nomads looking for subsistence–all fodder for extremism. “Existence today,” says Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture, “is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the present…” This is our method, to make survival dark and the world wide and foreboding.

The way we treat Afghan students that come here to learn so as to be better equipped to lead Afghanistan’s rebuilding efforts is nothing short of immoral. Three weeks ago, I accompanied yet another Afghan student to the airport and witnessed a Homeland Security officer look at her passport, then ask if her last name was Islamabad, written on a line that reads, “Country of Origin”! This was followed by a humiliating and extensive search–everything, all personal items strewn for all to see, her arms spread wide. I stood on the other side of the glass nearly in tears. “This is a person I care for,” I was screaming through the glass. “A Muslim woman, for God’s sake!” No one heard. A woman walked past, noticed me, looked at the student and shook her head in shame as if to say, “No. No, this can’t be. “

In our zealousness and fear we corrupt ourselves and others. Slavery worked this way; colonialization works this way, too. “The ‘middle passage’ of contemporary culture, as with slavery itself,” says Bhabha, “is a process of displacement and disjunction that does not totalize experience.” We therefore guarantee that those that come to us from Afghanistan–or try to–are disenfranchised because we deny them their “totalize(d) experience(s),” which requires that we acknowledge our role in their lives.

In the “Fate” chapter of The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson’s most prodigious work–and most difficult–the sage asks, “How shall I live?” And then exerts the challenge, “We are incompetent to solve the times. Our geometry cannot span the huge orbits of the prevaling ideas, behold their return, and reconcile their opposition. We can only obey our own polarity.” That is, our limitations. Once we accept our limitations, the only recourse is to reach for the heart, which is where we live, what matters most. Our hearts.

We have to first grapple with our own demons, ask ourselves why we make the most vulnerable and good hearted suffer, and then change our ways. “We are sure, that, though we know not how,” says Emerson, “necessity does comport with liberty, the individual with the world, my polarity with the spirit of the times.” I trust he’s right. And hope we can come to this in time for all my Afghan students to return to classes this spring–one more remains in Afghanistan still. I’m holding my breath for him. And he’ll arrive, Inshallah.

Coming Into Paris One Early Morning

Early in the morning and fifty or so kilometers from Paris, the green fields roll gently in the early morning mist. The sun rises slowly to the east. It’s as if I’m watching a French film, its deliberate meditative pace, through the lozenge window of my tiny black Renault Twingo. In the middle of the green fields, stucco and tile farmhouses interrupt the eye, draw it in and make you wonder about the length of time these places have been here. You feel the age of the land, its harmony.

Then the outskirts of Paris ease in—first a neighborhood of mid sized buildings, then corporations that dot the suburbs, big buildings. Until suddenly there it is, the sign “Paris-Centre”. The traffic slows and narrows, though still in 6 lanes. A tunnel—and Paris rises beyond it, the Siene running along the highway urging you on.

It was a long way to get here—literally and metaphorically. The day and night before I crossed southern Sweden, a half of Denmark, and a major part of Germany—Hambourg, Hannover, Douseldorf to, finally, Luxemberg where I saw my first grape vines and I smiled because I knew France was near.

I began the day by leaving Lund at 7AM and got to about 100kilometers of Paris by midnight or so. The key to my apartment was being held in a café (very French) and I tried frantically to call on my cell but I was doing something wrong and couldn’t get through. I knew they’d be closed by the time I entered France—besides, I didn’t want to tackle streets and things in the dark without the guarantee of a bed to lay my head. So I did what I would have done 30 or years ago—I’m glad I recalled—I slept in a truck stop in my car. I slept through the night and awakened a bit stiff at 5AM, washed up, drank a double espresso and began the journey into Paris.

I don’t know, maybe I’m overly romantic, but when I saw “Paris-Centre,” I got emotional. Perhaps it was simply that I was working really hard to erase all images I have of Paris, all of which come from literature and film, and of course, my family, mostly my mother.

The emotions escalated when I realized that the entry to Paris, the way I came in, is almost identical to the entrance to Buenos Aires. Even the first signs of the city immediately catapulted me to Buenos Aires. I was in two places at once—a very Borgesian experience; or to put it in the tradition of contemporary French philosophy: since I’m here, I was always who I am, always being the other I find now. I have always been here, though I was seeing it for the very first time. I was seeing myself in this light for the first time. This implies that psychologically I had been ready for this experience and that all my experiences leading to this moment had prepared me for my first visit to Paris. I was always already in Paris.

I hugged the Seine and drove ever so slowly. The pay off for sleeping in the car was coming into a city yet to awaken—this awakened me. I drove carefully, deliberately, my eyes on the classic beauty, the barges, the old buildings, the narrow streets—and the street signs and my map. That’s how I did it. I’d go so far, stop and look at my map; memorize routes and street names, calculating how much time I’d travel to get to my next stop. Then do this again.

Within ten minutes of being in the city, I found the Restaurant Retirement, which held my keys. Unbelievably, they were cleaning and I had to wait only five minutes for the keys, held by the manager. She gave me an envelop with my name on it and I opened it. In it, the keys and the address—no directions. Very French! This, too, made me feel as if I was in Argentina—same minimalist approach to everything, letting one fend for himself. Argentina and France share a similar aesthetic in that the native wants the tourist to interpret signs, thus moving him or her towards becoming a visitor, one who is not there to merely look at sites, but rather, one who is there to be affected by the place, its people and history.

I got some directions, but I knew, between their French-English and my English-French, that I wasn’t being told the entire story. Back to the map. Immediately I found the street on the map, but I had to go through a series of circles, “DO NOT ENTER” circumlocutions until, a half hour later, I found the place.

I lived on Rue Mouffetard,a street in the Ve arrondissement, near the Sorbonne. It is a quiet, narrow little area; it’s very neighborly, a real community, which is what I like. I was on the first floor of a beautiful building with a wonderful interior garden—something you read about or find in French movies. Outside, next door, a Creperie, of course; and down the block, about 50 meters, a small grocery store from which I purchased eggs, juice and, yes, bread and wine. And right in front of the little grocery store, a wonderful circle, all cobblestone, lined with cafes. Right around me are streets such as Diderot, Pascal, Descartes.

When I arrived at my studio apartment, obtained through Parissimo, specializing in short term rentals, the city was barely awakening. I could hear the voices outside from my opened French balcony windows. I could also hear the birds and the pigeons. It was overcast and cool, so good for walking. Numerous church bells sang, calling. And I felt very, very lucky. Very fortunate, indeed.

Other Images from France:









St. Rémy: