Now the story in Afghanistan is shifting away from the actual Taliban takeover, and the Kabul Airport blast, towards the evacuation and fallout. Or rather, it is shifting to the screams of Western governments and NGOs that “We have another flood of refugees coming, Oh No, what can we do?”
These are the same Western governments who have been claiming for years that they are flooded with refugees, despite the fact they only take in a tiny fraction of those which exist. So they know what to do, because they’ve been doing it for a long time, in their own estimation. But for all these years they’ve just been hoping the problem will go away – and maybe it would, if they didn’t stop violating the sovereignty of other countries by trying to turn them into whatever suits the invader’s purposes.
Like many countries, Afghanistan has seen long years of conflict. These have created different waves of refugees depending on changes in the political wind. One feature of the Afghan conflict is that so many forces have been involved that they are obliged to make and break alliances to achieve their goals. That means declaring whole populations either enemies or friends overnight, with consequences in both cases, so no one has ever been safe from dispersal or murder since 1978.
Therefore we have been down this same road many times before. What can Afghan refugees expect in any developed country they end up in, regardless of its immigration policies and the international conventions it has signed? This begs the question “Will they be weaponised like with Syrian refugees showing up in Europe or used for economic blackmail?
Be prepared for all the treatment natives would kick a government out for inflicting on them. If Afghans think their lives have been scarred by politics until now, wait till they get out. They are not one unified group, and have many identities.
Their problems may now be less overt, but no less real. Not one person who takes the view that all asylum seekers are bogus would wish to live the life Afghans are now queueing up for, which will be imposed on them partly as a response to such views.
All Foreigners Look Alike
The West doesn’t agree with the Taliban. It also didn’t agree with Ceaucescu. Consequently the latest batch of Afghan refugees are the good guys, just as those fleeing Romania in the aftermath of Ceaucescu’s overthrow in 1989 were temporarily seen as the good guys.
For a while, when the Romanian revolution was taking its course, we were fed lots of stories about the evils of the Ceaucescu regime. It was as if no one had known about them before, which they would have done if they had chosen to listen to existing Romanian exiles.
Even back then there was the same manufactured hostility towards refugees and their supposed “special privileges” in housing and welfare which we see today, in no way different to what the Nazis said about the Jews. But these guys were different. Bad had been removed, good had triumphed, so everyone Romanian had been a victim of the bad people and deserved support.
Celebrities raised money for Romania on the television. Separate charity shops were set up simply to help Romanians. The economic destruction of the Ceaucescu regime was dissected, with every failing treated as the extension of political repression, and therefore another reason for donating to these suffering people.
Where are these suffering people now? Nobody cares, because now Ceaucescu has gone, everything must be alright.
Ask anyone in the West to name a Romanian politician and Ceaucescu is the only one they will know, even now, even if they weren’t alive when he was around. Few now take any notice of the on-going plight of Romania and it’s people because its usefulness to the West, and the Western media, has ended.
Now Romania is just another East European EU country. One of those which sends people to the rest of the EU to steal jobs and houses because it can’t afford to feed them at home. The same people the West was once so fond of are now supposedly begging for help, and stealing when they don’t get it.
Afghans have seen the same thing happen again and again in different ways. They are taking little comfort in knowing that it will all happen again – and rather more rapidly than the current headlines will suggest.
When the headlines end, a picture emerges which no one wants to write about. Not simply because no one is interested, but because if no one knows what’s going on, you can say anything you like and get away with it.
Blueprint for Persecution
Refugees began fleeing Afghanistan in significant numbers in 1979. Though the Afghan Communists had taken over the year before, this did not cause major disruption, because everyone knew the score.
Afghanistan had no political middle ground. The choice was either a very traditional form of Islam, not the radical version we are familiar with nowadays, or Communism, the other extreme. There was concern amongst many when the Taraki and then Amin regimes took power, but they were also seen as a progressive alternative, which might continue the failed reforms of King Amanullah by introducing a social order which remained recognisably Afghan.
Even the persecutions and disappearances of the Communist regime didn’t create a lot of emigration. When the Soviet Union was invited to stabilise the country, and then removed Amin and his cohorts in a coup, that was a different matter. Various different groups of the population felt under threat, and many Afghans abroad were stranded, having only been able to go abroad due to an indirect relationship with a government criminalised by the invaders.
As in the Romanian case, the West decided that the Soviets were bad, and therefore all Afghans must be good. Money, arms and training were supplied to forces dedicated to kicking the Soviets out, the same people whose successors are in charge now. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were boycotted as a protest, because it was recognised that creating a climate of international opinion would have more effect than fighting a war, just as demonising refugees does nowadays.
For a while, we all heard about Afghanistan in a positive light. Its refugees were welcome, its community organisations funded even if they were poorly run, or not what they presented themselves as.
Then things got too complicated. The story was no longer brave Afghan mujahedeen rescuing their country from Soviet domination, it was different groups of mujahedeen fighting each other, in defiance of the UN peace and reconstruction plan.
The freedom fighters of yesterday became the bloodthirsty Islamist warlords of today. No one knew who was who, no one wanted to, and no one could decide what they wanted everyone to think about this group or that.
So Afghanistan became yesterday’s news. It didn’t just fade away, it faced a backlash. No one wanted to hear about Afghanistan anymore, or be reminded that they once had, and it was the refugees bearing that designation who had to suffer.
There are many sorts of Afghans – the country’s constitution lists fourteen separate ethno-linguistic groups, but the number is more like two hundred. Despite the country’s long history of independence, which has seen it expel every foreign invader, its people are closer to Pakistanis, Iranians, Tajiks, Uzbeks and other groups than to each other. There are also significant Sikh and Hindu minorities, despite the radical Islam preached by various leaders.
Despite this, all these diverse groups and identities regard themselves as Afghan first of all. But this is used against them. If they don’t fit the stereotype of a wild Muslim man with a big knife and a funny hat, they are not real Afghans, and therefore have no case and are not worthy of support. If they do, they are either members of the Taliban, and therefore bad, or from a place so bad no one wants to think about it anymore, so are not worthy of support.
The West wants to publicly support Afghan refugees for as long as this makes Western governments and NGOs look good. But it does not want the reality of helping them rebuild their lives and make contributions to their new countries – despite the fact that the best way to achieve US goals in Afghanistan, by Westernising the country and ridding it of terrorism, will be to make Afghans live in the West, under Western norms, and thus think and act differently in this new environment, as they generally do.
Odds Set and Racket Always Won By The House
Refugee support is a mixture of public and private enterprise. Some of it is conducted directly by governments, through public policy and with public money, and some by independent charitable foundations, who have their own criteria for support – providing these don’t embarrass the government too much. The latest batch of fleeing Afghans will join, or in some cases form, community organisations. Some of these will receive significant funding, some not. How is this distinction made?
The big organisations are simply those who are in the right place at the right time. If they can get constituted, run activities and find premises at a time when Afghans are popular, they are treated as the “main” organisation, regardless of how many of their community they actually represent.
But the significant organisations are then subjected to an endless round of quality standards and regulations, which are not drawn up by people who work in community organisations, creating hoops they have to jump through to show they are doing their jobs properly. These are not designed to help raise standards, assuming the standards of community organisations need to be raised, but to find excuses for cutting grants – or giving the big grants to someone else more in tune with the political flavour of the month, or the personal politics of the grant officers.
Community organisations deal with this by playing a dirty game. The system encourages con artists – those who know how to tick all the boxes, and say the right things, but have no intention of helping their clients. Funders don’t want to admit they’ve been conned, so the worst individuals steal funds from the organisations focused on addressing actual needs, who are more skilled at doing that than presenting their work in a way which reflects all the nuances of the agendas outsiders are following.
Community organisations have to claim they represent their whole community, because it is easier to get money that way. In practice they often represent a part of their community – they are formed by people on one side of a domestic conflict because they regard the other side as the enemy, and the existing community organisation is run by people from that side. Consequently civil wars are still fought by proxy in the funding arena, each side trying to beggar the other, claiming to be the only true voice of a disparate people.
Within each community, people understand who is who. But new arrivals are routinely told that a rival organisation represents whatever they are not – the allegation changes with each person, to fit their fears.
Furthermore, it often suits a new funder, subsidised by a new government programme, to fund organisations for the sake of it to achieve their goals, regardless of the effect this has on the community. The new local service may represent the enemy, not you, but it will be funded to disrupt your community and your interests so that a Westerner can get a gold star, even when they know the organisation may not be what it says it is, or be doing anything worthwhile.
The authorities know all this is going on. Rather than introduce genuinely beneficial standards, and recognise who is who and what they do, they are happy for refugee support organisations to be constantly divisive, scrambling and weak. After all, it suits the image they always present of the countries these people came from. They can always buy off their friends, those who go along with anything to sit at the table and feel important, to avoid treating Afghans as full and equal citizens of their new countries – the very thing they have been told they should want to be, by all their succession of foreign invaders.
Afghans are familiar with JFK’s famous phrase, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country”. This is the sort of thing they expect to find in the West. What they actually get is “Ask not what we can do for you, but what you can do for us until we get bored and say you are a burden”.
The latest wave of refugees from the Taliban will ultimately ask – “we followed your lead in Afghanistan, is this your superior values are all about?” Then a small number will be radicalised and be potential fodder for terrorist groups, damaging their communities, their countries and many others, still further.
The Afghan Bin Laden is dead, long live the Western one, who is easier for us to isolate and use to smear whole nations. Ultimately that is what “helping Afghan refugees”, and any other top of the political pop chart group, is all about as far as governments are concerned – with the population, as usual, powerless to stop it in democratic countries.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.