Magazine article The American Prospect

Justice for Refugees: Americans Are a Generous People Who All but Ignore the World's Dispossessed

Magazine article The American Prospect

Justice for Refugees: Americans Are a Generous People Who All but Ignore the World's Dispossessed

Article excerpt

AHMAD HUSSEIN IS 12 YEARS OLD. "MY GREATEST wish," he says, "is to learn to read and write, to have warm shoes, and eat as much as I want to." But Ahmad's wish has long been thwarted. He is one of more than 3.6 million Afghan refugees--the largest refugee population in the world--who are presently living primarily in Pakistan or Iran, having fled the vicious civil war that's plagued Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation in 1979.

In one sense, Ahmad is lucky. One in every four Afghan children dies before the age of five. Every 30 minutes, on average, an Afghan mother dies in childbirth. Last January, 480 displaced people, including 220 children, froze to death in a camp inside Afghanistan near the city of Herat; and in May, 25 more children succumbed to heat stroke in a Pakistani camp.

When they survive, Afghan refugees face lives that promise little but hardship. In Pakistan they have been housed in makeshift quarters that are often under the control of armed Afghan factions; scores of refugees have been murdered in the very places they fled to for safety. Educated Afghan women who have offered support to other refugee women and children have been especially targeted for violence in the camps, with Pakistani authorities doing little, if anything, to protect them.

In Iran, by contrast, the refugees have been permitted to live among the Iranian population and even find employment or pursue education. But since the downturn in the Iranian economy in 1998, many have been forcibly returned to an uncertain fate in Afghanistan. When the United States began threatening military action following the September 11 attacks, the flow of Afghan refugees increased dramatically. Over the next two months, a quarter of the population of Kabul and half the population of the southern province of Kandahar fled their homes.

The victories of the United Front appear to have halted that exodus, for the time being at least, and UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, reports that as many as 1,000 refugees a day are now heading back to assess the new situation on the ground. But there is little reason to believe that most of those forced from their towns and villages over the past few years will be able to return home soon.

THE UNITED STATES OWES THESE REFUGEES MUCH, FOR we played a starring role in creating the conditions that led to the Afghan debacle in the first place. Between 1980 and 1991, this country, gripped by fear of a Soviet victory in Afghanistan; supplied rebel forces--including, ironically enough, such factions as Harakat-i-Inquilab-i-Islami, out of which the Taliban would eventually arise--with more than $3 billion in covert aid. Working through Pakistan's brutal General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the Carter and Reagan administrations aligned the United States with some of the region's most radical Islamists in the name of Afghan "self-determination." Then, with the signing of the Geneva accords in 1988, the subsequent Soviet withdrawal, and the end of the Cold War, the United States, having provided many of the weapons with which the warring parties would continue to tear the country apart, left Afghanistan to stew in its own juices.

When the Taliban came to power in 1996, the U.S. government hailed them, at least initially, as principled reformers prepared to bring order out of chaos. Some critics claim that the United States in fact facilitated their rise both as a check on Iran and with the expectation that Afghanistan would become a friendly avenue through which to ship oil and gas extracted from Central Asia. Even the Clinton administration--though it quickly came to denounce Taliban abuses, particularly against women--put little energy into curbing the regime.

As part of the current military campaign, the United States has promised massive assistance both to aid displaced Afghans and to rebuild their country. Such largesse, if indeed it is forth-coming, is the very least the Afghans are due. …

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