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“America’s Afghan Refugee Crisis”: 15 Years into War, U.S. Urged to Resettle More Displaced Afghans

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By the time the next president takes office in January, U.S. troops will have been in Afghanistan for over 15 years. It is already the longest war in U.S. history. Just last week, local authorities said U.S. drone strikes killed 17 civilians. According to the United Nations, the number of civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan has risen to a record high for the seventh year in a row amid violent attacks by the Taliban and the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The United Nations said more than 3,500 civilians were killed and more than 7,400 wounded in 2015. More than 2.5 million Afghans are living abroad as refugees. Many have attempted to make it to Europe, where country after country has closed its borders to new refugees. A controversial new EU-Turkey plan has just taken effect calling for all newly arriving refugees to be deported back to Turkey. What role should the United States be playing in resettling refugees from Afghanistan? We speak to Stanford professor Robert Crews, author of a recent piece in Foreign Policy titled “America’s Afghan Refugee Crisis.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road as part of a 100-city tour, now at Stanford University in Palo Alto. Tonight we’ll be in Santa Cruz.

By the time the next president takes office in January, U.S. troops will have been in Afghanistan for over 15 years. It’s already the longest war in U.S. history. Just last week, local authorities said U.S. drone strikes killed 17 civilians. According to the United Nations, the number of civilians killed or injured in Afghanistan has risen to a record high for the seventh year in a row. The United Nations said more than 3,500 civilians were killed and more than 7,400 wounded in 2015. More than two-and-a-half million Afghans are living abroad as refugees. Many have attempted to make it to Europe, where country after country has closed its borders to new refugees. A controversial new EU-Turkey plan has just taken effect, calling for all newly arriving refugees to be deported back to Turkey.

Well, today we look at what role the U.S. should be playing in resettling refugees from Afghanistan. We’re joined now by Stanford University historian Robert Crews. His recent piece for Foreign Policy is headlined “America’s Afghan Refugee Crisis.” He wrote, quote, “Over the decades, the United States has not only lacked the capacity to fix Afghan society, but has played an essential role in breaking it,” end-quote. He goes on to suggest the U.S. should fulfill its “historic, moral, and political responsibility” and enable the, quote, “mass resettlement of Afghan migrants here.” Robert Crews is director of Islamic Studies at Stanford University, author of several books, most recently, Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Crews.

ROBERT CREWS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what should happen now, the scope of the problem of Afghan refugees. And what is the U.S. role?

ROBERT CREWS: Well, the United States has approached this problem for over a decade and a half now with some fairly flawed misconceptions about Afghan society and Afghan politics. So, my comments about the refugee crisis also extend to really a much broader critique of America’s approach in Afghanistan itself. I think we’ve been burdened by this idea that we’re dealing with a primitive society, a society that is inherently barbaric and violent. And we fail to see how we, in fact, have shaped the society. We have made it what it’s become today. And, in fact, our imprint goes back many decades. One can cite our role in the 1980s, one can cite our role since 2001, but, really, it’s a much broader problem, a whole series of policy failures. I think the most important one is really a failure of imagination, a failure of the acknowledgment of our responsibility in causing Afghanistan to be a place that so many thousands, hundreds of thousands of people want to flee.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think the U.S. should resettle Afghan refugees here? And what would that resettlement program look like?

ROBERT CREWS: Well, obviously it’s not a very popular policy, given our contemporary politics and the positions of our presidential candidates across the board. But we’re a large country. We’re a relatively wealthy country. And we have failed to defeat the Taliban. We’ve failed to create a political order which is sustainable. We’ve failed to create conditions for any kind of economic stability in the wake of what is mostly an American and NATO withdrawal. So I think the United States does have a responsibility. We’ve allocated a very limited number of visas, roughly 7,000, to Afghans who’ve served as translators and guides for the armed forces. But to my way of thinking, that’s far too narrow. It’s politicized the whole visa process. It’s essentially, I think, actually caused some of those figures to be in greater danger, because it’s made them even more of a target for—by their opponents. I think we have the resources. And I think this should be a reminder to Americans that when we intervene militarily abroad, to add to perhaps the Colin Powell’s—you know, the Powell Doctrine, if you break it, you own it—this should be part of the price tag of military intervention.

AMY GOODMAN: In December, while we were in Paris covering the U.N. climate summit, Democracy Now! traveled to Calais, the largest refugee camp in France, where 6,000 to 7,000 people are camped out in makeshift tents. One of the people we spoke to was Najibullah, an Afghan national, who said he had worked as an interpreter for seven months with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, as well as for a number of months with a U.S. private contractor called Creative International. He had applied for a visa to the United States but was denied.

NAJIBULLAH: I applied for a special immigration visa, but they—because I was working just for seven months, the U.S. government refused to give me visa because they said, “You just worked for seven months, not one year.” And I sent a letter from the Creative International company that I—as evidence that I worked with them also. So, if we put all together, it becomes more than one year. …

What I am trying to say, that working with the U.S. government, it doesn’t matter; you work just one day or a year or two years or for four years, it doesn’t matter to the Taliban. As long as you work with them just one hour, you’re condemned to death. So, that’s what happened to me. I was condemned to death. And I am asking the U.S. government why they refuse me to give me a visa. And that’s why I’m here. That’s why I am here, I’m facing this difficulty.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Najibullah. We met him in Calais, a refugee camp known as “The Jungle,” the largest refugee camp in France. There was an entire section of the camp that Afghan refugees camped out in. Robert Crews, so he worked—Najibullah worked for the U.S. Marines. He worked for this contractor, Creative International. Yet he could not get a visa to come to the United States, despite the fact that he said if he had worked one hour for the U.S., the Taliban would condemn him to death, and that’s what happened.

ROBERT CREWS: Right. I think it’s clearly a betrayal. But I would add that for many Afghans who are caught in the middle, caught in the middle between Taliban and Afghan National Army forces or those who fall victim to American drone strikes, which persist, or to other airstrikes, like the one you cited in the east last week, many more Afghans, beyond this class of people who have served the military, I think are also entitled to some kind of redress, because they are living in circumstances beyond their control, but very much shaped by what we have done there.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about this policy that you have to have worked for a full year, or you won’t to be protected?

ROBERT CREWS: I think, actually, it’s now been extended to a term of two years.

AMY GOODMAN: Two years?

ROBERT CREWS: But the numbers are still quite minimal. And if one looks beyond this special visa program, the number of Afghans who are admitted under other conditions is extremely—very, very few. I mean, there are actually just a few hundred people who’ve been admitted per year in the last four or five years.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about comments by the former CIA director, Michael Hayden, on drone warfare in a New York Times opinion piece in February headlined “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare.” Hayden writes, quote, “The program is not perfect. No military program is. But here is the bottom line: It works. I think it fair to say that the targeted killing program has been the most precise and effective application of firepower in the history of armed conflict.” Hayden goes on to say, quote, “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher if we had not taken action.” Again, the former head of the CIA.

ROBERT CREWS: There’s a lot we can say about that essay, and I would recommend that your viewers and listeners read it. There’s a bit of poetry there which is quite remarkable. These are military strategies which are also part of the deeper story of this flow of refugees. These drone strikes do in fact capture lots of civilians. That is, they make whole towns, villages, hamlets uninhabitable. Right? They actually create terror. And Hayden here has mirrored the logic of militants around the globe, who have failed to distinguish between civilians and combatants. This idea that very few civilians are dying, in fact, is unproved. I think we have lots of evidence to the contrary. And until the Obama administration opens up its books and actually lets us see what’s happening, we can only assume that the contradictory and countervailing reports are true and that lots of civilians, in fact, are dying, and these are creating, in fact, more militants, as some security officials maintain. At the end, to return to the refugee crisis, this is part of what is making part of Afghanistan and North-West Frontier of Pakistan really uninhabitable for lots of populations.

AMY GOODMAN: You have suggested in your writing that Afghans now trust the Taliban more than they do the Afghan military.

ROBERT CREWS: So, that’s some Afghans. So it’s some Afghans in the south and in the east areas, where they have faced foreign military attacks—right?—airstrikes, and where they have faced abuses at the hands of Afghan police, Afghan militias supported by the United States and the central government, and by the Afghan National Army and police, who are often corrupt and who have employed often very brutal methods in these territories. So, it’s not a broad statement that would apply to all Afghans. It tends to apply more limited—in more limited ways to people in the south and the east.

AMY GOODMAN: So the program you would recommend, even if it is unpopular—

ROBERT CREWS: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —for Afghans coming to the United States, elaborate further.

ROBERT CREWS: Sure. You know, I think we’ve done this with populations in the past. I mean, we’ve done this with Iraqis, to some degree, with Somalis. Here in the Bay Area, we can point to the history of the resettlement of Vietnamese populations in the wake of the Vietnam War. I think if one looks at these populations—you know, take the case of the Vietnamese or take the case of the Afghans who came in the 1980s—these communities have been extraordinarily successful.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s look at the Vietnamese.

ROBERT CREWS: Yes, sure.

AMY GOODMAN: After the Vietnam War, U.N. high commissioner for refugees ultimately resettled 1.3 million Southeast Asians in countries around the world, including 800,000 in the United States.

ROBERT CREWS: Sure. I mean, what could be more American—right?—than opening our doors to the world and becoming better for it? I think that Afghans would make similar contributions. Now, there’s anxiety about a brain drain in some—I’ve had Afghan friends who have challenged my perspective on this, and I much respect that argument. I think that there are Afghans who will and should stay in the country to help to rebuild it. But I don’t think that should be a burden that all should have to bear equally. I mean, what do we say to children who are caught in the crossfire? What do we say to older people who don’t have the means to participate in this project? I think that the—you know, in the end, there will be interest in this program, were it to be inaugurated, but it’s not as if all Afghans would leave, right? It’s not as if—or even just the educated would leave. I think you would get a wide swath of people. But many people would become professionals here. They would make contributions. You know, we have students here at our university in our graduate program. Some of our best students were once refugees, and now look at them. They’ll be stars in their fields. And I think it’s very much an American story that we can identify with any ethnic group.

AMY GOODMAN: And people like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, talking about people like these as threats to this country, that there should be a ban on all Muslims coming into the United States?

ROBERT CREWS: Right. I mean, it’s a very alarming idea. But in the case of the Afghans, I think it goes more deeply, and it actually shaped how we fight this war. We imagine, again, that Afghans are particularly barbaric and warlike and bellicose. I think that has forced us to make certain decisions in the country, in Afghanistan itself—I mean, this resort that Hayden cites here to drone warfare. We imagine Afghans only understand the language of force. And that, of course, is wrong. And in the book that I wrote, that you mentioned, I attempt to challenge how this idea came to be and then to point to alternatives. You know, we’ve misunderstood Afghans. They in fact are quite cosmopolitan. They’ve lived all over the world. They can adapt to circumstances, to everywhere. And there’s nothing necessarily violent about their nature, right? That’s very much a political story that we share with them that goes back for many decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Robert Crews, I want to thank you very much—

ROBERT CREWS: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: —for being with us. Robert Crews is author of Afghan Modern: The History of a Global Nation. He’s associate professor of history and director of the Sohaib and Sara Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies here at Stanford University.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we turn to the news this week of John Kerry going to Hiroshima, the first sitting U.S. secretary of state to do this. Is he paving the way for President Obama to go to Hiroshima, the site of the U.S. atomic bombing back in 1945? Stay with us.

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