Though over 7,000 miles away and safely back in the U.S., I can hear the cries from Kunduz. They are the desperate calls for help from the Afghan staff I left behind whose lives are in increasingly great danger as insurgents fight to gain control of this strategic northern province.
Three years ago I was in Kunduz as part of a U.S. State Department-funded rule of law program. We employed a dozen Afghans as legal experts, translators, administrative staff and security officers. Working alongside one another, our team taught legal seminars, visited local justice institutions, and mentored Afghan attorneys, judges, and police officers.
Even back then, my local staff complained of death threats, manifested in the forms of phone calls, text messages, and in-person warnings from insurgents who had observed them working with the Americans, the “infidels”. Sometimes these threats were so menacing that our staff member would work from home for days, staying out of sight in hopes the insurgent would lose his trail.
Now the danger has only increased.
In recent months Habib Naseer,* who used to be one of my staff and now leads the same program wholly-run by Afghans, contacted me. With his limited English he revealed that, in addition to the constant fighting nearby, he has been receiving an increasing high number of in-person threats and phone calls. After coming home one night to a death notice tacked to his door, he moved his family to a dwelling right in front of his office. As a result their movements are severely restricted. In a tone of desperation he asked for my help with the Special Immigrant Visa to the U.S. He reminded me that should anything happen to his job, he would no longer have the protection of the security officers and the armored car provided during work hours.
Another former employee, Abdul Zahir,* who used to be on my team as well, reached out to me. He related how the Taliban almost gained control of Kunduz in the last several months. Almost daily he could hear explosions from his office. Due to the threats he had received, he no longer appeared in public for fear of being recognized as one who had associated with the Americans. Instead, he used his brother for errands. Zahir revealed he had already applied for the Special Immigrant Visa and hoped to receive it soon.
These are just two examples of the many Afghans who had risked their lives to promote American programs and are now calling for help.
Oftentimes Americans in Afghanistan are so focused on the details of their projects that they pay little attention to the enormous outside pressures local staff endure. Now in response to these staffers’ cries for assistance and in recognition of their loyal service, should the U.S. promptly offer a safe haven? Arguably, these Afghans aren’t American responsibility because they chose this line of work and were paid well to do it. They should have known ahead of time that they were putting themselves and their families at risk.
Still without our Afghan staff’s guidance, cultural savviness, language skills, eyes and ears, how far would our programs be? Would some have even begun? If we do not respond to their cries for help, how would this reverberate on our current and future goals in Afghanistan?
Even though America has, in fact, taken in a number of Afghans on the Special Immigrant Visa program, the process has been criticized for its slowness. In my rule of law program few have been resettled and those who have were appalled by the cost of living in the States. Furthermore, since their skills and degrees did not translate across borders, many had to accept minimum-wage jobs. Safi Siddiqi*, an Afghan judge who worked for our Kabul office, is now a convenience store clerk in California.
Ironically these Afghans, who theoretically support democratic values, are also the same ones our government wished to stay in Afghanistan to lead it into a new era of progress. They have the skills, knowledge, and the training. Unfortunately many of them want to leave and make a new life in the U.S. --- even at the risk of anti-Islamic sentiment --- underscoring the great danger they face.
There is a loud, harrowing cry from Kunduz. Can and should we listen?
* Name changed to protect identity
Wu is a former rule of law advisor in Afghanistan. An author and lawyer, she has worked in Iraq, Kosovo, Germany, Philippines, and Malawi. She is the author of the upcoming book, Moments That Flashed. Her Twitter is: @jadejournal.