Despite our national urge to shake the 20-year Afghanistan war from our memory like a bad dream, the fate of the civilian population should be on our minds, now more than ever. As our military exits, we should recommit our ability to help people in need by non-military means. Afghans will never forget how we treat them as we depart their country.
As I arrived in Kabul with my camera ten years ago to scout locations for a documentary, I felt afraid. Journalists were being killed. There was an ongoing war in the countryside. Suicide attacks and kidnappings plagued the cities. After making films about the lives of civilians in Gaza, Iraq and Pakistan, I worried I might have finally bitten off more than I could chew.
But Afghanistan turned out to be far more welcoming than I had any right to expect. Over the course of filming in Kabul, fear was replaced with affection. By the time I left 40 months later, our tiny crew had become a neighborhood fixture, allowing us to record daily life unimpeded.
For three years we filmed and recorded audio interviews with ordinary men, women, and children. We made thousands of pages of exacting translations. It was a rare chance to listen to the perspectives of Afghans living through an occupation and insurgency.
My film centers on the education of the three oldest sons of Mir Abdullah, a man with one eye, seven children, and many problems weighing on his mind. He has been an illiterate laborer his entire life, and his concerns are the concerns of the poor: Mercy, justice, and survival.
“Everyone works for themselves and forgets the rest. Unity has fallen by the wayside. Blessings are gone from the neighborhood. Now the people are scattered.”
Even in 2012, long before the US-NATO withdrawal, Mir Abdullah already had a bleak vision of Kabul’s future based on his experience of the civil war that followed the Soviet exit.
“After these foreigners leave, we will face the same wars as before. The street-to-street and house-to-house fighting. All of that will happen again.”
Lo and behold, the future is now.
As the United States skulks out of Afghanistan — like the defeated Soviets before us — the Taliban is swooping in to seal off the exits, taking control of border crossings one by one.
Over the past week, I have heard barely-suppressed panic in the voice of an Afghan friend over the phone. He — I leave him anonymous — works for U.S. government-funded projects in Afghanistan. His attempt to escape the coming collapse with his young family has the tension of high drama, and the tension never stops. He qualifies for a special immigrant visa, but the application process is too slow, and events on the ground are happening too fast.
The Taliban, my friend told me, are already at the gates of his city. At night, they come inside.
“We thought maybe they became reformed during these 20 years out of power, but now we see that they are on the same script as before. In the areas they control, no woman can walk in public without a male relative. Men must grow their beards. Now they come into my city at night to carry out assassinations. I must work to feed my family and all my relatives, but my job makes me a target.”
I felt helpless, listening to him. I knew that however many recommendation letters I send, it will never be enough. What now for the millions of Afghan civilians who face the prospect of war on their streets, with nowhere to run?
If history repeats itself, Afghanistan will eventually go back to Taliban rule after a punishing war for control of the cities. The United States has promised continued support to the Afghan government, but the Taliban clearly sees an inevitable victory.
It is not too late for the United States to help those who helped us while we were guests in Afghanistan, and so retain some honor and respect by doing what is right. Just as we evacuated 125,000 Vietnamese after our failed war in Vietnam, we must do the right thing in Afghanistan.
We should expedite the evacuations of those Afghans who worked with us as if the lives of our own families depend on it. And we should expand the circle of eligibility, leaving fewer families behind.
James Longley is an Emmy- and Oscar-nominated filmmaker and MacArthur Fellow. His documentary feature film about civilians in Afghanistan, “Angels Are Made Of Light,” is distributed by Grasshopper Film.