As the overwhelming noise of indignant accusations and self-righteous pronouncements lessen with the final withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan, a gnawing question lingers for those whose daughter’s, son’s, or parent’s blood soaks Afghan soil: Did they die in vain? I write this for those who feel the crippling agony of this question. My sister is among those dead. Words such as “We will hunt you down and make you pay” sound hollow and bring an unbearable intensity of pain. Filled with the base and insatiable instinct for vengeance, these words take us back to how it all began on Sept. 11, 2001.
These fallen individuals went to Afghanistan as volunteers or soldiers to serve. An act of devoted labor in attending to the needs, care, and safety of others. In dutifully performing their tasks, the act of service gave many of them meaning and a sense of self-worth by establishing a relationship and empathy with the “other” — someone whose culture, ethnicity, language, or religion was different than their own.
After their first assignment, many kept on returning to Afghanistan — not because of some ideological reason given by self-styled experts from the comfort and safety of their capital cities but because these volunteers and soldiers had genuinely come to understand the diverse peoples of Afghanistan.
Collective acts of service for others are the most universal and oldest form of prayer, recognizing that the sum of our acts of compassion are greater than a single act in isolation.
This inherently human of behaviors with practical consequences existed long before established religions recognizing the divine in the other — even our perceived enemy. This fundamentally human act, much like laughing or crying, has too often been weaponized by religions and nations. Service brings both joy and sorrow. Joy through the accomplishment of collaborative work, and sorrow through insight into the fragility of the human condition — both our own and that of Afghans.
While undertaking research in the northern mountain villages of Afghanistan over the past 15 years, I met and lived with countless Afghans of different ethnicities, religious interpretations, and cultures, who on a daily basis took care of each other by ensuring each other’s safety and food security. Sometimes they even shared the same sacred places for prayer despite their religious differences. I have never seen women and men work so hard — and their children grow-up so fast — as I have in Afghanistan.
When I met foreign soldiers or NGO volunteers, who kept on returning to Afghanistan, they talked about the decency and kindness of the Afghans with whom they worked, the addictive sense of worth that they acquired from their work with them, and the desire to bring peace among these different but essentially peaceful people. They did not buy the manufactured narrative that this was a civil war. It was not. It was a global war localized in Afghanistan, and the major beneficiaries of the bloodshed were outside the country.
They knew it was wrong — misleading at best, an outright lie at worst — to call it a 20-year war; it was more than 40 years old, starting with the Russian invasion in 1979. The Taliban were originally armed and funded by the very people they’ve most recently been fighting. These young soldiers and volunteer workers realized that the Taliban and their opponents were “objective” allies. The principal tool used by both sides is violence. That is why words like “We will hunt you down and make you pay” come so easily to them. It has been said before: Violence towards and fear of difference is their creed, not knowledge and mutual understanding.
The young soldiers and NGO volunteers realized that hate is intimate, and continued violence would make them exactly like the enemy they opposed. They saw through the lies and instead chose to focus on the people of Afghanistan, valuing their differences, seeking to better their lives through actions that brought about food and health security for women and children, built both social and physical infrastructure, facilitated sustainable governance, and created an enabling environment for opportunities through stability in the lives of local people. This work rarely gets reported and yet it accounted for much of their courageous service. By their service, they made their own actions meaningful and made the countries and families that they came from proud.
For their part, the Afghans learned of the decency and humanity they shared with foreigners as they worked in partnership with each other.
So, the answer to this gnawing question is an empathic, no — they did not die in vain.
Theirs is a concrete and deep legacy of service given to their own countries and to the people of Afghanistan that will outlive this generation of politicians, bureaucrats, pundits and Taliban. Their collective actions will be remembered by an entirely new generation of young Afghans whom they impacted.
Karim-Aly Kassam is professor of environmental and indigenous Studies at Cornell University. He has been continuously undertaking research in the Pamir Mountains of Afghanistan since 2006. His sister, a volunteer nurse, was executed — along with eight others, including children — by the Taliban at the Serena Hotel in Kabul while eating a meal on March 20, 2014, during the Spring festival of Navruz (New Year).