What America Leaves When It Leaves Afghanistan

This month, the outgoing commander of America’s military effort in Afghanistan told Congress that the country the United States invaded more than 14 years ago was at “an inflection point.” The Taliban reportedly holds more territory than at any time since 2001, and civilian casualties are at record levels. Ethnic minorities are especially vulnerable; some fear that peace talks with the Taliban could open a place in the government for an organization that waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them.

For all of these reasons, even as U.S. forces continue to depart the country, the war in Afghanistan isn’t over yet, and by many measures it’s not going well.

Forgetting Afghanistan

But there are stories of hope, if you know where to look. One of the brightest is so small it’s invisible to many; to find it, you have to drive for the better part of an hour along rutted roads from the center of Kabul, to a Hazara slum in a desert on the city’s outskirts. It’s just a school. But it is, in many ways, exactly what the Americans and their Afghan allies have been fighting for more than a decade to protect. And it’s exactly what Afghanistan stands to lose now.

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When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, with a parade of foreign armies behind it, a group of refugees was waiting to take advantage. They were Afghans, though at the time of the invasion they were not in Afghanistan, not yet. They were Hazaras, and they were next door in Pakistan, where thousands of members of their ethnic group had fled during more than a century of persecution in their home country, committed most recently by the Taliban regime that America was about to overthrow.

Because they were minorities in a country dominated by other ethnic groups, because of their Shia beliefs in a country dominated by Sunnis, and because of the pervasive origin myth that has them descending from Mongol invaders of the 13th century, the Hazaras occupied the bottom rungs of society even before the Taliban swept to power. In the late 19th century, the country’s ruler Abdur Rahman—known as “the Iron Amir” for his ruthlessness—launched a war against Hazaras and oversaw their enslavement. A militia the Americans later supported took part in one of the worst crimes of Afghanistan’s civil war of the 1990s, massacring as many as 2,500 Hazaras and injuring and raping thousands more in 1993. Then the civil war ended with the Taliban’s takeover in 1996, and things only got worse for Hazaras. One governor reportedly issued a fatwa saying, “Hazaras are not Muslim. Killing them is not a sin,” and Taliban fighters evidently took those guidelines to heart. More massacres followed. The Hazaras have been denied access to power, property, or even education in their own country.

stopped two buses in the southern province of Zabul, separated out the Hazaras, and took them hostage; similar kidnappings targeted Hazaras throughout the year. Last July, Hazaras manning a security checkpoint west of the capital were overrun by Taliban fighters; 30 were killed, and their bodies mutilated. Late last year seven Hazaras civilians, including a young girl, were beheaded with razor wire. There are many other examples.

All of them make it hard for a student to focus on her studies. Hazaras like Aziz cooperated with the Americans in exchange for protection; that makes them look like traitors to insurgents. And it leaves them exposed as that protection disappears.

Yet for now, people like Aziz are trying to hold up their end of the bargain. The Americans, who may or may not be considering another five years of small-scale counterterrorism operations in the country, aren’t offering enough to hold up theirs.

This article has been adapted from Jeffrey E. Stern’s new book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War.