The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans spent 20 years forgetting Afghanistan. I didn’t have that luxury.

As a refugee from Afghanistan and now a history professor, I have devoted my life to remembering

Young Afghans play soccer in Kabul on Dec. 10. (Ahmad Sahel Arman/AFP/Getty Images)

As a history professor specializing in the Middle East and Islam, I always start my lessons on Afghanistan the same way. I ask my students: What is the longest foreign war in U.S. history? Their guesses include the war in Vietnam, World War II — even, inexplicably, the American Civil War — but not once has a student mentioned the 20-year campaign in Afghanistan that finally ended, in tumultuous fashion, this past summer.

It’s not their fault. Despite the tens of thousands of lives lost and billions spent over the two-decade war in Afghanistan, our country has had a way of collectively forgetting about it. From the spasm of coverage in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to the wall-to-wall coverage this summer of the chaotic U.S. withdrawal, most Americans’ awareness of Afghanistan has happened in bursts of remembering and forgetting.

As a child of refugees from Afghanistan, I never had the luxury of forgetting. My journey was shaped by a commitment to remember what other people forgot.

I was a kid attending a predominantly White school in Southern California when the war in began. Before 2001, when people in my community asked me where my family was from, the response would elicit blank stares. After the invasion, any mention of the country of my parent’s birth would invoke suspicion or pity. I was sometimes forced into the role of educator, as happened when a teacher incorrectly called Afghans “Afghanistanisians.” When the teacher talked of a Stone Age culture, I talked about Rumi. Other times, I had to stay silent, as I did when the crowd at a pep rally chanted “bombs over Baghdad,” not realizing Baghdad is in Iraq — or meaning to be prescient. I felt helpless hearing friends, classmates and peers gleefully chanting for war.

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As awkward as those moments were, what followed was even stranger: Everyone forgot. Afghanistan faded from the public memory. It would pop up in the headlines when tragedy struck or during election season, but it faded into the background like a dull hum. When you listened for it, you could hear it, but otherwise life went on.

For those with loved ones in Afghanistan, though, the war was a constant. For us, every phone call with relatives lingered around the latest bomb or drone strike. My cousins and other family members experienced 20 years of turmoil, caught between Taliban bombs on one hand and American drones on the other. Whenever I talked to them, I could hear the exhaustion in their voices. Every Afghan American I know has lost a family member or friend. The war became part of who we were and even shaped our career trajectories. Afghan friends became immigration attorneys and activists. I became a historian.

The whiplash between sudden intense scrutiny to collective apathy left many of us reeling. We were forced to justify who we were, explain a country many of us only knew through stories and family connections, and advocate while still forming our own political beliefs. At the same time, we found it bafflingly difficult to get non-Afghans engaged in the subject of the war, as attention shifted to Iraq. An antiwar activist friend in 2010 struggled to drum up interest in calling members of Congress or turning up at protests aimed at ending the war. I remember attending a rally where only a dozen of us showed up, almost all of us Afghans. Another Afghan American friend, an immigration attorney, discovered that Afghanistan was often left out of conversations about refugees, visa applicants and other displaced people.

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After a professor advised me in 2012 not to focus too much on Afghanistan, warning that it was too narrow a specialty, I recalibrated as a historian of the broader Islamic world with Afghanistan as only one subspecialty. Thinking back, it’s hard to understand how a country where we were at war at a cost of nearly $1 trillion, which took 71,000 Afghan civilian lives and those of 2,448 American troops, and irrevocably damaged our nation’s reputation on the international stage, could be seen as too narrow a focus.

The chaos of the evacuation this summer unfortunately encapsulates the consequences of forgetting and then suddenly crashing back into awareness. Americans watched in horror as many Afghan allies eligible for visas to come to the United States were abandoned by withdrawing troops — a result of the Trump administration’s gutting of the departments responsible for handling special visas and other immigration documents for Afghans seeking to leave the country, and the Biden administration’s neglect in rebuilding those structures. Those of us calling the State Department to try to evacuate family were met with blunt confusion. I called my congressional representative and was met with a mixture of confusion and lack of interest. Eventually, the office stopped taking my calls.

Afghanistan was once more in focus, but I found myself repeatedly pushing back against the same stereotypes, misunderstandings and oversimplifications as when the war first started. The same questions, the same stereotypes. Perhaps like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who did not even know what languages were spoken in Afghanistan two months after the invasion, the real problem was that Americans never bothered to learn about Afghanistan in the first place.

Afghans were willing to fight. But we abandoned them on the battlefield.

Today, Americans seem more willing to listen and learn, leading me to wonder whether the lessons will stick this time. I cannot help but have a sinking feeling. Already, Afghanistan has once more faded from memory, piercing our awareness only when a bomb goes off or some other tragedy strikes. Americans have gone back to their everyday lives, even as a humanitarian crisis unfolds there with mass starvation. Again, we Afghan Americans are finding fewer and fewer ears willing to listen. And once more, forgetting will come at a cost.

Those of us with connections to Afghanistan remain committed to remembering, because we are aware that the act of forgetting is a choice and the price of forgetting is too high.

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