‘Awareness Is the Key’: L.A.’s Afghan Community Takes Stock of the U.S. Withdrawal

With the U.S. military out of Afghanistan and the Taliban in charge, Afghans living in Southern California are hoping Americans will finally educate themselves about a fraught situation

At 12:29 p.m. Pacific Time on August 30, the last C-17 lifted off from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. With the aircraft’s wheels off the ground, the U.S. ended a 20-year war, one that saw more than 100,000 Afghans and nearly 2,500 American troops killed, had a $2.3 trillion price tag for U.S. taxpayers, and left a stain on the legacies of four presidents.

“There is a lot of heartbreak associated with this departure,” General Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander in the region, said in a video statement last Tuesday. “We did not get everybody out that we wanted to get out. But I think if we’d stayed another ten days, we would not have gotten everybody out that we’d wanted to get out.” More than 120,000 Americans and Afghans were airlifted out of the country, most over the last two weeks. Many more tried to flee, creating heartbreaking scenes of desperation throughout Kabul.

Video dispatches from the airport have been difficult to watch: people falling from the sky after desperately clinging to aircrafts; mothers handing their babies to soldiers in hopes of escape and a better life for their children; Taliban soldiers firing their weapons into the air as a way to control the crowd; suicide bombings killing Afghans and American soldiers alike.

It’s a tragic, if expected, end to two decades of war, and it leaves Afghanistan in much the same state as when the United States first invaded in 2001. For many Afghans living in Southern California, emotions about the withdrawal are colored by their personal connections to the country—and their concern for loved ones who remain.

“Every Afghani in the U.S. is sad,” Rahim Safdari, an Afghan immigrant and owner of Melad Bakery in Reseda, tells Los Angeles. “It’s a very bad situation and I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”

“Images of people hanging off wings, DMs from Afghans terrified and willing to do anything to escape, all of it is collectively overwhelming but also pushes many of us to not stop to help those at home,” says Azita Ghanizada, an actress and founder of MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition. Ghanizada was born in Kabul, but immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and has lived in Los Angeles for over 20 years. “I’m safe and have all the freedoms and opportunities I could ever want. It’s up to me and others to find ways, resources, and help evacuate and resettle those that we can and then keep the media engaged on Taliban 2.0 and the crimes they will commit against women, children, and men.”

melad bakery afghanistan
The owner of Melad Bakery in Reseda says Afghans are sad about the state of affairs.

“There are so many who are having to relive the traumas they suffered during their own escapes,” says Nadia Maiwandi of Orange County. While Miawandi was born in the United States, her family emigrated out of Afghanistan during the 1970s. “We are a community that bears many unspeakable war atrocities, and this is triggering. I think it’s also reinvigorated the diaspora to reconnect to what’s going on in Afghanistan.”

Still, anxiety over U.S. withdrawal and a country in collapse isn’t necessarily universal. “Even among my own immediate family members we are divided,” explains Masoud Farand, a documentary filmmaker in Orange County. Farand was born in Afghanistan but left during the Soviet invasion. “Some see hope, others see darkness,” Farand continues of the U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power. “It reminds me of the Trump and Biden supporters division: everyone feels strongly about the issue and has her/his own opinions.”

Miawandi says she opposes the Taliban as an “an institution/religious sect/form of authority,” but adds that she has sympathy for their members individually who are themselves victims. “Most Talibs fight to eat, to live,” continues Miawandi. “They are orphans or are from extremely poor families who could not afford to feed them, and were raised in madrasas, mostly in Pakistan, and are forced to fight. Others are kidnapped and trafficked. In short, they are not an organic movement. They are a completely manufactured force.”

Rahim Safdari recalls with difficulty a phone call he received in 2010 informing him that his brother was killed by a suicide bomber targeting U.S. troops in Kabul. “It was the most terrible news,” Safdari continues. “I closed my business for three weeks and went back to Afghanistan for the funeral. A hundred to 150 people died in that bombing. Everyone has people who died because of the Taliban.” With the Taliban resurgent once again, Safdari wonders why the U.S. never caught their leader, especially, he claims, when it was known they were hiding across the border in Pakistan. “That’s who is supporting the Taliban: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar,” Safdari continues. “Even Russia.” (Many of these countries have denied supporting the Taliban.)

This frustration with the purported funding and supply channels of the Taliban are echoed by many in the community.

Miawandi wishes American citizens would “learn about how U.S. tax dollars support the Pakistani government to create and fund the Taliban.”

“The U.S. funded them in the first place,” Daveed Kapoor, an architect in Los Angeles, says of the Taliban. Kapoor was born in the United States to an Afghan father and a Cuban mother. Kapoor notes that the 1988 movie Rambo III was dedicated to “the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan”—a group that included Osama Bin Laden and future Taliban leaders—during an era when the Mujahideen was fighting the Soviet Union. “It’s propaganda that we should be funding these guys just because we were afraid of a socialist revolution over there,” Kapoor continues. “It just bothers me a lot that while I’m tripping over homeless people here, we spent enough money [on the war] to end homelessness in this country, for sure, and we ruined Afghanistan in the process.”

For Ariana Delawari, an artist and activist who was born in Los Angeles but has been returning to Afghanistan since 2002, the Taliban are a terrorist organization who “just took a country.” As Delawari explains, Americans seem to lack an understanding of power vacuums in Afghanistan—or they just don’t care. Yet, Americans “should care about a terrorist group that just took a country,” she continues. “They will organize throughout the region. How do Americans have so little understanding of the funding and creation of the Taliban? The chickens will come home to roost on this soil and, instead of listening to Afghans, we will somehow get blamed for the terrorists who took our peoples’ land.”

So what can Americans do who want to better understand the situation and to help?

“Stand by Afghan women, girls, minorities like the Hazara people, LGBTQ, disabled, every vulnerable part of Afghanistan’s population who are highly at risk right now,” Delawari says. “Listen to them, uplift them, and protect them.” She recommends donating to groups like Miry’s List resettlement fund for Afghan refugees or through Diaspora Hub.

Ghanizada also recommends donating to the International Rescue Committee and Luther Immigration and Refugee Service, and following @azitagram, @adeprogress, @afghansforabettertomorrow, and @womenforafghanwomen on social media.

For Kapoor, helping Afghanistan now means to “just stop meddling. Leave them alone.” He adds that for the Afghans seeking to enter the U.S., “let them resettle here without complicated paperwork—kind of like what you did for the Cubans, like my Cuban mother, back in the ’60s.”

Ultimately, what so many who spoke to Los Angeles for this story repeated was that being informed of the situation in Afghanistan is how most Americans can help. “Perhaps we, as a collective, can have individual and collective compassion and humility to find a healthy way forward,” says Delawari. “A way that listens to Afghan voices.” Many have argued that a lack of understanding of previous wars in Afghanistan (most notably, Soviet involvement between 1979-’89), helped enable the U.S. invasion to begin with. But now, with American forces out of the country for the first time in 20 years, information and understanding are seen as the best way to help Afghans help themselves.

“Awareness is the key for a better future,” concludes Farand. “Most Afghans feel betrayed by the U.S. There were a few protests that were organized by young Afghans throughout California, but lots of people didn’t go because they lost faith. They feel Afghanistan is being used for profit by American corporations and private military contractors who swallowed $2.1 trillion, but Afghans paid the ultimate price of going back to where they started 20 years ago. What is the point of asking for justice from those who committed the crime?”

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