Ahmad Hussein is 12 years old. "My greatest wish," he says, "is to
learn to read and write, to have warm shoes, and eat as much as I want to." But
Ahmad's wish has long been thwarted. He is one of more than 3.6 million Afghan
refugees--the largest refugee population in the world--who are presently living
primarily in Pakistan or Iran, having fled the vicious civil war that's plagued
Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation in 1979.
In one sense, Ahmad is lucky. One in every four Afghan children dies before
the age of five. Every 30 minutes, on average, an Afghan mother dies in
childbirth. Last January, 480 displaced people, including 220 children, froze to
death in a camp inside Afghanistan near the city of Herat; and in May, 25 more
children succumbed to heat stroke in a Pakistani camp.
When they survive, Afghan refugees face lives that promise little but
hardship. In Pakistan they have been housed in makeshift quarters that are often
under the control of armed Afghan factions; scores of refugees have been murdered
in the very places they fled to for safety. Educated Afghan women who have
offered support to other refugee women and children have been especially targeted
for violence in the camps, with Pakistani authorities doing little, if anything,
to protect them.
In Iran, by contrast, the refugees have been permitted to live among the
Iranian population and even find employment or pursue education. But since the
downturn in the Iranian economy in 1998, many have been forcibly returned to an
uncertain fate in Afghanistan. When the United States began threatening military
action following the September 11 attacks, the flow of Afghan refugees increased
dramatically. Over the next two months, a quarter of the population of Kabul and
half the population of the southern province of Kandahar fled their homes. The
victories of the United Front appear to have halted that exodus, for the time
being at least, and UNHCR, the refugee agency of the United Nations, reports that
as many as 1,000 refugees a day are now heading back to assess the new situation
on the ground. But there is little reason to believe that most of those forced
from their towns and villages over the past few years will be able to return home
The United States owes these refugees much, for we played a
starring role in creating the conditions that led to the Afghan debacle in the
first place. Between 1980 and 1991, this country, gripped by fear of a Soviet
victory in Afghanistan, supplied rebel forces--including, ironically enough, such
factions as Harakat-i-Inquilab-i-Islami, out of which the Taliban would
eventually arise--with more than $3 billion in covert aid. Working through
Pakistan's brutal General Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, the Carter and Reagan
administrations aligned the United States with some of the region's most radical
Islamists in the name of Afghan "self-determination." Then, with the signing of
the Geneva accords in 1988, the subsequent Soviet withdrawal, and the end of the
Cold War, the United States, having provided many of the weapons with which the
warring parties would continue to tear the country apart, left Afghanistan to
stew in its own juices.
When the Taliban came to power in 1996, the U.S. government hailed
them, at least initially, as principled reformers prepared to bring order out of
chaos. Some critics claim that the United States in fact facilitated their rise
both as a check on Iran and with the expectation that Afghanistan would become a
friendly avenue through which to ship oil and gas extracted from Central Asia.
Even the Clinton administration--though it quickly came to denounce Taliban
abuses, particularly against women--put little energy into curbing the regime.
As part of the current military campaign, the United States has promised
massive assistance both to aid displaced Afghans and to rebuild their country.
Such largesse, if indeed it is forthcoming, is the very least the Afghans are
due. But it is still an open question whether the Bush administration has learned
from recent events how crucial it is to provide refugee aid not just in this
instance but in general.
Perhaps in no other foreign-policy area do Americans display more ambivalence
than they do about refugees. On one hand, private citizens are famously generous
to charities that supply food and other assistance to displaced people. On the
other, the U.S. government contributes to refugee agencies at an annual per
capita rate of only $1.40, compared with the Netherlands' $5.10 and Norway's
$12.55. The United States may be the world's single-largest contributor to
refugee agencies, but it ranks only ninth in the world on a per capita basis.
Moreover, total U.S. spending on nonmilitary foreign aid represents a mere 0.15
percent of gross domestic product, placing the United States last among the 21
industrialized nations. Yet Americans consistently believe that their government
is giving about 20 times that amount.
As a result, few objected last May when the Bush administration proposed that
overseas refugee assistance be cut by $5 million even though the number of
refugees worldwide-- 14.5 million--was at an all-time high and UNHCR was
suffering a $100-million worldwide shortfall in funds. This cut meant that in
current dollars the United States would be spending $57 million less on the
miserable of the world than it had in 1996. The proposal was hard to square with
the president's rhetoric about a humane foreign policy. But just as important--as
it is admittedly much easier to see in retrospect--the proposal was supremely
unwise from a pragmatic point of view. For the squalor in which the world's
refugees are living must be eliminated not just for moral reasons: Refugee camps
are also notorious incubators of instability, alienation, and violence.
Consider, for example, Pakistan, whose long-term political stability is vital
to U.S. interests now that, in addition to having nuclear arms, it has become a
linchpin of our antiterrorism strategy. Pakistan is a poor country, and even
before the Bush administration proposed to decrease American spending on
refugees, thousands of new arrivals to Pakistani camps were going without such
basics as latrines and water systems, to say nothing of vocational-skills
training. This deprivation makes the message of Islamic extremism even more
appealing than it might otherwise be, and it has certainly contributed to the
roiling unrest that has long plagued the northwestern part of Pakistan.
The Bush foreign policy before September 11 failed to position the United
States for the challenges it now faces. That foreign policy was not isolationist.
The president warned repeatedly that "America's first temptation is withdrawal,"
a course that he called "a shortcut to chaos." Rather, through the election
campaign and their first seven months in office, Bush and his foreign-policy
advisers advanced the notion that U.S. relations with the rest of the world
should be driven solely by our own interests. As Condoleezza Rice, now Bush's
national-security adviser, put it in an article in Foreign Affairs before
the election: "Foreign policy in a Republican administration ... will proceed
from the firm ground of the national interest, not from the interests of an
illusory international community."
And what did the national interest prescribe? Among other things, a
disdain for "nation building" and a skepticism about international institutions,
particularly the United Nations; a refusal to take an active role in trying to
resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and an almost prideful willingness to
adopt unilateral positions--on missile defense and the Kyoto treaty, most
notoriously--that were at odds with the rest of the world.
Every one of these policies turned out to be counterproductive in a world
preoccupied with the threat of terrorism. It is hardly surprising, therefore,
that almost every one of them has now been abandoned or reversed. As the
president and his national-security adviser have busied themselves seeking
partners in a global alliance against terrorism, it takes restraint not to remind
them of their former convictions about the "illusory" nature of the international
community and its interests.
None of this, of course, is meant to upbraid the president for failing to
anticipate what no one else did either. Nor is it intended to absolve the Clinton
administration and its predecessors from responsibility for their own errors. The
failure to confront Saudi Arabia and Egypt over their human-rights abuses, for
example, left the United States effectively fostering environments that in their
lack of democratic avenues for airing frustration about corruption and poverty
provided Islamic extremists with fertile ground.
It has not helped one bit that the United States has appeared to promote one
set of human-rights standards for its allies, including Israel, and another for
its adversaries. It does untold damage to the nation's reputation when we leave
ourselves open to the charge, whether valid or not, that American sanctions
deprive Iraqi children of food and medicine (especially since those sanctions
appear to have done little to retard the production of biochemical weapons).
The fact is, however, that foreign-policy realists--from George Kennan (who
reiterated his long-held belief not too long ago that the United States should
get out of the business of promoting democracy and human rights because "it has
more important things to do") and Henry Kissinger (who in his most recent book
ridiculed notions of humanitarian intervention and universal jurisdiction as,
quoting Chesterton, "virtue run amok") to Condoleezza Rice--have for too long
gotten away with the notion that the U.S. national interest has little to do with
such "soft issues" as protecting refugees, promoting democracy, supporting
international institutions, serving as peacekeepers, and defending human rights.
Realists love to quote John Quincy Adams, who, as secretary of state in 1821,
railed against intervention in the Greek struggle for independence from the
Ottoman Empire. The United States, he said, "is the well wisher to the freedom
and independence of all [but] the champion and vindicator only of her own."
That approach may have worked in 1821, when it took six months or more for a
letter to get from Boston to Paris, but it doesn't work today, when the "freedom
and independence" of others--not to say their political stability and economic
well-being--are profoundly intertwined with our own. If nothing else good comes
from September 11, perhaps what will emerge is recognition of those connections.
Refugees represent a particularly poignant instance of interdependence. Beyond
the human tragedy, their existence is also a symptom and a cause of larger
political and economic problems. If we fail to relieve their misery, we
compromise our own security. And if we fail to address the proximate causes of
their suffering, we will never stanch their flow.