In the days since Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, there has been yet another revival of the seemingly endless stream of critiques and discussions regarding the United States’ involvement in the landlocked country.
The reasons that are cited ad nauseam for America’s failure in Afghanistan are the same: flawed policy and poor implementation as well as the declaration that it was all doomed from the start; with some going as far as to note Afghanistan’s reputation as “the graveyard of empires.”
The War in Afghanistan, which began in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is one that has spanned four U.S. presidencies and is the longest war in American history. The Afghan conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
In narratives regarding America’s ‘failure’ in Afghanistan, it would be short-sighted to conclude that the ‘failure’ was destined or preordained as there are always plans and strategies that can be put in place to mitigate risks or to implement a feasible succession plan.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden has argued that all post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction efforts–i.e. nation building–are efforts that the American forces should now cease completely. Even before U.S. troops decided to leave Afghanistan, statistics from the UNHCR showed that there were almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan, comprising the largest protracted refugee population in Asia, and the second largest refugee population in the world.
Economic migrants–those who leave their homes because a more prosperous financial opportunity presents itself–are fundamentally different from refugees who have no choice but to leave. But to conclude that they, by default, leave with nothing and that they bring nothing to their new lands would be yet another short-sighted assessment of their predicament.
It is not just the Americans who are leaving or have left Afghanistan, but the Afghans who are leaving and have left Afghanistan.
What about our collective responsibility to the Earth and the Land Herself? Afghanistan is rich in resources like copper, gold, oil, natural gas, uranium, bauxite, coal, iron ore, rare earths, lithium, chromium, lead, zinc, gemstones, talc, sulphur, travertine, gypsum and marble.
Refugees are forced to depart from their homes with nothing but their suitcases. They know that they will probably never be able to return to their now lost lands. How do these migrants feel when they have to leave all that they have known and loved behind–all the while not knowing what awaits on the other shore?
It is a terribly alienating private emotion that will eat you up inside to know that you no longer have a home and that you no longer have a place to belong. These forced migrations have occurred and reoccurred in waves throughout mankind’s history. Some of these waves are documented, while others are mythological accounts that capture challenging episodes in a nation’s history.
We choose to label it as a crisis, but the deeper undercurrent that barely anyone seems to focus on is that it requires imagination, determination and courage to believe in the existence of a better life beyond one’s immediate shores.
Not everyone can make the journey or arrive at the destination. What propels a person, a group of people or even a nation to seek greener pastures?
The tale of immigration is the foundation stone of numerous prosperous nations across the globe. You don’t even have to look beyond your country’s borders to find how deeply intertwined the immigrant story is across both time and space. Just look at your family tree and you will find someone who has immigrated.
Why do people leave where they are from? In the case of expatriates, it’s highly likely that they were posted there. But for refugees, it is a different story. They were forced out; forced to flee; forced to find a new home.
It is not the fact that they were forced to leave that absorbs my interest. Rather, it is the story that emerged after their sudden and unplanned departure from the only ever place they had once known only as home.
The Story of Exodus
My interest in the Story of Exodus is not religious. The current consensus amongst modern scholars is that while the story of the Exodus has some historical basis, it contains little material that is provable. As the founding myth of the Israelites, it tells the story of Israelite enslavement and departure from Egypt, revelations at biblical Mount Sinai, and wanderings in the wilderness up to the borders of Canaan. The theme of a group of people achieving freedom after oppression is something that resonated strongly with ancient authors.
If we were to apply this archetypal episode of immigration to a modern context, what gems of wisdom would we gleam? The story of a person or a group of people leaving behind oppression and marching onwards towards greener pastures is age old.
In the story of Exodus, it is Moses, the newly appointed leader of the nation, who is ‘chosen’ to guide his people to the Promised Land.
But did ‘freedom’ solve all their problems? Did all their problems automatically disappear upon their departure? Of course not.
They now had to face new challenges.
After a successful departure from an environment that had oppressed them, they were now afraid of the unknown. They grew frightened and deeply anxious about what laid ahead. To ease their hesitations, Moses sent a delegation of spies to report back on ‘the destination’ towards which they were all headed.
After 40 days, the spies reported back and said that while the Promised Land was ‘full of milk and honey’, it was also filled with ‘large enemies’.
We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.–Numbers 13:33
While their fears were warranted and understandable, their self-perception of these fears were magnified beyond proportion. They kept comparing themselves to ‘the enemy’. Next to the enemy, they incorrectly perceived that they were as small and as insignificant as insects. This knowledge, or should I say, the perception of the knowledge that was conveyed to them, diminished their morale.
They were no longer suffering from the actual crisis, but from the aftermath of the crisis. It was now a crisis of faith. A crisis that only existed in their minds.
The same way that they were able to imagine and believe in the existence of greener pastures; they were now able to imagine that only a far worse and far harsher reality awaited them in the Promised Land.
The people under Moses’ care simply couldn’t understand why they had to suffer so much; and why they had to continue to suffer. At one point, they even contemplate whether they should go back to Egypt instead of venturing forth.
Were there new challenges that would await them when they got ‘there’? Of course. But would it all be as they had imagined?
In the midst of the mental mania, two individuals–Joshua and Caleb–chose to view the new information from a higher perspective. Caleb assured the people that they have the ability to conquer both the enemy and the land. He reassures them that they have nothing to worry about; because they still have their faith.
Joshua and Caleb’s words fall on deaf ears.
This is a heartbreaking episode–especially from a people who had only recently broken free from the shackles of slavery. What I am deeply curious about–without diving into the religious narrative–is what propels Caleb forward when everyone has given up. What distinguishes Caleb and Joshua from the rest of their people?
Perhaps Caleb and Joshua understood that it was not their immediate reality, but their self-perception that they needed to amend. If they perceived themselves to be grasshoppers, then that is what they would be. But that doesn’t mean that they are actually grasshoppers.
They had lost their confidence and imagined themselves to be inferior; when in actuality, they had been strong enough to fight for and seize their freedom. They had reached a milestone, against all the odds–so why did this new challenge seem impossible to overcome? This is because for generations, these people had suffered as slaves in Egypt. They were now projecting this same mental reality onto the new land.
In life, we have to breakthrough both the physical and the mental shackles if we are to truly move forward in a new direction.
Caleb and Joshua had already moved past this mindset and were ready to accept that a new reality that included independence and hard-won freedom. As a nation, however, it would take 40 years of healing before the rest of the people would be able to accept the new reality as the norm; and not a mental imagining that was to be needlessly feared.
To understand and fulfil the vastness of human potential is to realise that it requires us to overcome many barriers–both real and imagined–in order to actualise the life that we had only ever seen in our dreams.
The real lesson here is that we should always, always strive to look at things from a higher perspective and not be hampered by our past.
Only by embarking on the journey can we ever arrive at a new destination.