The Constructive and Destructive Role of Afghanistan's Diaspora
"Afghanistan: Two Years Later" is a special series for Asia Dispatches marking the two-year anniversary of the US withdrawal and Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Several weeks ago marked the two-year anniversary of the collapse of Afghanistan. The collapse was the direct result of the Taliban’s rapid takeover and the US withdrawal. As a result, millions of people were forced to leave Afghanistan for Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey. Thousands more were evacuated to the US, Canada, and elsewhere in the West. This exodus marked a migration unprecedented in the modern history of Afghanistan.
However, group migration is not a new phenomenon for Afghanistan. It has always been a prominent element in Afghanistan’s modern history going back to the 20th century. This is because Afghanistan has been in conflict for about half a century. A lasting and breathtaking conflict has caused over 7 million people to migrate abroad over a period of less than 50 years. Significantly, a relatively small percentage of migrants from Afghanistan have left voluntarily, such as for job or sociocultural purposes (tied to a lack of work or economic opportunities more broadly. The largest migrations from Afghanistan have always occurred involuntarily, as a result of government collapse. Involuntary migration started with the Republic revolution and the fall of the monarchy in 1973.
However, group migration is not a new phenomenon for Afghanistan. It has always been a prominent element in Afghanistan’s modern history going back to the 20th century.
This is not to underplay the importance of voluntary group migration, which has been varied and frequent, and a major contributor to Afghanistan’s chronic brain-drain problem. Migration has been done for economic reasons, business and cultural-religious affairs, and sometimes to seek exile. In any case, Mohammad Daud's coup (1973), a socialist coup (1978), mujahideen forces coming to power (1991), the establishment of the first Taliban government (1996) and most recently the Taliban's return to power (2021) are all important case studies for Afghanistan diaspora studies. In the meantime, small and individual waves of migration have also taken place out of Afghanistan, and they have later joined up with larger groups of Afghanistan’s diasporas.
A question that arises is whether the immigrants outside of Afghanistan—those coming from the smaller and individual waves of migrations—are part of the Afghanistan diaspora. Do they have the indicators of a diasporic society? Simply said, no. They are better described as a quasi-diasporic society. It is formed along the lines of social, ethnic, and religious groups like Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Sunnis, Shi’as, and people from southern and northern Afghanistan. The main argument for defining the Afghanistan diaspora as quasi-diasporic is that it lacks solidarity and community outside Afghanistan, and it has no properly defined common symbols, emotions, or memory.
Three Problematic Diaspora Relationships
The Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society does not reflect a unified diaspora. It is rather a divided and compartmentalized diasporic society. Members of this quasi-diasporic society of Afghanistan lack a social form, do not fit a type of consciousness (such as the same level of awareness, mental images, or dreams for Afghanistan), and above all—in the past two years—have failed to represent modes of cultural production. The latter means that the members of the diasporic society of Afghanistan do not deploy a unified form of culture, tradition, and behavior to survive as a collective identity in host countries.
The nature of Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society can be understood by considering the nature of a triple relationship—with Afghanistan, with the host country, and the interactions between members of this quasi-diaspora around the world. Unlike the diasporic societies of other countries like Iran, Syria, and Iraq, the quasi-diasporic society of Afghanistan is problematic in all three aspects of that relationship.
Contrasting Perceptions of Afghanistan
Members of Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society, especially its politically active elites and intellectuals, represent an ethno-sectarian Afghanistan. This actually mirrors the internal fragility of Afghanistan. The majority of diasporic elites and intellectuals do not have a constructive relationship with the majority left behind in Afghanistan. Relations between diasporic elites and the people back in Afghanistan are challenging for one of three reasons: sub-identity, sub-locality, and sub-politics. That is, almost all the politically active members of the diasporic community represent their Tajik, Pashtun, Uzbek, Hazara, or other ethnic identity or their geographic region inside Afghanistan. Or otherwise they represent the ideology or political parties to which they belong.
The Afghanistan’s diaspora has multiple perceptions of Afghanistan, though two are particularly common. One portrays Afghanistan as a beautiful homeland. The other depicts it as a place that is never easy to live in. Those that harbor the first perception believe Afghanistan has been victimized by the predations of offensive and greedy hegemonic powers. According to this perspective, outside interference in the domestic mosaic of Afghanistan has destroyed the country. Pakistan comes first in this perception. Those with this more hopeful perception of Afghanistan believe it is still a desirable place to live, and they hope to return to Afghanistan when there is a better opportunity, to take advantage of a country with an important ancient history, beautiful geography, and good natured-people.
The second perception is sharply at odds with the first. Those with this more negative perception believe that Afghanistan has never been a good country for them. It is a country with inherent economic and cultural poverty, and an irreconcilable and war-like people. Those that feel this way are not thinking of returning to Afghanistan. Instead, they try to provide assistance and support to their own communities back in Afghanistan out of a sense of ethnics and responsibility, even while they look to settle in their host countries.
Misguiding Host Countries and International Organizations
Members of Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society reflect a part of a community, locality, or political party back in Afghanistan. Therefore, they represent their individual interests in Afghanistan. Most of the time, these individual associations with Afghanistan fail to translate into a sense of a national homeland, identity, or feelings among those people of Afghanistan in abroad.
The presence of diasporic communities plays an essential role in shaping foreign policy, politics, and social and media activism in host countries. Many members of the quasi-diasporic society of Afghanistan are active in diaspora organizations, community organizations, and government and other official organizations in their host countries. Host institutions, people, and international organizations are in many cases misinformed by members of the Afghanistan diaspora when they are carrying out well-intentioned efforts to help immigrants from Afghanistan. For example, the Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) in Virginia hired a Persian translator to assist immigrant families from Afghanistan who do not know English. However, some Afghan immigrants questioned why the translation was not in Dari (a Persian dialect similar to Tajiki in Tajikistan). In this case and others, there is a tendency for Afghan diaspora members to think more in terms of their own personal identity interests in Afghanistan than in terms of the benefit of the country on the whole.
People in host countries are often confused about complex contested historical narratives, political figures, events, and values in Afghanistan. Even simple misunderstandings are common. I have come across people during my migrations to Iran, Qatar, India, Türkiye, and the US who are confused about whether to call a citizen of Afghanistan an “Afghan” or “Afghanistani” and in some cases to Khurasani. Linguistic and ethnic issues are some of the most confusing issues for them. There are also some media in host countries that use the term Afghanistani and Khurasani synonymously with Afghan.
Also, policy making and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan have been misguided over the past two years because of poor advice from members of Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society. Unfortunately, those aligned with international organizations sometimes misadvise them. In July, the Afghanistan International TV channel released a documentary titled "Uncovering a Fraudulent Case," which detailed how a pro-Taliban Afghan woman human rights activist was invited to appear at the UN Human Rights Council by another pro-Taliban Afghan employee of the UN.
Poor Inter-Diasporic Relations
Individuals and groups in the quasi-diasporic society of Afghanistan mirror the fractured and collapsed country they left. In particular, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban over the past two years has made members of the diasporic community strongly mistrust and separate from each other. The limited requirements of interaction among citizens of Afghanistan when in Afghanistan no longer apply. As a result, abroad, Afghans have moved closer to their individual sub-community.
Members of the Afghanistan’s diaspora are divided along ethnic and religious lines. To be sure, there are some people who gather in trans-ethnic or trans-religious groups and focus on a constructive movement for the future of Afghanistan. But many if not most identify with their individual sub-communities.
Unsurprisingly, there are contrasting priorities among the different Afghanistan’s ethnic groups based abroad. It is these priorities that bind people together in their respective groups within Afghanistan’s diasporas around the world. For the majority of the Tajik diaspora, eliminating the Taliban by any means and protecting culture and the Persian language and a decentralized government are top priorities. Meanwhile, most Pashtun diaspora members seek a conservative transformation without war to preserve the historical authority of Pashtuns. The Hazara diaspora aims to promote a genocide narrative—as Shia Hazaras have frequently been a prime target of attacks by Islamists—and ensure their continued place in the future of Afghanistan’s politics. The Uzbek diaspora is also focused on ensuring their continued place in Afghanistan’s politics. It’s hard to find any common agenda in these priorities, other than a shared desire to eliminate the Taliban, which is viewed as a threat to all—except by those Taliban supporters among the Afghanistan diaspora.
The Taliban: The Only Elephant In the Room
Among all Afghanistan diasporic subgroups, the Taliban is viewed to be a common concern and threat that targets the sub-identities of all the citizens of Afghanistan. Although the definitions and perceptions of the different diasporic groups about the Taliban are not the same, the general consensus is that continuation of Taliban rule is not promising for the future of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s diasporic groups’ perceptions of the Taliban are varied and contested include the following:
- The Taliban is a foreign mercenary force created and backed by Pakistan to turn Afghanistan into its fifth province.
- The Taliban is a reality of traditionalism and tribalism in Afghanistan, and it does not have any roots outside Afghanistan. The Taliban is a tribal force that contradicts civility, urbanism, and progressivism in Afghanistan.
- The Taliban is an ethnic and nationalist group that under the guise of religion is monopolizing political power to homogenize Afghanistan’s diverse society into a single Pashtun nationality.
- the Taliban is a pro-Kharijite and Salafi current of Islam that is influenced by Arab jihadi ideologues and the jihadi environment in Afghanistan to establish an Islamic state in Afghanistan.
To be sure, among the diasporic groups, there are a number of immigrants from Afghanistan who sympathize with the Taliban and consider the Taliban to be a reality in Afghanistan. These include Jamil Qadiri, a pro-Taliban youtuber in Belgium, Dr. Hatef Mukhtar in Norway, and a few others.
Afghanistan's quasi-diasporic society is unstable, mirroring the instability back home. More than two years after the Taliban takeover, with Afghanistan facing a significant threat from extremism and other triggers for destabilization, the people of Afghanistan in abroad would ideally play a role in bringing some form of positive change to Afghanistan—for example, by facilitating more international collaboration and assistance. However, Afghanistan’s diasporic society is currently incapable of bringing about such a shift.
In the recent past, the Afghanistan’s diaspora was also unable to play a positive and helpful role in Afghanistan's political development. Between 2001 and 2021, the diasporic elites and intellectuals lacked a proper devotion to national and democratic ideas. Different diasporic groups pursued individual projects that sometimes aligned with the great and regional powers’ tastes. Over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, compared to resident elites, the elite returnees brought more harm to Afghanistan, going back to the Bonn agreement, because most of the diasporic elites had been disconnected from Afghanistan’s internal dynamics.
The present diaspora of Afghanistan is more diverse than in previous years. It consists of many factions—elites, technocrats, bureaucrats, leaders, mafia, warlords, and common citizens. The millions left behind hope for a permanent solution and perpetual peace through the efforts they are expecting from the diasporic groups that represent them. However, there is not a constructive relationship among the diasporic groups and those that live inside Afghanistan.
The constructive engagement of the Afghanistan’s diaspora in nation building and the development of Afghanistan would be highly helpful if not essential.
Whether anyone likes it or not, these diasporic elites, leaders, and intellectuals individually or in groups have their own influence on minor parts of the society in Afghanistan. Millions of individuals are adherents and followers of them. Trusts, emotions, black money, mafia power, ethnic attachments, ideologic trends, and political beliefs have all turned the diasporic elites and intellectuals into a legitimate source on which to rely. Consequentially, the diaspora will play a significant role in the development or destruction of Afghanistan. The constructive engagement of the Afghanistan’s diaspora in nation building and the development of Afghanistan would be highly helpful if not essential. Otherwise, the current destructive engagement of the diaspora, if it continues, could imperil Afghanistan's future as a single nation-state and even extend the half-a century conflict.
To transform the quasi-diasporic community of Afghanistan into a constructive, dynamic, and unified one, I have some policy suggestions for host countries, particularly the United States, to avail the opportunity and work closely with elites, leaders, and intellectuals for a positive future for Afghanistan.
The leading figures of Afghanistan’s diaspora are former bureaucrats, academics, civil activists, elites, political leaders, and women. They are the influential players that can transform Afghanistan’s quasi-diasporic society into a dynamic and unified diaspora society and contribute to Afghanistan’s development. There are many ways the UN, international organizations, and host countries can help achieve this goal:
- Many young people, families, and other with high education levels, rich experiences, and good skills were forced to leave Afghanistan, but due to the lack of a detailed familiarization plan for resettlement and absorption in the market and society of the host countries, in the end, they have not found decent jobs. As a result, they have suffered from frustration and psychological problems. Family counseling, psychological support, and guidance programs should be used to help them, while also drawing on lessons learned from helping similar communities from the Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian diasporas. This will enable these critical Afghanistan’s diaspora members to operate at full capacity, allowing them to become active and successful citizens in their second countries—and hopefully turn their positive energies toward helping Afghanistan.
- A significant portion of Afghanistan's intellectuals and academics has been driven abroad in the recent wave, especially to North America and the West more broadly. Afghanistan’s intellectuals and academics among the Afghanistan’s diaspora in foreign countries, who have come out of a long fatigue and helplessness, now have a good opportunity to think deeply about the developments and crisis of half a century in Afghanistan, and find rational and strategic mechanisms and solutions that dare to go beyond the status quo to design a new Afghanistan. But to think and write, they need long-term support to focus. When in new and unfamiliar environments, it can be difficult to find the time and concentration needed to concentrate on the task at hand.
- Government institutions, donors, sponsors, and international organizations provide financial assistance to support the Afghanistan media, TV channels, youtubers, and social networks like 8 Subh Daily, Amu TV, Nimrukh, Zan, Sheesha Media and many more. However, support alone is not enough. It is necessary for these institutions to come together under one umbrella to understand each other, and become an effective force for the future of Afghanistan. A platform that is financially and technically supported by the UN, US, or EU can bring different groups of Afghanistan’s diaspora together to discuss Afghanistan’s issues.
- Leaders and elites in exile are still pursuing their formal and party politics in their respective circles. This situation has prolonged the divisiveness in the diasporic society of Afghanistan. The creation of a national discourse process for nation-state building and ultimately stability and democracy in Afghanistan, ideally overseen by the United Nations or the United States as stated earlier, would change the approach of these parties and leadership from transnational to national.
- Due to the high level of vulnerability of women and girls in Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan share a common feeling of being oppressed and victimized. But in the absence of a process and a large platform of support from any country, they are left to fend for themselves. Making matters even worse, Afghan women diaspora members are divided, with varied and contested approaches to respond to the crisis of Afghan girls and women. If the international community were to do more to support female leaders and elite, this could make them more successful in the integration of women inside Afghanistan, and this could also serve as a lever of pressure on the Taliban to push them to end their abhorrent policies against women.
The diaspora society of Afghanistan is a large group of politically and economically active people living outside of Afghanistan, and it has a notable economic and political impact on different communities and parts of Afghanistan. However, it is a quasi-diasporic society rather than being a defined or unified community. Different groups within the diaspora each have a different concept of Afghanistan, which has resulted in differing understandings about Afghanistan for themselves and, through these different diaspora groups, citizens of their host countries. The future role of the Afghanistan diaspora can be positive or harmful. It is more likely to be positive if it can band together to forge a common homeland, or if a forum is created for the diaspora by the UN, US or EU to talk and accomplish common objectives.
Mirwais Balkhi is a Wilson Center fellow. He is a former Afghan minister of education, a former Afghan diplomat, and a scholar of international relations.
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