Photo of a bird peering out of a gate
Photo by: Farshad Usyan/AFP via Getty Images

Public diplomacy on the home front

During the day, I go to classes and learn about the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the evening, I go back to my apartment to call my family and make sure they are still alive.

The end of America’s longest war was announced on Aug. 30, 2021. While the Taliban celebrated its takeover of the Afghan government, the deteriorating situation left hundreds of thousands of Afghans in danger, with women, children and ethnoreligious minorities bearing the brunt of the crisis.

As a USC student earning my master’s in public diplomacy, I’ve spent a great deal of time in my courses discussing this foreign policy disaster. We have analyzed questions such as: Why did the Taliban out-fight the Afghan National Security Forces? What are the public diplomacy implications of U.S. withdrawal? Is there any way the United States could have won this war? 

While these conversations have focused on the security and foreign policy implications of withdrawal from a Western perspective, I have a personal connection to this issue. My parents fled the U.S.-backed proxy war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and traveled to Pakistan and Iran before coming to the United States and settling in Kansas, where I was born. While I grew up in the United States, much of my family still lives in Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif.

I had the chance to visit Afghanistan with my family in 2016, which completely transformed my understanding of the country. Despite being plagued with decades of war and foreign occupation, the culture, hospitality and spirit of the Afghan people was something violence couldn’t kill. This visit brought me closer to my culture and it was during this time that I developed a passion for human rights advocacy for Afghans.

My family is Hazara, an ethnoreligious Shia minority known for their distinct features and Dari language. During the Taliban’s previous rule, Hazara faced violence, torture and mass executions based on their faith and ethnic origin. Despite this vulnerability, Hazara are not prioritized in evacuations according to U.S. immigration policy. Dasht-e-Barchi, a settlement in western Kabul where my family lives, has previously been a target for attacks due to its high population of ethnic Hazaras. This past May, a maternity hospital and a girls’ school were bombed, taking the lives of dozens of Hazara.

While navigating the evacuation process that is currently in place, I drew on my skills from a course on global issues and public diplomacy and was able to investigate the flaws in global migration policy firsthand. Neighbors such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Pakistan have closed their land borders to Afghans fleeing violence, and the United States has strict requirements for passports and visas — which are now impossible to obtain due to the collapse of the Afghan government. Additionally, a majority of interpreters, U.S. visa applicants and Afghans who are most at risk were left behind.

Faced with this foreign policy puzzle mixed with the urgency of attempting to evacuate my family, it occurred to me that migration diplomacy — or the use of diplomatic tools, processes and procedures to manage cross-border population mobility — could be used by countries to meet the growing needs of Afghans.

While many states have expressed their sympathy and solidarity with the Afghan people, their foreign policy actions do not match their rhetoric. Afghanistan’s neighbors, along with the United States, Europe, and other Western powers, should work together to create a coordinated response that accommodates the millions of refugees and internally displaced Afghans. By doing so, they can begin to address the issues of mass displacement and create the social conditions for refugees to build secure lives, giving states the benefit of international peace and security.

While the path forward for my family and millions of other Afghans is uncertain, I hope to apply the skillset that has resulted from my public diplomacy coursework with human rights advocacy to make a difference for vulnerable Afghans around the world. 

​​Sumaya Hussaini is a progressive degree student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in political science at USC Dornsife and a master of public diplomacy degree at USC Annenberg.