President Obama's decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan is provoking strong and sometimes conflicting feelings among Afghan-Americans.
Moe Hashem, the owner of the Afghan Kabob restaurant in Springfield, VA, paints a rosy picture of post-U.S. occupation life in Afghanistan. "I support Mr. Obama 110%," Hashem said. "The [American] soldiers are my soldiers, my people. God bless them. They are helping the people. Under the Taliban, the women had no freedom, little girls were afraid to go to school. Now my sister's children go to school -- the girls and the boys. People see the beauty of life now because they are safer."
Hashem, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1990, said that he used to be afraid to go back to visit his family. "Before September 11, I was from Afghanistan, but I was not safe there. The Taliban would have killed me because I'm American. Now I visit my family every seven or eight months. If you are human, you appreciate the U.S. decisions."
Amena Chenzaie, a 34-year-old World Bank employee whose parents moved to the D.C. area from Afghanistan when she was six, is grateful to American troops for saving Afghan women from the Taliban. "From an Afghan-American woman's perspective, I support Obama sending more troops over there at this time... I can't even find a word to describe the condition of women living under the Taliban -- the curfews, the abuse. The women are prospering now."
But Sonali Kolhatkar, co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission in Pasadena, CA, says the war and the lawlessness in her native country are making life even worse for women than they were under the Taliban.
"It is a myth that women are better off under the new government than the Taliban," Kolhatkar said. "Overall, more women are being imprisoned for honor crimes, more women are being raped, women are killing themselves more, and maternal mortality rates have remained the same. There is an increasing lawlessness, so more women in general are being killed. What we're seeing today is similar to what we saw in the early 90s -- there is no accountability."
Kolhatkar said that unlike many Afghan-Americans who moved to the U.S. at a young age and have largely lost touch with their Afghan friends and relatives, she remains in close contact with women in all parts of Afghanistan and in refugee camps in Pakistan.
"The Afghan-American community is by definition a more conservative community," she added. "They are quick to support this war, but they don't have to live under the same conditions as the people. They might feel differently if they did."
As to the claim that girls now feel safe enough to go to school, she said, "Any claims about things like schools and hospitals are token claims, drops in the bucket. In the South and West, the Taliban is burning down women's schools and throwing acid in their faces. This is a new Taliban. The occupation makes them stronger, gives them legitimacy. They are able to say, 'We're protecting you from U.S. and NATO imperialism.'"
Heidar Nowrouz, who lives in Annandale, VA, but is currently working in Kabul for the Insurance Corporation of Afghanistan, said some Afghans are starting to wonder if they might prefer the Taliban to the current government. "At least there was more security under the Taliban in terms of justice. They shot women for committing adultery and chopped people's hands off for stealing; it was brutal, stupid and completely inhuman, but at least it was formal justice."
Nowrouz added, "Under the Bush Administration, everyone called the Afghan war 'the Good War.' It wasn't. The Bush Administration had no clue or didn't care about what was going on or what would be good for Afghanistan, and the people didn't see a whole lot of improvement in their lives. Afghans don't even like governments, but they will take whatever side is winning because they're destitute and helpless and need medical care."
All nine Afghan-Americans interviewed for this story agreed, however, that for American troops to pull out of Afghanistan too precipitously would be disastrous.
"This is a war that must end, the sooner the better. But people are afraid if the U.S. is not present there, there will be killing all over again, and the poor people will pay the price," said M. Akbar Nowrouz, who moved to the U.S. in 1979 for political asylum. "The institution called [the] 'Afghan government' will not last a day, and we will go back to the Stone Age."