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Researchers reflect on the ethics of evacuation activism in Afghanistan.

Hindsight can make outcomes appear inevitable. We tend to explain the trajectory of a particular historical moment in the narrow terms of what has transpired. However, in the immediacy of historic moments as they unfold, what later becomes cast as inevitability can feel like just one possibility among many.

When we set out to write this article, we were a larger group of scholars discussing the ethics of going back to Afghanistan in the context of a deteriorating security situation that put our friends, colleagues, and interlocutors under considerable strain. It was July 2021, and the precipitous withdrawal of US troops from the country after two decades of intervention/occupation had led to an increase in violence across Afghanistan. A resurgent Taliban, emboldened by the withdrawal agreement it signed with the Trump administration in February 2020, had made inroads across vast swathes of the country. Many Afghans who had never wanted to leave were searching for ways out amidst increasing instability, already-restrictive visa regimes, and the more recent barriers to travel erected since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We discussed whether our presence would put an extra strain on our contacts and whether the levels of insecurity, exhaustion, and hopelessness among our friends and interlocutors rendered the pursuit of knowledge production unethical or, conversely, whether circumstances compelled us to bear witness. What exactly were our responsibilities as researchers and how should we determine them? Before we could properly engage in these reflections, the situation on the ground changed dramatically—and with it, our roles as scholars and colleagues.

The international community was unprepared for the overwhelming task of evacuation management.

The Taliban takeover of the government on August 15 precipitated an attempted mass exodus. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled to the airport. Along with most other researchers who work on Afghanistan, and Afghans in the diaspora, we suddenly found ourselves in the role of humanitarian practitioners, working in the absence of effective bureaucracies and alongside governments that were at best translucent, often outright opaque, to help secure exits for those on the ground who were trying to flee. These changed circumstances pushed us to negotiate a whole new set of quandaries, marked by the dissonance between our internal critiques and the limited options we were trying to leverage in the narrowing window until the August 31 withdrawal deadline.

Marya: In the first days of panic, many of my closest friends and colleagues were able to get out. This was largely due to their positions in international networks of power, either through their jobs or because they held multiple passports. Some had already been planning to leave and had made inroads in the weeks before; others worked for international media outlets that assisted with evacuations. As the granddaughter of Palestinian refugees, I know from my own family history that having the means to leave does not make it easy. There is no ease in the abandonment of your home, community, past, present, and future. There is no respite in facing the possibility that you may never return, and knowing with certainty that if you do, it will not be to the same place. Although it wasn’t easy, these colleagues were the exceptions. I tried and failed to help so many others navigate the pathways out: students from Kabul University, colleagues from the American University, friends of friends and family of friends, and the strangers I connected with by volunteering with evacuation efforts.

Annika: While many of Marya’s friends made it out, my network of colleagues and interlocutors was less fortunate. After a decade of work and research in Afghanistan as a cultural anthropologist, my contacts ranged from government employees and NGO workers to Sufis and peripatetic nomads. Some feared for their lives, others were unsure what a future under the Taliban might bring. WhatsApp and Signal chat groups sprung up among Afghanistan-connected volunteers to track the ever-changing parameters for entry onto lists that promised seats on coveted evacuation flights. “Lists” is a word that I might never want to hear again. Having failed to account for a swift Taliban takeover as a possibility, and in trusting a potential political interim-government option as most likely, the international community was unprepared for the overwhelming task of evacuation management. Each country rushed forth their criteria for acceptable refugeehood, tasking their foreign offices and an army of unofficial volunteers to produce lists of people who should either be directly connected to the international community through their work, “vulnerable” within the new regime, or “best of all” both.

Entries onto these lists had to be justified on scales of vulnerability that reflected nation-states’ own hierarchies and logics, which stemmed from an evaluation of an individual’s usefulness and a sense of reciprocity for services rendered to the occupying force. Had someone worked directly for a national development agency, or were they only funded by it in a project? Was it enough if someone’s mother-in-law and brother were killed by the Taliban for working with foreigners, or did someone need to demonstrate a threat directed at them personally? Was being a single female photographer in fear of being married off to a Taliban fighter a sufficient threat to gain access onto a list, or did she need to have been a public human rights defender, affiliated with international institutions? In highlighting, bending, and making reality fit into the prefabricated hierarchies of vulnerability, which offered pathways for those deemed fit to lead a life abroad versus those excluded from this moment of exception, we wrestled with the inflexibility of categories and our own complicity in perpetuating categories that we would otherwise refuse in our work.

Credit: Collage art by Shabnam Nasir Ahmad. Photo credit Jalal Sepehr.
Collage of a photograph of a runway with rugs lining it and two individuals standing on it
Tufan/Storm (طوفان)

These efforts involved a sea of documents: certificates to navigate through checkpoints to reach the airport; materials for visa applications; passport numbers; national ID cards; letters of threat; letters of hire; letters of recommendation; a certificate for participating in a US training program on “civic engagement”; a letter of employment from a US-based NGO leveraging language of empowerment; a memorandum of understanding with a defense contractor, outlining roles and responsibilities—and throughout, a stubborn belief that if these documents, which were framed at the time of their production as “official,” were to get into the right hands, they would serve as tickets out. The weight of such documents and their relationship to regulatory border regimes was not new. Their power and violence is as old as the bounded territory of Afghanistan: the current borders were set under the rule of Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901), who forcefully maintained them in exchange for a colonial subsidy from the British. It was during his reign that the arbitrary Durand line between British India (today Pakistan) and Afghanistan divided populations along the frontier. In this period, the violence of the state was often wielded with documents intended to control movement, what Shah Mahmoud Hanifi has labeled “a textual net” that ensnared traditionally mobile populations. A century later, we were watching people become ensnared in real time. Documents that had traded on their power and weight over the two decades of intervention were proving increasingly meaningless.

The panic and decision-making that accompanied the writing of these lists also tore at the social fabric of families, communities, and friendships: some asking us to remove some of their children from the list to have a better hope of being “selected,” others begging to be able to take their grown up children, some asking to leave their spouse behind, many insulting us for not being selected (thinking we had something to do with the final selection decision). Disillusioned by the potential futility of attempts to get people onto lists, some of us decided to explore what spaces civil society could carve out in the interstices of nation-states.

Annika: In a fit of wishful thinking I joined a civilian-led German initiative of journalists and filmmakers working to evacuate Afghans on a charter plane. It seemed an unlikely mission, given that existing evacuation efforts were led by nation-states and their militaries, who were already navigating an uneasy cooperation with each other at Kabul airport. However, what most nation-state actors were missing was not planes but on-the-ground ability to mobilize and bring people into the airport—a crucial undertaking that we felt equipped for given our own contacts among Afghans and foreigners who had remained in Kabul. Organizing with two teams—an Australian filmmaker and an Afghan cafe owner in Kabul city, and a German documentary filmmaker and a British former special forces soldier inside Kabul airport—we managed to persuade Taliban commanders at checkpoints as well as an American colonel to let our passengers into the airport. What sounds so easy in hindsight involved days of negotiating, as civilians, with diplomats and army personnel, hoping against all odds, praying, and maneuvering. The reality for the Afghans, who were dependent on our ability to bend the system to our will, was more than 48 hours on buses with young kids and elderly parents as they were held in limbo in front of the airport, intimidated by mobs who tried to enter the buses and the rifle ends of Taliban soldiers that struck our mediators, worried for their lives as the very Taliban officials from whom they feared reprisal took hold of their personal information. I asked myself at several moments during this ordeal whether, in making vulnerable people so visible, we were doing them more harm than good.

We wrestled with the inflexibility of categories and our own complicity in perpetuating categories that we would otherwise refuse in our work.

Some private initiatives garnered a critical response from migration experts for potentially being celebrity stunts that would leave Afghan passengers stranded at the US border without the necessary immigration papers. But the civilian-led initiative “Luftbrücke Kabul” was well networked within the German political system. All 189 passengers, whom we successfully managed to evacuate, were given laissez-passé papers and some form of status upon arrival in Germany, the exact shape of which remains unclear at the time of writing. Yet as much as this successful endeavor might vindicate civil society engagement and its impacts on individual lives, the limited space for civil society engagement in structures dominated and led by nation-states became woefully apparent. All our passengers needed approval from the German foreign office. When the German foreign mission cut its stay at Kabul airport short, the project depended on cooperation with the British and American militaries.

Where does this flawed process leave us as researchers turned humanitarians? In the extended moment of evacuation activism, we were reacting to the opportunities we saw emerging for our contacts. We were also caught within several dependencies, forced by circumstances to work within the evacuation efforts and possibilities organized by nation-states. As the German example of a civilian chartered flight showed, even the attempt to break that mold required the approval of state structures. On a second level of dependency, we found ourselves wrestling with, and reproducing, the logic of the nation-state and its hierarchies in the process of triaging evacuations—even as we bent the truth to make the people we were evacuating fit into the narrowly-defined categories of those under threat.

Hindsight offers us the chance to move beyond reflecting on these dependencies and toward understanding how they operate within a broader logic of political decision-making and exclusion. Adopting the lens of necropolitics is instructive. Necropolitics describes political decision-making processes that disable the mobility of particular human populations and accept the death of masses of people, while maintaining the value of human lives in other political geographies. Indeed, the categories that were used within the evacuation processes reflect the necropolitical rationales of nation-states acting within a foreign country as their playground: elevating the value of certain people as “worthy” of being evacuated, while disabling the mobility of particular human populations and accepting their potential endangerment or death as an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product. Drawing attention to the extent to which these categories were harmful and destabilizing is not an academic exercise in discourse analysis. Rather, we recognize the necessity to critically engage with them after the fact in order to understand the powers we were trying to wield, or in which we were entangled, and the violence these categories and processes perpetuate among the people who must navigate them.


Annika Schmeding

Annika Schmeding is a cultural anthropologist and current postdoctoral junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. Her research explores religion, social change, politics and conflict, statelessness, minority rights, and community formation in Afghanistan and Central and South Asia, where she has worked for the past decade.

Marya Hannun

Marya Hannun is a historian of Afghanistan in/and the Middle East and a postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University’s Department of Contemporary Arab Studies. Her work, based on archival research and oral interviews in multiple languages and geographical spaces, is on the history of Islamic legal reform and change, women, and the Afghan state in transregional perspective.

Cite as

Schmeding, Annika and Marya Hannun. 2021. “Tangled Webs.” Anthropology News website, December 20, 2021.