September 12, 2021
Lessons from Afghan Refugees and September 11
On this anniversary of 9/11, many Americans will naturally feel conflicted about our role in Afghanistan. Whatever we each feel should be tempered by the realization that our fight against the extremists who attacked us 20 years ago is ongoing. We have forces deployed to dozens of nations in a conflict that will extend through the remainder of this century.
The choices we now face are how, when, and, at times, where to fight. Having spent almost a third of my adult life training, fighting and planning for war, I can assure you there are no easy choices. There are none without risk; none possessed of certainty; none that do not cost us treasure and youth. It is easy to cast blame for the collapse of Afghanistan’s government because there’s plenty to go around. I suggest we instead be concerned with drawing lessons from this experience. We must do better in this fight. We must also find ways to honor the unfinished work of those men and women, living and dead, who sacrificed in Afghanistan.
If there is something beautiful and noble to be taken from our experience, we need to look no farther than to the work now being done with Afghan refugees. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several texts from three men participating in the relocation of refugees. I was best man at the weddings of two; the other was a college roommate. All three are retired military officers, one of whom fought in Afghanistan. These are hard, competent men with big hearts and a deep love for our great nation.
The work they now do should usher in the most popular immigrant group to ever come to our shores. American cities, particularly in the people-starved Midwest, should be lobbying hard to receive these Afghan immigrants. This population is mostly educated and is largely composed of families whose men fought alongside us against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
This is a small group. Fewer Afghans will come to America than the number of people who crossed our southern border illegally in any single month of the Trump or Biden presidencies. Still, these immigrants are enough to help resurrect several struggling cities around the nation. Let me offer a simple example from the city where I live and work.
Suppose Muncie were to invite 500 families to relocate to the city. This number seems large, but it is really only two or three families for each church. An excess of 5,000 vacant homes dot our city, many of which are owned by the county. Surely the citizens of a great city could clean up and furnish 500 homes, provide clothing and basic appliances, and set up that many households. Our county’s employers, who complain of a deep shortage of workers, should be anxious for an influx of talent.
This migration would bring 1,500 children back into beleaguered Muncie schools. They’d receive a large cash infusion from both the federal and state government. There are enough English-speaking adults among the refugees to hire translators and instructors. In three-to-five years, these children will be fluent in English and performing well, probably transformatively well, in school.
This may seem fanciful, but it is almost exactly what happened across the Midwest during our nation’s heavy immigration period 1870–1914. This is the story of Chicago, Detroit, Toledo, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and dozens of communities throughout the country. An influx of 500 Afghan families wouldn’t rank among the top 10 migration episodes of Muncie’s short municipal history, nor would it erase the population losses that are now beginning their sixth decade. Still, it is a rare chance for a few American cities to turn themselves around.
The American immigration story is almost wholly good. The Afghans now relocating to America may be the second-best educated group in history. This more resembles the European Jewish diaspora of the 1930s than any other period of immigration. Our enlightened economic self-interest should push us to welcome these families into our communities. However, there are more important reasons for welcoming them than local economic recovery.
Our nation leads a fight against a dangerous and adaptive enemy. The collapse of the Afghanistan government makes it more difficult to assemble allies. It also makes it harder to convince those who admire democracy to take risks in their own countries. These terrors suggest to the world that we hate true Muslims. A successful embrace of these Afghan refugees would help restore our damaged reputation. This is another moment when the decency and goodness of the American people must shine.
I take heart that public poll demonstrates that welcoming these refugees is overwhelmingly popular. There are a few demagogues warning that the trickle of Afghans will bring harm to the U.S. There is a long and abundant history to suggest they are flat wrong. But, don’t take it from the economics professor who has studied it. Instead, ask yourselves what group has worked hardest to bring these refugees to safety, often at great personal risk. Of course, it is the veterans of our campaigns in Afghanistan. Let their actions speak loudest on this issue.
We can honor the sacrifices of our service members who fought in Afghanistan by simply doing what is right. I reject anything like the gauzy notion of a national morality, but our actions are being watched around the world. How readily we make a home for these people in our great Republic cannot help but be a reflection of who we have become as a nation. In the months after 9/11, the world flocked to assist us, with many recalling the generosity Americans have shown the world for a century. This is an opportune moment to prove our allies right in their judgement of us.
There are also those who fear the influx of these immigrants will alter the culture of our nation. Their low numbers make that unlikely, though our great national genius has a tradition of absorbing that which is good from other cultures, blending it, and making it our own. Some readers will feel some anxiety at change. Here I’ve tried to explain the national security and economic imperative of welcoming these refugees, and tied it to our long-term national interest on this solemn week of remembrance. Finally, on the point of refugees, I can appeal to higher authority—we are not asked to choose our neighbors, rather He commands us to love them.
About the Author
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