As the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, I am haunted by the images of the women I first saw on the streets of Kabul in 1998. They were swathed in burqas from head to toe and robbed of all identity as religious police patrolled the dusty, war-torn streets in black pickup trucks, hunting down violators. On that day, as a concession to a visiting U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the public amputations and executions in the sports stadium had been suspended. A small gesture.
But that nightmare could be the future for Afghan women and girls as the Taliban once again threaten to regain control.
Now, girls can go to school and attend the coed American University of Afghanistan or, as documented in an Oscar-winning film first featured at the "Meet the Press Film Festival," even learn to skateboard! Women can be doctors, teachers, members of Parliament. These are the human rights that make me passionate about covering foreign policy and about holding U.S. officials to account as they leave with no promise from the Taliban to preserve those rights.
But foreign policy is complicated, with many stakeholders. More than 750,000 American troops have rotated through Afghanistan in the last two decades, and more than 2,400 have died. What American family should suffer the loss of burying the last soldier to die fighting an unwinnable war? Too often, there is no correct answer for policymakers choosing between bad and worse options, even if they are willing to ignore the political fallout from their decisions. Occasionally, though, there are crises that present solutions of such moral clarity that there is no ambiguity. That is the case in another conflict zone, in northwest Syria, where millions of displaced Syrians, opponents of the regime, are living in refugee camps after having been bombed from their homes by the Assad government.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has regained control over 70 percent of the country. Left unchecked, he will wipe out these remaining areas of resistance, with help from Russia. Conditions for the more than 3 million people in tent camps in Idlib province are especially brutal: Covid-19 is rampant; there is little sanitation; water and food are scarce. Children climb piles of garbage, scavenging for bits of plastic to sell to buy food for their families.
After Russia shut down most U.N. assistance at the Security Council, there is only one remaining pathway for food and other humanitarian aid to many of these reach refugees: the border crossing at Bab al-Hawa between Turkey and Syria. There, U.N. workers and volunteers monitor and inspect every shipment before it is transferred to Syrian trucks and delivered to refugee camps just a few miles down the road, but on the other side of a forbidding iron gate.
Russia, on behalf of Assad, is trying to force the U.N. to shut down this last lifeline for millions on the verge of starvation. It is here that U.S. diplomacy has a chance of rescuing people who have lost nearly everything. On a recent June day, with temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, I watched U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield spend hours listening to refugees speaking about their desperation, along with the tireless relief workers trying to save them from famine and disease. Vaccines are beyond their reach. One woman, seemingly resigned to her fate, told the visiting diplomat, "Covid is just another way to die." The mission might appear hopeless, but I thought who but the U.S. will fight for them?
Heading into the July 4th holiday weekend, as President Joe Biden was swearing in a group of new U.S. citizens at the White House, he told them of a similar ceremony, on Independence Day in Baghdad in 2009. As vice president, he was swearing in 167 new U.S. citizens, all men and women in uniform, many of them wearing Silver Stars, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts. The ceremony took place at Camp Victory in one of Saddam Hussein's former lavish residences, the Al Faw Palace. I was on that trip, covering the vice president and Dr. Jill Biden as they visited troops. America's military had a special place in the couple's hearts because their son Beau had served in Iraq during an earlier tour of duty. Now, recalling that day, Biden said it was one of his most fulfilling moments. "I thought to myself, what an incredible justification for all the things Saddam didn't believe in," Biden said. "And I got to swear them in, in the palace of a dictator."
For me, foreign policy is not about superpower summits or accompanying presidents and secretaries of state as they circle the globe. It is about the critical tests set for America's leaders every day around the world. It is about the men and women who fought for the U.S. in Iraq even though they were not yet American citizens. It is about the Syrian refugees who have lost everything except the will to survive a 10-year civil war. And it is about the Afghan schoolgirls who defied their fathers and village elders to seek educations in Kabul. Foreign policy is about representing democracy against the rise of authoritarianism wherever we can, whenever we can and for as long as we can. That is the job of diplomacy.