Saviours with Survivors: Situated Afghan Transnational Solidarities
- September 23, 2021
- By Admin: Osman
By Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD
In pursuing hierarchical and geopolitical national solidarities, top-down unilateral processes (e.g. the recent US and NATO Afghanistan withdrawal) reverses public policy implementations, including overseas military interventions. With such deviations, politicians categorize people as “saviors and survivors” often resulting immense transnational private tribulations, public disappointments and additional mass displacements.
In parallel, the shift also indirectly generates transformative horizontal socio-political and practical situated readjustments. While, for instance, transnational NGOs re-emphasize trans-civic connections-with continuing semi-public humanitarian care and collaborative efforts, transnational communities (diasporas, migrants and refugees) amplify existing as well as emerging semi-private and semi-public trans-community solidarities.
“The future survival of humankind may depend on our readiness…to pause in front of the other’s otherness—the otherness of nature as well as that of historically grown cultures of peoples and countries”, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1989)
“The United Nations has been honoured to work for the people of Afghanistan for decades. Through thick and thin, we have helped to support people in complex situations — through wars, conflict, human rights abuses, humanitarian crises and regime change”, António Guterres, UN Secretary General, UN.ORG, August 2021[i]
“You sacrificed for the tested Afghan people so they for a period can experience some of the freedom and life that all people on the planet should have…A new generation has grown up with schooling, medical care, girls’ rights, women’s rights. You have shown that there is another way. Another life. No one can take that hope away from the Afghans again”, Mette Frederiksen, the Danish Prime Minister, stm.dk, September 2021[ii]
“The Taliban also has a wife who gives birth or a child who gets pneumonia” , Merete Engell, Danish Doctors without Borders, dr.dk, August 2021[iii]
“We’ve been running all our lives, I’m not going anywhere…I’ve never met a foreigner before, —Well, a foreigner without a gun; They left nothing for us; Too much freedom is dangerous, because people won’t know the limits”, Shakira, a mother in rural Afghanistan, New Yorker, September 2021 [iv].
” Within a week I lost my country. I witness many people on the run without food and shelter. Families dispersed. Can I continue my life and say that not much can be done? I am sitting and feeling guilty that I have a good life in Denmark”, Malik, Afghan-Dane transnational community member in Aarhus, Jyllandsposten, August 2021[i].
“I think about all the time: How are my cousins?”, Amad- a 9th grader Afghan-Dane in Aarhus public school, TV2Østjylland, august 2021[ii].
Introduction and Conception
C wright Mills, once analysed the distinction between the predicaments of private troubles and public issues. At the time Mills explored studies that examined the challenges confronted by unemployed people in the US during “the great American depression” between the two World Wars. In reflecting their compounded situations, he observed most of the concerned individuals blamed themselves for been out of work. In contrast, Mills concluded the trials of seemingly distinctive privatized predicaments was mainly the outcome of a hierarchical public socio-political organization. More specifically, politically concerted selective policy formations created a situation in which the excluded desperately struggled on their own. Though their situation resulted from recurring public policy-making mechanisms, people privately perceived their conditions as a largely self-made fault- thereby requiring an individual self-regeneration with sense of social guiltiness[i]. Mills mainly concentrated on the dynamics of national private-public social solidarities or lack of solidarities. Meanwhile, in the process he unveiled the inseparability of private and public dialectics. Henceforth, whatever happens on one side influences occurrences on the other side. Mills imagined and observed national structural frames- as well as territorial oriented socio-political circumstances- with lesser transnational mobility and connections[ii].
In somewhat supplementing the idea of linking private troubles with public issues- and the need for careful public attention and solutions, Thomas Faist asserts that community based transnational processes equally unveil the presence of existing, as well as emerging, private-public dialectics across socio-political, socio-cultural as well as territorial boundaries. Such processes of trans-nationalization entail not just diversified political and social prioritizations from below and the middle, but also constitute entrenched historical and contextual cultural dynamics. Apart from individuals and nation-states, diverse communities operating from within and across multiple spaces and levels, also engage trans-nationalized processes[iii].
In connecting the public policy schemes with private sufferings Mills thereby envisions a social linear hierarchical process in which diverse groups, from separate professions and probably from different backgrounds, compete and occasionally comfort. Mamdani, on the other, considers such processes becoming particularly complex and blurred as people often cross social, political, cultural as well as territorial boundaries. Public constituents might herewith redefine themselves as saviours, while portraying private constituents as survivors. For Faist the issue is more than a simple categorization of people into either adhering to the public or to the private arena. Such distinctions become lesser significant in increasingly trans-nationalized world with identities continuously transforming. Here the specific social relations and mechanisms of the involved interacting groups facilitate multiple trajectories of public-private constellations. Consequently, enabling them to form a potentially transitional semi-public and semi-private positions. Though states and transnational NGOs dominate such processes, transnational communities, often operating from transitional temporal public-private positions, remain reliable and consistent.
Under emergency situations, such as the withdrawal from particular distant territories, states idealistically declare themselves as public saviours engaged in rescue missions through diplomacy, military projects as well as other developmental endeavours. On their part, transnational NGOs also consider themselves as saviours but with a reasonable in-depth knowledge of grasping contextual dynamics. This generally helps the civil society to closely evaluate the link between private troubles and public issues from multiple perspectives. In emergency situations, such as the recent Afghanistan challenges, transnational NGOs deploy human as well as social collaborative civic tools, often sympathizing with people in recognizing their private sufferings. Unlike the state and the NGOs, transnational communities, though periodically dealing with states and other formal structures, mainly focus on the immediate familial as well as concrete social needs and relations.
Both for the states and for the NGOs, dealing with emergencies is mainly about demographics, statistics and territorial covering. A situation in which people find themselves in a linear process of moving from A to B and to C. For the transnational communities the situation rather remains inter-connected and complex. States might pursue public-private saviour platforms in rescuing survivors that might have supported state policies at the transnational level. Transnational NGOs also consider themselves as saviours and engage complex missions to support designated survivors- occasionally from distant satellite locations. For the transnational communities, often departing from a fluid semi-public and semi-private platform, roles constantly change, in the process complicating who might belong to a saviour vs. who might classify as a survivor.
Furthermore, states, such as the US, act distantly idealistic, while transnational NGOs rather prefer acting as associational and closer to the field. For the transnational communities the semi-public and semi-private transnational engagements represent existential and practically transformative instants with diversified encounters and connections- thereby requiring continuing attention and care. This includes not just a monological policy formations but also a dialogical approaches and attitudes towards concrete socio-political conditions and transformations.
Mamdani once observed the existence of such socio-political pattern when analyzing the war efforts by Bush-Cheney US administration. Back then the American regime framed a public saviour discourse with regard to potential humanitarian efforts designed to rescue people in Darfur, Sudan. Though focused on limited geopolitical public interests, the administration economically and politically empowered “Save Darfur Coalition” civic alliances consisting of transnational humanitarian organizations allowing them to mobilize public-private saviorus vs. survivors campaign in Sudan.
Similarly, though the decades long trans-nationalized war in Afghanistan destroyed human lives, as well as the general natural wellbeing of nature and society, in its latest stage of frantic transnational rescue operations, authorities portrayed themselves as champions of human consciousness and sacredness[i]. Thus, such simplistic logic of public- private distinction and who eventually qualifies as saviours or survivors seem to veil the practical humanitarian efforts and existing transnational practical compromises and struggles.
For the intervening states, Afghanistan could be an ahistorical place. But for most Afghans there exist rural-urban imbalances- and Afghans, within the country and beyond, had long suffered from externally imposed state-building projects. Disasters, the world eventually expects Afghans themselves to overcome. In addition, despite state-driven public private, saviours-survivors monologue – coupled with ahistorical conceptions of other nations, transnational NGOs and transnational communities strategically operate within and beyond such structural and discursive impositions by pursuing practical, political, social as well as dialogical consultative temporal platforms.
Transnational formal public solidarities
The nationally framed private-public problematization might also concern other developments occurring in the current world. For instance, the latest withdrawal from the Afghan war – with complex diverging private-public transnational efforts- illustrating a transnational public decision-making with substantial transnational private implications. Recently, Danish authorities and other allies, after pressure from diverse social groups, categorized the transnational evacuation of transnational partners from Afghanistan as a matter of public urgency and necessity. At the same time, authorities implicitly assumed that other existing transnational connections, for instance that of civic communities, as mainly belonging to the private sphere. Consequently, authorities expect transnational communities and related civic networks to somehow with own mechanisms deal with the deteriorating life circumstances.
Coalition states, in implementing hasty departure from Afghanistan, expressed a sense of guiltiness in not fully achieving stated original goals of stabilizing and democratizing Afghanistan. Following two decades of systematic security and developmental engagements, most states felt mission disrupted, if not fully unaccomplished. Particularly, coalition states expressed disappointment on the lack of proper governance in Afghanistan. Particularly blaming the Afghan leadership, with notorious factional and sectarian politics, in failing their public commitments.
In addition, states such as the US depict their transnational retreat and evacuation efforts from Afghanistan as a sacred novel action. Such conception rests on the idea of American moral authority in sacrificing for others, here the Afghan people, particularly those who assisted successive military operations. For the Americans, the Afghan war was one of the longest and most expansive wars ever engaged in terms of human lives as well as material resources. Certainly, the American public and their political leaders endorse the decision to end the prolonged war – though far from purely voluntary. The American president himself profiled Afghanistan as “the graveyard of empires”-which the superpower seeks to avoid. Unanswered questions nonetheless remain on how overemphasis on national interests coupled with retreat from genuine multilateralism might produce progress and development. Not to mention that historically the largest overseas evacuation took place with the assistance of a small petro-state, Qatar.
Transnational humanitarian organizational solidarities
The UN is an international/transnational multilateral organization often departing from a nation-state centric platform. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, declares commitment and solidarity with the Afghan people. In the same statement, the Secretary General stresses the prioritization of the UN system in providing specific support to transnational staff, affiliated organizations and allies. The UN herewith administers complex formal bureaucratic transnational mechanisms. This has to do with the UN humanitarian efforts requiring top-down decision-making processes, including fundraising, logistical planning as well as security clearances before ordinary people benefit from public humanitarian practices.
Meanwhile, transnational NGOs also express their immense disappointment for the decades long top-down efforts in Afghanistan ending up in seemingly disorganized retreat. Other concerned formal structures that also provide support for transnational connections include cities. Recently, a collection of cities expressed transnational solidarity with Afghan people. A form of solidarity particularly addressed to Afghan cities and their mayors. Following the Taliban takeover, transnational city coalitions declared their willingness for providing sanctuaries to displaced refugees. Knowing that states and national governments, formally administer border and visa regimes, in an implicit attempt of balancing critical emergencies, cities situate themselves as concrete reliable spaces of receiving, integrating and employing refugees and migrants. In his work “If mayors ruled the world” Barber (2013) profiles cities as political structures mixing public and private approaches to forestall and overcome recurring potential social and political challenges. Parts of the urban environment occasionally accommodate those at the margins of the nation-state public policy mechanisms- herewith including diverse transnational communities.
Meanwhile often transnational NGOs and the UN transnational agencies- insist on humanitarian dimensions- in particularly calling support for suffering Afghan women and children. The NGOs act differently from the state- as most cannot just depart and shut all their activities in short notice. States can if they want severe the Taliban regime- but transnational NGOs prefer maintaining some sort of relationship, as they are interested in linking to the people rather than to the regime.
Despite mass evacuations and departure of western forces, Danish and transnational NGOs are willing to continue their work and stay in Afghanistan. The rationale herewith includes NGOs portraying themselves as closer to the people. For instance, Danish Refugee Council built schools and wells for Afghan people in the interior. For them regardless of who politically rules the country, it is the humanitarian dimension that remain critical rather than the political and the geo-political circumstances and concerns.
One of the major concerns of the transnational NGOs is not just whether they can continue their work for the people, but also on whether affluent states – after two decades of military involvement in Afghanistan, will in prospect continue funding humanitarian and civic projects. So, the organizations seem caught into the dilemmas of the host country providing spaces and security for their work and wealthier states continuing to fund civic initiatives.
Transnational informal semi-public and semi-private solidarities
In practical terms, the efforts by transnational communities, largely seen by most as private or semi-private, deal with the unfolding dramatic predicaments, in for instance Afghanistan, through discrete family networks and associations. Some members reach out and mobilize networks and organizations within the local, national environments as well as the wider transnational communities abroad.
Occasionally, the so-called “public gatekeepers’ such as teachers, nurses and social workers, with direct daily contacts with members of the communities, provide limited institutional solace and spaces. The educators let kids, the most vulnerable members of the communities, to discuss their worries and anxieties. They seem mainly concerned the well-being of their pupils-more or less directly impacted by the Afghan conflict.
This sort of providing bottom-up transnational emotional care for local transnational community members is different from the formally state organized transnational efforts of assisting transnational more or less professional affiliates. For instance, transnational employees assisting state-driven Afghanistan interventions, attract greater media and policy attentions. This happens despite, the non-public- mainly privatized transnational community connections remaining more consistent and larger in scope. In essence, the efforts of transnationally engaged states, and their feelings of guilt in assisting transnational allies, makes certain dimensions of transnational communities as a public concern and priority- while more or less consciously, letting other dimensions of the same communities as private enterprise. In contrast, for the transnational communities, transnational connections remain consistent and critical- and most of them potentially seek solutions through semi-public and semi-private frames.
While the state and the NGOs respectively concern public state-building efforts and governance, transnational communities mainly worry on semi-private existential and survival concerns. Though they mainly worry about the processes of state and society stability, most of them practically remain preoccupied with the support and alleviation of the suffering of their relatives. For those fortunate enough to live among relatively more peaceful and prosperous societies, like among the Danish society, having close relatives suffering in Afghanistan, burdens their daily lives. For instance, for the Danish transnational Afghans, this manifests through personal and collective community perception of guiltiness.
Unlike formal transnational inter-state and civil society linkages that often draw and build on formal socio-political structures, community transnational connections rest on alternative media, social and political channels as well the generation of alternative transnational community feelings. Both state authorities and institutions as well as NGO institutionalized civic efforts, though engaged in diverse transnational efforts, insist on more or less formalized international engagements- of aiming at operating within and across demarcated boundaries and scales. For such formal institutional platforms, Afghanistan is distinctly Afghanistan while Denmark is definitely Denmark.
This is not the precise world in which transnational communities live. For most community members Afghanistan could be Denmark and vice versa. There exists no clear space-time separation of here and there as well as differences of Us vs. Them. The people and the groups in which the different parties associate and think also differ. The communities have much more comprehensive and open network, while the state and the NGOs restrict to more professionalized and organized entities- designed by public and civic policies and strategies.
The Afghan community’s “survival guilt “- perception rests on the desperation to sustain transnational solidarities between reasonable stable lives in a city like Aarhus, Denmark combined with tragic, tormenting instability and anxiety filled lives in relation to families in rural and urban environments in Afghanistan. This generates immense restlessness. As Danish-Afghan school kids in Aarhus explain, the ambivalence of belonging to Denmark and Afghanistan simultaneously – following the news constantly and communicating with relatives and friends back home- generates existential social anxieties. The community is preoccupied with Afghanistan and its people- and the most important activities for them are to be there for each other – in providing social and emotional care for the needy.
The recent Afghanistan dramatic events qualify as immense transnational social, political and humanitarian catastrophe. With the insistence of top-down organized decision making, formal structures- more or less directly, veil the private and semi-private aspirations of overcoming public policy generated socio-political debacles. Consequently, the activities of civic transnational constellations, such as transnational NGOs as well transnational communities, unveil barriers that superficially distinguish the public from the private. Civic transnational connections insist on the existence of semi-public and semi-private initiatives and priorities that some will argue might be suitable in the current inter-connected volatile world.
In this regard, feelings of guiltiness and blame as well as conceptions of victimhood prevails. While certain civic transnational groups assert their sense of guiltiness of not fully attending the needs of Afghan victims, certain states portray themselves either as saviours or even as victims. For instance, the Greek Premier recently complained the lack of European and global solidarities with his nation- in the case of potential Afghan refugee-influx. The Premier declares the Greeks of not any longer wanting refugees at their doorsteps. He calls for alternative interstate policies of overcoming the burden. Currently, however, most of the world’s refugees remain displaced within and closer proximity to their homelands[iii].
The current transnational connections, with top-down transnational public policy mechanisms, privileges formal structures as well as the transnational better offs. Community transnationalism from below can, therefore, not directly compete with formalized transnationalism efforts sustained by states, the UN system and NGOs. Such institutions often operate from within or through bureaucratic professionalization and social enclosures. Transnational communities can, nonetheless, diversify and amplify genuine dialogic transnational horizontal relational solidarities- organically and practically connecting diverse social groups within the local, national and transnational levels and spaces.
[vii] Mills, C. W. (2010). » Private Troubles, Public Issues «. Sociology. Introductory Readings. Hg. v. Anthony; Sutton Giddens, Philip W, Cambridge: Polity, 5-8.
[viii] Mills, C. W. (2000). The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press.
[ix] Faist, T. (2018). The transnationalized social question: Migration and the politics of social inequalities in the twenty-first century. Oxford University Press.
[xi] Lischer, S. K. (2007). Military intervention and the humanitarian force multiplier. Global Governance, 13, 99.