History of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan influences lives of refugees

Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 1:28 AM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - America’s involvement in Afghanistan stretches back decades and that involvement has shaped the lives of the people finding refuge in central Wisconsin.

Matiullah Matie is one of those people. He worked with U.S. forces and government agencies for several years in Afghanistan, however, his reasons for doing so stem back before he was even alive.

He was born on Jan. 1, 1982 in Helmond Province, Afghanistan. It is a long, narrow province in the southern region, bordering Pakistan, and is the largest of the 34 provinces. However, he was only there a few months.

“When I was child, my parents gone to, been to Quetta, Balochistan as refugees because there was the war of the Russians,” he said.

Like three million other Afghans, his family fled to Pakistan as the Soviets occupied parts of Afghanistan, in what the United Nations Refugee Agency noted at the time as the largest refugee crisis in the world. It is just one of the many conflicts and turbulence in the country over centuries.

Helmand Province, with its river and fertile valley, was an area of particular interest during the Cold War.

“The Americans have been involved in Helmand Province and that area for decades, even going back to the 40s and the 50s,” Dr. Jennifer Murtazashvili said.

Among many things, Murtazashvili is currently the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets and an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She is a published author of two books related to Afghan governance. She also worked for the US Agency for International Development, “and I was actually working in the US Embassy on 9/11, and so I was part of a group of people that was getting the humanitarian aid into Afghanistan right before the war started.” After gaining two masters, and a doctoral degree from UW-Madison, she dedicated her time to Afghanistan fieldwork, visiting the country regularly.

In the 40s and 50s, Americans invested in big development projects in Helmand, including creating a dam and irrigation system for the communities there, along with the Kandahar airport and cities, including the province’s capital city of Lashkar Gah, which became known as “Little America.”

The investments were made at a time when the Soviets began forming relations with Afghanistan, and the U.S. wanted to prevent “excessive” Soviet influence. During the Cold War, the Soviets had a sphere of influence in northern Afghanistan and the Americans had influence in the south, specifically Helmand Province.

Murtazashvili said in the most recent war over the last two decades, Helmand Province and Kandahar were the sites of some of the worst violence.

“The Taliban’s historic home is in Kandahar, which is not far, from Helmand. And so, the anti-U.S./anti-Afghan government insurgency really was launched out of those areas in the south.”

By Sept. 11, 2001, there was a renewed American focus there. American intel was that Osama Bin Laden, the leader of the Islamic extremist group, al Qaeda, that was responsible for the attacks on the U.S., was being harbored by the Taliban.

That same year, after finishing high school in Pakistan, is when Matie and his family moved back to Helmand Province, where they farmed.

In December of that year, Hamid Karzai became the president of Afghanistan, working with the Americans against the Taliban he once supported.

“There’s a famous Afghan saying that like... a family has, you know, four children and one is a government bureaucrat, one is a communist, one is a Taliban, and one is, you know, a Mujahideen fighter,” Murtazashvili explained. “And the thing is that you don’t know who’s going to be in power tomorrow, and so families hedge their bets.”

She said with so much anarchy, Karzai wanted to bring the country together. He did so by giving warlords from different ethnic groups and tribes government positions. While that method has its issues, she noted it did create some stability in the government. It brought together many ethnicities and tribes together fighting for a common cause, to reduce Taliban influence and control, alongside Americans.

Between that time and 2006, Matie had helped with his family’s farm, he worked as a money exchanger. From 2006-2008, he worked at a Russian company and quit after his manager did not support his duha prayer needs. He then briefly worked for a private insurance company, working as a manager in the Musa Qala district, “which was very terrible and dangerous,” he noted.

He recalled seeing some soldiers (he would not say from where for his own safety), “they were helping the terrorists like they were not helping the Afghanistan government very honestly. Then I said, ‘oh you want to take the revenge, I start work with my American brothers.’”

He said he remembered the investments Americans provided his province decades before. He quit, got paperwork filed to create his own company, and in 2009 he made the trek to a U.S. Marine Corps base in Nawa, Helmand Province. It was at a time when a new surge of troops and American resources were entering the country.

“That was the heart of Taliban country down there in Helmand,” retired Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson said. “So, Nawa’s just a little town probably, you know, two streets, two dirt streets, lots of little shops that were closed. Our first day there, there was a lot of, a lot of gunfire.”

He said U.S. control ink blotted from that base in the rural community over time.

“(Nawa had) people that are very apolitical, they just want a better life like, anyone. They just want a better life for their family, and in a safer environment. And I think we were able to establish that in 2009 pretty quickly, and, and Matiullah was a large part of that.”

“He called me a Marine. He told me you are a Marine,” Matie smiled. He and Nicholson remain in contact.

Nicholson said their mission was to suppress the Taliban, earn the trust of the locals, and provide aid and build local stability in the region. People like Matie, who had great connections in the community and understood the people well, were crucial to the mission.

With his new construction business created, Matie’s first project was to rebuild the governance building in an area the Taliban controlled. He was told to name his price.

“I was starting the business from $10,109, I grow up to the million, million Afghanis,” he smiled.

As the U.S. flooded the region with money, Matie and others who worked with Americans became millionaires. Matie said he used his money to help the American and Afghan troops, along with putting some into charity programs.

He also offered his ideas for ways to improve the communities to the Marines, U.S. Army, U.S. Embassy, USAID, Spirit of America, and the International Security Assistance Force.

“The Afghans are very hungry, they don’t have the money, and food, and bread, but Iran and Pakistan is giving them much money,” he said, explaining that those are two countries he holds responsible for the Taliban’s actions as they were harboring them. “For example, take 10,000 Afghani or 1,000, take this bomb and take the American soldiers. So, I mentioned to the American Embassy, I sent them an idea, to let’s treat terrorism outside of the Afghanistan and find the social jobs, like I was for in 2009, more than 20,000 people I collected and they would work with us and they will become enemy with the Taliban.”

He is talking about the USAID Cash for Work program, which works to employ locals so they can have an income and not have to rely on the Taliban for work.

Then, Matie started another company, distributing things like sim cards for Salaam Telecommunications over two provinces. He also went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. During that time, because it was a religious trip, he said he did not connect with his U.S. partners or his employees. He left his vice president in charge. By the time he got back, he said some workers said they were not getting paid.

“They stole my money. They had given some money to people to start protesting against me and show to the USMC that this is no good guy.”

Matie lost all of his money and he fired his vice president.

“We (the U.S.) started pouring it absurd amounts of money. And I think it was that time where (sic) we thought the surge would solve this problem, but by just pouring so much money in it actually undermined everything that we were doing, because the country didn’t have the ability to absorb all of these resources,” Murtazashvili expressed.

She was working with USAID at the time in neighboring countries. She said development projects in the surrounding, richer countries were 1/40 or 1/100 the size of the projects going into Afghanistan.

“There were no institutions underpinning it. And you had American contractors and NGOs that were you know, supposed to be monitoring and spending the money. They knew the security situation in that country had deteriorated so many of the American staff who was responsible, couldn’t travel and see how the money was being spent. And a lot of it just ended up in the wrong, in the wrong hands. And that was our fault. We shouldn’t have been spending money that we couldn’t monitor, frankly.”

While Matie offered his ideas about how to improve the communities, Murtazashvili said a lot of times they began projects the communities did not want.

“We asked, maybe, the central government but the central government didn’t always represent what the people’s needs were.”

With a weak government, she said there was corruption at all levels.

“So many villages I visited, you would see people like the school system was corrupt, so they would create their own like private schools, they would pay teachers, they would organize education.”

However, there was progress. Many areas were rebuilt and modernized. Afghans had a thirst for education and took advantage of the opportunities to gain it.

“We got achievements. There was no bombs, no suicide attackers, nothing,” Matie said.

Murtazashvili noted, that as the U.S. effort went on and Karzai ruled, there was a lot of tribal politics; certain ethinic groups felt favored over others. Then in 2014, Ashraf Ghani became president.

“He was someone that the United States really favored. He had a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University. He worked for the World Bank, and I think the United States that okay, this guy’s gonna be a technocrat,” adding that he would be better than Karzai.

2014 is when a large portion of U.S. forces left.

One of the first things Ghani did as president was to oust all of the warlords from their government positions. She said he was very focused on controlling the government to make it a technocratic authoritarian state where the top dictates down.

“But what he ended up doing was alienating the very military forces, the very militia forces that had been fighting the Taliban for decades. And he kind of eliminated them from all of their military positions, eliminated them from government positions, and a lot of them came from ethnic minority groups like they were Uzbeks or Tajiks. And they were looking at this saying ‘The government’s out to get us; why aren’t they fighting the Taliban? Why are they spending more time fighting these ethnic minorities and these different sort of (sic), quote-unquote, warlords?’ Because a lot of these warlords are actually the best governors of the country. They were able to get things done. It’s a very complicated story.”

As Ghani focused on the government rather than the Taliban, people, specifically Afghan soldiers began to lose faith in the central government. The Taliban took advantage of that.

“They started filming the surrender of all these soldiers, and instead of killing them, which is what they were doing in the past, you can go back to your village, we’re not going to hurt you, general amnesty. And that’s how the government collapsed.”

Or at least it is one of the reasons it collapsed, she corrected. She noted that these Afghans did not believe or support the Taliban, but that they did not have anything to fight for if they believed the central government was corrupt.

Matie feels that way too. He spoke publicly in the media against Ghani, specifically calling him corrupt. He also called out the Pakistani and Iranian governments for harboring terrorists.

In mid-2021, the Taliban shot up his home, killing some of his family members. Then, just before the full collapse of the government, they burnt his office and all the other shops adjacent to it.

“Was a very sorrow time for us because we lost the achievements of last 20 years,” he admitted.

Nicholson agreed, but he said he is happy to know at least Matie and his family are safe. He hopes others who helped Americans find refuge too, saying Matie is a good representation of the people they worked with.

“I’m incredibly proud of what Matiullah and so many others did in terms of trying to help their country by working with the United States. And I hope, I hope that our citizens understand that these are, you know, these, these are folks that have made a difference.”

“We Afghans and the Americans, we are two hands of one body and two bodies of one mind. The mind and goal of America and Afghanistan is peace in the world and treating terrorism,” Matie concluded. “So, that is why we are happy and as our grandfathers were together, we are together.”

Matie is anxious to begin working again after living as a refugee for half a year, not only to provide for his family but to continue to serve America. He is hoping to start his own business again, looking for government grants or some aid to do so. He is also considering starting a restaurant so his whole family can get involved.

While it might be some time, he trusts he will be able to return to his family and friends in Afghanistan when it is safe to do so.

Currently, the Taliban controls the country, which Murtazashvili said actually creates some peace from the fighting, unless you are a woman. There is also massive famine and cold winter, with the World Health Organization calling it an economic and humanitarian crisis.

Afghans have sold their organs, and considered selling their children in order to survive.

“No one can tell me to sell my children but we are struggling to keep them alive,” a woman told a Sky News reporter. “And that’s why we thought of selling them, maybe it will be better for them and we get food for the others.”

Much of the aid, however, is tied to conditions that would require the Taliban to open schools for girls again.

It’s estimated that roughly 90% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people are dependent on aid and the UN says nearly 3 million are displaced in their own country, driven from their homes by drought, war, and famine.

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