Opinion | Andrew Watkins

Duty or desertion in Afghanistan

Niloofar Rahmani poses for a photograph at an Air Force airfield in Kabul.
Niloofar Rahmani poses for a photograph at an Air Force airfield in Kabul.SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

KABUL — There is much that is compelling about the story of Captain Niloofar Rahmani, Afghanistan’s first female military pilot, who just completed flight training in the United States. It is a remarkable achievement for any Afghan woman to rise to such public professional heights.

All of which makes her recently revealed request for asylum in the United States so problematic for traditional Western notions of duty, public service, and the social contract. What does service mean, under a government that fails to provide its citizens some of its most basic services? What is any person’s obligation to serve, in a country where people cannot be protected for doing so?


Rahmani’s decision wasn’t made on the spur of the moment. After years of harassment and death threats, witnessing her father shunned from work and her brother (the only male relative who openly defended her) publicly attacked twice, she is now described by journalists as “giving up.” Afghan generals were quick to label Rahmani “shameful,” a “liar,” and a deserter. Public outrage back in Afghanistan was so blistering that Rahmani told local news outlets that she was mistranslated, literally misinterpreted.

Desertions are a hallmark of conflicts in Afghanistan — for all militaries. Afghan forces have been plagued by epic levels of desertion for decades, predating even the Soviet invasion in 1979. Soviet soldiers deserted during the conflict, too, often seeking refuge in the West. Then there is Bowe Bergdahl, facing a trial on desertion charges, who has asked President Obama for a pardon during his final days in office. That may be the most high-profile case familiar to Americans, but it’s hardly rare — tens of thousands of US soldiers have officially deserted since 2001, Pentagon data show.


But the case of Afghans deserting while visiting the United States reveals some deeper quandaries. Dozens have disappeared during training in the United States in the past two years. These soldiers are clearly deserters in a strictly legal sense, and they took advantage of privileged positions in their government’s service. No government, no society can hope to function and thrive if such acts are encouraged. But are these soldiers wrong to want to flee, after more than 30 years of war? Is any Afghan? Is there any hope Afghanistan would thrive if they stayed?

Being a woman doesn’t change this core dilemma, but it does raise the stakes: Life in Afghanistan is unquestionably difficult for women seeking any form of public service. Just weeks ago, the Taliban murdered a van full of female security employees who worked at Kandahar’s airport. This brutal act is only the most recent and the most visible in a long list of targeted attacks against women, especially those who serve in government.

Rahmani caught renewed attention from the Western press early last year, when the Department of State awarded her a medal for bravery. In a cruel twist, it was that the publicity she received that appears to have exacerbated her safety concerns. The Pentagon, State Department, and US press lauded Rahmani for remaining “resolute,” in the face of threats that grew worse every time they praised her. The same Afghan Air Force that now attacks Rahmani’s decision to seek asylum prevented her from flying in July of last year, citing security concerns.


The issue of Rahmani’s integrity, what she owes her government or her country, is intriguing but practically moot: If life in Afghanistan wasn’t next to impossible when she chose this path, it certainly is now. And we in the United States are as culpable in the publicity that has worsened Rahmani’s troubles as we are culpable in the course of the Afghan war.

Where do duty and obligation end for an Afghan? For years, thousands of Afghan soldiers and police have gone without pay for months on end. In provinces where the fighting rages most intensely, they often go without fresh food or supplies as well. Meanwhile, corrupt generals collect the salaries of thousands of ghost soldiers they enter into the payroll.

Captain Rahmani’s government ranks as one of the most corrupt on earth — to the extent that in many respects, it barely functions. The vice president of Afghanistan is currently under investigation for the public beating, imprisonment, and rape of a political rival. How can anyone expect continued service from individual Afghan men and women when we have failed to demand the same from Afghan leaders, from the Afghan state we helped create?

Rahmani’s case is an urgent reminder that Americans need to answer big questions of what they owe the Afghan people. When the US military withdrew from South Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese came to the States as refugees. Tens of thousands were evacuated by American military transport. If we have lost patience, if we decide that another 10 or 20 years would be wasted effort, if we deem the cause of a free and functional Afghanistan hopeless — then who are we to question brave young Afghans for thinking the same?


Andrew Watkins has served with US Army special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now works in Afghanistan as an analyst and adviser in the humanitarian community.