Lyla Kohistany was born in Afghanistan but moved to the United States with her family in 1982 during the Soviet occupation. After a childhood in Virginia, she returned to Afghanistan when she was 25, not with her family, but with her colleagues — by then she was a U.S. Navy intelligence officer.
Kohistany followed her older brother’s footsteps into the American military. It’s with that unique perspective of an Afghan American veteran who is a woman that she’s been watching the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the collapse of the Afghan government.
Now 41 and living in the D.C. area, the former naval intelligence officer works at the Atlantic Council, a think tank.
For the past several weeks, she has been trying to raise awareness of what she sees as the endangered fates of women and children in Afghanistan, especially those who may have worked with or been associated with Americans, and to do what she can to extricate those most vulnerable to retaliation.
“When I think about my own experiences as a refugee, my experiences here led both me and my brother to want to join the U.S. military to give back,” she said. “That’s what I think we will see from a lot of the refugees that come here as well: a deep sense of gratitude and a desire to give back.”
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: There are a lot of pundits suddenly very eager to talk about Afghanistan these past couple of weeks, but you have a unique perspective and experience given your background and deployment there. What are your thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal?
A: As a veteran who has served in Afghanistan three separate times, I — along with many members of the veteran community — was generally supportive of ending our mission in Afghanistan. But the way that it was executed, I am vehemently in opposition to. I would have liked to have seen our government and our military conduct much better planning.
But I also would have liked to have seen much better planning to ensure that the Afghan people would live under an agreement that we had made with the Taliban where the Taliban was actually held accountable. So how is the U.S. going to hold the Taliban accountable? That’s the piece that is the most disconcerting for me. So many of us truly did believe that the United States would only enter into an agreement that would ensure the safety and the security of Afghan people. And that’s just not what I’m seeing from our government today.
Q: There’s a lot of assumed inevitability when we talk about Afghanistan. Is there anything in past U.S. actions, either in Afghanistan or even any other situation where we’ve occupied a country, that would have indicated that we could have gotten the result that you wanted in terms of bringing all these different voices to the table?
A: There were moments in our timeline in Afghanistan where I actually felt incredibly hopeful. I think about my time there in 2010 and 2011, when we were surging forces in Afghanistan, when we were very focused on building civil society, when USAID, numerous nongovernmental organizations and the State Department were focused on Afghan human rights, on education programs for women and for children, trying to ensure that more women were educated so that they could join the political process. Those were hopeful days for me, they truly, truly were.
These programs, I truly do believe that if they had been funded and managed and were allowed to continue in the long term, I do believe that they could have made a substantial difference in the outcome that we are seeing today. I think about the last six or seven years of us primarily focusing on a military solution to an ideological problem. And I think that’s where the massive disconnect is. I do think that the outcome that we’re seeing in Afghanistan could have been different if we had been able to invest more long term in Afghanistan, rather than having a series of what is often described as one-year conflicts, because we have so much turnover in our government and our military. But also, if we could have considered how to engage those various voices that, again, have for so long been left out.
Many people want to move on from Afghanistan. But this is not a place where we were going to win militarily. And that’s where we have made the majority of our investment — in the security side, rather than the education and ideological side.
Q: Were you always for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan?
A: Absolutely. Because I do believe that there are many Afghans that actually share more with America’s values than they do anyone else. I think about my own upbringing, having been a refugee in 1982. We came here to the United States because we wanted U.S. ideals and values over Soviet ideals and values. I believe that the values of education, of being contributing members of society, of fighting against oppression, these are values that very much resonate with the majority of Afghans. That’s why we worked with the United States in the 1980s to help overthrow the Soviet Union. It’s why when the Taliban took control in the 1990s, so many Afghans chose to leave. They went to Pakistan, they went to Iran, they resettled not only in the United States, but in Australia, Germany, France, the U.K. The Afghan diaspora is all over the Western world.
Q: Many people have expressed a desire to help civilians, particularly women and children, in Afghanistan. Are there certain groups that you particularly endorse, or that you’ve vetted — or what do you think would be most helpful if you’re working on a grass-roots level?
A: Three groups that I absolutely endorse are Task Force Dunkirk, Flyaway: Emergency Afghan Rescue Mission and No One Left Behind — it’s a group that was created by veterans and interpreters to help not only with getting Afghans and Iraqis out of those two areas of conflict, who had supported us in terms of being interpreters, but it also helps with long-term resettlement.
Q: I’ve seen some influencers or people post exchanges with Afghans on social media, I guess to try to raise awareness, but is it possible that they may actually be endangering people? What could people do to be better?
A: I have a group that I’m working with right now that is very focused on girls and boys that are in an educational facility in Afghanistan. The first thing that I asked the coordinators is, may I talk about what you all are doing? They told me, “No, but we’re willing to have private conversations.” I know that for the American people, for many people around the world, they just want to do something to be helpful. But you might actually be doing more damage and more harm. Because if we have access, and the Afghan citizens have access to it, then the insurgency has access to it as well.