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We promised never to forget, but we have

This year we observe the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a day we swore never to forget. But in 2021, we have sorely forgotten.

In recent weeks, U.S. troops abruptly pulled out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban quickly filled the void.

But instead of immediately seizing control of cities, the Taliban first sought control of the few roads and airports that allowed people to exit the country freely. Then, by setting up checkpoints and immediately executing those who seek refuge, they effectively trapped everyone in the country as they regroup and close in.

Those trying to escape by the only roads out are meeting the most gruesome ends. Last week, the Taliban decapitated two people trying to escape the country after serving as interpreters for the United States. Now, most of Afghan population hides in their homes, praying for safety.

But the world isn’t listening. Instead, we are sizing up new Olympic medalists and debating whether we should be mandated to wear masks to protect ourselves from COVID-19.

A new threat is on our horizon, and for some in Afghanistan, it’s already on their doorsteps.

About a year after 9/11, I left my home in Howland to help build Afghanistan’s first newspapers, magazines and Afghanistan’s first photojournalism school.

I started classes in a series of rooms that once served as a prison run by the Taliban. After a year of classes, my students began winning awards from National Geographic for their work. One student even won the Pulitzer. In the last 18 years, they have become activists for human rights and leaders pushing for a more robust democracy.

Today, I have voicemails from those same students begging me for help. They are trapped and the walls are closing in.

To put it into perspective, most incomes in Afghanistan are less than $3 per day. There are no banks in Afghanistan to allow anyone to create a savings account or receive money from others. So, like most of the population, they can’t afford the highly inflated prices to rent a car to drive from the country. Even if they could afford it, they still risk execution each time they pass through Taliban checkpoints.

But it is not just the checkpoints that are breaking the will of the people.

Within days of our troops leaving Afghanistan, the Taliban started to force women back into their homes. Respected journalists have reported the Taliban and their tribal allies have been going door to door to count the number of dresses in each house to determine how many women (and female children) lived there. They are counting because they plan to use their census data to target unmarried women and children to become brides to Taliban leaders. The forced arrangements have already begun, and it is only their first month of regaining control.

All those who served as collaborators for the U.S. government are targets of assassination squads. In addition, those who served with the Afghan government and those who espouse western ideals such as freedom, equality and progress are now the targets of Taliban raids.

Afghanistan is descending 20 years into the past where all influence of western life is illegal. Artists, the press and anyone willing to hold onto western ideals are targets for capital punishment.

If there was a growing evil in the world that humanity should be fighting, this is it. Instead, we are irresponsibly walking away and wiping our hands.

Millions of people are trapped. They have nowhere to run. So they are hiding in their homes, praying for a miracle while the Taliban continue to surround and conquer neighboring cities. Time is running out. The fight outside their walls already has begun.

We promised ourselves that September morning we would never forget. It was our mantra as we took down the Taliban for allying itself with al-Qaida. It was our rallying cry as we freed the Afghan people and helped them set up a new democracy, and it was the roar we felt inside our chests when we killed Osama bin Laden.

Yet, today, we have lost sight of our gains. Instead, we are casually handing the Taliban control of Afghanistan while allowing their new reign of terror to begin without consequence.

Every American with a conscience needs to stand up and speak out about this injustice. Afghanistan is descending into one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the last 20 years. And, like last time, this reign of terror is likely to end up at our doorstep if we choose to ignore its grave implications.

Luther, formerly of Howland, worked as a photojournalist for The Vindicator and Tribune Chronicle and as a Town Crier editor, before moving to Washington, D.C., to get his master’s degree in Journalism.

@glennluther on Twitter

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