Editor’s Note: Charlie Dent is a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who served as chair of the House Ethics Committee from 2015 until 2017 and chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies from 2015 until 2018. He is a CNN political commentator. He’s a member of the board of directors of CARE USA, a nongovernmental organization that works to fight poverty and improve the lives of vulnerable populations around the world. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On a chilly Friday evening in November 2010, my wife, Pam, sent me to retrieve my daughter, Kate, and her friends from a football game at the Allentown school district stadium. When I arrived, I realized there was one teenage girl I did not recognize also waiting for a ride home. Her name was Samiya Azizi (“Sami” for short), and when no one picked her up, I insisted she get in the car with the other girls so I could drive her home, too.
While driving, I struck up a conversation with Sami and the girls. Pennsylvania’s 15th congressional district, which I represented at the time, was home to one of the largest Syrian communities in the country, as well as fast-growing Hispanic and South Asian communities. I couldn’t quite place where Sami was from, so I asked her directly. She responded, “Afghanistan.” I told her I had just visited Afghanistan that August, in addition to a previous trip there in January 2008 with members of Congress.
Upon arriving at Sami’s home in Upper Macungie Township, a few miles west of Allentown, Kate walked with Sami to the door. When Kate returned to the car, she said Sami’s mother wanted to speak with me. I entered the sparsely furnished home to meet Sami’s mother, who was lying in a hospital bed. She had suffered terrible injuries in a car accident while driving home from a job cleaning houses. I learned shortly after this visit that Sami’s father had been executed by the Taliban in front of the family in Afghanistan, which forced Sami, her mother and four older siblings to flee and seek refuge in Pakistan – before eventually coming to the US.
In Allentown, these children struggled mightily – caring for their mother, attending school, working and paying the rent. The family moved a few times within the Parkland school district, which is among the wealthiest in Pennsylvania. My wife and a few Parkland High School families took an active interest in Sami and her family, and they helped in any way they could by providing financial resources, moral support and access to caregiver assistance.
Eventually, Sami’s family made the tough decision to move out of the expensive school district and to Philadelphia, some 60 miles away. But Sami was unhappy in her new home, and often came back to Allentown. She was bright and talented – and like many teenagers – just wanted to finish high school surrounded by her friends.
My wife took matters into her own hands and told Sami she could live with our family for her senior year – assuming her mother consented and approved, which she did. In the spring of 2012, my family sat proudly with Sami’s family at the commencement ceremony and together celebrated the girls’ high school graduation. The following academic year Sami began attending college. Today, Sami lives in Colorado and works as a wound care specialist. She aspires to become a doctor.
As a four-term congressman in 2012, I have never written nor spoken publicly about this experience. While some friends, neighbors and a few people in the local Muslim community were aware of it, I do not believe I ever shared with my congressional colleagues that an Afghan refugee lived with my family for nearly a year. An elected official has a public and private life. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate the two. In this case, my family drew a bright line.
But I felt compelled to speak up now. While watching the horrifying images and human suffering from now Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in recent days, I thought a great deal about Sami, her family and so many others who have their own terrifying stories.
It pains me deeply that President Joe Biden made the reckless decision to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. He essentially surrendered the country to the Taliban, who, notwithstanding their phony public relations makeover promising “no violence against women” and a blanket amnesty for all Afghans, will almost certainly return their country to the dark ages with theocratic and medieval brutality.
Whatever the problems and corruption of the now-departed government of Ashraf Ghani, the Taliban’s brutality will likely trample human rights, abuse girls and women of all ages and reestablish a safe haven for jihadist terrorists, while striking fear in the hearts of millions of Afghans who simply yearn for peace, stability and modernity.
The American people are understandably tired of a 20-year commitment to Afghanistan. Americans from both parties supported Biden’s decision to withdraw all US troops by September, according to polls earlier this year. But we could have left a small residual presence to support the Afghan military and protect the Afghan people while enhancing our own security interests.
To abandon the Bagram Air Base last month, which provided vital air, intelligence and logistical support to the Afghan Army, is malpractice on a grand scale. And for Biden to say the Afghans won’t fight for themselves demeans the sacrifice of the more than 65,000 Afghan soldiers who lost their lives fighting the Taliban and associated terror networks.
Former CIA Director and US Army Gen. David Petraeus said Tuesday on CNN that Afghans have taken casualties at a rate of 25 to one relative to the valiant sacrifice of American service men and women. And in a recent co-authored op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal, Trump’s former national security adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster said not one American service member has lost his or her life in Afghanistan in the past 18 months.
More to the point, have we not learned any lessons from the ill-advised, 2011 drawdown of American troops in Iraq? By failing to leave a residual force of 10,000 troops to advise and support the Iraqi army, the door was opened for ISIS to claim in barbaric fashion large swaths of Iraq and Syria, necessitating an American re-entry into the region in 2014.
The world needs American leadership – and it is a better place because of it. With tens of thousands of troops in Europe, Japan and South Korea, was it too great a sacrifice to maintain a light military footprint along with our allies in Afghanistan to keep terrorists – and those who harbor them – on their heels?
The world bears witness to the unfolding events in Afghanistan at this very moment. If anybody wants to help Afghans in their moment of dire need, sign the CARE petition, calling for the safe exit of Afghans, especially women, who worked with the US over these two decades.
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, let us reflect upon the extraordinary sacrifice of American military and civilian personnel and their contributions to the advancement of human freedom. I will forever remember my time spent on trips to visit America’s finest in Bagram, Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand and the Arghandab River Valley. They sacrificed a great deal so that others might never experience the horrors of families like Sami’s.