Junaid Lughmani: Starting my MBA as a country I love collapses

Man with Afghan flag
Photo by: Robert Michael/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Junaid Lughmani, MBA 23, found himself torn between two worlds last week, trying to stay focused on MBA orientation as he grappled with heart-wrenching sadness over the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Lughmani, a first-generation American of Pashtun origin, worked as an interpreter in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. He served as a liaison between the U.S. and Afghan governments, conducting interrogations and gathering intelligence on the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Three years later, he returned with the U.S. Army Infantry Rifle Platoon, leading multiple combat missions. 

He sought an MBA with a plan to return to Afghanistan and invest in entrepreneurs. Now, he is desperate to help.

In this edition of Haas Voices, Lughmani shares his grief, anger, and frustration as he watches what is happening.

Junaid Lughmani
Junaid Lughmani

More than a week after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, my mind continues to dwell in a state of shock. The hard-fought years spent alongside our Afghan partners to build a better future for the country catastrophically unraveled in a matter of days.

That sense of helplessness I felt as I watched is something I will never forget.

But I don’t waste time discussing the tragedy in terms of the failure of politicians. My heart is with the Afghan people. With my people. Words cannot convey how sorry I am for the Afghans who will once again have to endure the brutality and humiliation of the Taliban. I’m sorry for Afghanistan’s little ones, especially its daughters, whose promise of a bright future has been snatched from them. I am sorry for the 20 million Afghan women whose lives will become shuttered and oppressed, their voices now silenced. I am sorry for the brave teachers who risked death by creating opportunities for the nation’s youth, their dreams of living in a more prosperous society now indefinitely postponed. I am sorry for the courageous Afghan soldiers and police officers who fought to defend their country, but are now in hiding as the Taliban seeks vengeance.

To those who criticized the Afghan security forces within the past week from the safety of your living rooms, please reserve judgement. You have no idea (or maybe, sadly, you do) what Afghan service members endured over the past 20 years, in a climate of vast corruption and inconsistent policy. None of us know how we would fare under those circumstances.

Monday morning, the first day of MBA orientation, I woke up confused and angry over our government’s abandonment of Afghanistan. My mind raced: What was the point of entering the country in the first place? For what purpose did we liberate Afghans from the tyranny of the Taliban, just to have the terror group unleashed upon the citizens 20 years later? Were there any thoughts of the military families who endured deployment after deployment?  If not for them, then what about for the Afghan and American lives (and limbs) lost in war?

Monday morning, the first day of MBA orientation, I woke up confused and angry over our government’s abandonment of Afghanistan.

I sent a plea for help to the Haas veterans’ WhatsApp group chat. As a club, we needed to take a stand and express solidarity with the Afghan people. The responses multiplied within minutes, and by noon the Haas Veterans Club released a statement expressing firm support of the Afghan population. I shared the statement with a friend in Kabul and, upon reading it, she was overcome with emotion.

Like many Afghans, she feels abandoned and alone. In this grim moment of history, words matter, solidarity matters, and empathy matters. A simple statement from a student club at a Northern Californian school brought a breath of solace to someone trapped in hell on the other side of the world.

Once the statement was complete, I rushed to orientation. The only seat open was right smack in the middle of the first row of Andersen Auditorium. My mind was in a fog. My body was safe in the auditorium, but my head was with the chaos in Afghanistan. Under this terror regime, how many Afghans would lose the opportunity to start their own education journeys? How many would have to spend the next who-knows-how-many years of their lives fighting for their survival, instead of writing a thesis or forming study groups?

Junaid with boy wearing Yankees hat
Junaid Lughmani served in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army.

Eric Askins, the MBA Admissions Director, began his orientation remarks by saying, “Our thoughts are with the people of Afghanistan and Haiti.” Immediately, I broke. I could not control the tears streaming down my face. Spotlighted in the front row, I buried my chin in my chest, hoping no one would notice. Matthew McGoffin, my roommate and also a veteran, was sitting next to me. He could feel my leg shaking uncontrollably. He put his hand on mine, and thankfully, I was able to gather myself enough to keep my head down and out of sight.

The past week has been a nightmare. The Afghan diaspora and veterans are sad and angry. The veterans who deployed to Afghanistan are ashamed. No one is sleeping. We simply can’t. Every phone call is an opportunity to help someone in need, to save their life, or to save their family. We can’t afford to miss one call, one text, or one desperate cry for help. For the past 20 years, we were there with the Afghans. We fought with them, served with them, ate food with them, laughed with them. They opened their homes and their lives and their hearts to us. Now, in this dire time, we can do nothing to defend them.

For the past 20 years, we were there with the Afghans. We fought with them, served with them, ate food with them, laughed with them.

The guilt eats at our consciences. Politicians in both countries have first and foremost deeply betrayed the Afghan people. But the betrayal also extends to the veterans who proudly served in Afghanistan; those who sacrificed their blood and souls to this country.

Junaid in Afganistan
Junaid Lughmani, MBA 23, wants to return to Afghanistan to help entrepreneurs.

Soon, all foreign troops will leave Afghanistan. By the time pumpkin spice lattes hit the menu at Starbucks, news headlines will shift focus to the next world event. The public will forget about Afghanistan. The most maddingly frustrating part of this calamity is that we were so close to healing the country from the first Taliban reign. Afghan children attended school. Women played an active role in Afghan society. Billboards were adorned with images of pop stars and the country’s sports heroes. There was even a coding school for girls, “Afghan Girls Code,” and an entrepreneurial ecosystem developing. I had plans to return to Afghanistan after finishing my MBA program as an investor in the country’s up-and-coming entrepreneurs.

I fear now that all of this progress is stalled.

Instead, I hear the cries of my Afghan brethren through tinny cell phones and the cold distance of text messages. I rest here safe in monotone, while they burn in chaotic color. I just want to be in Afghanistan again, with my people. I know the horror that lies ahead for them, yet I also know firsthand the resilience of the Afghan people.

Insha’Allah (God willing), I will be with them again. Whatever it takes, I am determined to make that happen.