Since the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban on 15 August 2021, thousands of Afghan people have tried to flee the country. Sadly, these most recent events fit seamlessly into a long history of violence and suffering of the Afghan people. The small hope of peace, which emerged in 2019 after negotiations between the US and Taliban, has now vanished into horror and displacement.
Afghanistan’s history of foreign involvement
Throughout history, Afghanistan has been at the centre of many foreign-policy strategies and hence, attacked numerous times. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan invaded the country, and the British wanted to use Afghanistan as a buffer against the Russian Empire but the invasion failed similar to future attempts by the Soviet Union.
The independence in 1919 did not bring long-term relief either, as a coup in 1973 and the Soviet invasion in 1979 followed. To stop the communist aggression, mujahideen, including Osama bin Laden, were supported by the CIA and other governments. However, after successfully repelling the Soviet invasion, the country spiralled into a civil war, which ultimately resulted in the Taliban taking over Kabul in 1996. They imposed a strict rule based on Islamic extremism, restricting women’s rights to work and education while forcing them to wear burqas, and introducing amputations and public executions as punishments.
And then the latest chapter, “Operation Enduring Freedom” by US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair started on 7 October 2001. The US-led NATO invasion directed against Al-Qaeda as an answer to the 9/11 attacks, was widely supported by the media and brought nearly 111,000 civilian casualties since 2009. After destroying the Afghan state, a campaign of building up a democratic government, infrastructure and education followed. Peace talks between the Taliban and the US started only in 2019, resulting in the peace agreement of February 2020.
Recent Peace Talks
The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan from 29 February 2020 addressed the withdrawal of US troops and the obligation to prevent terrorist groups from operating on the territory, but did not include the Afghan government. However, those intra-Afghan negotiations were vital for the peace as they should have dealt with questions of power-sharing, setting up a new government, the protection of women’s and minority rights, as well as the role of the Sharia in the state. Nevertheless, these negotiations were delayed by internal disputes and negotiations about basic procedures. A ceasefire was never agreed upon.
The Taliban’s weak commitment to the peace process has been apparent by the increasing violence in 2020 and 2021, and subsequently resulted in the Taliban gaining control of key cities and provinces within days in August 2021. The US withdrawal had paved the way for the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, while the Afghan government was not sufficiently prepared for defending the country by themselves. President Ghani fled the country, and the Taliban held a press conference declaring that the “Islamic Emirate is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia” and reassuring other countries that there will be security.
Ongoing humanitarian crisis
Now a wave of displacement resulted in ten thousands fleeing their homes, when already 2.2 million Afghan refugees are in neighbouring countries. Additionally, UNHCR estimates that since the beginning of 2021, already 550,000 Afghans have been newly displaced within the country, bringing the total uprooted population to over 3.5 million. Despite ongoing violence, the US, which has evacuated over 80,000 people since mid-August, wants to end evacuations by 31 August 2021.
This comes at a moment where most European countries are reluctant to take in large numbers of refugees and some even have been trying to return Afghan refugees previously. Moreover, Austria suggested setting up “deportation centres” in nearby countries, which means leaving vulnerable refugees in unsafe conditions. In fear of a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis, European countries are not willing to offer additional places for Afghan refugees. Greece finished building an extension of a 40-km border wall, and added new cameras and radars to avoid a refugee wave coming from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, the UK introduced an Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme, aiming to take in 5,000 vulnerable Afghans in the first year, with up to 20,000 people in the long-term. The scheme is not open yet. Australia said it will take 3,000 Afghans under an existing programme for humanitarian visas.
The international community has failed Afghanistan once again. Two decades of building up an Afghan government seem now futile, and many Afghan people are desperate to escape the expected harsh Taliban regime. The footage of hundreds of people trying to climb on a departing US military jet will remain alive in the world’s mind for a long time to come.
In particular, well-known human rights defenders, journalists and women’s rights activities are still waiting for evacuation, despite being praised and used as the “faces of the new Afghanistan”. Even the UN Human Rights Council reacted to the latest developments with almost indifference as it only announced further reports and an oral update. The special session on 24 August 2021 failed to see the latest events as urgent enough to establish an independent mechanism to monitor the ongoing crimes.
What needs to happen now
The international community needs to step up to ensure people at risk of persecution by the Taliban can safely escape. Human Rights Watch calls for the airlift to be continued past 31 August to rescue at-risk Afghans. In a similar manner, Amnesty International warns of Taliban reprisals against thousands of Afghan academics, journalists, civil society activities and human rights defenders.
Even if the Taliban keeps its current promises and establishes a more moderate regime compared to their previous rule in the 90s, women’s rights and freedom of expression would be more limited than they were in recent years. And any other scenario will involve at least some level of violent extremism, and a massive step back regarding basic rights for women and minorities in Afghanistan.
The ongoing tragedy in Afghanistan needs urgent action, such as evacuating people, issuing humanitarian visas, offering relocation and resettlement, and immediately suspending all deportations. In addition to providing safe passage out of Afghanistan, humanitarian aid is required for the 18 millions trapped within Afghanistan without access to water, electricity, safe roads or education. Finally, to protect the advancement of women’s rights that Afghanistan has achieved in the last years, international pressure on the Taliban and other governments seeking to recognize the regime must be maintained.
Millions of women and girls have no choice other than staying in Afghanistan, and will need the protection of the international community – they have no one else they can turn to.