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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Afghanistan: what we must do

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

On few occasions in human history has cause and effect been quite so simple and clear. The men, women and children of Afghanistan need our help, at least in part because of our actions. We have the capacity and the money to help them. If we do not, who are we, and what, if anything, do we believe we stand for?

At some time around 11am on Sunday 15 August, the Taliban entered Kabul. Within hours, the Afghan government was gone, and the militia was once again in – nominal at least – charge of Afghanistan.

This piece will touch on the causes of Afghanistan’s problems.

But it is really designed to make a single, simple point: our priority now, as in all situations, must be to ensure that the men, women and children affected are safe, physically and from oppression, whether at ‘home’ in Afghanistan, or by being able to travel safely to other locations, where they can find safe places to live, learn, work, thrive and contribute to their new communities.

This is a fundamental human right – a right we all have. Fortunately, it is also extremely easy for us to deliver, without violence, legal or illegal invasions, injury, or loss of life.

But this will not happen on its own: we must make it.

Background – the first ‘civil’ war

In brief, Afghanistan has been in a state of conflict for 42 years.

In April 1978, in what has come to be known as the Saur revolution, the Socialist political party the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) overthrew the Afghan President, former Prince Mohammed Daoud Khan, who had deposed his father King Zahir Shah in a coup in 1973.

The Party had served as a junior member of Khan’s coalition government, because it had backed him in the 1973 coup.

By October 1978, following a series of internal PDPA rifts and several arrests by the party’s leadership, public uprisings began and by December, much of Afghanistan was under the control of armed groups which had formed or mobilised against the PDPA. In December 1978, at the request of the PDPA, the USSR sent troops to resist the uprisings and assist the PDPA.

The major opponents of the PDPA, and by extension the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, had a number of different motivations. Many were angered at the deposition of the President, who was the last member of the Afghan Barakzai dynasty. Others were warlords who saw the opportunity to seize land they believed was, or hoped would be recognised as, rightfully ‘theirs’.

But there was also a religious element to the opposition. Though the PDPA denied being a Communist party, Afghanistan was (and remains) a 99.7 per cent Muslim state, and many within it feared that Islam itself would be attacked by, if not the PDPA, then certainly by the Soviet Union.

Indeed, this did in fact happen.

There is a famous image of three women in Kabul in 1973 wearing miniskirts in public. This image has become extremely popular again in the last few days as people fear the Taliban’s re-seizing of Afghanistan will lead once again to the oppression and public humiliation of women.

What is less often mentioned is that we have many first-hand accounts from women who were beaten by Soviet soldiers during the war of 1979-92, for wearing the chadaree (the Afghan burka). The reality for many women in 1970s and 1980s Afghanistan was that they could be attacked – verbally or physically – for dressing in skirts and showing their faces, and for wearing robes and covering them.

To put it another way, we should not oppose the Taliban so that women can wear mini-skirts. We should do so so that women can wear whatever they like.

In any case, the fears held by many Afghan people about what would happen to Islam should the PDPA and/or Soviet Union govern the state were genuinely held, and not unfounded. As a result, although the earliest armed opponents of the PDPA were not religiously-motivated, a large number of those who signed up to oppose them in the first year of the war, certainly were.

These fighters, united in their Islamic faith (though not all were fighting for ‘Islam’ or even for Islam in Afghanistan) and their political opposition to Communism, quickly became known as the ‘Mujahideen’, an Arabic term meaning ‘strugglers’. Even so, we should be clear that the Mujahideen was made up of seven groups, only four of which cited Islam as their major motivation.

The Mujahideen have come to represent almost all things to all people. On the one hand, the US in the 1980s regarded them (in public, at least) as ‘freedom fighters’, as did many within Afghanistan itself. Others portrayed them as religious extremists, even though many were no more or less religious than many of the Afghans who supported or fought for the PDPA (the Afghan National Liberation Front were Sufi monarchists, who wanted a monarch and a democratically-elected parliament, the National Front wanted a liberal democratic Afghanistan. The Islamic Society, while absolutely motivated by Islam, also stood for a democratic Afghanistan).

Afghanistan’s geographical location – and at points, its mineral wealth – have made it a country of significant international interest.

The US, seeing the USSR fighting in support of the PDPA (and perhaps in the hopes of embracing Afghanistan in the Union, or as part of an ‘Asian Warsaw Pact’) decided it must support the party’s opponents, either to prevent Soviet influence or control, to gain the mineral wealth of the country, to install a friendly government, because opposing whichever actor your opponent backed was the way the Cold War worked (in the conflicts which wracked both Somalia and Ethiopia, the US and Soviet Union actually changed sides), to weaken the USSR in the hopes a long war would prevent it progressing elsewhere or, in all probability, all five.

It began to supply and fund the Mujahideen.

It’s reasonably important to note here that at this point, Osama Bin Laden, who would later found and lead Al Qaeda, was also becoming involved in the war. He and several colleagues began by operating a ‘half-way house’ for jihadists who were heading to Afghanistan to join the fight against the Soviet Union and PDPA. He had been unhappy to discover that these foreign fighters were untrained and of little impact in the Afghan conflict, and set out to improve their capacities.

At this point, however, there were around 250,000 Afghan Mujahideen fighters, most of whom were united by Islam, but not all fighting primarily for it, as opposed to about 2,000 ‘Afghan Arabs’, the people including those trained by Bin Laden, who were fighting solely ‘for Islam’ – many of whom had little or no knowledge of Afghanistan itself.

There is so far no evidence to back the suspicion that the Reagan administration of the US helped to fund Bin Laden’s ‘training camps’ as part of its wider backing of the Mujahideen, but the suggestion is not as far-fetched as it should be, in part because of the woeful state of US military intelligence and knowledge of international affairs, and in part because, as is often the case, the US government simply did not care who it backed to stop its perceived ‘enemy’, as long as they were stopped.

It is also certainly the case that following the civil war, and particularly after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, some members of the Mujahideen joined Al Qaeda having been seduced by its aim of wider jihad to ‘defend Islam’ across the world.

But it should also be noted that the Mujahideen was not Al Qaeda. It did not become Al Qaeda and indeed it actively opposed Bin Laden’s (successful) efforts to build ‘jihadist training camps’ in Afghanistan.

Elements of the Mujahideen itself became increasingly fundamental in their approach to religion, however, much to the anger of many of its component members: a factor in its increasing division (the Hizb i-Islami, the strongest of the Islamist Mujahideen groups, was reported to regularly attack other Mujahideen groups from as early as 1981) and later collapse.

In 1988, having suffered extensive casualties, the USSR began to withdraw its soldiers, leaving the PDPA, which had hoped to build a Socialist state in Afghanistan, to fight alone against the US-funded forces. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soviet attention turned away from Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 made it all but impossible for the PDPA to continue to fight.

It is a particularly bitter truth that we cannot be certain how many people were killed in the first Afghan ‘civil’ war. Estimates suggest that between 1978 and 1987, more than 850,000 people were killed – an average of 237 per day. More than 1.2m Afghan people were left permanently disabled, and a further three million wounded or injured.

By 1991, more than six million people had fled Afghanistan, and two million more were displaced from their homes within the country. Many regions no longer had functioning infrastructure – schools, hospitals, dentistry and other services were either significantly compromised or no longer existed.

In 1992, there were 18.2m men, women and children in the world registered as refugees. Of those, 4.55m, or 25 per cent, were Afghans. Almost all were living in Pakistan or Iran.

Background – Mujahideen government and ‘second’ civil war

On 27 April 1992, the Mujahideen, which was itself largely exhausted and was closer to falling apart than at any previous point, took Kabul, and in doing so, took control of Afghanistan.

Almost immediately, and largely because major elements of the Mujahideen refused to accept other elements’ right to hold any power, the state fell apart.

From Kabul, where Burhannudin Rabani of the Islamic Society held the Afghan national presidency, the ‘party’ issued new policies based on Sharia law, which were particularly restrictive for women. But when Rabani refused to give up the Presidency in December 1992, under the ‘rotating presidency’ the Mujahideen had agreed upon, the Mujahideen broke into several component parts and started a new war for control.

Fighting broke out in most major Afghan cities, and while, once again, only estimates exist of casualty numbers (largely because the ‘eyes of the world’ are often averted from Afghanistan), estimates suggested that 10,000 people were killed in 1993 alone, while in 1995, Amnesty reported that ‘thousands of people have been abducted and never seen again’.

Other reports state that rape was ‘regularly used’ as a weapon of war, while boys as young as 12 were being recruited to fight by Mujahideen groups.

At the same time, the state’s infrastructure, ravaged by 13 years of civil war, meant that Afghan men, women and children had almost no chance of living anything approaching ordinary lives. Sixty per cent of Afghan schools no longer had buildings, and girls were banned from attending school.

The Mujahideen groups, desperate for money to continue their battle against one another for control of the country, did not only make civilians’ lives terrible by the laws they passed. They set up ‘checkpoints’ on the major trade routes, at which they demanded cash and goods for people to be allowed to pass, and women were regularly abducted, raped, and forced or sold into marriage.

In late 1993, a new force, made up largely of Pashtun refugees who had been ‘brought up’ in Pakistan refugee camps, began to enter the war.

In 1994, at a meeting of around 50 men in a mosque in Sangisar, the Taliban was formally founded. The Taliban was not made up of members of the Mujahideen. Its ‘members’ were boys and men who had been educated in all-male ‘Islamic’ schools run by two Pakistani Islamic political parties (along with some Pakistani and Iranian men, all of Sunni Islamic faith). Some had been sent to fight alongside the Mujahideen during the first civil war, and the schools were closed for this purpose, but they all had to return when the battles ended, and in any case almost all Taliban members in 1994 had been too young to fight when the Soviet army left Afghanistan in 1988-89.

The Taliban were welcomed in some areas of Afghanistan, in part because of their intense (at first) Pashtun tribalism, but also because they fought the by now largely hated Mujahideen at every point. In Kandahar, which the Taliban took from the Mujahideen in late 1994, they immediately dismantled the checkpoints and roadblocks in the city, and harshly punished anyone they believed to have committed crimes.

Backed by funding from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, at which point they named Afghanistan the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

But the group’s attitude to law and governance was even harsher than that of the Mujahideen’s Islamist groups.

In their five-year rule of Afghanistan, they carried out policies and practices of oppression, including banning women from all work except health-work, insisting that they must not leave their homes without male escort and the chadaree, and imprisoning, torturing and publicly-beating men and women alike.

The Taliban executed adulterers and other criminals in Kabul’s sports stadium on Fridays and men, women and children were forced to watch. Television, radio, music, dancing and pastimes such as kite flying were banned. Girls were excluded from schools even where Mujahideen ‘rulers’ had allowed their attendance. The group also persecuted non-Pashtun ethnic groups, particularly the Hazara, thousands of whom were massacred during the Taliban’s rule.

The economy collapsed, and services deteriorated further. Most of the country was dependent on international aid for food, and a drought in 2000 made hunger an even greater danger. In Kabul, just one hospital was open for the city’s 500,000 women and girls.

And the war continued. Rabbani and others gathered to form the ‘Northern Alliance’ which received funding mainly from Russia and India, and which included Hazara, non-Taliban Pashtun, and Uzbek fighters. In 2001, the Taliban – while nominally the government and certainly the most powerful Afghan force – controlled just 90 per cent of Afghanistan.

In the nine years from 1992-2001, one million civilians are estimated to have been killed in Afghanistan. In 2001, there were 16.4m men, women and children registered as refugees around the world. Of those, 3.8m, or 23.2 per cent, were Afghan. To put that in perspective, Afghanistan’s population in 2001 was 21.6m, or 0.35 per cent of the world population.

The US (and many others’) invasion

We aren’t going to go too deeply into the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan led by the US along with France, Italy, the UK and many other states (this was the first war since World War II in which Germany had active troops).

That’s partly because the topic (unlike, unfortunately, the 22 years of war in Afghanistan before it) is so well known, and partly because there are a large number of people falling over themselves to spread ‘information’ of differing value and accuracy already.

But there are a few points it’s important to make.

First, the US did not, in any meaningful sense, ‘create’ the Taliban. Neither was the Taliban ‘formed from’ the Mujahideen, which the US had extensively and deliberately funded, or Al Qaeda, which it may have funded through an all-too-familiar US combination of blind ignorance and ‘back our enemy’s enemy, and work the rest out later’.

But equally, the US (etc.) invasion of Afghanistan was not, despite what UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (the absolute embodiment of why a man who is doing something horrific for what he believes to be a good reason is one of the most dangerous things on Earth) and later US political leaders claimed, an ‘intervention’ designed to ‘improve the lives’ of Afghan men, women and children.

The Taliban were – and remain – a terrible group of people, and a disaster for almost all Afghan people. But that is not why the US invaded Afghanistan.

The invasion was motivated by three main factors:

1) The US wanted revenge for the 9/11 attacks, and believed that attacking Al Qaeda in its Afghan stronghold (rather than targeting the terror organisation’s funding from its major South-West Asian ally Saudi Arabia) would be the best way to get it

2) The US wanted to be seen to avenge the 9/11 attacks (this is the major reason why the US repeatedly ignored Taliban offers to arrest and/or expel Al Qaeda and its members from Afghanistan)

3) Afghanistan remains a country in an extremely important strategic position (not least because of China’s proposed and developing ‘Belt and Road’ project) and contains vast amounts of mineral wealth. Some of the more intelligent members of George W Bush’s administration (not an especially competitive field, but slightly harder to achieve than in Trump’s White House) realised that it would be good to – at the very least – install a ‘friendly' government there to ‘ease access’ and ‘give the US a presence’

In case you were in any doubt about this, the violent pensioner now in charge of the US, Joe Biden, told the world in an address on Monday 16 August that:

We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals, get those who attacked us on 11 September 2001 and make sure al-Qaida could not use Afghanistan as a base to attack us again. We did that.

Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to be nation building, it was never meant to be creating a unified, central democracy.

Biden could not, of course, say that the US had also wanted to gain access to Afghan minerals and to have a ‘presence’ in Southern Central Asia, because that would sound too much like imperialism, and in any case, the US failed, abjectly, to achieve it.

But that is it. Shorn of Blair’s steely-eyed evangelism, the US, in its own words, wanted revenge. Nothing more, nothing less. It was prepared to invade a country, kill tens (certainly over 100,000) of thousands of people, for revenge. The problem is, this wasn’t even Biden lying. And many in the US would unfortunately agree with him. The US is one of the world’s problem nations.

It’s worth stopping at this point to note that in the same address, Biden asked Afghanistan: ‘How many more generations of America’s daughters and sons would you have me send to fight Afghanistan’s civil war?

This may be one of the grandest pieces of self-delusion in recent history.

While there is in fact some reason why Biden might feel angry with former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, (though the US funded only the parties it wanted to win elections in Afghanistan, so the US must take at least some responsibility for him and his government as well) which was widely accepted to be extraordinarily corrupt – albeit faced with an almost impossible task of rebuilding a state atomised by 42 years of war – it is absolutely unreasonable to pretend that the US et al played no part in changing and perhaps prolonging that war. Or indeed that it was not aware that not everything in Afghanistan was peaceful and calm. As if everything was fine, the US invaded and then after ten or so years a civil war suddenly broke out so everyone stayed to ‘help’.

In any case, according to the Costs of War Project, the US invasion left around 173,890 people dead. Of those, 67,500 were Afghan military service people and police, 51,191 were ‘opposition fighters’ (mainly, but not exclusively, Taliban) and 47,245 Afghan civilian men, women and children were killed.

American deaths included 3,846 contractors and 2,442 armed servicepeople, while 1,144 servicepeople from other allied forces were also killed. Five hundred and twenty-two foreign civilians (including 444 aid workers) were also killed.

It isn’t entirely accurate to say that all of these people were killed by the US: first of all, the US servicepeople and contractors were not killed by the US (although one could argue that they died because the US chose to invade. There is a point to consider at some point about the extent to which people must be held responsible for their own actions as well, however) and neither were the 1,144 servicepeople from other armed forces (the same applies in this case, however: without the invasion, these people would not have died, and the US et al chose to invade Afghanistan).

The most complicated issue here is whether or not the deaths of civilian Afghan men, women and children, as well as of Afghan servicepeople and opposition fighters, would have happened – or been so great in number – without the invasion.

It is worth remembering at this point that the Taliban was fighting a funded opponent in the years before the US invasion, and that a million Afghan people had been killed in the nine years prior to it. But we must be clear: these people were not killed in ongoing battles between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The war was, at the wishes and behest of the US and its allies, fought by the US and its allies. For revenge.

At the end of 2020, there were 26.4m refugees registered worldwide. Of those, 2.8m men, women and children, were Afghans: 10.6 per cent of the global total. Afghanistan’s population was at that point 38.93m, roughly 0.49 per cent of the total global population.

The withdrawal

The United States had been talking about a full withdrawal of its servicepeople from Afghanistan since Brack Obama announced on 27 May 2014 that he planned all US soldiers would leave by the end of 2016.

Even were one to set the clock from when Trump insisted (despite the warnings of the US military that the plan would be a disaster) in February 2020 that he had ‘agreed a withdrawal plan with the Taliban’ that would have given the US government and its allies almost 18 months to develop and carry out an ordered withdrawal, and leave in place some semblance of a plan for an Afghan peace and recovery which included all its people.

Instead, the withdrawal which actually took place resembled a last minute, emergency evacuation, despite the seven years of preparation time the US had had. And within days – realistically hours – the Taliban entered Kabul and declared themselves, once again, the rulers of a state they again renamed the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The most concerning thing about this is that it is entirely typical of US ‘interventions’ – a lack of a cohesive reason to carry out the action in the first place encourages ‘interpretations’ from successive military commanders which then leads to a collective amnesia about what ‘victory’ would look like, and the US makes no plan to leave, as it cannot envisage any ‘end game’, and instead simply walks away, leaving the country it has occupied in chaos, and open to civil war, terrorism, or at best failure as a state.

We should not fool ourselves – as some are already trying to do – that the Taliban in some way ‘won’ the war with the US. It is in fact worse than that. The Taliban waited for the US to leave, and in the chaos that it knew would ensue, it simply paraded through the wastes and atomised infrastructure of Afghanistan to claim control of the state once again.

The US and its allies should absolutely not ever have invaded Afghanistan. Neither revenge nor a desire to occupy or ‘create allies in’ a strategically-important, mineral rich country could possibly ever justify more than 170,000 deaths.

But if a state is going to invade another, the absolute least it should do is set a goal, and ensure that it leaves it in a better situation than it enters it or at the very least a workable starting-point for such. The US and its allies have failed even in this most basic of tasks.

Instead, they have allowed the Taliban to re-seize Afghanistan, not from them, but from the people who should be in charge of it and their own lives, the Afghan people. Civilians who, if they have not known only war for all their lives, have known it for at least 42 years, and who could not realistically have stopped the Taliban’s parade of land-theft even if they had had the energy.

And we should not – as again, some people are attempting to do – pretend that the lack of resistance to the latest Taliban outrage is in some way proof that the Afghan people want the Taliban in charge.

The comments and statements of the Afghan people who have been able to say anything to a global audience, public demonstrations on 18 August in Jalalabad and many other cities, and the desperation of men, women and children to board aircraft to escape the country prove that they do not.

They do not have the means - the power or the energy – to resist. Instead, they have been abandoned, had their land snatched from them again, and face another grim, terrifying period of being oppressed, humiliated, tortured, beaten, and murdered by the Taliban.

It did not – and still does not – have to be this way.

US’ allies

The US led the invasion, and its catastrophic lack of planning has led to the present chaotic and extremely dangerous situation within the country.

But the invasion was officially a NATO exercise, and as a result many other countries, including the UK and most EU member states, were and are also involved in the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

In the UK in particular, a series of revelations over the past few days almost certainly would, in previous years, have been enough to bring the government down.

Not least amongst these is that despite the US announcing its hurried departure from Afghanistan, despite the fact that the Taliban had already been hunting down and killing people who had worked with the invasion force, and even as the militia began its ‘parade of theft’ through the country, both of the UK’s highest-profile politicians with an international affairs brief – Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – went, and remained, on holiday.

Johnson did at least manage to return to the UK as the Taliban entered Kabul, and several hours later said he had recalled parliament to ‘discuss the situation’ on Wednesday – three days after the event.

Raab, however, was still on holiday, even as the UK Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Laurie Bristow refused to leave his office in Kabul in order to personally process visa applications to enable Afghan people who had worked with the UK army to leave the country. As Kabul fell, Raab was on a beach in Crete.

Stories which emerged on Thursday 19 August revealed that Raab in fact did not just leave the UK and fail to return while the withdrawal and Taliban takeover were taking place. He also failed even to call Afghan Foreign Minister Harif Atmar on Friday 13 August to organise the air-lifting of Afghan translators who had worked for the UK army – one of the most basic duties of his office, and one specifically requested by Foreign Office staff and advisors.

The people of the UK have watched in horror as the Taliban has retaken Afghanistan. Many have called for aid to be given to Afghan people, and some have offered space in their homes to anyone who wishes to leave. The UK government’s two most senior politicians with a ‘foreign portfolio’ stayed on holiday and debated the Taliban takeover days after it had happened.

Such debacles and failure to face any consequences for them are, of course, not new to this UK government. But the UK is not alone in having acted with wild irresponsibly – and in many cases absolute disregard for the law – during the course of the 20-year occupation.

For example, from 2008-20, despite Afghanistan at all times throughout that period being regarded as an active combat zone, 11 EU member states, plus the UK and Norway, forcibly deported 68,485 Afghan men, women and children to Afghanistan.

The UK deported 16,830 people, Sweden 9,970, Germany 8,665, Greece 6,890, France 6,115, while Norway deported 3,935, Slovenia 3,820, Austria 3,530, Hungary 3,450, the Netherlands 2,135, Bulgaria 1,750, Denmark 1,260 and Belgium 1,135 people.

None of these people should have been deported to Afghanistan, because a country is not allowed, under international law, to return a person to a place, including a war-zone, where there is good reason to believe they may be at risk of being persecuted or killed (such deportations are known as refoulement). European states worked to ‘sidestep’ this rule on a technicality by suggesting that because combat was taking place only in ‘certain areas’ of Afghanistan, as long as people were sent to other parts of the country, there would be no risk to them.

This was of course a ludicrous and illegal policy.

As yet, not one of those countries’ governments has announced any plans to bring back a single one of the men, women and children they illegally deported to Afghanistan.

Indeed, on 5 August, a moment at which the Taliban had killed 115 Afghan servicepeople and 58 civilians in the previous five days as it stepped up its campaign, and after the Afghan government had specifically requested all deportations to Afghanistan be paused for three months, the Home Affairs or Migration

Ministers, or State Secretaries of Austria, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece and Germany wrote a letter to Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s Vice President, and Ylva Johansson, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs.

In it, the authors demanded to be allowed to continue to deport Afghan people to: ‘stop the instrumentalisation of immigration as a political strategy.’ And highlighted the: ‘urgent need to perform returns, both voluntary and involuntary.

Five days later, on 11 August, Germany and the Netherlands announced they would join Finland and Sweden, which had both already announced they would suspend all deportations to Afghanistan. France, which had not signed the letter, made a similar announcement on Thursday 12 August, the same day Denmark made the same announcement. Belgium made no announcement until 16 August, a day after the Taliban had taken Kabul.

Austria and Greece have made no announcement on the matter since 15 August, though both said they would not suspend deportations before then.

Instead, before a meeting with EU member state ministers on Wednesday 18 August, Austrian interior minister Karl Nehammer said: ‘We need deportation centres {for Afghan men, women and children}’ and said that Austria intended to continue to deport Afghans to Afghanistan. He also argued that instead of allowing people to travel to find safe places to live and work, the EU should set up ‘on-the-spot’ camps where ‘aid’ can be given to them, on Afghanistan’s borders.

While Austria is so far the only EU state to demand such an illegal, impractical and inhuman system, other states’ lead ministers have also made some statements which, if enacted, would constitute serious breaches of international law.

Within 36 hours of the Taliban taking Kabul, on Monday 16 August French President Emmanuel Macron made a televised speech in which he stated that: ‘France and the EU must have a robust plan to protect itself against irregular migratory flows.’ (Some outlets translated the latter as ‘waves of migrants’).

Given the context of the Taliban declaring its control of Afghanistan and the EU using ‘irregular migration’ as the pretext for its illegal deal with Turkey in 2016, when it demanded the Turkish coastguard became a sea-militia preventing men, women and children from exercising their fundamental human right to travel to seek safe places to live, the meaning of Macron’s speech was very clear: France – and the EU – should and will stand against Afghan people coming to Europe.

Others were more open about their inhuman and illegal aims. In Italy, while many left – and other – leaning political parties have demanded ‘corridors’ on which Afghan people can safely travel to Europe and other destinations, the far-Right leader of the Northern League, and former deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Salvini said: ‘There must be no more migrants coming to Italy or Europe.

Signor Salvini is at least at the moment not in a position of any power in Europe.

But in Greece, the country’s Minister for Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarachis argued openly for the EU ‘closing its borders’ and added: ‘After the recent developments in Afghanistan, a new migration crisis that Europe is not able to shoulder must be avoided.

We should note here that there in fact never was a ‘migration crisis’, even in 2015-16. The EU was perfectly placed to abide by international law and provide decent places for people to stay while their asylum applications were being processed. What happened instead was that individual states broke away from a united approach and broke both international, EU, and their own laws by throwing up barriers between one another and posting armed police and soldiers to prevent people entering. There never was a ‘migration crisis’. There was just a mass panic about a situation which threatened nobody.

In any case, what Mitarachis is demanding – that the EU must close and guard its borders – is illegal, immoral, inhuman, unnecessary, and unacceptable. As in the UK, and many other countries, many Greek people are ready and willing to help, but their elected leaders instead advocate breaking international law to consign others to misery, persecution, even torture and death.

It is astonishing that at either end of the EU, within hours of the Taliban announcing it now controlled Afghanistan, the first response of the French and Greek governments was to call for borders to be closed and no-one be allowed to enter Europe.

As already noted, we must do better. Fortunately, doing so is well within our capacity, and easy to achieve.

What should the US have done? And what should happen now?

The simplest statement is that the US and its allies should never have invaded Afghanistan.

If their governments had in fact cared about the horrific situation facing women – and indeed, many men and children – in Afghanistan, as they should, they could have made it easy for people to leave, provided those people with safe, decent places to live, and they could simultaneously have tried to encourage the Taliban to improve its behaviour.

Of course, that was not the reason for the invasion and occupation, as the US President himself has confirmed.

But the invasion did take place. With that in mind, certainly in the seven years since Barack Obama announced US troops would be withdrawn, or indeed in the 18 months since Donald Trump said the same thing, the US could and absolutely should have engaged the international community.

The United Nations could have organised a peace-keeping force to prevent the violence which was predicted (and still may occur) and led a state-building project. Few people seriously believed the US-backed government was either capable of retaining power or of doing a particularly good job with it if it had.

And some people – almost all of them Pashtuns – do like the Taliban and believe it should have a place in Afghan politics. But that is what state-building is about: about making sure that a nation is all-inclusive, and that those who like the Taliban and those who oppose them have equal footing, equal representation and the right to speak and behave in the way they choose, as long as they do not cause harm to others.

But the US, even in its weakest moments, and even in its most outward-looking iterations, simply does not believe in the international community.

In part, this is because it opposes the UN on the grounds that it ‘weakens’ the US as an individual state (I have been told, off the record, several times by US representatives – Democrats as well as Republicans - and their staff at the UN that the UN is both ‘too powerful’ and ‘not powerful enough’, and that if one wants to ‘get something done’ one must ‘do it ourselves’), but it is also because – as a result of that US outlook – the country’s decision-makers do not even think about the UN. The issue was not necessarily that Biden (and before him Trump and Obama) considered engaging the UN and decided against it, but that it did not even occur to them as an option.

Simultaneously, the US and its allies needed to – whether through the UN or unilaterally – prepare and provide safe transportation from Afghanistan and decent places to live, learn and work, for every person who wanted to leave. This is their right as human beings, and it can be done easily by the nations which invaded Afghanistan, which are among the world’s richest.

There is of course another question: do people want to leave Afghanistan? And is the Taliban of today the same as the Taliban of 20 years ago?

Though it is disappointing to have to say so, these are questions which people have begun to ask since the US withdrawal debacle unfolded. One argument seems to be that the fact that there was little resistance to the Taliban’s seizure of the state, must somehow reflect the Afghan people’s acceptance of their rule.

The problem is that of course it does not. While there are almost certainly people in Afghanistan (particularly Pashtun people, as noted above) who do like the Taliban and probably wouldn’t mind being ruled by them, the fact is that the ‘lack of resistance’ is rather more likely to be a reflection of the fact that the Taliban are heavily-armed, and very well-funded, and Afghanistan’s infrastructure has been largely atomised by 42 years of warfare.

Under these circumstances, it is likely that the perceived lack of resistance (in the immediate term. The Taliban does not control 100 per cent of the country, and it already appears that some groups, including in Panjshir Valley, where some people claim they will launch a ‘counter-attack’ against the Taliban, intend to resist) to the Taliban’s parade of theft is less a ‘welcome’ for them than it is a reflection of the fact that there was simply no-one equipped and capable to resist.

Equally, some have speculated that the Taliban has changed: that it is now less oppressive, less violent, more ‘liberal’ and more reasonable than it was from 1996-2001.

This is an understandable hope. And for some people, it appears to be backed by the statements made from Tuesday 17 August onwards by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid.

Among his announcements was that the Taliban and its ‘Islamic Emirate’: ‘is committed to the rights of women within the framework of Sharia.

It’s easy to see why some people have welcomed this statement: it is, for many, the first time they have ever heard the Taliban even mention ‘the rights of women’. But the more one thinks about it, the less it means. Sharia law is nota fixed set of principles or demands. It means different things to different people.

During its first period in charge of Afghanistan, the Taliban ran the state in accordance with its version of ‘Sharia law’ and the ‘women’s rights’ included within it were a horrifying mix of demands, restrictions and punishments. Even where there were laws designed to give women ‘rights’, for example, women were not supposed to be murdered by their husbands or other men, it was almost impossible for a man who actually murdered a woman to be either caught or jailed.

Equally, Taliban spokespeople have made comments on girls’ ability to attend school (which they were banned from doing from 1996-2001). One spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, said that: ‘Women can get education from primary to higher education – that means university’.

But others have been less willing to commit. Waheedullah Hashimi, a senior Taliban member said: ‘Our scholars will decide whether girls are allowed to go to school or not.’ Considering this is something as fundamental as the education of children, it should be a concern that a national government believes ‘discussions’ should take place.

In areas it had seized in the last five years, many girls were allowed to attend school, but only until the age of 12.

Hashimi on Wednesday 18 August also ruled out any chance that the Taliban would hand over power to another government, or indeed that there would be any right for Afghans to choose their own government, saying: ‘(We) are planning governance like that of 1996-2001. There will be no democratic system, because it does not have any base in the country. We will not discuss what type of political system should we apply in Afghanistan because it is clear. It is sharia law and that is it.

And he refused to rule out dictating to women what they must wear: ‘The scholars will decide whether they must wear hijab, burqa or only a veil plus abaya or something.

Mujahid also offered an amnesty to everyone involved in the most recent (20 year-long) war, but as recently as May the group beheaded Sohail Pardis, who had worked as an interpreter for the US army.

Which leads to the second question: do people want to leave? In the last few days, Taliban members have been beating women and children attempting to enter Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International airport, and there is no doubt that many people across the country do want to leave, and are going to great lengths to do so. Photographs have already circulated of women passing their babies over the airport walls, so that even if they cannot escape, their children may do.

Whether the Taliban has ‘changed’ (and once again, we are at this point counting as the major ‘positives’ that girls might be able to attend school, and the Taliban might not torture and murder everyone who opposed them in the war), there is clearly very little trust in them.

We cannot pretend to know that what happened on Sunday was what 'the people of Afghanistan' wanted (or had any real say in) or deny that many people’s first response has been to try to escape. Nor can we demand those people must ‘live with it’ now it has happened.

In an ideal world, the US and its allies would not have invaded Afghanistan.

Having done so, the next best thing would have been for the UN to enter as peacekeepers and to begin a state-building programme which would have resulted in the equal rights and representation of all Afghan men, women and children.

This would have also required the international community providing cash with which Afghans could literally and figuratively rebuild their country.

This should still happen. It is almost impossible to imagine the Taliban allowing a UN peace-keeping force to enter the country now, and indeed the sole circumstance under which such an eventuality could be imagined would be if those claiming they will ‘resist’ the Taliban manage to start a new civil war in the state – a development which would be yet another disaster for Afghanistan and its people.

But although the Taliban may be unenthused by a state-building programme, with diplomacy and even the correct use of funding, this may still be possible. Especially in the admittedly unlikely event the group is genuine in its claims to have ‘evolved’, and to be less draconian.

This is a project which should be explored, and if it is possible, launched as soon as is feasible.

In the meantime, however, we must be aware that the Taliban has already ruled out any part for the Afghan people in deciding their own destiny and choosing how, and by whom, they are represented, and that it has refused to confirm that girls will even be allowed to attend school or that women can choose what they would like to wear (once again, the point here is not that it is ‘bad’ for a woman to choose to cover her hair or face: it is that she must be able to choose).

And we know that even if things remain as they are (that is, no further warfare begins), many people do wish to escape, and have good reasons to do so.

As a result, the thing we can and must do, immediately, is provide safe transportation for any and all Afghan men, women and children who need or wish to leave the country, and to ensure they have safe, decent places in which to live, learn, work and thrive.

So far, the US has spoken only of protecting those who worked for its army in the last 20 years, while the UK has suggested it will allow 20,000 people to arrive over the course of the next five years and Canada has also said it will accept 20,000 people.

This is far from enough. Under international law, these men, women and children have the right to travel, and their asylum applications must be processed on their merits. Those rights belong to us all, and once we allow governments to choose when and whether to abide by them, they cease to be rights for any and all of us.

Equally, they are people who need assistance, and we can afford to give them the help they require.

We must ensure that those who wish to leave can do so, in safety. Any alternative will raise uncomfortable questions about who we are and what we stand for.


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