Afghanistan 2021: Four Lessons for the International Community

Dr Ayla Gol, School of Humanities, York St. John University

Afghanistan 2021: Four Lessons for the International Community

Following the withdrawal of the last US troops from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s recapture of the control, the international community is back to the drawing board. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the US-led Western interventions in the greater Middle East have left an ugly legacy of failed states in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan. The recent tragedy of fleeing Afghans falling from the sky at Kabul airport shocked the international community in August 2021. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Afghanis have already been identified as the second-largest group of refugees and asylum seekers after Syrians since 2001. After two decades of war with the Taliban and nation-building failures, the West has lost Afghanistan. What can the international community learn from its failure in Afghanistan?

A Humanitarian crisis is a global issue, not a regional one

The West has not learned key lessons from the current humanitarian and refugee crises in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. The UN has warned world leaders about a new ‘humanitarian crisis’. The international community expects Afghanistan’s neighbours – Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China – to keep their borders open in preventing an ‘absolute catastrophe, complete humanitarian disaster’, including widespread hunger and state collapse. According to the UNHCR, more than 3,5 million Afghans are displaced within the country’s borders. When the EU ministers of home affairs met under the extraordinary circumstances of the Afghan crisis on 31 August, they agreed to ‘strengthen the support to the countries in Afghanistan’s immediate neighbourhood to ensure that those in need received adequate protection primarily in the region’. However, the preferred solutions of the West – EU, US and UK – to keep Afghans in third countries are short sighted. 85 % of Afghan refugees are already in Iran and Pakistan, which will face challenges similar to Turkey’s hosting Syrians in the position of becoming ‘Europe’s refugee warehouse’. And just like in the case of Syrian refugees in Turkey, it is possible that once Afghanis cross Iran, they can continue to Turkey and then will arrive at the borders of Europe.  The international community should realise that regional issues rarely stay regional in today’s globalised world.

The West has a moral responsibility for Afghan people, women and children

The uncertainties of the global covid-19 pandemic continue; thus, slowing down Western diplomatic initiatives to protect the most vulnerable Afghans. The UN has already warned Western leaders to agree on an urgent ‘humanitarian effort’ to provide basic human needs (clean water, food, shelter) and medical care. The security of Afghan women and children, especially girls of school age, already concerns the international community. According to the UNHCR, this summer, around 80 % of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans who were forced to flee are women and children. Another UN report on 26 July 2021 documented the record number of women and girls killed and injured, female casualties increased disproportionately while girl casualties doubled compared to the first quarter of 2020. A generation of civil society activists, such as Nargiss Jamal, who worked for empowering women and youth to change the image of their homeland as a ‘war-ravaged’ country, has no place in Taliban’s Afghanistan now. She says it feels like everything is ‘back to zero’. International concerns for the Taliban attacks on women, girls, ethnic minorities, and civil society activists, including journalists, educators, and human rights defenders, indicate a bleak future. The anti-Taliban groups’ continuing resistance to their rule and atrocities is crucial for shaping the new reality of Afghanistan that the international community can no longer ignore. In other words, the West should not preach the rule of law, human rights, intervene in countries to promote democracy, and then abandon the societies doing nothing when all this progress, freedoms and human dreams for better lives unravel so quickly and violently.

The Afghan crisis should not be reduced to security concerns

The Western powers failed to put in place a humanitarian aid program to accompany the US withdrawal. With all good intentions, the world leaders met at a virtual G7 meeting on Afghanistan to discuss ‘immediate humanitarian aid’ and ‘longer-term development aid’ on 24 August 2021. It is too little and too late. Similarly, the EU statement following its 31 August meeting is profoundly concerning. It made Europe’s position crystal clear that the member states remain determined to effectively protect the EU external borders and ensure ‘Afghanistan does not become once again a sanctuary for terrorists’. Hence, the EU’s main priority is preventing ‘illegal immigration’ and ‘terrorism’, not a humanitarian crisis. Neither the EU nor post-Brexit ‘global’ Britain was ready to help Afghans ‘on the streets of Kabul’. It seems that the worst is to come because some policymakers will turn the Afghan crisis into a security issue for political purposes. The well-rehearsed narratives of post-9/11 politics that ‘the security of the West is at risk’ will rekindle the fears of Muslims and young Afghan men as terrorists. Some European politicians have already turned the Afghan crisis into a political opportunity to repeat the claims of Islamophobia and anti-immigration in the West. Again like in the case of Syrian refugees, the West should have learned the need for timely humanitarian actions to help the Afghan people and to fend off another surge of the bogyman of Islamophobia; a surge that far-right parties are ready to exploit for immediate political gains.

The Taliban repression of women is not a true representation of Islam

The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan might be a surprise to many. However, it was not for some critical students of international relations and regional experts. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989, the Taliban comprised young refugees, mullahs and former soldiers. The Deobandi school of Islam and the principles of Pashtunwali culture united them. The Taliban fighters were strongly influenced by Saudi Wahabism and observed a strictly orthodox interpretation of Islam. Furthermore, the influences of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and American interventions all played a crucial part in the formation and rise of the Taliban. However, key teachings, like the blue Burqa imposed by the Taliban was, in reality, a throwback to older Pashtun traditions. The historical practice of veiling women in blue was culturally related to modesty and gender hierarchy. The claim that this tradition was Islamic in origin fails to uncover its cultural and patriarchal roots. There is no doubt that the Taliban fundamentalist interpretations of Islam dictate how women’s rights are overlooked, but their dominant narratives about the place of women in society are influenced by unique Pashtunwali cultural code. Looking through the Western Islamophobic gaze will prevent the international community from understanding the true nature of the Taliban takeover and the future of the Afghan people, especially women and children.

To conclude, an internationally sustainable solution to an emerging humanitarian crisis is not about exporting the Afghan refugee crisis to third countries and building refugee camps in regional states. Presenting the Afghan crisis as a security threat will protect neither the EU’s external borders nor Afghan society. Preventing illegal migration to protect European security will damage the remaining credibility and fragile image of the West. Nevertheless, the lack of humanitarian aid to protect all Afghan people has already demonstrated the inefficiency of international efforts. It is morally unacceptable to leave Afghanis at the mercy of the Taliban and the leaders of third countries, while they are being adversely influenced by Western foreign policies. The loss of hope in Afghanistan’s future is both a cause for moral concern and for illegal migration. Let us hope that the Afghan crisis will become an opportunity for the international community to prove its sense of moral responsibility: promoting human rights in Muslim societies should not come at the cost of inflicting a preventable humanitarian crisis.