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Opening the Afghan hurt locker

All you need to know in three minutes about the horror story unfolding in Afghanistan. By Taha Iqbal.

On Tuesday 11 August 2021, President Joe Biden urged Afghan leaders to ‘come together‘ and ‘fight for their nation’. Highlighting the costs of US involvement in the region – more than a trillion dollars and the lost lives of thousands of troops – President Biden emphasized that he did not regret his decision to withdraw US troops from the country. 

At the time of Biden’s remarks half of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals had fallen to the Afghan Taliban. In recent weeks, the Afghan Taliban have launched a massive offensive in various parts of the country in a bid to strip control from the government, taking over the rest of the country. At the time of writing the Taliban have taken Kabul and are in negotiations with the government about the political take-over of the country.

Estimates suggest that more than 1000 civilians have already lost their lives while UNICEF has warned of atrocities already being committed against children. 

The last time the group was in power, it forbade women from going to school and working outside the home in paid employment. 

With the Taliban now in control of the entirety of Afghan territory, legitimate concerns have been raised with regards to the future of women and religious minorities in the country.

Given current developments, one must ask: how did things go so wrong and who is responsible? 

On 29 February 2020, under the Trump administration, the US signed a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. Both parties agreed on a withdrawal timeline for US military personnel in the region: all US forces were to leave the country by May of next year. Additionally, the deal included a clause for a prisoner swap whereby the Taliban were obligated to release 1000 prisoners while the Afghan government was to release 5000 Taliban members it had imprisoned. 

The US also committed itself to removing sanctions on the Afghan Taliban and encouraging members of the UN to do the same. The Taliban, in return, would engage in intra-Afghan peace talks with members of the Afghan government and would commit to not aiding al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups which threatened US national security.

Experts were quick to point out numerous problems with the agreement. Perhaps the most important one was that the democratically elected Afghan government was not present in the negotiating process at all. 

The authority that was supposed to release 5000 individuals who threatened its very existence was not given an opportunity to voice its concerns. Effectively, this deal was signed without the consent of the Afghan people. In the months that followed, Afghan government officials openly rejected any suggestion of a prisoner swap, before being pressured by the United States to agree.

Worse still, the deal included no compliance mechanisms through which the US could guarantee that the Taliban were keeping their side of the bargain. How would the US ensure that the Taliban would not finance and provide safe haven to terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda after all of its troops had left the country? 

The Trump administration effectively boosted the Taliban’s strength by giving it back 5000 of its fighters and allowing the group to access financial resources that had been stripped away through sanctions. The Taliban weren’t even pushed to sign a ceasefire agreement. Given that the Taliban have a fighting force that is better trained and more motivated than Afghan Security Forces, even a layman could see that once US troops withdrew, the Taliban would sweep to power. 

Why talk to government officials and come up with a power-sharing agreement, when you can take over the entire country without sharing power? 

After President Biden was elected, experts hoped he would slow down the pace of withdrawal – by the time he took office only 2500 troops were left in the country. Afghan government representatives urged Mr. Biden to renegotiate and restructure the deal. There were calls for US troop withdrawal to be made conditional upon a ceasefire agreement. 

While no renegotiation followed, the Biden administration did slow down the withdrawal, announcing that all troops would be withdrawn by 11 September 2022 – a three-month delay. It was later announced that the US would in fact leave by the end of August. Crucially, this means that American air support, one of the last measures keeping Afghan hopes alive, and keeping Kabul safe, will end by 31 August.

It is easy to point fingers towards America and hold it responsible for the current situation in Afghanistan. While there is no excuse for American actions in the region, we would do well to turn our attention towards American allies who have similarly abandoned the country they invaded two decades ago. 

For its part, beyond its own troop withdrawal, the United Kingdom slashed direct aid to Afghanistan from £167.5m in 2020/21 to £37.5m this year – a 78 per cent reduction.

The aid is used to fund hundreds of projects run by various NGOs and charities across the country, which will now be forced to make significant cuts – that is, if the Taliban allow them to function at all. 

The interior ministers of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Greece and the Netherlands have strongly urged the EU to push forward talks with the Afghan government regarding the forced removal or deportation of rejected asylum seekers. “Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the EU,” they wrote in their letter. Put simply, the interior ministers of these states want to quicken the process of sending human beings back to a warzone.

President Biden may or may not regret his decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, but generations of Afghans will live to do so. The US and its western allies may never face the consequences of funding extremist militant groups in Afghanistan during the Cold War, of launching an ill-fated war that directly and indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians and of withdrawing their support when it was most required, but ordinary Afghans will. 

The least they can do is fulfil their moral responsibility to the individuals they have exposed to unspeakable levels of violence and misery. It is time to stop prioritising national self-interest and ‘costs’ over the lives of vulnerable people. Instead of putting America first, as Donald Trump and, dare I say, Joe Biden have, it’s time to put humanity first.

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Taha Iqbal is an analyst of Afghhan politics currently studying for a Masters in International Relations at the London School of Economics.

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