The Afghan people have every reason to feel abandoned by the world community now. As desperate Afghans were clinging to departing planes at Kabul airport following Taliban’s take-over, Western powers were struggling to evacuate their embassies and citizens. The moral responsibility of the US and other nations now pulling their troops out of Afghanistan is clear. It is now time to act to save those most at risk and to prevent even worse scenarios from unfolding in the country.
Almost 20 years after the first military intervention that replaced the Taliban with a new government after September 11, we now seem to be circling back to square one. This is not only a major defeat for the US, after an investment of over 2 trillion dollars over the last two decades. It is also a decision with potentially huge ramifications.
Clearly, foreign forces could not remain in Afghanistan for eternity. A different and slower withdrawal-process combined with a peace process and a pro-active diplomatic mobilization of regional actors, including Pakistan, could have given the country a better chance of holding it together. It would have been exceedingly difficult, however. And knowing the risks a withdrawal would imply, plans for an orderly process with advance protection arrangements for the most at-risk Afghans would have been needed, - should all fail.
It was not done. And all did fail.
Swift action is now imperative at this critical time, both to take moral and actual responsibility for those in crisis, and to prevent a cascade of unintended consequences with grave implications for the region and for the fight against terrorism.
Firstly, the US and European nations must now open their doors to those most at risk from Taliban’s persecution and violence. Both those associated with their aid and NATO-operations and activists and human rights advocates. They have already been subject to repeated threats and attacks in the past, with many brutally killed in the past months. These Afghans cannot be abandoned. They should all be airlifted out and welcomed in our countries as refugees. Immediate arrangements should be put in place to relocate them to safety. At the same time, these same countries need to retain their diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. Evacuating everyone and everything, seizing all activities implies leaving the Afghan people to their fate. If the US and European embassies do not keep at least a minimal presence, this would constitute a second abandonment of the Afghan people. These key players are maybe even more needed in Kabul now.
Second, Taliban leaders should be held to account. In Doha, at the negotiating table, Taliban leaders have come with many promises and statements indicating a change of policies. Now they need to act on them. Although we cannot expect a full turnaround, a different line on humanitarian access and human rights should be expected. This also includes access to school for girls and retaining important achievements and rights of Afghan women. It is through a diplomatic presence in Kabul that Taliban can be held to account and international pressure best be mounted. Statements from New York, Geneva and Western capitals are usually not listened to by the Taliban. Pakistan, whose military appears to have supported the Taliban-offensive, have an important role to play in convincing the Taliban leadership to take a different approach this time, as have other neighbouring countries. Engaging them should be part of this strategy.
The nations which have been involved in Afghanistan throughout the last 20 years, have a special responsibility to urgently assist the large numbers of internally displaced through humanitarian assistance, and by scaling up their engagement to prevent the worst.
Third, it is time to work together, both among regional powers and key players like Russia, China and Pakistan. They are retaining their presence and engagement. Comments about the Taliban take-over have been rather tempered. Afghanistan has suffered from geopolitical competition throughout its history. In this context, the US and NATO made a grave mistake in not engaging the neighbours and the region more actively early on. They all have a stake in the country’s future. This geopolitical competition complicated the most recent peace process. It has not helped that the UN to a large degree has been sidelined, and not used as a platform and a convener for these types of discussions. When the Biden-administration suggested a stronger UN-role a few months back it was already very late in the day.
As China and Russia are now watching the collapse of the US’ state-building project with a certain glee, a peaceful and stable Afghanistan should still be in their interest. Indeed, Afghanistan’s problems can never be solved without having its neighbours and regional powers on board. However, leaving engagement with Afghan leaders to China and Russia is not the way forward. While their divergent interests make collaboration difficult, there are issues that unite everyone.
As the UN Secretary-General said: We must unite to make sure Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists. No one wants to see Al Qaida and ISIL make the country into major recruitment- and operating base attracting thousands of young radicals, and a launching pad for their global operations. It should be possible to work together to prevent this. The Taliban themselves have also pledged not to allow Afghanistan to become a base for terrorists. This should be a topic at the top of the agenda in discussions also with Pakistan. The US and European countries have a responsibility here. If their withdrawal also includes all economic activity, unemployment will sky-rocket and likely lead to more recruitment to extremist groups. 300 000 security forces without pay can be another basis for massive radicalization. There is a risk that this will strengthen the more extreme Taliban elements. Such unintended consequences can be the outcome of hasty decisions.
Fourth, preventing an escalation of fighting in different parts of the country and a full-scale civil war will now be critical. The Taliban are not popular with several of Afghanistan’s former armed groups, including the Northern Alliance. Ethnic divisions may lead to a re-emergence of old warlords and conflict lines. Furthermore, unless a regional engagement strategy is put in place, neighbouring countries may use this opportunity to funnel arms to favoured factions and in this way try to gain influence in Afghanistan. Pro-active diplomacy will be needed now to prevent chaos and instability, which in turn can be exploited by these same terrorist networks.
Fifth, world leaders now need to think quickly and wisely about what needs to be done. While there is talk of convening the G7 to discuss next steps, it is important that such a forum be expanded to include all major stakeholders, including the region and Afghanistan’s neighbours. The focus should not only be the refugee wave which may come in the wake of the current crisis - if Afghanistan’s economy collapses. World leaders must urgently act to prevent these major risks to regional and global security.
The US and European countries do not have the credibility to lead such conversations at this time. Senior level diplomats with credibility and long-term experience in the region will be needed to liaise with China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and India and other important stakeholders and try to get an agreement around a few fundamental principles and actions. The goal must be to prevent these worst-case scenarios from unfolding. The UN should now be well-positioned to play such a role. If there is one thing the UN Security Council should be able to agree upon, it would be utilizing the UN’s unique position as an impartial player and convener to at least start these conversations. It is about putting our common global interests first.