Western officials like me watched in despair two years ago on this day when the Taliban dramatically seized back control of Afghanistan, 20 years after the US-led invasion, toppling their regime in Kabul.
The Afghan people, especially women and girls, faced the new and grim reality of their lives dictated by ideologues and the deprivation of hard won freedoms during the two decades of west-backed fragile democracy. Documentaries detailing those dramatic days of the August 2021 fall of Kabul to the Taliban will soon be playing on our screens, bringing those shocking events back to the front of our minds.
As a former Australian ambassador to Afghanistan, I, like many colleagues, received calls, texts and emails from Afghans I had known and worked with, desperate for information, advice and help as the Taliban drew closer. Through a US-led effort large numbers of Afghans, especially those who had worked with western authorities, were evacuated from Kabul in a massive airlift.
Many still remain in hiding there including those in desperate wait to join their loved ones here in Australia.
I have not been able to delete the chain of messages from a special co-worker who tried again and again to reach the Kabul airport during the early days of the Taliban takeover. She texted as she negotiated her way through Taliban roadblocks, skirting mobs on the streets, protecting her young children from the threat of violent extremists, including those who launched a suicide bomb attack outside the Kabul airport, tragically taking the lives of 13 members of the US military and over 180 Afghan citizens.
My friend managed to find other people she knew. Sick with fear, they scaled barriers, squeezed through fences, and hid as darkness fell before retreating home to try again. After several days’ of this ordeal, they forded a sewage-filled channel, wading waist deep, to reach western soldiers protecting the airport perimeter. My friend and her colleagues managed to demonstrate their connection to Australia and were able to contact officials who helped them.
Let’s not abandon Afghans under the Taliban
Now, two years on, the international community is still conflicted about how to approach the country and the Taliban administration.
Some have called for rapprochement for the sake of the Afghan people, but significant parts of the western world remain steadfast in supporting isolation of the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
UN secretary general António Guterres has said that now is not the right time to engage with the Taliban. When will be the right time? The Taliban is a terrible regime, but it is important to differentiate between political isolation of the Taliban regime and the potential abandonment of about 40 million Afghan civilians.
Afghan people are already dealing with the day to day realities of Taliban rule. I cannot know what has happened to many of the people, especially the women – professional women, students, young and not so young – who I met in Kabul and in the provinces when I served there. Those people depend on the international community considering their welfare as separate from their current political leadership.
They need support beyond simple humanitarian assistance – they need investment, essential services and support for economic growth, in spite of their challenging conditions.
In order to know what might be possible, including what could be the best way to see Afghan girls back in schools, it will be necessary to have some engagement with the Taliban.
One way the international community can support Afghanistan is to ensure that Afghan civilians feel connected with the rest of the world. Internet access in Afghanistan is extremely limited, with reportedly only a quarter of men and about 6% of women able to access basic internet services. In an increasingly digital world, Afghans need connectivity.
It is the responsibility of the international community to make sure that Afghans, especially women and girls who are now deprived of basic rights and freedoms, are connected through adequate access to the internet. We must not shut the digital door on the Afghan people.
While Australia managed to get many locally employed Afghans and their immediate family out, many family members remain behind. And that is very hard for those people, who are experiencing fear and anxiety being separated from family members, loved ones. The issue of refugees requires regional approaches, and global. It is not simple, there are many aspects of domestic and international policy involved. It’s about people – it matters and it’s very difficult.
If we continue to abandon Afghanistan under the Taliban with the humanitarian crisis and climate change wreaking havoc there, things will get worse.
More people will become more desperate and will feel driven to leave. They’ll move first into the neighbouring countries where they can cross over the border and then they’ll go further, wider. That movement will bring instability and uncertainty, and increased risk.
As the anniversary of those extraordinary August 2021 events approaches the international community should recognise that the people of Afghanistan deserve connectivity and all its hope and promise.
Nicola Gordon-Smith is a former Australian diplomat. She served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2018-2019 and head of the taskforce for Australia’s Afghanistan assisted departure team