Over the past few weeks, international media has been focused greatly on Afghanistan, as Nato forces, particularly American forces, prepared to meet their deadline of departure on August 31. Besides issues on the ground, much has been written about how the withdrawal is likely to impact other countries. The situation is in flux, and likely to remain so for a while.
Some of the commentary has been based on dubious frameworks, to perhaps propound certain narratives, and it is the people of Afghanistan who are likely to pay the price. That will continue for a long time.
The official ending of the evacuation effort, and the formal withdrawal of the US and Nato forces from Kabul’s airport, has now passed, despite numerous pleas from different European states to their American ally to delay the deadline, so that the evacuation could be completed more satisfactorily. Washington opted to override such concerns and there are now people left behind who will continue to seek to leave Afghanistan. There will be a price for that, too; and it will be paid by the people of Afghanistan.
A large part of the final activity of Nato forces and their allies in the past couple of weeks has been aimed at evacuations of citizens of Nato countries, and Afghans – disproportionately the Afghans who had helped the Nato effort in some way. This may have been well meaning, but it created an emphasis that is deeply problematic, especially as we move into the next phase post-Nato withdrawal.
The reference to evacuate Afghans who "helped us", or "served us" represents a view that those who helped the West in different ways are more valuable than those who did not. And thus, those who "served" us ought to be granted refugee status. The phrase has already been repeated multiple times by different western politicians, as more Afghans attempt to leave Afghanistan.
I supported wholeheartedly the effort to evacuate the people and their families who were at risk in Afghanistan during the final departure of Nato forces. Western powers such as the US, the UK and Germany that intervened in Afghanistan have a duty to evacuate Afghans and grant them refugee status. But "at-risk" should not equal "having served the West". Certainly, people who helped western efforts in Afghanistan are quite likely at risk; no one should take at face value the declared amnesty of the Taliban vis-a-vis the group’s former foes.
But as we have seen in recent days and weeks, there are many others who feel at risk, who were never involved with Nato forces; journalists, rights activists and many others who for a variety of reasons have legitimate cause to feel they may be targeted by the Taliban. All of them may be at risk because of the work they have done, and they have a sincere and reasonable basis for that concern. It is correct and right that they be given sanctuary in the wake of recent events. Indeed, it is disappointing that there are not more countries that are willing to take them in, even if temporarily, until the situation in their native land becomes clearer.
Afghans trying to leave the country may try to use means besides the airport to do so. While most eyes have been where the international media has been – that is, Kabul – the scenes at land border crossings have also been cause for much concern. As control over the airport in Kabul has naturally transferred to the Taliban, it is likely that many of those who are leaving will seek attempt to do so beyond the airport. Some may try to cross over into Pakistan, the country that shares Afghanistan’s largest border; and others to Iran, which already hosts many refugees. The Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are also options, and there may be ethnic ties that direct those refugee flows. Where possible, it is important that states with more means attempt to provide assistance to these countries in hosting these refugees; and not on the basis of whether they “served the West”.
But regardless of how they try to leave, many Afghans are at risk, and they are not less deserving of consideration for refugee or asylum status, just because the evacuation effort is now officially over, or if they were not involved with Nato forces in some shape or form.
The end of this phase of western engagement in Afghanistan has been conducted in a fashion that has already raised numerous concerns. Policymakers must do what they can in order to ensure the part of the aftermath that relates to Afghan refugees does not worsen. On the contrary, if the concerns about Afghans really meant anything at all, this is the time to prove it.