The Guardian Australia
As Australia withdraws from Afghanistan, it must not abandon the vulnerable
Last week the US president, Joe Biden, announced all remaining American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 11 September 2021, leaving Afghanistan with an uncertain fate.
The September date marks 20 years since the Operation Enduring Freedom began, when US allies, including Australia, responded to terrorist attacks by commencing armed combat in Afghanistan. That action began an exhausting, expensive conflict. Afghanistan is the longest war that the US – and Australia – have known.
About 39,000 Australian military personnel have served in Afghanistan since 2001; 41 lost their lives. Australia has spent roughly $10bn on its involvement. Internationally, more than $2tn has been spent in Afghanistan. This is more than the US contributed to the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after the second world war, enabling it to flourish.
What does Australia have to show for all this time, money and loss of life?
Has Afghanistan “flourished”? No. More than 43,000 Afghan civilians have died since the war began. The country supplies 80% of the world’s heroin and remains one of the world’s largest sources of refugees and migrants. For the second year in a row, Afghanistan has been ranked as the world’s least peaceful and the second-most corrupt country. And the Taliban have not “changed” at all since the late 1990s, as they continue to practise their brutal and extreme mentality and ideology.
Further, an Australian foreign policy white paper argues Afghanistan’s local extremist narratives will encourage violence globally, with different groups retaining the intent to conduct attacks against western interests, and more groups likely to emerge. Any insecurity, extremism and instability in Afghanistan poses a threat to international security.
But while the past two decades have battered Afghanistan, international efforts, including Australia’s involvement, have not been without results. The strengthening of the education system has provided transformative opportunities for girls and women, accompanied by a powerful acknowledgment of women’s human rights. Progressive and democratic tendencies in civil society have emerged, especially among young people in urban centres. Media platforms have also gained greater independence and freedom.
State treatment of ethnic Hazaras has also improved. Historically one of the world’s most persecuted peoples since state persecution began in the late 19th century, about 60% of the Hazara population was eliminated in different ways – killed, sold into slavery or forced into exile. Since 2001, Hazaras have had greater access to political participation, have gained civil service jobs and have entered university education.
With the withdrawal of US allies, these positive developments are at risk. Hazaras, gains for women and the progressive movements are already targets for violence by non-state actors. The Taliban are claiming the departure of foreign troops as a victory. No incentive remains for the Taliban to continue talks with the Afghan government, which has struggled to combat the strength of the Taliban’s insurgency.
There have been grave failures in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. Alleged war crimes were detailed in the Brereton report released late last year, and although investigations are under way, the controversy remains fresh and painful.
None of this should be allowed to undermine any conviction that Australian engagement with Afghanistan has brought benefits to the country. Large numbers of Afghans have also found safety and protection in Australia since the 1990s; Afghan-Australians grateful for this sanctuary are contributing to and enriching their new home.
Australia’s commitment of forces to Afghanistan was rooted in a belief that building foundations of human rights, equal opportunity and democratic resilience there served the interests of greater international security.
Withdrawal does not have to mean the abandonment of this mission. The Australian government could increase resettlement numbers for the most vulnerable Afghans: namely those who have worked for the Australian military in Afghanistan, women, victims of war, and ethnic and religious minorities – all of whose lives Australia’s withdrawal endangers. Further, the Australian government could protect and strengthen the communities of the many asylum seekers already in Australia, some of whom have been waiting as long as eight years for their refugee status to be recognised. They could be made permanent. Provisions for family reunions would provide relief and confidence to many.
The Australian government could also commit effective humanitarian aid to the people of Afghanistan, targeting the country’s most vulnerable people, boosting its health and education capacity, protecting the rights of women and girls. Corruption prevents aid from reaching communities who need it, perpetuating conditions of instability in remote regions like central Afghanistan, which is its most marginalised and under-developed. Proactive Australian aid engagement with on-the-ground civil society and NGO groups in Afghanistan, such as Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, is an investment in local stability, with positive repercussions for global security.
Many will celebrate the end of Aus
tralia’s involvement in Afghanistan, but there are meaningful ways to protect the fragile gains 20 years of intervention did achieve. Allied governments fought wars in Afghanistan with enthusiasm. Unless they are as willing to commit to its peace, Afghans are right to be fearful for Afghanistan’s future, and Afghan-Australians for the welfare of their loved ones back home.
• Sitarah Mohammadi (@sitarah_m) is a former Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who spent 2019 as a provost scholar at the University of Oxford, undertaking studies in international relations, and completed a dissertation on Australia’s refugee policy. She has a BA in international relations and human rights, and is undertaking her Juris Doctor (law) at Monash University. Sajjad Askary (@AskarySajjad) is a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, has a BA graduate in international eelations, and is a student of Juris Doctor (law) at Monash University