The Guardian Australia

As Australia withdraws from Afghanista­n, it must not abandon the vulnerable

- Sitarah Mohammadi and Sajjad Askary

Last week the US president, Joe Biden, announced all remaining American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanista­n by 11 September 2021, leaving Afghanista­n with an uncertain fate.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

 ?? Photograph: LS Paul Berry ?? ‘Many will celebrate the end of Australia’s involvemen­t in Afghanista­n, but there are meaningful ways to protect the fragile gains 20 years of interventi­on did achieve.’
Photograph: LS Paul Berry ‘Many will celebrate the end of Australia’s involvemen­t in Afghanista­n, but there are meaningful ways to protect the fragile gains 20 years of interventi­on did achieve.’

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