We must work urgently to support the Afghans we have abandoned
For the vast majority of Afghans, the Taliban conquest will be a cause for grief, pain, and suffering. We must do everything we can to mitigate the damage, with asylum, humanitarian aid, and every bit of diplomatic pressure we can muster.
The western coalition’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan is a disaster. Taliban spokesmen present an image of a new, softer Taliban, but Taliban takeovers across the country have been accompanied by horrific atrocities, including summary executions, brutal punishments, and young girls snatched away for “marriage” .
The terrible images of desperate people clinging to aeroplanes leaving Kabul shows the truth as many Afghans experience it: that the Taliban conquest brings only the prospect of terror and oppression.
Real achievements had been made since 2001. Al-Qaeda was significantly weakened. The lives of many Afghans were transformed: women’s life expectancy increased by almost a decade, the number of students going to university more than quadrupled, female literacy tripled. Now the Taliban control more territory than they did on 9/11, and women are burning their diplomas in fear.
In abandoning the democratic government, we undermined not only Afghanistan but our entire foreign policy
We must work urgently to support the Afghans we have abandoned. Most Afghan refugees will stay in the region, and most Afghans will stay in Afghanistan. They will need help. We have very little leverage over the Taliban left – if any. But we must use what we have to stand up for human rights, and to hold the Taliban leadership to the promises of their spokesmen.
We must continue to fund humanitarian aid for Afghans. The UK cut its aid funding for Afghanistan by 78 per cent this year – that has to be reversed, fast. The total cost of UK combat operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 was £21.3 billion. In the last twenty years we have only provided 1/7th of that amount in development assistance. We owe Afghans more.
Abandoning Afghanistan is not just a moral failure. It is a strategic one. The Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, has said that he expects to be “back [in Afghanistan] in ten or twenty years”. He recognises the dangers that the western withdrawal is creating, the opportunity for terrorist groups to flourish.
President Biden has thrown away a chance for peace and a sustainable future for Afghanistan. US forces were no longer on the front lines of conflict, or in serious danger – there have been no American casualties in the last year – but they did provide crucial capabilities to the Afghan military, particularly air support. They were also hugely important to morale, a sign that nations around the world stood with Afghanistan in their fight against the repression and barbarism of the Taliban.
That symbolism matters. The Taliban embody two ideas, radical Islamism and autocracy, which are a global threat. Military strength alone cannot beat them – rather we must continually strive to demonstrate the strength and benefits of stability and democracy. In abandoning the democratic government, we undermined not only Afghanistan but our entire foreign policy.
Countries which are under pressure from Russia or China (both of whom are happily working with the Taliban), countries which are fighting Islamist insurgencies elsewhere in the world, activists and politicians wondering whether to put their lives on the line to fight for human rights and democracy – all will look at Afghanistan, and take note.
The Taliban may have updated their phones and their PR strategy, but they have not updated their ideas. For the vast majority of Afghans, the Taliban conquest will be a cause for grief, pain, and suffering.
Women who once went to school or work will be trapped at home or married to men they’ve never met. People who took part in public life now face execution. Terrorists will once more find a safe haven.
We must do everything we can to mitigate the damage, with asylum, humanitarian aid, and every bit of diplomatic pressure we can muster. If those fail, President Biden’s hasty withdrawal may yet necessitate renewed military engagement.
Baroness Helic is a Conservative peer.
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