Foreign Affairs

20,000 isn’t enough

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At the start of the month, the Taliban held no major cities in Afghanistan. Less than three weeks later, they have full reign of the country and are preparing to form a government. This comes after the American backed Administration of Ashraf Ghani collapsed, with the president himself, according to the Russian Embassy, fleeing the country with “four cars” and a “helicopter” loaded with “cash”.

In the coming days, the political fall-out of what happened in those first 15 days of August in Afghanistan has dominated the news in what undoubtedly is a global security powder keg. On the day the Taliban returned to power, Boris Johnson stated that “Afghanistan must not become a breeding ground of terror”.

But amongst the justified alarm of what Taliban rule might mean for the West and the fight against terror, we must not forget the other tragedy of this story. Millions of innocent civilians whose lives after 20 years of US and UK lead occupation have been disrupted beyond repair. The strides made in the last 20 years regarding female empowerment, human rights and the democratic promise of a nation’s people controlling their destinies through free, fair and open elections have been severed now the Taliban have returned to power.

That’s why the current response to the crisis by the Government isn’t just disappointing, it also represents a new standard of how far Britain has morally sunk since the start of the pandemic. A Britain that Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged would be “world leading”, “dynamic” and a “beacon of hope” appears to have returned to being the “sick man of Europe” not seen since the industrial decline of the 1970s.

In many ways, the humanitarian crisis currently developing in Afghanistan could represent the last gasp opportunity for the current Government to display a moral backbone and live up to its politically grandiose pledges, by simply doing the right thing and sheltering; as is practically possible, as many Afghan refugees that Britain can take. 

The current plan to welcome 20,000 Afghan refugees into the country over five years at first glance appears generous, but realistically it doesn’t go far enough when we bear in mind the magnitude of the crisis at hand.

In June 2020, in the wake of Mainland China’s security laws which effectively curtail the right to protest and reduce Hong Kong’s regional autonomy, the Prime Minister pledged that up to 3,000,000 Cantonese residents could resettle in Britain: because Britain could not in “good conscience walk away from its obligation”. It seems, then, that permitting only 20,000 Afghan refugees falls far short of what Britain is capable of.

Despite claims by Suhail Shaheen, an official spokesman for the Taliban, that they seek to form an Administration “for all Afghans in which women’s rights are upheld and is democratic”, such a statement appears to be a PR stunt.

With reports indicating female students have been told by the Taliban that they’re now prohibited from attending university classes, whilst Afghans who aided Western forces during the US and UK led occupation have been reportedly killed in revenge attacks. 

In light of this, the fact the Government has been largely silent on the announcement that US troops will be withdrawn at the beginning of Joe Biden’s Presidency in April has constituted a type of moral nausea that was both morally bankrupt and morally reckless with predictable humanitarian consequences.

Both undoubtedly tragic and shocking in speed, the likelihood of a Taliban resurgence to power was always on the cards. Throughout the 20 year occupation, the Taliban were not defeated but instead pushed out of provincial cities, and were largely confined to the country’s surrounding foothills and villages by US and UK lead forces.

The Taliban never went away and instead were kept at arm’s length. It was never a case of if the Taliban would come back to the fore, but in reality, when. Given that arguably the first major withdrawal of British troops in 2014 marked the moment the fight against the Taliban was conceded, and the “nation-building” project of Afghanistan was informally left to the winds of chance and US goodwill.

Once Osama Bin Laden was successfully terminated by US forces in 2011, the “nation-building” project lost its impetus. Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind 9/11 in which nearly 3,000 people were murdered, was found hiding in Pakistan, contrary to beliefs that he was located in Afghanistan; which constituted one of the salient but factually incorrect reasons for the country’s invasion in the first place.

One can hope the Government increases their intake of Afghan refugees to a truly substantial number, making Britain authentically “world leading”, “dynamic” and a “beacon of hope”.  The people of Afghanistan, after the last 20 years of occupation and its surrounding controversy, deserve safety, peace and freedom within a social framework buttressed by a legal system that is independent, rational, non-discriminatory and adheres to a substantive rule of law concerning social justice and fundamental human rights.

Whether the Government likes it or not, that is the moral obligation of the British state and what it owes to all peaceful Afghans. Permitting only 20,000 potential refugees is morally unforgivable.

Cover image: Photo RNW .org via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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