As Kabul falls to the Taliban, the director of Monash University’s Gender, Peace and Security Centre is calling for Australians to stay engaged with the plight of the people of Afghanistan who remain trapped in a country undergoing rapid change.
Speaking to The Mandarin about the critical role civil society will continue to play in Taliban-run Afghanistan, international relations Professor Jacqui True appealed to the general public to support the humanitarian crisis the country is now facing.
This will be an ongoing war for anyone in Afghanistan civil society who cares about human rights, she added.
“We need to show our concern from outside of Afghanistan, to our governments, as civil society members, and the importance of strong relationships we’ve forged with Afghan people,” True said.
“We need to show the commitments that we share to human rights, to women’s rights, to the rights of all people, including ethnic minorities, we need to really make that very clear.”
For local aid groups on the ground, many of whom have been physically left behind by their international counterparts, True said the immediate concerns were how to provide food, water, clean sanitation and shelter to the thousands of displaced people. She urged Australians to make a donation to charities who were capable of reaching these groups, if they could — Samira Hamidi’s efforts on behalf of the Josh Volunteer Group and human rights advocate Fawzia Koofi’s food appeal being two good causes to back.
In current circumstances, where there is no formal government, the focus was not politics or the new regime specifically, but how to get essential services to vulnerable civilians amid the social disruption. According to estimates by the International Rescue Committee, about 550,000 people are believed to be internally displaced within the country, with makeshift camps established to accommodate a significant number of the group in the capital.
Scenes of chaos and panic in Kabul have emerged in recent days as the withdrawal of some 650 US troops from Afghanistan was rushed forward by a month, and emergency flights for American embassy staff and aid workers and other nationals were hurriedly coordinated over the weekend. The emergency flights resumed on Tuesday after the Kabul airport runway was cleared of civilians who had gathered on the tarmac in desperate attempts to hitch a ride on the departing aircraft.
Pres. Biden: “I am now the fourth American president to preside over war in Afghanistan. Two Democrats and two Republicans. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth president…The buck stops with me.” https://t.co/ruR9FVi2x6 pic.twitter.com/ockX2mSlzY
— ABC News (@ABC) August 17, 2021
Australian forces, which had exited the country by mid-June, will return to Afghanistan on Monday with a deployment of 250 ADF personnel and a RAAF C-17 aircraft. They will be sent to Afghanistan and other undisclosed locations in the Middle East to execute a military evacuation plan that was signed off by the national security committee, confirmed by prime minister Scott Morrison on Monday.
On August 17, the acting governor of Afghanistan’s central bank, Ajmal Ahmady, fled the country and the nation’s currency dropped to a record low according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
In a series of updates published on a Twitter thread, Ahmady said the central bank was informed that dollar shipments would cease on Friday, impacting its ability to supply currency and further fuelling local panic.
1/The collapse of the Government in Afghanistan this past week was so swift and complete – it was disorienting and difficult to comprehend.
This is how the events seemed to proceed from my perspective as Central Bank Governor.
— Ajmal Ahmady (@aahmady) August 16, 2021
Eye-witness accounts of vehicle checks conducted by Taliban forces on the way to the airport in Kabul claim militants are seizing passports and burning them. All commercial flights stopped operating from the weekend and Reuters reports the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani fled the country with four cars and a helicopter full of cash on Sunday, wanting to avoid bloodshed.
Morrison: ‘Torrid situation’ changing by the day
Addressing the unfolding crisis during a press conference on Tuesday, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison described the situation as disturbing and torrid. He confirmed that operational plans to evacuate any remaining Australians had been finalised but would not provide any further detail about the strategy.
“What we have seen in the last 24 hours, is in the city of Kabul itself, while there may have been some stability — it’s all relative when you’re talking about a place like Kabul at the moment — the situation at the airport still remains a very difficult and challenging environment.
“Our defence forces, as well as DFAT, our Home Affairs officials and others, our Health officials, are working closely together, not just for what needs to be done in the Middle East, but what will need to be done back here in Australia,” the PM said, referring to an arrangement with the states and territories to accommodate Afghan arrivals in quarantine facilities when they land on Australian soil.
Reports have emerged from inside Afghanistan of interpreters who had assisted the ADF during Australia’s 20-year military presence in the country, whose visa applications to leave have been complicated by bureaucratic rules (for example, being lodged within six months of their service). They have lost hope. One interpreter told The Guardian he was simply waiting to die with his family, trapped in his village by the advance of the Taliban and unable to get into Kabul for any sort of evacuation effort.
Bushfires, vaccines, quarantine and now Afghanistan – Scott Morrison always does too little, too late. pic.twitter.com/F6URmdkvwM
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) August 17, 2021
Morrison conceded on Tuesday that for Australian servicemen and women who were deployed to Afghanistan, this period would prove to be a time of sadness, reflection and uncomfortable questioning. He also warned that it was inevitable Afghan nationals who worked closely with the ADF could not be helped.
“It’s a sobering day for everyone, and particularly those who have given so much over the past 20 years, and most notably those 41 who were lost [during Australian operations in Afghanistan],” Morrison said.
“I know the overriding concern of the veterans I’ve spoken to has been for us to protect those who worked alongside us in Afghanistan, that worked alongside you. I want you to know that we will continue to do everything we can for those who have stood with us, as we have to this day.
“Despite our best efforts, I know that support won’t reach all that it should. On the ground, events have overtaken many efforts. We wish it were different.”
Morrison noted that since April 2021, 430 Afghan interpreters and their families had been brought to Australia and 1,800 people had been resettled in Australia to date. More would come, he said.
When asked why Australia’s processing of this vulnerable group had not been more efficient, the PM responded that in order to undertake medical checks, verify identities, and consider the nature of the work Afghan applicants had done for the ADF, months of work was required.
“I would say that our government has been moving steadily now over quite a period of time to bring as many people out as we possibly can. And the job is not yet done. Now, in any circumstance, it’s impossible to give 100% guarantees. That’s all I was referring to,” Morrison said.
“[Afghanistan] was a mission that was about stopping a murderous ideology being exported around the world. For two decades, that ideology has been contained, as have the mass casualty attacks of those times.
“A generation of Taliban leadership was wiped out because of that violence. And, time will tell if the lesson of that history has been learnt,” he added.
What kind of Afghanistan is the next generation inheriting?
Fears about what the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan means, so soon after the US and its allied forces have departed, focus on the fate of women and girls who have experienced a life with more freedoms and opportunities than their mothers and grandmothers before them were afforded.
— Heather Barr (@heatherbarr1) August 15, 2021
Speaking to the BBC on Monday, journalist Lynne O’Donnell described the past three months travelling across parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban had progressively seized control, and announcements were broadcast from Mosque loudspeakers that girls of ‘marriageable age’ would be rounded up to become wives for Taliban fighters. O’Donnell cautioned that the group were lying, cheating drug dealers whose word could not be relied upon.
“[Kabul] is closed down. Women are in fear, they are getting out their burqas and they are staying at home. You cannot believe anything that the Taliban say.
“Let’s remember that they are the biggest drug-dealing cartel in the world — that’s how they make their money, that’s what’s funding their insurgency. These are not people to be believed or trusted,” O’Donnell said.
When the Taliban was last in power during the late 90s, women were mostly confined to their homes and denied an education. A spokesperson for the new regime reportedly said that girls would be allowed to access education but news has already emerged that advertisements and signage featuring uncovered women in some of the overthrown cities in Afghanistan have been painted over.
Media organisations have also been taken over and shut down.
Professor True said that Afghanistan was the worst place to be a woman because certain regimes also propped up an entire political economy in which men benefit from the enslavement of women. She referred to the Taliban’s history of targeting maternity wards and girls schools, and that since 2014 women and girls comprised the majority of civilian casualties in deliberately violent events.
Beyond the extreme examples of child sexual enslavement and gross violence, she said the experience of violence at home was most common in Afghanistan.
“Afghan women are vulnerable to violence of multiple forms, from the home to the public realm, to the online realm,” True said.
“The political and economic status of women explains their vulnerability to violence, and a regime that ensures the political and economic subordination of women ensures that they will be subject to various forms of sexual and gender based violence.”
She went on to explain that if women attempted to claim certain rights when they were denied freedom of education, expression and mobility, or if they challenged being treated as the property of a male guardian, they faced greater risk of violence and death.“In terms of ensuring economic resources, power, jobs and income, the code of men over women, it buys some men off.”
“In terms of ensuring economic resources, power, jobs and income, the code of men over women, it buys some men off.
“It gives them certain economic benefits and incentives to buy into a very austere, brutal interpretation of Sharia law,” she said.
True, whose work with the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, has seen her host delegations of women leaders from Afghanistan, stakeholders involved in peace process efforts, and high-ranking officials interested in fostering progressive thinking for Afghanistan, said the loss her friends and colleagues were suffering was ‘very real’ for the academic community.
A (virtual) debating event True recently organised for a series of dialogues between Afghan and Australian university students had to be cancelled because of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan this month. Last year in November, when the Taliban attacked Kabul University, one of the debating students involved in this program was killed — making the new regime’s threat to the academic world near and palpable.
How ironic..read this first paragraph from Ashraf Ghani’s oped (1989) and apply it to August 2021…. pic.twitter.com/EyiMIGjXSh
— Saad Mohseni (@saadmohseni) August 17, 2021
But True says she remains hopeful that the new generation of educated, open-minded Afghan students in her wider network will do everything in their power to promote the academic freedoms, agency and choice under the new regime. And the internet is a powerful tool to achieve this.
“We’re at a different place now– we have quite an integrated connected world, and social media mechanisms. Even when you have no independent media there are these alternative media forms, which in this kind of a context is so important, because they are a way that people can connect and contest,” True says.
Pointing to the examples of countries in Eastern Europe that were once subject to Soviet occupation under communist rule, she says the will of the people is a powerful force to assert national identity and memory, even under the most trying conditions.
“[The people] built up their movements and clandestine, so that both countries were able to transition peacefully to a sort of a liberal order. No one thought that would happen in my lifetime. And it happened,” True said.
“Change did not happen because of governments but because of people, and often very small groups of people. So as a political analyst, I’m quite hopeful and I do believe that it’s not just about what our government does tomorrow, or the next day, but everything we do as citizens that matters.”