Now, with the Taliban seemingly back in power in Kabul, a new exodus is building. Western diplomats, representatives of international organizations and even my colleagues in the news media are desperately trying to arrange for visas to evacuate tens of thousands of Afghans who assisted their work in the country and may now be vulnerable to Taliban retaliation.
The Pentagon said Monday that it had prepared to bring 22,000 SIV recipients to the United States, where they will be temporarily housed on military bases. Canada announced last week that it would bring in about 20,000 Afghan refugees, placing special emphasis on offering sanctuary to human rights leaders. European governments are also mustering their own lists of Afghans whose evacuations they hope to expedite. Former military interpreters, journalists, civil society leaders and women’s rights activists are all in the militants’ crosshairs. Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities have long been targets of the Taliban’s wrath.
“We were the ones who raised our voices for years,” an Afghan female activist, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for her safety, told my colleagues. “Afghanistan is on fire. No one has a visa. No one has anything. Honestly, I am lost.”
That sense of bleakness was on garish view at Kabul’s airport a day after the Taliban marched into the capital. The city’s diplomatic community and myriad Afghans fearing for their safety sought to take shelter there, hoping to be evacuated. On a tarmac, dozens of Afghan civilians ran after a U.S. military plane. Some clung on to the side of the aircraft as it taxied down the runway. It took off, apparently with some Afghan civilians still clinging to pieces of the plane’s machinery. Others looked on as the plane faded into the distance. Footage uploaded online seemed to show at least one body falling from the skies. According to the AP, at least seven people at the airport were confirmed dead.
The scene offered an inescapable metaphor. After two decades of war, counterinsurgency and nation- and army-building, the United States was leaving in a chaotic rush. The militants who Washington had chased out of power were now chasing U.S. personnel out of Afghanistan. And this new departure only deepened the sense of crisis facing countless Afghans.
There will be time yet to puzzle over the woeful frailty of the Afghan government and military, which caved before the resurgent Taliban’s advance. So, too, to litigate the expedient politics and tactical missteps that underlie President Biden’s decision to announce earlier this year the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. For now, though, the focus squarely remains on the human tragedy playing out at Kabul’s airport and in other parts of the country, as reports come in of Taliban fighters going house-to-house in various cities in search of people on their target lists.
“At this grave hour, I urge all parties, especially the Taliban, to exercise utmost restraint to protect lives and to ensure that humanitarian needs can be met,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said at an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
For some onlookers, the United States has a duty to the Afghan people. “The United States has a moral obligation,” tweeted Afghan American novelist Khaled Hosseini. “Admit as many Afghan refugees as possible.”
His argument was echoed by Vietnamese American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, who cited the parallel on virtually everyone’s mind in Washington. In the chaos of the 1975 fall of Saigon, the United States evacuated about 125,000 Vietnamese refugees alongside American soldiers. Many more were welcomed in the years that followed. Nguyen insisted that a similar logic must apply for Afghanistan, a country that endured cycles of American interference and intervention since the Cold War.
“The majority of Americans did not want to accept Southeast Asian refugees in 1975. Guess what? They were wrong,” Nguyen tweeted. “Millions of Southeast Asian Americans have contributed in ways great and small to the US. Afghans have done so and will do so.”
But such solidarity is hardly on show from the West’s political leaders. Biden made little mention of the broader plight facing Afghans in a defiant speech Monday, in which he defended his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and blamed the current crisis on the failures of a weak government in Kabul. In Europe, meanwhile, leaders live with the memory of the 2015 migrant crisis, when a surge in Syrian and Afghan refugees convulsed the continent’s politics. They see Afghan refugees as a security threat as much as they may also be a source of humanitarian concern.
“We must anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows that would endanger the migrants and risk encouraging trafficking of all kinds,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech Monday.
“We cannot solve all of these problems by taking everyone in,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month when asked whether her government would consider repeating what it did in 2015 — opening the doors to approximately 1 million Syrian refugees — for Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
On Monday, she called on the international community to help bolster aid organizations that would ideally tend to the needs of Afghan refugees far from Europe. “We should not repeat the mistake of the past when we did not give enough funds to [the U.N. Refugee Agency] and other aid programs and people left Jordan and Lebanon towards Europe,” Merkel said, referring to how many Syrians sought to leave the misery of their conditions in neighboring countries for safe haven farther west.
Despite the escalating bloodshed in Afghanistan, many European governments have been denying the applications of Afghan asylum seekers, often on harsh grounds, arguing, for example, that certain cities in the country were still safe for return. In recent weeks, though, some have suspended deportations, leaving scores of Afghans in legal limbo and emotional distress.
“This situation is incredibly stressful,” a 24-year-old Afghan asylum seeker in Austria whose applications had been rejected twice — and whose hometown is in Taliban control — told my colleagues. “Right now, the whole country is at war. I am very afraid of being deported.”