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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory

August 18, 2021

Afghanistan and the new challenge of not looking the other way

One day the American president announced that his troops would start withdraw and that was the end. In just over a week the entire Afghan territory was back under Taliban control and the president had left the country, perhaps to Tajikistan. Twenty years of building a self-sustaining state were in vain and in the end the structure collapsed like a house of cards. Quickly and stealthily.
By Ignacio E. Hutin

Afganistán y el nuevo desafío de no mirar hacia otro lado

The current situation is one of uncertainty, of unanswered questions and of playing riddles, trying to find out who governs or what the future holds now that the cards have been reshuffled. That doesn’t mean that the scenario in Afghanistan is completely new or unfamiliar. After all, the Taliban group already dominated these lands between 1996 and 2001. But two decades after the US invasion, two decades after the attack to New York City’s Twin Towers, the world has changed. And the Taliban maybe have as well.

The extremist group gained strength in the 1990s, when the long and unsuccessful Soviet invasion had come to an end. They were times of terror, persecution of those who did not follow the strict laws of religious extremism. Misogyny also reigned at that time: Afghan women and girls could not work or study, they had no right to a dignified, free life. Those memories have not been erased and today they are expressed in the thousands of citizens who try to flee in any way and wherever. Now a new game begins, a game that isn’t actually really new, that has already been seen before: what to do with the new refugees? Who will open the borders for the human beings who escape uncertain futures to survive?

To begin to raise this, it is first necessary to understand what so many people are fleeing from. It would be ridiculous to think that they are leaving their land (their home, possessions, history, friends, family, work, life) for no reason. As if rushing out was as easy as changing your shoes. Of course it is not. Only a deep fear can push so many human beings to face a desperate and risky journey. That fear is the memory of the Taliban government, of those times when the fanatics were masters of life and death for all in Afghanistan. Nobody forgets it and few want to return to that place that seemed extinct. The only alternative is to flee.

Even though Afghanistan has definitely not been an earthly paradise in these last twenty years, some things have really improved. There were greater civil liberties during this period, there were four relatively democratic elections, there was a clean and peaceful transition of power, and there were girls in schools. That is not irrelevant, even though the war continued and more and more deaths were added every day. Certain stability was maintained, sustained by an international support, led by the United States. The idea was to build a sufficiently durable and strong democracy, a structure in which political and religious sectors could settle their disputes without resorting to an AK-47. In the process, the Taliban withdrew from the public sphere and vanished to reappear at the right time, to strike when their prey was vulnerable.

One day the American president announced that his troops would start withdraw and that was the end. In just over a week the entire Afghan territory was back under Taliban control and the president had left the country, perhaps to Tajikistan. Twenty years of building a self-sustaining state were in vain and in the end the structure collapsed like a house of cards. Quickly and stealthily.

The first announcements of the group in power seem to point to a new direction, as if these two decades had appeased the absolutist and extreme ambitions to give way to a somewhat more pragmatic restraint. Its spokesman said that individual rights will be respected, that there will be a general amnesty for detractors, and that women will be able to work and study under the new regime. Of course, as long as they follow the Sharia, the Islamic law.

The Taliban know that the best way to stay in power is by guaranteeing a stability that is comfortable enough for other countries and that, for example, allows them to efficiently and safely exploit the important mineral resources that this land offers. Cobalt, gold, iron, lapis lazuli, and lithium can bring big revenue for the new regime and also for future foreign investors. Countries like China and Russia quickly announce that they would negotiate with the Taliban as new representatives of the Afghan state. A pragmatic, realistic logic that favors profits over the wellbeing of the population. After all, that same game has already been seen in other corners of the planet, for example in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where low-cost resource extraction justifies looking the other way while atrocities are being committed. That may be the near future for Afghans who are unwilling or unable to flee.

Perhaps some even trust this new face that the old acquaintances try to show, a more polite, seemingly tolerant and moderate version. Even UNICEF expressed some optimism. But it is unlikely that these changes will go beyond words. It is not by chance that so many flee, nor that around 80% of those who do so are women and children. They flee out of fear, but where to? The European Union bears the antecedent of 2015, when more than two million refugees sought asylum in different countries of the bloc. Then some, like Germany, opened their doors, but in others a message of xenophobia was spread, the idea that those who fled the war also brought it with them, that receiving them implied too many problems.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that "we must anticipate and protect ourselves from significant irregular migratory flows." He knows that such a speech will have adherents and that it is easier to delegate the problem to some other state, perhaps to Turkey, Albania, Iran or any other one who agrees to take over a group of people as if it were an uncomfortable package. In that sense, it is likely that the exploitation of mineral resources is not the only excuse to look the other way: a repressive government may be welcome if it means stability, if it ensures that those expelled do not reach the heart of Europe.

Or maybe, just maybe, the European Union has learned its lesson and no longer limits itself to accepting or not accepting migrants or pretending that there are no people suffering. Perhaps this will help build a better future in Afghanistan once the new Taliban discourse collapses, when the old and well-known persecution that reigned twenty years ago is once again exposed.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Bachelor of Journalism (USAL, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (UNDEF, 2019) and currently teaching in International Relations. Scholarship from the Finnish State for studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He worked in war zones covering for Argentine and international media. Focused on Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. Author of the book "Deconstruction. Chronicles and reflections from post-communist Eastern Europe" (CADAL, 2018).
 
 
 
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