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It's not too late to preserve Afghan progress

Masood Saifullah
Masood Saifullah
August 11, 2021

The international community must change its course in Afghanistan and stand by the people of the country to preserve the fragile progress that has been made over the past two decades and avoid even greater tragedy.

Families who fled fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces shelter in a park
The Taliban's advances have led to mass displacementImage: REUTERS

The news from Afghanistan is painting a tragic picture of a situation where the US and its allies in NATO kept 20 years of active military presence and spent billions. Taliban militants have intensified attacks on district and provincial capitals across the country, resulting in civilian casualties and displacement. In the past few days alone, at least three provincial capitals have fallen to the Taliban.

Parts of Kunduz were in flames after Taliban fighters captured the city. Government facilities were looted as locals tried to flee to other parts of Afghanistan in search of safety.

Masood Saifullah in a hat
DW's Masood SaifullahImage: Privat

The scenes in many other Afghan provinces are no different. The Taliban have used the vacuum created by the international forces' pullout to their advantage by capturing more than half of all Afghan districts and placing most cities under siege. Any Afghan who can afford to leave the country has either fled or is searching for safety in a neighboring country.

Map show territories taken by the Taliban

How did we get here?

The current situation in Afghanistan does not come as a surprise to many — least of all to those Afghan men and women who continually urged NATO not to abandon the country.

Calls by Afghan women, civil society activists and youth to create mechanisms by which the Taliban could be held accountable after negotiations with the US were ignored. The Afghan government, for its part, was occupied with internal political rifts and thus unable to control the situation.

The final straw came with US President Joe Biden's announcement of the unconditional withdrawal of his troops from Afghanistan by September.

For Taliban fighters — who held their ground against US armed forces and the Afghan government for almost two decades — it was welcome news. The group could finally take its war to the Afghan security forces, which no longer enjoyed US and NATO air and surveillance support.

On top of that, the withdrawal announcement — combined with a high level of corruption in the Afghan government — had lowered the morale of the Afghan forces, which then saw no reason to risk their lives by standing in the way of Taliban offensives.

All sides bear responsibility

After being toppled by US troops with the help of NATO allies and local warlords, the Taliban soon reemerged. They then launched a war not only against the US and its allies, but also against Afghans who were working for the government or even simply living in big cities.

In the eyes of the Taliban, everyone who supported the government and NATO presence in Afghanistan is an enemy. The group considers basic democratic rights like voting a crime and fundamentally opposes women working in government or aid organizations.

Afghanistan has made progress in the past two decades, with millions of girls and boys going to school and thousands of men and women pursuing higher education. But such progress is extremely fragile. As they capture more provinces, the Taliban could close girls' schools and order women to stay home. Reports suggest the group is already implementing its harsh interpretation of Islam in newly captured districts and cities.

It is therefore important to act now and create mechanisms that hold the Taliban accountable for their future actions.

What needs to be done?

It is still not too late for the US and its allies, including Germany, to take concrete action and do damage control. While reinstalling troops in Afghanistan is off the table for many Western countries due to internal politics, the US and Europe could use their leverage on Pakistan to pressure the Taliban into an immediate cease-fire, while providing the Afghan government with resources to help Afghans displaced due to the war. They should do this.

Once a cease-fire is in place, all diplomatic efforts must be brought to the Afghan peace process in order for it to succeed. The international community must also demand that the Taliban clarify their position on elections and women's rights.

It is important to hold the Taliban as well as the Afghan government accountable and ensure that civilians do not pay the price for a war they have not caused. Unless such measures are taken, soon Afghanistan's civil war will become a human tragedy — for which the US and its allies in NATO, including Germany, bear some responsibility.