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Afghanistan evacuees arrive at Australia’s main operating base in the Middle East, August 21, 2021. © 2021 LACW Jacqueline Forrester, Australian Government Department of Defence

Ahmad, an Afghan Australian, was already feeling exhausted after weeks of strict lockdown in a Western Sydney suburb, as he and his wife worked from home and home-schooled their four children. Then on August 15, Ahmad, like many Afghans abroad, watched as the Taliban took over Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Ahmad’s parents, brothers and sisters are sheltering in the basement of their family home in Kabul. They are terrified at any knock at the door since Ahmad’s father worked for the Afghan government and several of his siblings worked for international organizations.  

“I can’t sleep,” Ahmad told me over the phone last week. “It feels like a very long nightmare. My father is in grave danger. The family can’t venture out of the home. People in the neighborhood will start reporting on others.”  

For many Afghans, the return of the Taliban is a devastating new chapter for a country long wracked by conflict. Following Al-Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on the US, hundreds of thousands of troops from the US and allied nations including Australia invaded Afghanistan. While the Taliban were removed from power, the conflict continued for 20 years.

That war resulted in 111,000 civilian casualties and alleged war crimes by all parties – the Taliban and other insurgent groups, Afghan forces, foreign forces, and warlord-led militias. Just last year, a four-year independent Australian inquiry found credible information of unlawful killings of 39 Afghans by Australian special forces that may amount to war crimes  – the investigation of which could be hindered by the fall of the government.

The last twenty years saw significant gains for many Afghans, especially women and girls, journalists, civil society activists, and minorities like the Hazara. But now those advances are at great risk. On August 17, the Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, sought to reassure Afghan civilians and the international community about the new government’s support for human rights. But his vague use of past Taliban language limiting rights raised many new concerns.

In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch has documented Taliban killings of government security personnel and others taken into custody. The Taliban have long threatened and often killed government workers, journalists and human rights and women's rights activists. Since they seized Kabul, Taliban forces have begun going door-to-door, searching for former officials. Sajjad Askary, a 25-year-old Melbourne law student and Hazara from Afghanistan, told me, “The Taliban are brutal, they are violent, and they haven’t changed.”  

Despite the Taliban’s assurances that women can work and study “within the frameworks of Islam,” Afghan women rightly fear their hard-won gains will be lost. Local commanders have already closed some girls’ schools, turned away female students from schools and universities, and dismissed some female employees.

When the Taliban were in power from 1996 to 2001, they zealously upheld their extreme interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law, and banned most education for women and girls, used stoning as punishment for adultery, and confined women to their homes, even barring them from taking a walk, unless they wore a burqa and were escorted by a male family member.

Now that the Taliban are back in power, what should Australia do to promote human rights in Afghanistan?

Urgently, the government should help Afghans at heightened risk of persecution from the Taliban to leave. This includes not only the Afghans who worked with the Australian military and government, but women’s rights and civil society activists, journalists, government officials, and minorities. Afghans at risk need travel documents and safe passage quickly – they don’t need the burden of bureaucratic red tape and convoluted visa applications. Australian military veterans have burned their medals to protest the government’s treatment of Afghan interpreters and the frustratingly slow processing of visas.

Australia should offer an additional humanitarian intake for Afghan citizens that would help provide them humanitarian visas and safe passage from inside Afghanistan and resettle those who have managed to flee to third countries. Canada and the UK were quick to announce they would resettle 20,000 Afghan refugees. A petition led by Afghan Australians urging Australia to match that number obtained more than 100,000 signatures in days.

So far, the Australian government has allocated 3,000 places to Afghan refugees within its existing annual humanitarian intake of 13,750 per year. This means Afghans get priority, but only at the expense of people fleeing other countries. Additional humanitarian intakes are possible – then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott offered 12,000 extra places to Syrians in 2015, during the height of the Syria crisis.

Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan’s conflict creates responsibilities to help people at risk, heightened by the recognition that many Afghans put their lives on the line for Australians, and the uncomfortable truth that some special forces members allegedly committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, a coalition of Australian Afghans, veterans, human rights advocates, and security specialists are clamoring for the government to do more.

This is no time for the government to deny people fair treatment and revert to scare-mongering and tired old tropes about the risks of people smuggling. The government needs to treat Afghans in Australia’s care decently. That means ensuring those on temporary visas can get a pathway to permanent residency. And transferring to Australia the 22 Afghan asylum seekers and refugees who have been stuck in Papua New Guinea for years after Australia transferred them there.

Of course, many Afghans seeking to leave the country won’t make it out on an evacuation flight. Some will seek safety in neighboring countries like Iran or Pakistan. To help these people, the Australian government should increase assistance for refugees and groups helping them. It should also back efforts at the United Nations for human rights fact-finding and reporting in Afghanistan. Having monitors on the ground will be crucial to document human rights violations in this next uncertain chapter of Afghanistan’s history.

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