Eight years ago, I authored an article called “Is Afghanistan a Sinking Boat? Anxiety about U.S Withdrawal 2014.” I shared my insights from the time I served as a political officer of the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Back then, I observed the panic among the local population, especially the ethnic minorities such as Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks who feared that they would be targeted again by the Taliban once U.S forces began drawing down in 2014. The Afghan generals I interviewed were pessimistic too. They expected that the Taliban would most likely take over the country as soon as the foreign forces departed. Women feared that all the gains achieved since 2001 would be lost, sentiments shared by human rights activists.
Afghans did not particularly like the presence of the coalition forces or international organizations but admitted that they would rather choose living under “foreign occupation” than the Taliban. The atrocities committed by the Taliban were still fresh in their minds. Many looked to emigrate as soon as possible. Colleagues often asked about the immigration rules in my home country, Kyrgyzstan.
That was eight years ago. The latest news on Afghanistan inspires a strong sense of deja vu. Today, Afghanistan is indeed a sinking boat as U.S. forces finally are departing, a process to be completed by August 31 according to the Biden administration. As predicted, the Taliban are on a strategic offensive, taking over townships and controlling key transportation routes and encircling Kabul, causing an unprecedented deflation of morale in the ranks of the Afghan military and police. The Taliban already trumpet their victory in pushing foreign forces out of Afghanistan, and they have mounted a propaganda campaign that aims to intimidate civilians and undercut the government’s political credibility. They further insist that there is no need for any residual U.S. forces and Turkish military to stay to provide the security for the international airport, diplomatic staff, and government buildings in Kabul.
U.N. leaders are pleading with the international community to continue supporting Afghanistan as countries in the region are already seeing an influx of refugees. (Tajikistan already has reported an influx of retreating Afghan troops, with more than a thousand reported fleeing to Tajikistan on July 4 alone). Indeed, there is growing international consensus that the country will inevitably descend into chaos in the coming months, bringing on a humanitarian crisis of great scale. There will also be larger strategic impacts to a region already destabilized by the U.S. intervention in Iraq, with Iran, China, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, and India (among others) posturing for influence. Most immediately concerned are the countries of Central Asia.
From June 27 to July 4, Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov visited Washington D.C., with Afghanistan high on the agenda. President Joe Biden has reportedly asked Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan if they could temporarily host 9,000 Afghans that worked for U.S military forces and may be persecuted by the Taliban. These Afghans are in the process of applying for special immigration visas (SIV). Uzbekistan reportedly is already preparing for the influx, having set up 80 tents in the city of Termez in anticipation of refugees from Afghanistan. The camp may be the result of talks in Washington, D.C.
All five Central Asian states already host hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who have fled the war since the 1990s. Some received citizenship, others got refugee status, but many are still undocumented. There are millions more who fled to Iran and Pakistan. The EU, Canada, and the U.S. are also the recipients of high numbers of refugees from Afghanistan. Lately, Turkey, which is seen as an access point to cross into Europe, became another popular destination. The relatively easy process to get permanent residence or citizenship through investment is another appealing factor leading Afghans to choose Turkey for emigration, in addition to cultural aspects.
Since I left Afghanistan in 2013, many of my Afghan colleagues who worked as U.N local staff have already emigrated to other countries. Those who remain are anxiously packing their bags to move now. One of my former colleagues shared that he traveled 10 hours by road to Kabul last week to prepare for relocating his family to Turkey. Dozens of his friends have recently emigrated also to Turkey. He said that the emigration rate is so high that it takes up to three months for visa applications to be processed. Other embassies are also overwhelmed with visa applications.
The ongoing brain drain from Afghanistan will further debilitate the nation. Many of Afghanistan’s professional and educated class are leaving. This will be a generational loss, as most of the Afghans who have received education during their previous stay in other countries as refugees understand that it is better to relocate their families to ensure safety and education for their children.
A young Afghan student at the American University in Central Asia shared that her family in Afghanistan is worried that the country is descending into chaos. There are daily news reports that the Taliban are taking over new districts. “Trust me, if you ask, ‘Who wants to leave Afghanistan now?’ almost the whole country will be eager to leave except for the supporters of the Taliban,” the student told me. Only the Taliban “are cheering that now that the foreign occupation is over, Afghans will be able to rebuild their country.”
All the people I interviewed for this piece agreed that there will be a power struggle between the government forces and the Taliban before any rebuilding process could start, if one ever starts at all. Rebuilding requires peace, capacity, and skilled people, almost all of which are now hemorrhaging from the country. “The government will try to cling to power but it will not last too long because within the administration and in the army, there are many Taliban supporters,” one interviewee said. “The Taliban [are] better equipped and supported by the army of a neighboring country, so the current government will not be able to show much resistance.”
Azra Jafari, who was the female mayor of Daikundi district in the Central Highlands Region, is among those who emigrated to the U.S. early on. She remains active in Afghan politics and has been vocal about the Hazara cause, including sending a letter to former President Donald Trump to draw attention to the massacres of the Hazaras.
Jafari is pessimistic about the current situation and expects that the Taliban will set up an all-Pashtun government. There will be no place for the national minorities, whom she feels were already overlooked by the current administration. She believes that the international community should stay and push for reforms in Afghanistan, especially decentralization, women’s rights, and minorities rights. Many Afghans feel abandoned by the international community and believe that it is a mistake for the U.S. to leave the country without ensuring a solid power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Experts fear that the most likely scenario awaiting Afghanistan is civil war: Warlords will directly fight against the Taliban, further dividing the country and deepening the chaos. If that materializes, then apart from the refugee crisis, Central Asian countries may face serious threats to their security. The Taliban may find sympathizers among Central Asians who traveled to Syria to join the Islamic State. The region’s disenchanted youth, especially those who received an Islamic education, may also find inspiration in the movement.
The region and the international community should hope for the best but prepare for the worst. Efforts to this end are already underway. The United Nations Center for Preventive Diplomacy in Central Asia (UNRCCA) has launched meetings among foreign ministers of the Central Asian countries, and these should continue to facilitate coordination and early warning of potential crisis. The Collective Security Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have security in Central Asia as part of their mandate and should play a constructive role. The international community will need to press hard for the inclusive reform and rebuilding of Afghanistan to avoid a major crisis that spills well beyond the Afghan borders.
Finally, despite all of the hand-wringing and finger pointing in Kabul amid the looming crisis, Afghan leaders have had more than enough time and resources to have transformed their country and undercut the Taliban’s appeal and ideology. The writing on the wall has been there for some time. For a small nation that has gotten more than a trillion dollars of military and economic support, its leaders have little to show except for continuing and rapacious corruption. In the end, Afghanistan has squandered an opportunity to transform itself. As it reverts to the tribalism that its neighbors have so long exploited, its future as a nation is indeed bleak.
A previous version of this piece was published by the Davis Center, Harvard University.