The three-day Eid ceasefire announced by the Taliban is a rare and brief respite for Afghans. The country is reeling from last week’s devastating suicide bombing of a school in Kabul that killed at least 85 people, mostly girls aged between 11 and 17. The massacre took place in the same neighbourhood where a maternity unit was lethally attacked a year ago, and which is home to many from the predominantly Shia Hazara minority, who in recent years have been repeatedly slaughtered in attacks on civilian targets. Coming shortly after the US and Nato announced the withdrawal of all troops by 11 September this year, it is another terrifying indication of what lies ahead for Afghans.
“It’s time to end the forever war,” the US president, Joe Biden, said as he announced the US’s departure last month. Americans can walk away, but Afghans cannot. They have lived through conflict for four decades, not two: the vast majority have never known peace. Civilian casualties have already returned to their 2019 levels and analysts predict that it is likely to worsen as the Taliban battle with the Afghan national security forces, and Islamic State fights both.
Many of those who refused to leave their country, at immense personal cost over the past decade, are finally concluding that they cannot stay, given the rising violence, the likelihood of increased Taliban control and the group’s rule in the swathes of territory that it already holds. The great fear is that history will repeat itself. After Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, the country slid into civil war, destroying lives, homes and families and helping give birth to the Taliban. Instability in Afghanistan can ripple out far more widely.
Though the US has finally acknowledged that it cannot determine Afghanistan’s future, it should not pretend that it has no responsibility for what happens to its inhabitants. There is a widespread longing for peace, security and access to essential services. The US and UK invoked women’s rights to justify the invasion of Afghanistan. If that was cynical, it would be much more so to abandon them now, in a country where less than 30% of women can read, but girls and their families make immense sacrifices for an education.
The Biden administration and its allies must continue to press for human rights and for proper accountability for atrocities such as the school attack. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission’s call for a UN investigation should be strongly backed. Whoever rules the country, foreign aid will be required to give people access to services such as education and health. There is concern not only that funders are increasingly stingy, but also that they may not make good on existing promises. The west has walked away from the battlefield; it must not walk away from the Afghan people.