August 18, 2021
Afghanistan is the ‘new Saigon.’ Photos circulating on social media are eliciting commentary about the U.S.’s actions in Vietnam decades ago, drawing an eerie comparison with what has happened in Kabul over the past few days. Previous discussions on sharing power between the Afghanistan government and the Taliban no longer apply as the Afghan government is now replaced by the fighters. Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian emergency and its citizens are left distraught, fighting for their rights, fearing death, and desperately trying to escape.
The refugee crisis in Afghanistan continues to escalate at an alarming rate. With reports of Taliban presence at the borders of Kabul just days ago, the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, left the country. Four days prior to that, thousands had formed temporary camps outside the city and are attempting to flee the country. Since May 2021, approximately a quarter of a million people in Afghanistan have been forced to flee their homes, the vast majority of these are women and children. Many Afghans who aided U.S. troops await visa approval to travel, even as commercial flights are cancelled, making it increasingly difficult for those attempting to escape Kabul. Disturbing footage has shown civilians holding onto the outside of U.S. military aircraft attempting to take off, a clear symbol of their desperation to flee the country.
Both the international community and the Afghan people are concerned as to how the situation will escalate in the coming days, weeks, and months. The Taliban has issued promises of peace and equal rights as they press forward into the country. However, based on the Taliban’s history of human rights violations, many are skeptical. In mid-July 2021, when Taliban forces took Kandahar, Human Rights Watch reported revenge killings of those who were suspected of assisting Western forces or had spoken out against the Taliban. Additional reports of Afghan soldiers being executed and demands for unmarried women in the area to be turned over to Taliban forces were circulated.
Over years of occupation in remote areas, the Taliban has demonstrated its capacity to perpetrate varied forms of human rights abuses, which are now likely to increase. Due to state corruption, many Afghan civilians turned to the Taliban for legal issues in areas where the group has been running a parallel sharia justice system. Penalties for acts such as theft and adultery can include amputation or death. LGBTQI+ people are also likely to face increased persecution and violence - execution by “wall-toppling” has already been used as punishment for gay sex in recent years. Additionally, the Shia Hazara minority have historically faced persecution and genocide in Afghanistan and are now at risk of genocide once again.
Other human rights crimes concern the international community. Although direct abuses against people are of the utmost concern, the Taliban has a history of destroying and looting cultural heritage. In 2001, Taliban forces destroyed two Buddhist statues, the Bamiyan Buddhas, and routinely entered the National Museum in Kabul destroying the artifacts in storage. Considerable work went into repairing and restoring the museum’s collection, which now stands at risk as the city is taken. Amid the concerns for threats to life and abuses to human and women’s rights, the topic of cultural heritage may seem like an afterthought. For those who manage to escape the country, the further destruction of their history could only add to their already considerable traumas and re-traumatize future generations.
The history of the Taliban and the recent reports of their actions in various cities all lead to countless human rights groups questioning the recent promises made. The sudden advances made by Taliban forces raises fears that the situation will only regress for the country and its people. The international community, watching from the outside, must put Afghan people at the heart of whichever actions regarding Afghanistan they take next.
© 2021 Human Rights Research Center (HRRC)