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Afghans clinging desperately to airliners and military transports at Kabul airport will surely be among the defining images of the collapse caused by western withdrawal from their country. Some 60 nations have issued a statement saying Afghans and foreign citizens who want to leave must be allowed to do so. Yet getting them out is only half the battle; they must be sheltered and protected, and eventually found new lives. A mass international effort will be required to handle the large numbers of refugees likely to flee renewed Taliban rule.
How large that wave becomes will depend in part on the nature of the new regime. Western countries and Afghanistan’s neighbours must make clear to Taliban leaders that their government will again be a pariah if it reimposes the hardline theocracy of two decades ago — and engages in bloody vengeance against those who fought or worked for foreign forces or the previous regime.
But foreign leaders should also hold out the possibility that if, for example, girls’ and women’s rights to education and jobs, along with freedom of expression, are respected, then trade, aid, and potential recognition could follow over time. Some Taliban leaders say this is what they want. It is not clear if they can be trusted, or how far their writ runs among provincial subordinates
Many citizens will not wait to find out. The first priority for evacuation are local interpreters, embassy staff and others who worked for foreign forces, plus families. Coalition countries must speed up visa processing and do all they can to ensure safe passage.
Yet, as Human Rights Watch points out, the at-risk list extends to all who worked for foreign-funded or domestic civil society groups, promoting democracy and women’s rights, and many journalists, writers and academics. Indeed, very large numbers — including potentially all women and girls — may be at risk of persecution. The UN refugee agency estimates about 250,000 Afghans, mostly women and children, have already been forced to flee their homes since late May.
As far as possible, refugees should be sheltered initially in the region. Western countries should seek to persuade neighbours to keep borders open, by pouring in sufficient assistance to set up and manage refugee camps. Since Taliban rule may become long-term, however, large-scale international resettlement efforts will be needed.
The moral responsibility here lies above all with the coalition countries involved in the Afghan conflict, who should be ready to accept numbers reflecting the size of their economies and involvement. Especially with elections looming in Germany and France, this risks being politically poisonous; EU attempts to impose “quotas” for Middle Eastern migrants in 2015 dissolved into rancour. But Canada — whose government has also just called elections for September — has made a start by pledging to resettle 20,000 Afghan citizens from at-risk groups.
Just as pictures of the fall of Kabul recall Saigon in 1975, the world needs to mobilise a similar response, even if the numbers may prove smaller. Three weeks after the South Vietnamese capital fell, US president Gerald Ford pushed through a programme that took in 300,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by 1979. Some 2.5m Indochinese refugees were eventually resettled in North America, Europe and Australia. Attitudes have changed since then; the migrant wave of 2015 fuelled populist nationalism. But western democracies will atone, a little, for their mishandling of the Afghan withdrawal if they are ready to deal with the resulting exodus. Shunning refugees will further tarnish their reputations.
Video: How the 20-year war changed Afghanistan | FT Film