The complete withdrawal of NATO troops in September will create a new political and social landscape in Afghanistan. The Alliance will leave the Asian country after two decades of instability, violence and the Taliban's rise to power. The US-led withdrawal was agreed in February 2020 during the Donald Trump administration, although the current US president, Joe Biden, has reiterated the pact with the Taliban.
According to the February agreement, the troops should have left the country last May, although Biden eventually delayed the official withdrawal until 11 September. "It is time to end America's longest war," declared the Democratic president. Nevertheless, Biden has assured that Washington will maintain "diplomatic and humanitarian work", in addition to supporting the Afghan government.
Now, a few months away from September and while many military units have already begun to leave the country, the Afghan population is worried about this new phase. Citizens who worked with foreign troops, such as translators, have been warning for some time about the possible reprisals they could face from the Taliban. For this reason, some nations, such as the UK, are offering asylum to these people through relocation schemes.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Interior Minister Priti Patel have pushed for this measure to protect Afghan interpreters, as more than 350 translators have been killed by the Taliban since 2014. Patel has stated that his government has a "moral obligation" to relocate these people and "recognise the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism in addition to rewarding their efforts". More than 3,000 Afghan interpreters are expected to arrive in the UK, with the first group landing in Birmingham on Tuesday.
Activists and workers in the sector warn that their situation will worsen dramatically from September onwards. "If you work one day for a coalition force, or support coalition forces one day, they will kill you," an Afghan translator warned ABC News. "If they take over Kabul they will come and behead us all. They will kill us," adds this interpreter, who goes by the false name of 'Abdul'.
Against this bleak backdrop, the US is also considering developing plans similar to those of the British government. In 2006 Congress approved a number of special visas for Afghan and Iraqi translators who face "a serious and continuing threat as a result of their employment". These visas are also intended for their family members. However, the application processes take years, and due to the coronavirus crisis, these procedures are taking even longer. For this reason, many translators who worked with US troops regret having done so and feel "abandoned" by Washington.
For its part, the Biden administration claims to be "focused on benefiting people". "We are committed to supporting those who have helped the US military perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families," the State Department said. Translators fear that the current administration will follow in the footsteps of the previous one, as Trump denied asylum to more than 1,646 Afghans.
Within the translators, women face an even greater risk compared to their male counterparts. As Julie Kornfeld, an asylum lawyer, explains, "while Afghans linked to the US are at great risk of retaliation from the Taliban and other militias, women in particular face constant threats, not only for having worked with the US, but also for working in positions that the Taliban deem unsuitable for women".
In the face of warnings from translators, the Taliban claim that "they will not be harmed". "Some of those people who claim they will be harmed just want to get out of here," said Sayed Akbar Agha, a Taliban leader. However, organisations such as the US-based No One Left Behind have repeatedly denounced the violence suffered by interpreters.
Russia's Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu has warned of a possible civil war in Afghanistan following the deployment of foreign troops. He also pointed to the lack of stability in the country despite the presence of the Alliance for 20 years. "A new civil war would mean a worsening of the situation of the people, an intensification of migration and the spread of extremism to neighbouring countries," Shoigu warned.
Beijing has also expressed fears that this instability will affect its territory or interests in the region. The Chinese foreign ministry has already blamed the US for the violence in the country. Zhang Jun, China's representative to the UN, also pointed to Washington's decision to leave Afghanistan as the trigger for causing a "critical juncture" in the country.
The EU is also concerned about the future Afghan scenario. Mario Draghi, Italy's prime minister, warns of a possible increase in the flow of migrants to Europe from Afghanistan after NATO's withdrawal. "The government wants to manage migration in a balanced, efficient and humane way. But that should not be an exclusively Italian issue. It must be European," Draghi declared, calling on his European partners to address this potential challenge. "We need a common commitment to contain the flow of illegal migration, to organise legal migration and to help countries stabilise and find peace," he added.
Despite Italy's warnings, Afghans have been fleeing their country due to violence for years. Afghan nationals make up a significant percentage of the total number of refugees in Europe. According to EU data, in 2019 Afghan nationals were second only to Syrians when it came to first-time asylum seekers. There were 44,220 applications that year, 10.6 per cent of the total. UNHCR also reported in 2020 that 4.6 million Afghans live outside the country. Pakistan and Iran host 90% of these refugees, where more than one million people are under 14 years old and around 75% are young people under 25.