The news coming out of Afghanistan in the last few weeks has left many of us feeling helpless and asking what we can do to help. It’s also reignited a debate on the island’s position on refugees after the gov said there were no plans to house Syrian refugees back in 2018.
We’ve spoken to Louise Whitelegg, from Christian Aid Isle of Man, who says the island should be accommodating refugees from Afghanistan and urged people to think about what they’re posting online around the issue. We’ve also taken a look back at the Afghan war, what’s happening now and what Louise says the island could do going forward, ahead of the Christian Aid IoM vigil at Trinity Methodist Church this evening.
How Did We Get Here?
It’s very hard to give full context for the war in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s presence in the country has existed since 1994, they ruled the country from 1996 to 2001 after a period of civil war.
However, we’ll start with 2001. The US and its allies sent troops to the South Central Asian country after the group refused to extradite al Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, who was deemed responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, which the Taliban had condemned. After US President George W. Bush demanded the group turn over every terrorist and their supporters and allow the USA full access to terrorist training camps, Taliban leaders refused and instead expressed a willingness to hand over Bin Laden to a third country if any more evidence of his guilt was produced. In retaliation, the US invasion started in October 2001 and by December that year, the US and Northern Alliance ground troops had driven the Taliban from most of the country. Afterwards, a conference was held between Afghan leaders in the German city of Bonn where Hamid Karzai was chosen to head the Afghan Interim Administration, which then became the Transitional Administration, before an election in 2004 where Karzai was elected president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Another election in 2014 saw Karzai, who could not run again due to term limits, replaced by Ashraf Ghani, who was deemed the winner after an audit, supervised by the UN and funded by the US.
Since then there has been ongoing fighting in the country as the Taliban regained and lost ground, mainly to US forces, their allies (including members of NATO) and the Afghan army alongside various resistance groups. Other countries involved throughout the war have included the UK, Canada, Australia, Italy, New Zealand and Germany. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), there have been 212,191 deaths in Afghanistan since 2001, this includes 47,345 Afghan citizens, 444 Aid workers and 72 journalists (according to the Associated Press). The AP also reports that the amount of ‘direct Afghanistan and Iraq war costs that the United States has debt-financed as of 2020’ is around $2 trillion, rising to $6.5 trillion by 2050 due to ongoing commitments. The BBC estimates that the UK has spent $30 billion on the war in total, whilst NATO have sent $72 million worth of supplies to the country this year.
What’s Happened Recently?
The US, under the direction of Presidents Donald Trump and now Joe Biden, has been slowly decreasing the number of its troops in Afghanistan in recent years and on April 13 2021, Biden officially announced the withdrawal of all troops by September 11 (now brought forward to August 31). This came after the Trump administration had previously negotiated a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, when the US had 13,000 troops in the country. That agreement saw the freeing of 5,000 imprisoned Taliban soldiers, something which was objected to by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani before US pressure forced him to move forward, and would have seen all US forces out by May 1 2021. Biden said the number of troops in the country when he came to office, 2,500, meant he was forced to either carry out the rest of the deal or ramp up their presence. He said: ‘I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.’
Though the US had said that a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was not inevitable after they withdrew, the militants have made quick progress in their offensive since taking control of their first province, Nimroz, on August 6. The offensive culminated on August 15 when the group entered the capital Kabul and President Ghani fled the country. Since then, countries that still had a military presence have been scrambling to evacuate their people and allies in chaotic scenes in and around Kabul international airport, which is currently being run by specially deployed US troops. Thousands of Afghan families have been reported as trying to escape with foreign forces with UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace saying that so far the Taliban are cooperating and letting people through to the airport for evacuation. The UK gov has promised to take 20,000 Afghan refugees over the next five years, including 5,000 by the end of 2021, with fears over retaliation against Afghan residents who supported foreign troops with services like translation and guidance, though Taliban leaders have pledged that they won’t take revenge on opponents, saying everyone will be ‘forgiven’.
What Should The Isle of Man Do?
Though the Manx gov has previously said the Isle of Man does not have the resources to support refugees from Syria, Louise Whitelegg of Christian Aid IoM has called for the island to accept those in need from Afghanistan. She said: ‘Though there are no official refugees on the island, many have chosen to come here from the UK and add so much value to our society. They’re filling roles we can’t fill ourselves, they are the people that look after us, that give us our jabs, that deliver our food. There’s been a call for local authorities in the UK to step forward and accommodate refugees so I don’t see why we can’t be a part of that.’
In the short term, Louise said the vigil being held at Trinity Church this evening (August 19) will hopefully bring some good from being together. She said: ‘This is a drop in that’s open to everybody who’s been moved by the situation in Afghanistan as well as the recent earthquake in Haiti. We’re welcoming people of all faiths, and none, and I know there are people on the island that have served in Afghanistan, or have family who did, that might be feeling overwhelmed with the current situation. The drop in vigil will take place from 4 to 8 pm this evening at Trinity Methodist Church in Douglas with a prayer vigil from 5 to 5:45 pm to reflect on the crises in Afghanistan and Haiti.
Louise said that whilst the gov may have said they don’t have the resources to house refugees, something which has been echoed by many online, ‘there are people and charities here who will help lift the load from the government’. On those who have rejected the idea of hosting refugees on the island, Louise said that, though it’s difficult, they should think about ‘what you would want people to do if this was you and your children’. She said: ‘Yes it’s important to look after our own as well, but everyone on earth has a responsibility to share what we have. These are people whose lives are on the line, for example, I know of some of my colleagues from Christian Aid who are there and at risk. I wish people would think about the big picture, the Isle of Man is not in the level of danger that Afghanistan is and a lot of the commentary online is really upsetting. People need to think about what they are posting as the refugees who already live here may see it, these are our neighbours.’
The gov has not yet announced its position on accepting refugees from Afghanistan.