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  • Writer's pictureKnox Thames

Keep Kabul’s Airport Open to Save Lives

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

The unfolding catastrophe in Afghanistan has been shocking to observe. The speedy collapse of the central government and rapid Taliban conquest exceeded even the worst assessments ignored by the Biden and Johnson administrations.

A dark future portends for minorities, human rights advocates, and women. Women’s advocates and educated girls stand to lose everything. Reports of journalists being disappeared are already coming in.

Minorities such as Hazara Shia, Sikhs, and Hindus can expect violence and harsh restrictions. Underground Christians, Baha’is and atheists are fearful for their lives.

A group of United Nations human rights experts issued a detailed statement this week, urging “swift global action to protect human rights and prevent civilian slaughter.”

Fearful of what’s to come, they called on UN Members States to “safeguard the human rights and humanitarian needs of the people of Afghanistan, including its most vulnerable.”

For these reasons, the US and the UK must prioritize keeping Kabul’s airport open. The vortex of noise and accusations swirling around Washington and London must not distract from this point.

If commercial flights can land, Afghanis who supported the positive vision of a pluralistic and rights-respecting Afghanistan can flee. The chaos of this week adds ignominy to a bungled withdrawal. Keeping the airport open will ensure that some of the vulnerable can leave. It will save lives.

With this must come a commitment to accept more refugees. The UN statement stressed this point. They called for member states "to keep their borders open to receive asylum seekers from Afghanistan while ensuring adequate protection and humanitarian assistance of Afghan refugees and internally displaced persons.”

Both the US and the UK should open their doors to Afghanis who supported their efforts.

The refugee policy should expand beyond translators who directly helped US and UK service members and diplomats but those working in support of international aid organizations, human rights organizations, and their families. An expansive refugee program should include religious and ethnic minorities facing likely persecution.

The numbers should be exceptionally high considering the stakes and our 20-year involvement. After the fall of Saigon, the US took 125,000 Vietnamese refugees through a special evacuation. And this is a burden that the West cannot share alone.

Muslim-majority countries in Asia and the Middle East should open their doors to Afghanis fleeing the Taliban. Otherwise thousands and thousands will take an arduous journey towards safety, risking their lives and that of their children. Another huge, disorganized refugee flow will destabilize the region and the world.

The Taliban’s return means back to zero for Afghanistan, despite 20 years of blood, sweat, and dollars. Recriminations can be sorted out later. The critical next step is the airport. If commercial flights can land, lives will be saved. If the airport closes, our dishonor will be complete.

Rehman Chishti MP Gillingham & Rainham and former UK Envoy for Religious Freedom.

Knox Thames served as the State Department Special Advisor for Religious Minorities under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

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