In 1984, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, a photojournalist called Steve McCurry captured a portrait which would come to be known simply as “Afghan Girl”. The image appeared on the cover of National Geographic the following year and as it became better known, it provided a window through which many people showed their compassion to the people of Afghanistan. The image depicted a young girl called Sharbat Gula, who was a refugee at the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan.
The Afghan girl was orphaned in the 1980s when her parents were killed during a Soviet helicopter attack on her village. She, and what remained of her family, trekked to Pakistan in search of safety. Gula was an orphan at six, a bride at thirteen, and became known as the “Afghan Mona Lisa” in Afghanistan. For decades, her identity remained lost to a world which sought to find the green-eyed girl who had shown them the true pain enduring half a world away.
Now, thirty-seven years later, the women of Afghanistan will share in the fear and distress that was felt by an orphan who had lost everything. The nation of Afghanistan has been left to the mercy of the Taliban, as western forces withdraw following a twenty year “War on Terror”. The relative stability and peace that this occupation brought to the region has disappeared overnight as the Taliban sweep back across Afghanistan to claim a twenty-year old victory. President Biden announced in April that the US would withdraw from Afghanistan, within four months the capital had fallen, and the Afghan President had fled.
The War on Terror has ended, and the west is on the losing side. Apart from reiterating the fact that this war was one which should never have been fought, the withdrawal of western forces and the advance of the Taliban means only one thing for the women of a war-torn nation: danger.
Interpretations of Islamic law have meant that women under Taliban rule have been mistreated in the past and had their human rights torn to pieces. At best, some can expect to lose their job, alter their appearance, or be prevented from studying. At worst, death. While some Taliban spokesmen are attempting to present a more moderate face to the world, it certainly is not all encompassing. It has been reported that young women have been offered to Taliban fighters for forced marriage and there have been deaths following a flag protest in Asadabad.
The situation is volatile and everything from mass protest to civil war is on the table. Out of the chaos, one thing is obvious, the situation for the people of Afghanistan is no more certain than twenty years ago. The sad truth of the situation is that neither the west, nor the domestic factions in Afghanistan, can bring about what the people of this nation need.
Crafting peace can be an impossible task but creating the conditions for a society to thrive need not be. No matter who sits in the seat of President, the nation of Afghanistan has seen too many decades of war. The people of Afghanistan need help, not weaponry. As recent events have shown, a large humanitarian crisis is imminent. People are rushing to flee a country that they once called home. We must help them find their new home.
The British Government has announced that 20,000 Afghan refugees will be resettled in the UK and that women and girls will be a priority. While this is a good start, we have already seen evidence that a warm welcome will not be offered. Priti Patel has warned that Afghan refugees arriving illegally by boat will not be given special treatment. One would have thought that only days after Afghanistan was thrown into despair, more compassion would be forthcoming from the government of a nation which directly contributed to the problem.
The UK should offer nobody special treatment, but our laws should be good enough that we do not feel the need to. We have waged war in a nation because of falsified promises, terrorist factions, and glorified notions of nation building. We have failed the people of Afghanistan. Now is not the time to shy away from our moral commitments as human beings.
Nearly forty years ago, a photographer took a picture of an Afghan girl. Today, the same Afghan woman lives in Kabul. She will have witnessed the terror which has returned to her homeland. It took only one image to convince the world that the people of Afghanistan were worthy of compassion. Today, we have thousands of images pouring out of a state which needs not only compassion, but humanity. Years ago, we claimed to enter the middle east on a crusade to make the world a better place. Now, we must allow those people who have been wronged the chance to live in a better world, in a better place.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.