The Struggle for Freedom in Afghanistan Will Not End with an Airlift | Opinion

During the U.S. military's precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world witnessed desperate efforts to evacuate foreign aid workers, diplomats and thousands of Afghan partners and employees who had worked courageously alongside these international actors.

Largely missing from the outgoing flights were the much larger number of Afghan activists, journalists, academics, civic leaders and human rights defenders who have struggled for the past two decades to build a more just, open and inclusive Afghanistan. These tireless champions of democracy are high on the Taliban target list, but were low on the airport evacuation lists. International human rights groups and women's organizations have managed to get some out, including over land, but those who manage to cross the border often lack access to frozen bank accounts and face deep uncertainty about their legal status in any new country. Even worse, many thousands more are trapped in Afghanistan and in great peril.

Around the world in recent decades, nascent authoritarian regimes have attacked and persecuted journalists, human rights defenders and vulnerable or scapegoated demographic groups as a means of consolidating power. The Taliban have proven no different. In the midst of the U.S.-led air evacuations, U.N. human rights commissioner Michelle Bachelet reported that the Taliban had already committed summary executions of civilians, continued their recruitment of child soldiers and violently suppressed peaceful protests, to name just a few of their abuses since seizing control of Afghanistan's major cities.

While the U.S. military's mission in the country may be ending, the democratic world's commitment to protecting fundamental rights in Afghanistan cannot.

 An Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft
An Afghan Air Force A-29 attack aircraft is pictured inside a hangar at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

First, we must help those who still want to leave. The United States and its allies should continue to demand that Afghanistan's roads and borders remain open to any individual seeking safety abroad. The Afghan constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that citizens have the right to leave their country, and while the Taliban may choose to disregard these documents, all responsible governments are obliged to uphold basic human freedoms. The United States, allied democracies and neighboring countries should also ease their own visa restrictions for human rights defenders, journalists, women's rights campaigners and other activists, creating a special visa category for these threatened groups and ensuring that they receive the assistance necessary to start new lives in their places of refuge.

Second, we must support those who remain. Foreign diplomats and aid workers will return to or continue to operate in Afghanistan, and in addition to meeting the population's crucial humanitarian needs, they should prioritize the protection of human rights defenders, women and women's rights activists, journalists and vulnerable groups like religious minorities and LGBTQ+ people. International representatives need to be visibly present on the ground to prevent, document and respond to human rights abuses, and international institutions should explore all means of providing funding to civil society actors without prematurely lifting financial pressure on the Taliban.

Third, we must hold the Taliban accountable for their actions. The international community and democracies in particular have leverage over a former insurgency that now seeks recognition as a government, access to markets and financing and an end to its pariah status. This leverage should be used to uphold fundamental freedoms. While the Taliban's truly horrible human rights record does not bode well for their future performance, the international community should not lower the bar for acceptable behavior among states simply because the Taliban are unlikely to meet it. Nor should we blindly accept their leaders' claims that victory came as a surprise, and that they merely need time to restore order.

Attention is currently focused on the shocking failures associated with the U.S. withdrawal, and marshalling international pressure to demand open borders, support vulnerable activists and hold the Taliban accountable for human rights abuses will not be easy or yield immediate progress. But as we do with all countries that have fallen under authoritarian rule, we must try to make progress. We owe it to the Afghans who have been forced to leave their homes, and to the millions of others who have been left behind.

Nicole Bibbins Sedaca is the executive vice president of Freedom House.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.