Written evidence submitted by the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (AFG0029)
Evidence for the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into UK policy towards Afghanistan (29/10/21) based on the experience of Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, Director of the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association established in 2000.
1. Introduction to the Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA)
The Afghanistan and Central Asian Association (ACAA) is the UK’s main charity supporting Afghan refugees and the diaspora in Britain. For more than 21 years, the ACAA has successfully delivered projects and promoted and integrated shared values. It has advised the Home Office’s Prevent initiative for more than a decade, and was recently asked by the Minister of Housing to advise on accommodation plans for newly arrived refugees. The ACAA is the only charity supporting Afghans in London which has its own community centre, and it is proud to have received a number of prestigious awards for its work, including the Queens Award for Voluntary Service (2018), Refugee Support Service of the Year (2019), and The Community Award from the London Asian Business Awards (2019).
HMG can benefit from the intimate knowledge of the diaspora of Afghans coming to the UK in terms of what has been and is likely to be effective in support of the people of Afghanistan as well as a better understanding of the historic and current situation in the country and its complex constituent elements. This paper suggests a much closer linkage between HMG and representative organisations such as ACAA.
This paper also identifies key challenges in the situation in Afghanistan and how these may be addressed.
The ACAA was founded by Dr Nooralhaq Nasimi, who fled Afghanistan with his young family in 1999 and then claimed asylum in Britain. The challenges he faced trying to integrate into British society motivated him to establish the ACAA and develop services to improve the experience of future arrivals.
Dr Nasimi had obtained an MA in Law and a PhD in Political Science from Odessa University which together with his time in the former USSR made him and his family a target for Taliban persecution. He also founded:
the European Campaign for Human Rights in Afghanistan in 2011, an organisation dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of Afghans worldwide.
Dr Nasimi was awarded the British Citizen’s Award for Volunteering and Charitable Giving in 2020.
For more than 21 years, ACAA has developed to support Afghans and Central Asians living away from their homeland, providing them with support, skills, and knowledge to live and prosper in the UK. It uses a community development ethos to tackle the problems directly affecting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, and focuses on their root causes, with a particular focus on English language classes, immigration and legal support, skills development, employment, and social inclusion. The purpose is to support new British Afghans to tackle the feelings of isolation which often accompany migration. The ACAA has also worked hard to develop, promote, and deliver projects for women and girls, focusing on helping them to learn about and then obtain their rights; and deliver projects for children and young people, including supplementary schooling, football, and other inclusion initiatives.
1.4 The ACAA’s work in Afghanistan
Until the recent political changes, the ACAA also worked in Afghanistan. In 2013, the ACAA received funding from DFID to pilot Citizens Advice centres in Afghanistan, based on the UK model. During a three-year period, the centres in Kabul and Pul-e-Khumri supported more than 16,000 people with legal, social, and welfare issues. The ACAA delivered a number of other development projects in other areas of Afghanistan, including in Balkh and Baghlan Provinces, using best practice from Great Britain.
Recently, the ACAA worked with the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, facilitating a gender equality project with three bases (Kabul, Balkh, and Paktia) using the Citizens Advice model.
1.5 Since the Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan, the ACAA has become a central point of contact for the British and international media. The charity is also the main port of call for the unprecedented number of newly arrived Afghan refugees, as well as Afghan families in the UK seeking news of their families remaining in country. In the first days after the Taliban took power, the ACAA’s centre in Hounslow had daily queues of over 600 people desperate for assistance. People often started queuing from 5.30 am, and police were eventually deployed to help manage the crowd and maintain order. Some of those queuing were British Afghan families wanting advice about how to evacuate their loved ones from Afghanistan; there were also thousands of newly arrived refugees seeking basic support, as well as legal advice and coping with the trauma of their evacuation. All those arriving at the ACAA were distressed, confused, and in need of some kind of urgent help.
1. Our evaluation of the current situation in Afghanistan: a brief summary
1.1.1 As winter approaches, Afghanistan’s already fragile economy will deteriorate further. There is a constant struggle for food and water, compounded by damage and fear caused by the Taliban government. The humanitarian crisis demands the co-ordination of an urgent international relief effort, and partnership with ACAA in Afghanistan could help alleviate this challenging situation.
1.1.2 A lack of transparency and reliable press coverage means it is difficult to evaluate the level of centralisation and co-ordination of the political control wielded by the Taliban. However, the ability of a theocracy, focused on enforcing its moral codes and ultra-orthodox vision, to successfully implement necessary governance programmes seems very doubtful.
1.1.3 Despite some initial suggestions that its agenda has changed, and an apparent wish to co-operate with international agencies and partners, the Taliban still promotes an ‘Us against Them’ position of Islam against the West. In effect, the Taliban is fragmented and will find it as difficult as previous governments in Kabul to be truly representative of Afghanistan as a whole country. The current Taliban regime does not appear to have a plan or structure for governance, nor the capacity to deliver one.
The Complexities of Afghan society
British foreign policy has historically failed to account for Afghanistan’s complex internal politics, ethnic differences, and lack of a singular national identity. The cost of this omission has been that foreign policy, nation-building, and the allocation of aid since 2001 has often brought further instability. Vast sums of money have also been wasted. Below the ACAA sets out some of the complex realities the FCDO should consider and take on board as it plans its strategic response to the situation.
The following are key contributory factors:
Ethnic identity in Afghanistan (and all this implies in terms of bonds, kinship, customs, and traditions) perpetually overrides other considerations and often creates regional identities and models based on territory. Ethnology is also linked to language. The principal ethnic groups are the Tajiks, Pashtuns, the Hazara, and the Uzbeks.
The Pashtuns have traditionally held political power and are based in the south and east of the country, with Kandahar as a key cultural centre. Pashtuns are cross-border into Pakistan and have an inherent nationalism. The core of the Taliban is Pashtun. The Tajiks have traditionally been based in the north and west of the country and are cross-border to Tajikistan and Iran and the Hazaras in the centre. This is a generalised perspective as ethnic pockets exist in many places - particularly in urban areas.
Urbanisation and the movement of population over the last 20 years, in particular in Kabul, has created political elites who are modern and westernised in their outlook and encouraged an urban society which is more secular in outlook than the rest of the country. The driver of this has been globalisation, in Afghanistan’s case in communications rather than trade. As a consequence, there has been an increasing urban-rural divide, economically, politically, and culturally. The backlash from the countryside is the result of marginalisation and resentment, and it is here that conservative, Islamic traditions which have facilitated the growth of the Taliban have been endorsed.
History has shown that Afghans can have a negative reaction to a foreign presence on their soil, most usually if it instigates political, cultural, and social change which is viewed as a slight to their identity. Consequently, they can reject modern government processes, resort to custom and tradition, and formulate a response centred on an Islamic Afghan identity.
The centrality of the region in Southern Asia means it has been of geo-strategic significance in the past and will continue to be in future. External forces combined with the terrain have facilitated guerrilla warfare of considerable resilience. The Taliban illustrate this tradition, but their numbers are enforced by the presence of foreign fighters, a development echoed by the activities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban claim to have a policy of curtailing their power base within Afghanistan, but the position of foreign fighters is more ambiguous and their addiction to the spoils of war and a less inherently nationalistic outlook could see them cross-over to groups such as ISIS Khorasan, responsible for the recent airport bombing in Kabul.
Afghanistan seems to be a pawn in a geo-political struggle in particular China’s interests in Asia and Pakistan’s recent encouragement of an assertive Muslim identity as a bulwark to Hindu India and a Shia Iran.
The sectarianism of ethnicity (between Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras) can prove a political factor externally or internally.
Overview: Particular Issues
1. There is serious corruption in Afghanistan. It is encouraged by an ethnic bias in political leadership towards the Pashtuns who favour a system of patronage. A modern system of citizenship and rights is hindered by the lack of political plurality and a focus on personalities. Both Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani were Pashtuns and developed economic systems and patronage which favoured certain territorial regions over others creating a north-south divide. The perception of corruption by these two presidents is one of the reasons that the government fell so fast. These need addressing, the divide is a reflection of ethnic identities with the Tajiks based to the north. Key parts of transport infrastructure in the north such as the Salang tunnel which is the only route that connects Central Asia with Southern Afghanistan are falling into neglect and disrepair. The extension of the Termez-Mazar-i-Sharif railway line to Peshawer and then to Pakistani ports in the Persian Gulf which was the main focus of the Central Asia Connectivity Conference is a likely infrastructure project. We propose inviting British companies to invest in the North of Afghanistan to rebalance the inequalities and to move from aid to commercial partnership.
1.1 Corruption exists in the smuggling across borders to avoid taxes, the levying of taxes on trucks for passage, and the presence of the heroin trade. These were historically practised by regional warlords and continued by the Taliban. The strength of policing has been decimated in the recent conflict, its members now liable to persecution. If the British government allocates funding, ACAA is willing to support the rehabilitation of the Salang tunnel by being the coordinating body for implementation.
1.2 There is an intrinsic link between the Taliban and the government of Ghani through their shared ethnic identity as Pashtuns. This may have encouraged the lack of resistance to the Taliban takeover following the departure of US and UK troops. For many Pashtuns, this was perceived as a return to a naturalised state of affairs; in the late 1990’s the Taliban had assumed power by offering law and order over the chaos and conflict created by various warlords. A desire to avoid a return to civil war and conflict fatigue as well as Ghani’s exit from the country may also have contributed.
1.3 The perception in the UK, particularly as British troops were based in Helmand province and dominated media coverage in the early 2000s, has been that the South has suffered in terms of conflict and economic problems. The South has received tremendous investment and development and already had a head start in terms of infrastructure. The North has not changed since 2001.
1.4 The name ‘Afghan’ represents only one group and the different ethnicities in the north of the country do not accept Afghanistan as the country’s name or the flag as demonstrated by the Northern Alliance introducing their own flag in the 90’s. Due to their role as the Northern Alliance in fighting the Russian occupation in the 1980’s, the Tajiks have been saddled with an identity as fighters but not as a political force, and although some integration into the political system has happened since 2001, they remain inexperienced in political leadership and governance.
2.The Taliban Takeover and the Intelligence Failings
2.1 It is a possibility that the nature of Ashraf Ghani’s political and economic policies, and the method of his relinquishment of power, suggest an ethnonationalist tendency sympathetic to the Pashtun Taliban. Through prior consultation with the Afghan diaspora in the UK, the foreign office could have been better informed.
2.2 The second area in which intelligence gathering and insight failed relates to the consequences which would befall Afghanistan as a result of President Biden’s decision to remove troops from the country, a move to which the UK found itself tied to. The speed of the Taliban takeover and their rapid move on Kabul was not foreseen and this report earlier tried to give some pointers to the underlying drivers of this development. It is distressing to consider that leaving a reduced military presence in the country could have given the Afghan military and police the confidence and moral authority to withstand Taliban forces.
Note on Geopolitics
The withdrawal of USA and UK from Afghanistan runs the risk of creating a vacuum which both China and/or Russia may seek to exploit by seeking a favourable position of influence with the Taliban. The Taliban will be desperate to secure foreign aid from whatever source possible to avert a humanitarian disaster and to avoid a financial collapse that could provoke civil war or undermining of their new government. If this is not forthcoming from the West they are likely to turn to such other countries. This could be inimical to the geo-political interests of the UK and the Western world in general and might through either encouragement or indifference allow the growth of groups with aims to destabilise the West. It should be recalled that the original involvement of the West in Afghanistan was to inhibit and deny such groups from using the country as a base for terrorist activity against the West. If such groups with the explicit or tacit approval of countries such as China and Russia are allowed to develop again in Afghanistan this could destabilise the whole region and endanger the security of neighbouring states. It should be remembered that Shia Islam is predominant both in Afghanistan and Iran. Further destabilisation can only increase the threat of security, migration and other issues. In our view it is essential that the UK working with its allies does not allow such a vacuum to develop.
3. Afghan representation in UK politics and how it can facilitate change
As we have set out above, the goodwill and moral intentions driving the UK’s mission in Afghanistan has been repeatedly let down by its limited understanding of contemporary Afghan society. We strongly believe that this issue should be addressed through greater representation and empowerment of Afghans in British politics both at national and local level where appropriate. As a charity we are trying to achieve increased understanding and appropriate assistance through the amplification of Afghan voices and perspectives.
3.1 Whilst appreciating the support that the UK has provided for Afghanistan since 2001, the withdrawal of foreign troops presents a situation where individual freedoms on a social, economic and political level are under threat. This relates particularly to women, and non-Pashtuns. There is a real danger that in the short to medium term, there will be deep divisions in the country along ethnic and, as a consequence, territorial lines.
3.2 We strongly believe that the situation in Afghanistan will not improve unless an inclusive consultation with Afghans from across all the regions is part of policy development. Only this can ensure a sustainable and stable situation in the country. How to facilitate this with the Taliban takeover is extremely problematic, though the problems that existed before have not gone away and they remain a Pashtun affiliated authority. There needs to be a truly representative national council or some other body which achieves this objective.
3.3 Afghan representation in UK and international politics is inadequate. Often, it is foreign nationals who speak for Afghanistan and determine its future. Given the ACAA’s recognition and support, this issue can be improved.
The authoritative figures in British politics on Afghanistan are from Pakistan and India. There has been - in our experience – a lack of consultation of the Afghan diaspora over the years, that has led to ill-informed intelligence being provided to the UK government and a lack of informed decision making in foreign policy.
At the international level, the UN invited Malala Yousafzai, a woman from Pakistan, to represent Afghan women. In fact there are many educated Afghan women who could have been selected.
3.4 Many are lobbying on behalf of the Taliban at the international level, including the previous president and the President of Pakistan, who is Pashtun. This endorses the familiar status-quo of Pashtun dominance and ignores the complexity of ethnic rivalries often reflected by the international media.
3.5 There is a need for unifying leaders from Britain with input to the UK Government who can enjoy the confidence of different Afghan groups both in Afghanistan and the UK to help bring them together and ACAA is willing to assist and can be a vehicle towards achieving this.
4. Evacuation and Resettlement
4.1 Operation Pitting was quick and effective, given the circumstances. But it is a huge concern that those still residing in Afghanistan, who assisted the British in their mission, have not been evacuated and are vulnerable to persecution. This includes all Afghans working for UK government and UK NGO’s. As ACAA has become one of main distributors of donations to newly-arrived refugees, the majority of refugees who have been evacuated are Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan. ACAA can help with future evacuations transparently working in partnership with FCDO or Home Office. Pressure will increase when a further 20,000 refugees are given leave to come to the UK. We believe that the UK resettlement scheme needs to be opened and expanded, and routes need to be put in place to get those eligible from Afghanistan out of the country.
4.2 Resettlement responsibility has passed to the Home Office and local councils – and from our experience here at ACAA - charitable and voluntary organisations have not received adequate support. Our working brief has considerably altered since the Taliban occupation of Kabul, beginning with floods of concerned relatives with family in Afghanistan, and moving onto creating a distribution network for donations to supply refugee needs. That the refugees are stuck within temporary hotel based accommodation is unfortunate and appears to relate to the availability of housing stock. The need for support will increase as newly-arrived refugees as well as Afghan migrants who have been released from deportation centres try to integrate into British life.
5.1 The UK government’s objectives should be to:
Prevent a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan through the channelling of aid as well as private impact investment projects.
Negotiate with the Taliban to accept more Afghan refugees to the UK through expanding the currently planned resettlement scheme and its funding to meet real world needs. This will show the UK is honouring its international obligations to refugees.
Focusing resources on counter-radicalisation in the UK and Afghanistan.
5.2 UK-Afghan Consultative body or Forum
A permanent forum of the Afghan diaspora or a formal UK-Afghan Consultative body could potentially be established to improve liaison with HMG across the board and inform UK foreign and domestic policy concerning Afghanistan. The forum would be answerable to the FCDO and Home Office.
Purpose of forum:
a) Provide impartial advice and intelligence to UK government departments
b) Increase co-operation between different ethnic groups to support proactive conflict prevention in Afghanistan and to counter the growth of terrorism and radicalisation in Afghanistan and the UK.
c) Mitigate the impact of the Taliban takeover on security in the UK, with particular reference to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
5.3 Launching a UK Afghanistan Business Council modelled by the UK India Business Council to foster trade and business relations between the UK and Afghanistan through supporting UK businesses with the insights, networks, policy advocacy, services and facilities needed to succeed in Afghanistan.
5.4 Improving political representation of Afghans in British politics (at both national and local level) and the use of British Afghans in the relevant UK civil service and international institutions. There is a need for more Afghans represented in local councils where the diaspora is concentrated.
5.5 The creation of a deputy ministerial post for the Minister for Afghan resettlement, an adviser role to the Prime Minister or a liaison officer to create an Afghan voice in UK politics and to provide intelligence from a grassroots level to the UK government.
5.6 Supporting participation of the British Afghan Diaspora in Afghan politics and with the British mission in Afghanistan to promote inclusivity, in light of growing ethnic regionalism in Afghanistan.
5.7 Funding for ACAA through procurement of tenders to achieve the Government’s aims to resettle Afghan refugees in British society successfully.
5.8 Partnership with ACAA to act as an intermediary for channelling of British aid to Afghanistan to increase transparency in aid distribution.
5.9 Launching a British Afghan Trust modelled by the British Asian Trust, to become a diaspora-led international development organisation, delivering high-quality programmes in Afghanistan using social finance products to drive positive change in the region.
5.9.1 Partnership with ACAA to implement private investment projects in Afghanistan, with a focus on building a commercial partnership framework.
These proposals seek to address many of the current issues affecting Afghanistan both in the UK and the country of origin ensuring a productive and effective relationship leading to a closer and abiding common interest between the two countries and those Afghans who have settled in the UK.
We would like to ask the UK Government to delegate agreed elements of the problems to ACAA. Afghanistan is a political/military/strategic challenge. With your support, ACAA would like to address some of those issues. ACAA will work diligently to win locals’ heart and minds, tackle food and insecurity, promote knowledge and skills sharing with the UK Government and British companies willing to give Afghanistan and its people a chance.
We hope to work with UK institutions to foster integration of the diaspora but also looking ahead to how we can build a useful relationship for the future, based at first on aid but leading in time to a more commercial partnership.