A group of 40 Australian-educated Afghan nationals has written to Australia’s foreign affairs and immigration ministers pleading for help to get out of Afghanistan. They fear they will be targets for the resurgent Taliban, because of their education in a liberal democracy and connection to a country the insurgents consider an invading force.
The 40 alumni were educated in Australia on government scholarships – such as the Australia Leadership Award – and had returned to Afghanistan, many to senior positions within government.
Government officials are being specifically targeted by the Taliban for “summary execution,” the UN has said.
One alumnus – the Guardian is choosing not to name him out of safety concerns – who studied at the University of Melbourne and is now a senior government official was the target of a magnet bomb on his car earlier this year.
He survived the attack which destroyed his up-armoured government-supplied car.
Three months ago, another Australian university graduate working for the Afghan ministry of health, was attacked by gunmen as he drove in his government car in Bagram. He survived: his colleague was killed.
Another ministry of health official – who had returned to Afghanistan after studying on an Australian government scholarship – built a public health call centre in Kabul that was blown up by the Taliban in 2020. He survived, but after reconstructing the call centre he was sent a written death threat.
Others have received “night letters” from the Taliban warning they will be targeted, or physically threatened. They say their connection with Australia, part of the now withdrawing coalition forces, has been specifically highlighted in the threats.
One former Australian student – who studied at Queensland’s James Cook University – has kept his children home from school for more than a year because he fears they will be targeted travelling to and from school.
The president of the Afghanistan Australia Alumni Association graduated with a master’s degree from the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy in 2014.
He told the Guardian his time living on campus at ANU was “like a golden era in my life”.
“Alumni consider Australia as their second home … they have a strong sense of belonging and feelings for Australia.”
“Every alumnus has been threatened. All of us. The alumni group as an educated group is particularly vulnerable, we are a target for the Taliban because we have had a western education. The Taliban think those who have studied in the west are not sharing the values of the Taliban, they are not true Muslims like them. Killing people like this is a pride for the Taliban.”
He said other coalition countries, such as Italy and France, had provided visas and even seats on charter flights, to evacuate former students from Afghanistan.
“We believe that alumni and their families are in danger of assassination and targeted killings. Alumni are living in fear and hiding for the sake of their and their relatives’ lives.”
“The Taliban are targeting us. They don’t want anybody who could lead in the future, or could challenge their leadership in terms of ideology, or opinion or every policy level.”
The Afghan students came to Australia mainly under the Australian Development Scholarships (ADS) and Australia Leadership Award (ALA) initiatives. The scholarships were awarded with a focus on building Afghanistan’s governance capacity – targeting key skills and expertise that the Afghan government was seeking to assist in the development of the country.
Awarded to students from developing countries, the leadership award scholarships required students “to return to their country of citizenship for a minimum of two years after completing their scholarship, to contribute to the economic and social development of their country.”
The alumni group was originally about 62 – inaugurated in 2014 by the Australian ambassador in Kabul. It now has 40 members: the others have left Afghanistan already.
Taliban fighters captured Herat, Afghanistan’s third biggest city, after government forces pulled out following weeks of siege. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
With the withdrawal of foreign forces a resurgent Taliban has swept across Afghanistan recapturing control of large swathes of territory, including 11 provincial capitals in less than a week.
Videos of civilians being publicly beheaded or stoned, and of government soldiers handing over their weapons to the Taliban, are circulating online.
The UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has warned of a campaign by the Taliban targeting current and former government officials and family members for “summary execution” and destruction of their homes and other property.
A spokesperson for Australia’s home affairs department told the Guardian that Australia’s offshore humanitarian program was designed primarily to assist those who had left their home country because of persecution or severe human rights abuses, and who had no way to return safely.
“Anyone who believes he or she meets the requirements for a humanitarian visa and wishes to seek Australia’s assistance can make an application.”
The spokesperson said Afghan nationals were able to apply to come to Australia under migration and temporary entry programs, including visa categories that target business and employment opportunities in regional Australia and in agriculture.
“Each application is considered on its individual merit using current and comprehensive information on circumstances in the relevant country.”
The Australian embassy in Kabul has been shuttered, closing that off as an avenue for the alumni to secure a visa.
Prof William Maley, emeritus professor at the ANU and author of The Afghanistan Wars, said the Taliban – which he says should be regarded internationally as a terrorist group – was intent on wreaking widespread violence.
“It’s definitely the case that the optimistic image of the Taliban as people who are going to let bygones be bygones has collapsed. That delusion should never have been there in the first place, but it is a very worrying situation at the moment.
“The worst scenario imaginable would be the complete collapse of the state, with thousands fleeing for the borders, and the Taliban rolling through and seizing control: that scenario would come with an enormous amount of bloodshed.
“The best outcome at the moment is if two things happen: if the Afghan government manages to hit back at the Taliban, and it can build on the popular sentiment against the Taliban.”
Maley said ethnic and religious minorities – in particular the Hazara – were at extreme risk of Taliban violence, along with women and girls, and those with direct connection to foreign forces, governments or agencies.
“But we might also be looking at a Phnom Penh 1975 scenario [targeting of intellectuals under the Khmer Rouge]: where the Taliban is looking to remove anybody likely to be a future leader. Those are people with western connections, or with networks that might oppose the Taliban in future.”
Maley said totalitarian groups such as the Taliban have a history of cowing populations into submission with extreme initial violence against high-profile targets.
“The behaviour of the Taliban has made it very clear that they are gunning for anybody who has any sort of connection with the west. It is not the time for bureaucracy to interfere with the evacuation of people with connection with western countries.”