Zarlasht Halaimzai

Editor’s Note: Zarlasht Halaimzai is the founder of the non-profit Refugee Trauma Initiative and an Obama Fellow. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

This week has been highly distressing for millions of Afghans like me. We witnessed, in real-time, the Taliban take over Afghanistan two decades after the US began its so-called “war on terror.” But this catastrophe could have been avoided – and, more to the point, it should have been.

When President Joe Biden came into office, he was not wed to the deal his predecessor had negotiated with the Taliban. And yet, he chose to abide by it – extending the withdrawal deadline only slightly from May 1, 2021 to August 31, 2021. From there, the Taliban knew they simply had to bide their time before reclaiming power.

Indeed, over the last few weeks – as the August deadline neared – the world watched as the Taliban took control of border crossings, cities and finally the capital of Kabul. And as the Afghan government collapsed, so too did the dreams of many Afghan men and women, boys and girls.

Watching the fear and panic of family and friends in Afghanistan brought back memories of my family’s own escape from Kabul in 1992, when civil war broke out in the country following the collapse of the Soviet Union-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. During the Cold War, the Afghan people allied with the US against the occupying Soviet forces, but once the Cold War ended, international assistance from the US and other countries largely vanished and the country plunged into civil war between rival factions. As violence intensified, my family fled the conflict that would eventually result in the Taliban’s first takeover of the country.

Eventually, my family settled in the United Kingdom, while many members of my extended family found refuge in the US, Australia and India. Though I was only 15 at the time, I remember the pain this forced separation from our extended family brought my parents. We had been so close prior to the civil war, and now we were scattered across multiple continents.

Of course, our escape wasn’t documented on Facebook or live-streamed on Instagram – platforms that did not exist then – so you could perhaps excuse people then for not fully understanding the distressing situation we were in. But now, after footage of desperate people chasing a plane on an airport tarmac went viral, I am shocked at the muted response from governments around the world, which have not done nearly enough to address the man-made humanitarian disaster unfolding before us.

The US and its partners have argued that Afghanistan is no longer their responsibility – that they did what they could and sacrificed too much for a country that apparently Afghans don’t want to fight for. But they grossly mischaracterize just how hard Afghans have fought for democratic freedoms.

When Ashraf Ghani was still president, his government was certainly plagued by corruption. And though corruption is an issue that must be addressed, it does not mean a country struggling to do so must descend back into autocracy. Moreover, young Afghans at nongovernmental organizations like Integrity Watch have been actively leading the fight against corruption in recent years. They believe in democracy and have done so much to bring accountability and transparency to their government.

But they aren’t the only ones fighting for democracy. Over 60,000 members of the Afghan military and police have died fighting the Taliban in the last two decades – more than the US and UK losses combined. So when I hear Biden say that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for their country, I am speechless. Afghans – from soldiers to activists to artists and more – have fought for their country, and yet, in an instant, it has been lost to the Taliban.

Despite the Taliban claiming that they want a peaceful transition to power, they are undoubtedly still an extremist and violent organization. Only two weeks ago, the Taliban assassinated the head of the Afghan government’s media and information center. And a week before that, they killed a comedian, who had been critical of them. (A Taliban spokesperson said the comedian’s killers will be tried.) In the days since they have regained control of the country, there have been reports of revenge killings across the country.

While the tragedy unfolding in my country is a lot to process, Afghan lives can still be saved. There are now more US troops in the country than before the withdrawal began – and though their objective is to help safely evacuate American personnel still on the ground, they must go even further to ensure they do not abandon the Afghan people who risked their lives daring to believe in peace and human rights.

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    The current tragedy should have been foreseen, but lives can still be saved if Western governments act now and save the bureaucracy for later. There isn’t a lot of time. The Taliban are already knocking on doors and taking the details of anyone who worked with the international community or was vocal about human rights. They also control all the land borders, and commercial flights have ceased.

    The US-controlled airport in Kabul is the only feasible route out for most Afghans fleeing for their lives. The US must use whatever diplomatic leverage it has to urgently establish a humanitarian corridor to continue to help those at risk evacuate. Additionally, generous resettlement schemes need to be launched to give the people a chance to build new futures for themselves – whether in neighboring countries or in the US and Europe.

    It’s time to stop playing politics and start flying more evacuation planes.