Japan must keep supporting Afghan friends

In April this year, the United States announced it would soon withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Instantly upon hearing this, I had three concerns.

My first concern was the safety of the local Afghan staff of the Kabul office of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other locals who support JICA’s activities. They are genuine colleagues of ours, as they have carried out substantive parts of the agency’s activities in Afghanistan. In 2020, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, JICA’s resident staff from Japan had to return home and make trips to Kabul only as required. All those emergency measures became possible thanks to the existence of our competent Afghan colleagues. As they were running no small risk of being targeted by the Taliban Islamists, I was tremendously worried about their safety.

My second concern was for the future of about 1,500 Afghan women who participated in a JICA-organized training program for female police officers.

My third concern was for the future of Afghans who studied in Japan. Around 2009, JICA began inviting Afghan civil servants to Japan to study at Japanese graduate schools under a program called Afghan PEACE, for the Project for the Promotion and Enhancement of the Afghan Capacity for Effective Development. When they finished their studies in Japan, we said farewell to them by encouraging them to work for the betterment of their homeland. A total of about 600 Afghans have taken part in the PEACE project

Of the three groups of Afghans, JICA learned that the Taliban thought female police officers would be essential in the future and wanted them to continue their duties. So, I thought there would be relatively less danger to them.

Evacuation efforts

In July, it became known that various countries were planning massive evacuations from Afghanistan. JICA intended to evacuate individuals among its local staff and supporters and former PEACE students who wished to leave the country, along with their family members. We at JICA in Tokyo saw no reason to leave family members behind because separating them from the local JICA staff and former students looked likely to inevitably last a long time.

However, we were nowhere close to quickly working out a concrete evacuation plan as we encountered issues such as how they should be treated in Japan and who should sponsor them. At the end of the day, we found ourselves with no choice but to set out a proposal that the local JICA staff and supporters and their spouses and children be evacuated first by all means. The Foreign Ministry finally concurred with this proposal around Aug. 10. At the time, we decided to work afterward on evacuating the former PEACE students who wished to leave Afghanistan.

The Foreign Ministry reportedly sounded the Defense Ministry out on Aug. 14 — on the eve of the Taliban’s capture of the Afghan capital — on the possibility of dispatching Air Self-Defense Force aircraft to Kabul for evacuation. The Foreign Ministry then asked the Defense Ministry to disregard its first approach before coming back on Aug. 20 to again ask for the dispatch of ASDF evacuation flights, according to media reports. The Defense Ministry complied with the request, and the government on Aug. 23 formally decided to send ASDF aircraft on an emergency evacuation mission. The Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces acted expeditiously indeed. For my part, I directly asked Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi on Aug. 18 for his support.

ASDF aircraft arrived in Pakistan on Aug. 25, planning to fly into Kabul on Aug. 26 to evacuate about 600 Afghans, including local staff members of both the Japanese Embassy and JICA together with their family members, as well as new PEACE students chosen to start studying in Japan this autumn. However, on Aug. 26, two suicide bomb attacks on crowds flocking to Kabul airport occurred, forcing the ASDF evacuation effort to be suspended for safety reasons.

Helplessness beyond words

Already prior to the failed airlift, many Afghans had secretly fled their country by land. There was a spike in the number in the wake of the Aug. 26 bomb attacks. A considerable number of Afghan staffers of JICA, too, managed to escape over land to neighboring countries such as Pakistan. Upon hearing this information, I immediately contacted the relevant authorities in the countries adjacent to Afghanistan to ask for the protection of JICA colleagues even if some of their entry documents happened to be incomplete.

An Afghan employee of JICA, for instance, first headed toward the border with a neighboring country with his spouse and two children but they were unable to enter that country. After returning to Kabul, this family then headed toward another neighboring country, successfully entering it. Altogether, they traveled by long-distance bus for a total of 65 hours, feeling a helplessness beyond words.

I cannot help feeling sorry for those Afghan colleagues who have come to Japan after enduring such terrible fear.

The United States, which is responsible for launching a war on Afghanistan and losing it, has issued visas or work permits to accept a massive number of Afghans. Other countries also have extended generous support to Afghan evacuees.

In the Netherlands, its then foreign minister resigned after its parliament condemned her handling of the Afghan evacuation crisis. In Britain, its then foreign secretary was effectively demoted for the same reason.

Needless to say, Japan maintained its presence in Afghanistan in a way different from the United States and Britain — it was not involved in the war there. Even within the Taliban, internationally minded members of the leadership know they need the support of countries such as Japan and of organizations such as JICA. However, there is no guarantee at all that their thinking has been instilled down to the lowest tiers of the Taliban. Moreover, in Afghanistan, the Islamic State group and other militant factions are antagonizing the Taliban.

All things considered, Afghans wishing to be evacuated should be allowed to depart for Japan or third countries. It will not be possible for them to consider going back to Afghanistan until the situation there calms down.

Eventually, considerable progress was made in evacuating local JICA staff from Afghanistan thanks to the Foreign Ministry’s efforts. In contrast, almost nothing has been done yet to help former PEACE students there. There may be not many of them who feel that they are in such danger that they desperately want to escape. But, if those wishing to depart Afghanistan account for even as few as 30% of the former PEACE students, the number still should not be ignored since their lives remain at risk. Afghanistan’s socioeconomic difficulties, including hunger, are getting terribly worse.

‘Save former students!’

An estimated 1,400 Afghans have studied in Japan to date, including PEACE students as well as foreign students sponsored by the Japanese government. Certain Japanese universities that have accepted Afghan students recently have begun campaigning to help these Afghans.

On Sept. 9, the Nonpartisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy, co-chaired by lawmakers Gen Nakatani and Shiori Yamao, held its general meeting to discuss how to support Afghan students who had studied in Japan. In October, a group of university teachers attended a symposium titled “Save former students!” Chiba University Prof. Keiko Sakai, who had taught Afghan students at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, told the symposium one of them recently emailed her, saying, teacher, I’m sorry I can no longer make good use of what you taught me for Afghanistan’s reconstruction.

In July 1940, desperate Jews flocked to the Japanese Consulate in Kaunas, Lithuania, seeking visas to Japan. The Japanese government had directed the consulate to tell Jewish refugees that Japan would not accept them. Further, Tokyo was not positive about issuing them transit visas to Japan. But Vice-Consul Chiune Sugihara disregarded Tokyo’s instructions and issued transit visas to a large number of Jewish people. He thus saved the lives of more than 6,000 Jewish people. His decision resulted in making an immeasurable contribution to Japan’s diplomacy in the post-World War II era.

I want Japan to be a country that always places importance on humanitarian affairs and human rights and keeping faith with other peoples. This is vital from the standpoint of the national interest.

JICA’s Afghan staff and Afghans who have studied in Japan are competent and friendly to Japan — they are a big asset for Japan’s diplomacy. Can Japan afford to lose them?

Furthermore, it is extremely important from the standpoint of Japan’s security that it continues to be a nation that is trusted and respected by other countries.

I very much welcome the stance of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to strengthen Japan’s security policy and the appointment of former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani as a special adviser to the prime minister on human rights issues.

Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that while criticizing human rights abuses abroad, Japan should press further ahead on humanitarian reforms of its own. Without such efforts at home, Japan’s human rights diplomacy can hardly have perceptible effects. Japan’s outward assertions on key issues can carry sufficient weight with foreign countries only when all relevant solutions are in place at home. I look forward to seeing the new Cabinet deal effectively with human rights diplomacy.