The Long, Long Road Home: the Afghan Refugee Crisis Enters Its Fifth Decade

Photograph Source: Levi Clancy – CC BY 2.0

Fog. War.

Afghanistan’s refugees are, to repurpose the notorious phrase, a known unknown.

The fog of war has filled the country’s beautiful, fertile valleys for 40 years and counting. No census has been taken in Afghanistan since 1971 and no one really knows how many people reside in the country. Somewhere north of 35,000,000, people say, though this is an estimate.

The true number of refugees in the Afghan diaspora is likewise unknown; the impossibility of acquiring accurate data in Iran and Pakistan means that any figure is, necessarily, an estimate.

2017 figures from UNHCR tally around a million in Iran, between 1,500,000 and 2,500,000 in Pakistan, and a further 130,000-odd in the diaspora, distributed across more than 60 countries. Again, an estimate. Afghans have been leaving their homeland in large numbers since the Soviet-backed April Coup in 1978 plunged the country into bitter civil war.

Thank you, there’s the door

What followed was a tale of horror punctuated by repeated missed opportunities at resolution. All attempts to make the country a secure place to live oneself, let alone raise a family, have failed. Afghans will tell you that the primary step in the solution of the ‘Afghan issue’ was always simple: all foreign fighters should leave forthwith, and leave them to sort out the mess. If the price of departure, say, was international isolation and a severing of all aid, then they’d go with that, though with a heavy heart.

It is the perennial mistake of the foreign adventurer to the Oxus Civilization: the belief that an accommodation can be had with a people whose familial and tribal disputes will always come a distant second to ejecting the invader. Afghanistan is like that, a paradox impenetrable to all but those with skin in the game, the Afghanis. What invaders forget is that the one thing that all Afghans can agree on without question is the anathema of the invader themselves. The British Empire, Russian Empire, and now the U.S. ‘Empire’ have all found this out the hard way (though a brief glance at any number of freely available historical texts would have furnished this understanding in minutes). They ‘intervened’, didn’t leave when they should have, and paid a price in blood. The Americans, for example, should have ‘gotten the hell out asap’ after they arrived. They dithered, dazzled by the glistering Hindu Kush perhaps. And wearily, Afghans reached for their gun oil once more.

No matter where you’re from, you’d think your fellow countrymen admirable indeed if they were as committed to their own independence as the Afghans. They made even the Russians look like primary school dweebs, something the Germans signally failed to do under much more favourable conditions half a century earlier. And as for the British, only Flashman survived the 1842 debacle, if as I am you’re utterly persuaded by MacDonald Fraser’s inglorious retelling. The redcoats went back for a spot of revenge, but deployed their more favoured tactics of honeyed diplomacy and gold, not lead, thereafter.

Land of paradoxes

Yet this much strikes as a core paradox of Afghanistan: the Afghans are axiomatically disputatious, constantly manouevering as family clans and tribal groupings seek to deny each other hegemony. Yet they are united in their sense of nationhood, and this despite the fact that Afghanistan is composed of tribal groupings each (apart from the Hazara) with cross-border populations. Wherever the diaspora have ended up, all would love to go home.

After all these long years, the situation of Afghans abroad is deteriorating, rather than improving. There is pressure on the diaspora, on the one hand from host governments eager for a solution. Recent refugees are required to go home to an impoverished, war-ravaged free-fire zone. When they arrive, they have no security. The returnee program has not been able to provide that most basic of amenities, personal safety. Yet go they must, in many cases.

Overlooking this Afghan longing to return, pasty-faced Western politicians eager to pander to their bases’ worst instincts argue that refugees’ genuine fears for their security in Afghanistan are unfounded, and their resultant hesitancy about the problematic returnee program is ingratitude. This is clearly a straw man argument that is self-servingly disingenuous, to put it mildly.

Whats the situation in Afghanistan now?

The reality on the ground remains highly problematic. The Taliban, seeking to maximize their influence in the ongoing peace process, continue to mount terror attacks across the country, large swathes of which they control. The Talib themselves have split into two factions backed by the Pakistanis on one hand and the Qataris and the West on the other. This has meant that the hundreds of attacks are in large measure outwith the ISI’s power to control. In the highly transactional world of Afghan politicking, the Taliban are making a last push for extra concessions. By killing their fellow citizens. Lives, especially in a time of American weakness, become currency. Corruption and banditry may not reign in Afghanistan, but they can rear their heads at any place, any time.

The economy, despite gains in vital areas such as education and an uptick in healthcare metrics, remains in tatters. Connected local traders can still make money in this economy, yes, but most live in precarious circumstances, if not outright poverty. A year ago a Western traveler might safely visit Ghazni. Now, Kabul is the only safe destination.

Are the smaller provincial cities safe for returnees? That depends on whether you happen to be hanging around near an army parade. Despite blandishments to the contrary, suicide bombs and mines have killed civilians plenty. Not to mention the drones (one of the US’s ‘aid and reconstruction’ projects has been Afghanistan’s very own drone program, so even after the Americans leave the airspace, local joystick top guns can carry on the silent, deadly fight). What judgment would you come to, if you were asked to return to this land?

Those who do go back looking for good, worthwhile work won’t find many options on the noticeboard. Yet the lack of economic opportunities, genuinely problematic for many, would not necessarily hold them back. The issues in returnee programs often relate to family separations, where long-term arrives in Europe, say, face yet another devastating separation as they see their families sent back to their home town without them after establishing a life abroad. After all the sacrifices they have made to get their loved ones out of harm’s way, they now face another uncertain and threatening future. For the Afghan diaspora, reality is a unending stream of existential crises any one of which would overwhelm a less resilient people.

Error upon error

Another clanging mistake that invaders of Afghanistan make without fail is to underestimate their opponents’ sophistication. It must be in part a racist mindset that does this. The Americans are serial offenders. Afghans are disputatious, yes, but they are unfailingly optimistic about their capacity to fix up their battered homeland. As the dozens of inspirational interviews conducted by my very busy colleague Ahmad Soheil Ahmadi show repeatedly, Afghans are highly active—socially, politically, artistically, and intellectually. They eschew victimhood in favour of engagement and praxis. They believe that they, and their countrymen and women, have all the skills needed to fashion peace.

Geopolitical actors of the imperial stamp, such as today’s United States, regard this independent stripe among the Afghans as laughably naïve. To them, the global stakes are too high to allow Afghans to decide their own destiny. As before, so now. The British and the Russians couldn’t help themselves either. They too saw the stakes as too high. They interfered, and in each historical case the blowback was epochal (in the Russian case, there is a good argument that the Afghan resistance was the final nail in the coffin of Soviet Communism). Afghans shrug and wonder why these crazy foreigners running around in their orchards have apparently lost all good sense.

Yet given a serious opportunity to sort out their own internal issues, the Afghans would take it and run home.

End the tragedy

What is not in doubt is the raw tragedy. After more than four decades of destruction, the situation on the ground is still complex, fluid, and dangerous. Long-time Afghan refugees residing In Pakistan have been harassed as the political climate has turned against them (Taliban atrocities such as the Peshawar Army Public School attack in 2014 radically altered local perceptions of the Afghan refugees in their midst). Some refugees are now being ground down, effectively stateless, between Pakistan and their homeland, welcome in neither and unable to go anywhere else.

This article originally appeared on the new site covering the refugee crisis, Maqshosh.

John Clamp writes for Maqshosh.