It’s been another grim week in Afghanistan, one in which the continued descent into chaos is likely to prompt more Afghans to flee their country even though they know competition for a satisfactory end to a refugee journey is tough and getting tougher.
An attack by gunmen on the elite American University in Kabul (AUAF) on Wednesday has left 12 dead, 44 wounded and many traumatised students. Nobody has claimed responsibility for this attack, though some in the Afghan government suspect the Haqqani wing of the Taliban. Zalmay Khalilzad, former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, believe the attack was evidence of the Taliban's hostility to education, but it also fits with the Taliban's desire to rid Afghanistan of foreign invaders and influences (many of AUAF’s staff are foreign and the language of instruction is English). For Kabul residents it was one of many attacks this year, evidence the Taliban is specifically targeting densely populated areas to prove its superiority over Afghan government forces. It's a strategy that has created a great deal of uncertainty and stress in the lives of many.
As it happens, I can put a human face to the AUAF attack. One of those injured was a dear friend and long-term colleague, who once wrote (under a pseudonym) for the Lowy Institute in the Afghan Voices Series. A Pashtun from Kandahar province, part of the Taliban’s heartland, and deeply religious, he would fit the profile of many young men that might join the insurgency. Except he did not, he chose to become a journalist and researcher, using words to tackle problems, not arms. He studied at AUAF because he could not get the education he wanted anywhere else in the country. For me, he epitomises the indiscriminate war insurgency is waging on civilians in Afghanistan
While the AUAF attack was reported around the world, the international media misses much of what goes on in Afghanistan; and there is a lot going on. The International NGO Safety Organization (INSO) counted 16,287 security incidents (intimidations, robberies, abductions, improvised explosive devices/suicide bombings, small arms fire, etc.) across the country in the first six months of this year. That's an average of 77 such incidents every day. INSO ranks Afghanistan second in terms of incidents involving NGOs (the Central African Republic is first). Given this level of violence, it is not surprising the flow of Afghan asylum seekers has not slowed. They remain the second largest nationality (after Syrians) seeking a safer haven (or perhaps simply a more predictable life) in Europe.
Consider recent events in Helmand, in Afghanistan’s South, the province that produces most of the country's opium poppy. Two years after David Cameron declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ in Afghanistan (Helmand used to be the under the auspices of British Troops), the Taliban has come close to re-taking nearly the entire province. On Tuesday, more than 100 US troops were sent in to support the beleaguered Afghan National Security Forces and prevent the province’s capital, Lashakar Gah, from being overrun. The ‘Support’ mission, which NATO transitioned into after closing the door on the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) at the end of 2014, has been forced back into active combat. A day after foreign troops went back into Helmand, a US solider died in this profound mission-creep. How long this ‘temporary development’ will last is anybody’s guess. It is unclear if the Taliban timed its siege of Helmand to coincide with the 97th Anniversary of Independence from the British Empire, which featured on a Taliban website, or if this was simply a perfect coincidence. Either way, people are fleeing the violence. Some sources on Twitter say 30,000 have left.
Meanwhile, the northern city of Kundunz, briefly captured by Taliban last year, is once again on the verge of being overrun. The insurgency pushed its way into neighbouring Baghlan province, with districts being conquered and some lost again in the stand-off with Afghan forces. Hundreds of people have been displaced by fighting in neighbouring districts.
The fighting also continues in various other provinces, such as Farah, Faryab in the West, Uruzgan, Zabul in the South, Loya Paktia provinces in the Southeast (Paktia, Paktika), and of course beleaguered Nangarhar in the East where Afghan security forces fight the Taliban and Daesh (the latter two are fighting each other). The Afghan army recently announced via Twitter that Shinwari tribesmen have pledged support to Afghan security forces, although it is unclear if they would be fighting as part of the Afghan army or alongside, as an increasingly large number of pro-government militias are doing. The latter course, of course, creates problems of accountability. This was demonstrated recently when the Junbesh militia, loyal to First Vice-President Rashid Dostum, was accused of human rights abuse against civilians during recent fighting in Faryab.
All of this demonstrates that the Afghan army is engaged in a multi-front war that it is not managing well. By enlisting help from an increasingly colourful array of militias, the army has made life more difficult for civilians, no longer between just one rock and a hard place but between many fighting groups. The major armed forces on either side of the conflict are weakening, Afghan National Security Forces are being outmanned by a rising number of militias – some with very lose affiliations – and the supremacy of the Taliban has been challenged by splinter groups and Daesh.
Finding refuge in the country's urban centres is no longer the best survival strategy given the various insurgent elements (Taliban, splinter groups and Daesh) have proven their ability to infiltrate the heart of Kabul and other cities. The band-aid approach of international military forces seems to no longer be working and the peace process is on a road to nowhere. Those fleeing violence have few places to go. Internationally, Afghans feel they are viewed as less worthy asylum seekers than Syrians, as the following image tweeted by @LPaktia illustrates. In a situation as volatile as this, no longer welcome in Pakistan , where can Afghans in search of safe havens turn? International actors who will gather in early October for the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan conference have much to consider.
Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images