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Civilians are running out of options in Afghanistan

Civilians are running out of options in Afghanistan
Published 29 Apr 2016   Follow @SSchmeidl

Two month ago I wrote a blog outlining the continued deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan.

The situation does not look any better today. Last week a truck bomb was set off in Kabul killing at least 68 people and injuring 347. A friend of mine with whom I checked, and who was at quite a distance from the explosion, told me she thought their office building was going to collapse. It reminded me of August 2004 when a similar bomb shook my office building, catapulting debris into our front yard. At the time it had reminded me of an earthquake.

Sadly these days it takes a major event such as this to get international (especially Australian) press to even bother to write about Afghanistan. It does not, however, seem to change the West's consideration of Afghanistan as a low priority country – at least lower than others. 

For Afghans this presents a situation where their plight has slipped into oblivion. Out of the eye of Western media the sheer hopelessness is growing. My friend put this desperation in one simple sentence: 'I am not sure how long we will survive this.'

This means a protracted and increasingly bloody war in Afghanistan. Since the Taliban announced its annual 'spring offensive' (Operation Omari in honour of its deceased leader Mullah Omar) on 12 April, it has not wasted time in hitting targets which are neatly documented on an increasingly sophisticated website. While Kabul might have been the biggest attack, there is also fighting (again) in Kunduz and at the outskirts of Herat. The focus seems to be increasingly in urban areas, where the majority of Afghan citizens now reside.

At the same time peace talks are stalling, and the insurgency is keeping the upper hand, the civilian toll continues to rise. Afghan civilians are increasingly squeezed between warring fronts that are showing a blatant disregard for civilian lives. The fact that the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has for the first time released a quarterly (instead of biannual) report is indicative of the deterioration of the situation. Even a 2% increase in civilian casualties in the first quarter of this year should be reason for concern, especially as the figures will likely only be the tip of the casualty iceberg. [fold]

A disconcerting note of this new quarterly report is that it shows a 70% increase among casualties that UNAMA was able to attribute to Afghan National Security Forces (including pro-government irregular militias), despite the Afghan Government's repeated reminders to its security forces to curb such incidents. Though there are still far more casualties attributed to the insurgency, the Afghan Government needs to tread carefully at a time where their legitimacy is low. 

The Taliban continues to deny the killing of civilians, calling any such report 'enemy propaganda' with the enemy seeking 'to hide its losses by claiming a high civilian casualty toll'. They go on to argue that the lack of photos of killed civilians 'in itself is proof that there was [sic] no civilian casualties yesterday and if there were, surely they would have published many pictures'. Instead of course, only 'Americans and their lackeys' (which would be the Afghan Government) are killing civilians on a daily basis, the proof being 'a joint US-Afghan raid in Logar province's Kharwar district a few days earlier'. 

The Taliban's denial on the one hand and the Afghan Governments inability to keep their security forces in check on the other shows that neither side seems to consider the protection of civilians as an important part of winning the 'hearts and minds' of the Afghan population.

Insecurity is continuing to impact major service provision (education, health care) and the economic situation shows little improvement in a country where international assistance is in decline. Aid organisations are drawing down with less funding to go around. In more ways than one, there is little that would keep any sane Afghan citizen at home. The problem of course remains: where to go? 

The situation in Afghanistan has forced at least 335,000 Afghans to flee internally in 2015, with another 228,211 arriving in Greece taking advantage of the Syrian refugee crisis. And the flow continued into 2016. The only problem for Afghan asylum seekers is that they are likely to be sent home. This provides us with a conservative estimate that roughly half a million Afghans fled their homes during 2015. Adding this to previous estimates I made in 2014, would suggested that as many as 50% of the Afghan population is currently displaced in some form or fashion, either internally (6.75 million) or abroad (nearly 7 million). 

No small number, but still eclipsed by Syria. But even if the Syrian civil war is currently worse, Afghanistan is by no means a safe country. Europe's absorption capacity has proven to be limited and so far other countries (e.g. the US and Australia) have not really stepped up to the plate of burden sharing. As Afghanistan entered its fourth decade of conflict, Afghan refugees are realising fast that they had their time of international sympathy during the Cold War in the 1980s. Currently it seems the world can only cope with one crisis at a time, and Syria is the lucky winner in this macabre lottery. 

As noted in my last blog, however, the Afghan war is not going away anytime soon. Sending desperate people home or not allowing them to come in the first place will not solve the problem, but simply shift it. As an elder once wisely told me, if you block a stream, it will simply spill into a new path. If you want to ensure a stream stops, you need to go back to the source. Thus, if Europe feels it cannot absorb Afghan asylum seekers and Australia is not willing to throw open its borders, perhaps at minimum international actors need to assess their assistance levels within Afghanistan. The proverbial Afghan camel is very close to having its back broken, and with increasing pressure by the Taliban on urban centres, and little else positive going in the lives of many Afghans, border restrictions may no longer keep the Afghan crisis contained.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo.

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