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Afghanistan: The Forgotten Crisis (February 1996)

by Barnett R. Rubin - WRITENET (UK) Thursday, Sep. 27, 2001 at 9:37 PM

An extensive online overview of Aghanistan, from the 1880s to the mid 1990s. Introduction below, link to entire document.


After the December 1979 Soviet invasion, Afghanistan became the world's leading producer of refugees and displaced persons. At the height of the war during the 1980s, about 3.5 million Afghan refugees lived in Pakistan and another 2 million in Iran; thousands more fled to India, Europe (mainly Germany and France), the U.S., and elsewhere. In addition, an estimated 2-3 million people were internally displaced by the war, taxing the meagre resources of Kabul (whose population grew from about 600,000 to over 2 million) and other towns.

After the Soviet withdrawal in February 1989 and the fall of the Soviet-supported government of Mohammad Najibullah in April 1992, refugees, mainly from rural areas, began to return. While some returns were spontaneous, others were assisted by UNHCR, which began programmes to repurchase ration cards from Afghan refugees in Pakistan and to provide cash and wheat to returnees from Iran. Still, there was no formally organized and monitored repatriation process as in Tajikistan, for instance. At present, authorities estimate that about 1 million Afghans remain in Pakistan and about 1.5 million in Iran. 1

Since 1992, however, new flows have occurred. Officials and sympathizers of the Najibullah regime have fled to India, Europe, and former Soviet republics, mainly Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. A far larger number of people have been displaced by new rounds of fighting among former mujahedin (Islamic resistance) groups and portions of the old regime's army, mainly in Kabul. By January 1995, about 500,000 people had fled Kabul to the Jalalabad area. Although some managed to cross into Pakistan, which closed its main border crossings on 12 January 1994, most remained internally displaced. An estimated 115,000 people returned to Kabul from Jalalabad and another 60,000 from Pakistan when security improved after March 1995. They may flee once again, as fighting continues for control of the capital. 2

Others have been displaced by intermittent battles around Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan, where forces led by formerly Soviet-supported General Abdul Rashid Dostum, based in Mazar-I Sharif, have intermittently attacked the local shura (council) of former mujahedin forces, backed by Kabul military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Ahmad Massoud had, during the war, emerged as the leading mujahed commander of northeastern Afghanistan.

Kunduz and the nearby region also host about 20,000 remaining refugees from the 1992 civil war in Afghanistan's northern neighbour, Tajikistan (refugee leaders place the total remaining at about 40,000). 3 Initially as many as 100,000 refugees from Tajikistan may have crossed the Amu Darya and Panj rivers into northern Afghanistan. Some crossed back into more secure areas of Tajikistan, but in early 1993 approximately 60,000 remained in Afghanistan. A UNHCR programme of closely monitored voluntary repatriation has returned about 40,000 of these refugees to their homes in Tajikistan, but a sizeable number remain in Balkh, Kunduz, and Takhar provinces, mainly in four refugee camps.

Movements of the population in and out of Afghanistan have been almost entirely the result of insecurity engendered by war. During the Soviet occupation, some Afghans were said to have left in response to Islamic preachers calling upon them to undertake hijra or emigration from a former Islamic territory now controlled by "non-believers", which gave a religious meaning to the act of flight. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Afghan refugees from rural areas fled physical attacks on their villages, homes, farms and flocks. Those from urban areas spoke of political persecution, arrests, and, for males, fear of being conscripted or press-ganged into the Soviet-supported government forces. Desertion from government forces was another reason for the flight into exile. In the factional fighting since 1992, heavy fighting in Kabul led hundreds of thousands to flee in the wake of battles that destroyed their homes and killed their family members.

The principal reason for the continuation of displacement from and within Afghanistan is the destruction of the country's fragile state and political institutions. A poor and weakly governed country, it could hardly withstand the flood of modern weaponry indiscriminately lavished on virtually all social groups and aspiring leaders by the superpowers during the Cold War and by regional competitors thereafter. The country is divided into a patchwork of regions under the more or less unstable or despotic control of various ruling factions, several of which are at war over control of the capital and other strategic key points. The rule of law has broken down completely, as has any institutional basis of governance. There is little respect for human rights or humanitarian law, and more importantly, there are no institutions functioning to protect such rights anywhere in the country. There is no constitution, no legal system, no courts, no police, and no army. While in various regions different agencies purportedly carry out such functions, none follows international standards or even traditional Afghan standards. Insecurity is general. 4

It is worth noting what has not happened: despite extreme poverty and occasional warnings of famine in some areas, no mass population movements in or out of Afghanistan have occurred as a result of economic scarcities. There are flows of migrant labour to Pakistan and the oil-rich Gulf countries. Although some of the refugees in Iran and Pakistan appear to resemble economic migrants, refugee figures for Iran generally include the 600,000 Afghans working there before the war, as well as their families and descendants. Some members of the middle class have also found their way to the West in search of a better life.

Furthermore, despite the ethnic tone of the war, in which each major military force is drawn predominantly or exclusively from one ethnic group, there have been few if any cases of forced displacement on ethnic grounds. The city of Kunduz continues to have a mixed Tajik-Pashtun-Uzbek population, despite having changed hands several times in battles between a mainly Tajik-Pashtun local shura and mainly Uzbek former communist forces based in Mazar-I Sharif. The mainly Persian-speaking region of Herat, where a third of the population are Shi'a, was captured in September 1995 by the Qandahari Pashtun and fiercely Sunni Taliban movement, but there have been no reports of ethnic cleansing or expulsions. The return of refugees from Iran to Herat was halted, but no new outflows seem to have resulted. Furthermore, the displaced do not need to flee to ethnically compatible areas to find safety: the largely ethnic-Tajik Kabulis fled in hundreds of thousands to the mainly Pashtun province of Nangarhar (around Jalalabad). They complained of victimization by all groups in Kabul, including the mainly Tajik ones, and they were welcomed and assisted by the local authorities. 5 The main exception to this rule seems to have been fierce fighting between various Sunni (Tajik and Pashtun) and Shi'a (mainly Hazara) militias in Kabul, where some neighbourhoods were, indeed, ethnically cleansed. Still, this remains an exception rather than a rule.

Although the situation may change, an important factor speaks against it. In the Balkans, for instance, ethnic and religious differences coincide. Indeed, under the Ottoman millet system, a group could only be defined as having a distinct identity if it had a distinct religious organization, leading to the constitution, for instance, of separate Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Greek Patriarchates. Differences in transcendental beliefs therefore reinforce ethnic cleavages. In Afghanistan, however, the ethno-linguistic groups share a common religion which preaches the unity of all believers. Ethnic conflicts emerge from the social structure and generate ethnic resentment, but it is difficult to legitimize such resentment and to transform it into an ideology. Hence, ethnic politics tend to remain fluid and opportunistic, and cannot be elevated to a rigid principle (Sunni-Shi'a relations being the main exception). This is an important resource for reintegration and resettlement, should the war eventually subside. Unlike in the former Yugoslavia, nearly all refugees and displaced persons in Afghanistan could return home without fear of persecution or revenge from either neighbours or the authorities, if there were any. The main obstacles to return are continued war, a devastated economy and infrastructure, and, in some areas, the widespread existence of land mines.

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