August 5, 2021

IntelBrief: A Cyclical Crisis: Afghan Refugees Flee Escalating Taliban Violence as the U.S. Withdraws

(AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Due to spiking violence, an estimated 330,000 Afghans have been displaced since January; civilian casualties continue to rise.
  • A stalled diplomatic process and growing insecurity in Afghanistan will likely prompt large-scale forced migration to neighboring countries.
  • As the U.S. troop withdrawal proceeds, the U.S. is expanding its plans for temporary accommodations for Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and their families.
  • Experts have warned of an Afghan displacement crisis similar in scale to that of Syrian refugees in 2015-2016 and aid agencies are bracing for the worst.

“Afghanistan’s on the brink of another humanitarian crisis,” warned Spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Babar Baloch, in mid-July. The United Nations estimates that 330,000 Afghans have been newly displaced since January. Civilian casualties have risen dramatically—increasing by 47% in the first six months of 2021 relative to the same period in 2020, according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. As American troops have withdrawn, the Taliban has expanded control through northern Afghanistan while participating in lengthy international negotiations which are drawing heavy criticism from many within and outside Afghanistan. The Tuesday attack in Kabul tragically punctuated the recent escalations in violence. Nearly half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers are now controlled by the Taliban, more than doubling the number of district centers controlled only a month ago. Thus far, provincial capitals have not been captured, but many fear those may fall next. Displaced civilians have reported the dangers of the deteriorating security environment and sought to demonstrate visible and vocal opposition to the Taliban, However, extortion by a range of violent non-state armed groups, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on roadways, interrupted social services, and increasing conflict and violence continue to threaten communities. A stalled diplomatic process and intensifying insecurity could prompt large-scale forced migration across Afghanistan’s borders into neighboring countries throughout South and Central Asia, and the broader region (i.e. Iran, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan).

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met with regional leaders for a two-day gathering in Tashkent in mid-July. Regional leaders have voiced concern about a new surge of forced migration across their borders at an anticipated scale that many fear they could not accommodate, given the large Afghan refugee populations already hosted in their respective countries, many already strained by limited resources and capacities and their own security challenges. Throughout decades of conflict, millions of Afghan refugees have already fled the country, almost 90% of whom now reside in Pakistan and Iran. Pakistan hosts close to 3 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees at present, including those who fled after the Soviet invasion, and Iran hosts over 2.5 million. Tajikistan reinforced its border with Afghanistan in early July, mobilizing 20,000 military reservists for the effort. However, the Tajik government has announced its willingness to accept 100,000 Afghan refugees. Turkey—home to about 3.6 million Syria refugees—is also building a wall on its border with Iran, a project begun in 2015 in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. An estimated 500 to 2,000 Afghans are arriving in Turkey every day. Even though Pakistan’s two main border crossings with Afghanistan were also closed in early July, Pakistani officials have reportedly begun discussing potential locations for additional refugee camps. On a weekly basis, 30,000 people at a minimum are now fleeing Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin announced that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan will be complete by the end of August. Nearly 90% of the U.S. and NATO withdrawal is now complete, with General Scott Miller recently vacating his command. President Joseph Biden recently announced up to $100 million in additional emergency funds for Afghan refugees and migrants, and Congress passed an additional spending package last week that authorizes over a billion dollars from the Pentagon and State Department in support of Afghan refugees. The U.S. has also expanded its efforts in support of Afghans who aided the U.S military and now face danger from the Taliban. Thousands are slated to be evacuated while awaiting finalization of their special immigration visas (SIVs). Accommodations are being made for applicants and their families to await visa processing at various U.S. bases domestically and internationally, such as in Kuwait and Qatar, to facilitate resettlement for those earlier in the application process.

However, despite expanding eligibility for Afghan refugee admissions beyond SIVs to those who also worked with U.S. media outlets or non-governmental organizations, the U.S. is not offering assistance to this broader group of asylum seekers for leaving Afghanistan to apply from a third country or through the 12-14 month application process. Turkish President Erdogan critiqued this process, asserting that “Turkey does not, and will not, serve as any country’s waiting room.” For asylum seekers in Europe, the Afghan government has requested a stay of deportations of denied Afghan asylum seekers, which has received mixed responses. While Finland and Sweden have agreed to a temporary suspension, Germany has decided not to comply with the request, which could put individuals back in harm’s way. Similarly, the UK and others are encouraging journalists to apply for special visas, though many have also reportedly expressed reluctance to leave Afghanistan and a continued wish to live in and report from their country.

With humanitarian needs nearly doubling in the last year and almost half of the population in Afghanistan requiring aid, the situation is dire and deteriorating by the day. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, has admitted, "Strategic momentum appears to be sort of with the Taliban.” The human security and foreign policy repercussions of the mass displacement of Afghans are immense, and many observers have expressed concern about the impact on a generation of Afghans that are increasingly active in public and political spaces, including women who have joined politics, security forces and the media, for example. Many of these same citizens are taking the lead in voicing opposition to the Taliban’s advance at local levels and projecting support for the Aghan government and security forces. Neighboring countries to Afghanistan will be pressed by inflows of refugees should the insecurity worsen, as is unfortunately anticipated, and European countries will likely see an increasing number of Afghan refugees arriving via Iran and Turkey. Some experts have even warned of a displacement crisis similar in scale to that of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016. Aid agencies are bracing for the worst—the UN’s humanitarian response plan remains chronically underfunded, and humanitarian agencies continue to navigate complex counterterrorism laws, often aimed at stymying the financing of terrorism, in their efforts to provide principled humanitarian assistance across the country. Moreover, as these challenges expand, they will pose increasing pressure on remaining international actors and NGOs, including the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). As witnessed in prior decades of conflict in Afghanistan, the latest ramp up in insecurity foreshadows a long, arduous road ahead for Afghan civilian displacement and pose deep and difficult questions about the role of the international community and organizations like the UN.