COIN and the Afghan Refugee Crisis

“Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child….”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

“Have yourself a merry merry Christmas
Have yourself a good time
But remember the kids who got nothin’
While you’re drinkin’ down your wine.”

– The Kinks, “Father Christmas,” 1977

With Thanksgiving as the official starting gate, Americans hurtle into the holiday season like Penguins on the march. This year, the dissonance between the imploding power paradigm sparked by WikiLeaks, and the garish commercial onslaught now known as the “25 Days of Christmas” is almost too much to handle.

I suspect soon the latter will win over, at least temporarily. While the very diligent will still be pouring over and analyzing the percolating WikiLeaks bomblets, the rest of America will have begun the annual ritual of emptying their pocketbooks, eating, drinking and being merry (or at least pretending with gusto), while Rome crackles and pops to the tune of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”

But a world away from “Jingle Bell Rock” and Currier & Ives, there is a Dickensian nightmare, where babies are succumbing to the cold, where gruel is being cooked over a fire stoked with garbage, where a father cringes in shame because he cannot even buy his son an apple.

This a world we should know but to which most of us plead ignorance. It is Afghanistan, where, according to new accounts by the United Nations and independent Non-Governmental Agencies (NGOs), the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) is worse than the first years of the decade-long foreign occupation. From the squatter slums in Kabul to the dystopian purgatory they call “camps” pressing out from the cities and into the rural areas, tens of thousands of Afghans are settling into to endure the winter – in many cases with no more than a tarp over their heads – rather than go back to their homes as targets for both Taliban and international forces.

Lynn Yoshikawa, who recently published Afghanistan: In a Time of Conflict for Refugees International, told this week that there are about thirty camps right now outside Kabul filled with “extremely poor people who have nowhere to go anymore,” highlighting “the desperation that people are going through. They suffer because of the war, their homes are gone, their farms are gone, their livestock are gone.”

According to a piece published by the Washington Post Nov. 27, the number of Afghan refugees and those seeking political asylum in other countries “has spiked dramatically … coinciding with a sharp escalation in U.S. troop levels,” making Afghanistan “the world’s top country of origin for asylum seekers worldwide.” According to the report, some 27,057 refugees sought the protection of other countries in 2009. Meanwhile, Refugees International says over 120,000 Afghans were displaced internally throughout the last year – a 50 percent increase in the total IDP population, which is estimated at 320,000.

The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), which tries to keep count, admits those numbers are likely much higher, says Yoshikawa, “but it’s unable to adequately monitor all areas because of the rising insecurity” and the lack of a mandate to register and serve the growing number of displaced in settlements popping up in and around the capital city of Kabul. “No one there is really keeping track how many refugees or displaced they are helping,” she added. 

The politicization of the IDP issue has also forced these people into the shadows, particularly, Yoshikawa’s report explains, “when people flee due to ISAF’s presence or are encouraged to return home to support a message of a successful stabilization operation.”

As one aid worker charged, “When governments want IDP’s to exist they throw money into the Afghan government coffers, but when they don’t we call them ‘informal settlements’ because they’re not entitled to assistance.”

COIN Tested, COIN Failed

Aid groups blame the increase in Taliban violence in the northern provinces that were heretofore safe – like Kunduz, Faryab and Balkh – on the so-called U.S. military surge in the south. Last year when Gen. Stanley McChrystal came into command and issued a review he fashioned with Washington’s leading civilian hawks and COINdinistas, it was decided that the Pentagon would focus resources and force strength on routing the Taliban from Helmand Province and other Pashtun “hot beds” in the south. The idea that the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) would “drain the swamp,” following the celebrated COIN formula of “clear, hold and build,” became the talisman of success for then-CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus, who promised they would win over the Afghan people by engaging in a “whole of government” approach.

But the so-called “government in a box” seems to have been lost in the mail, and military operations in the south have foundered. After a year, $30 billion USD, and an increase of 30,000 equipped-to-the-teeth U.S. soldiers (making for a total of nearly 140,000 foreign troops on the ground now), the Pentagon’s November progress report to Congress (.pdf), essentially says very little has changed.

“The regional and domestic factors that sustain the insurgency and impede effective COIN operations remain unchanged; in some cases they are still trending in the insurgency’s favor, while in others, the trends have been reversed,” says page 41 of the report.

In fact, the U.S./ISAF surge has been “pushing armed opposition groups to new fronts where there is little or no resistance” in the north, according to Yoshikawa’s report, creating essentially, the aid crisis they are experiencing now. “In contrast to the freedom that aid workers and civilians enjoyed in the region one year ago, improvised explosive devices, kidnappings and criminal attacks are now an everyday threat,” resulting in the displacement of 17,000 alone during October.

The result – northern refugees are now joining displaced people from the south in a winter exodus where the end of the line is likely to be an open-air camp or a Kabul slum.

Afghans Blame Foreign Occupation

There are common threads, but many different reasons why Afghans are leaving home. Some need employment and are paying tens of thousands of dollars to get out of the country. Others are the direct victims of war violence. Many inhabit the 30 camps that have grown up outside Kabul.

An increasing number of their inhabitants are Pashtuns who have fled Marjah and Kandahar Province and have expressed particular animus for the foreign occupation.

“There is a lot of frustration towards international forces because of night raids, arresting family members – something President Karzai spoke out against just before the Lisbon Summit, and it’s something NGOs have been very much against as well. It’s very disrespectful in Afghan culture, and people are living in fear,” said Yoshikawa.

“We are not happy from either side,” a man named Ahunzada, who fled his opium fields in Sangin in Helmand two years ago, told the Washington Post. He lost his brother and father to a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban for a passing U.S. military convoy, but nonetheless says, “I believe the British and the American troops are more cruel than the Taliban. I have seen it happen: The Taliban come on motorbikes, they open fire, they leave. The Americans just come and kill us, they bomb us, they open fire on us, they kill the children and innocent people.”

In the winter, his wife attempts to keep out the cold by carpeting their hut in the Charchi Qambar camp outside Kabul with blankets. But her efforts last year were in vain as they lost their 1-year-old son, Ahmad Shah, to the cold. Now their other son battles chronic cough and sniffles in the morning chill.

“I look at him and I have to leave the house like a thief,” Ahunzada says to the paper. “My son is asking me to bring him something, buy me some fruit, buy me an apple. If I don’t have any money, what should I bring him?”

According to reports, Charchi Qambar now has more than 1,000 families living in tents in “squalid” conditions that would make the 19th century conditions in London during Dickens’ Bleak House days look perfectly bright.

“It is a place of wailing children and dirt caked faces,” said Washington Post writer Joshua Partlow, “where husbands search for menial labor and wives burn heaps of trash to cook their daily gruel.”

Another resident, Barigul, makes bricks to sell by mixing dirt he proffers from trucks on the highway with water and sand around the camp. He sells them just to buy enough for his eight family members to eat every day. He said he left Helmand last month after long-running harassment from American troops and their insurgent enemies.

“Where is security? The Americans are just making life worse and worse, and they’re destroying our country,” said Barigul. “If they were building our country, why would I leave my home town and come here?”

In Marjah, a major Marine operation was supposed to be the cornerstone of McChrystal’s new strategy in the south, but reports indicate the Taliban are back after their “routing” last February.

This from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center this month:

“While NATO forces struggle to build trust with the local population, villagers who fled Marjah in February are still displaced. Most of them hoped to go back home ‘within a few days’ but 15,000 of them say insecurity still prevents them from returning. Intimidation has recently led to new displacements as those who receive NATO assistance in southern Marjah are questioned by the Taliban.”

Meanwhile, the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement reported in May (.pdf) that there were some 50,000 IDPs, mostly conflict-induced from the last 10 years, huddled in settlements in Kandahar, including the provincial city and not far from the fighting.

Supposedly, there are at least 14,000 war-displaced Afghans living in Kabul, though no one really knows how many, as they easily fall in with the swollen population of poor migrants, nomads and squatters already there, and no organization aside from the government has a clear mandate to take care of them.

For a host of reasons, President Karzai has so far ignored if not reacted hostility to the impoverished teeming outside his royal palace, said Yoshikawa.

“Child labor, prostitution, malnutrition, women engaging in survival sex … these are things the government does want to admit is going on. They just call them all squatters and they’re concerned that if they do anything more (to help them) they will just be pulling more people into these (camps and slums),” she said. “They have come up with very few solutions and it’s been quite tense for NGOs working in these areas to provide assistance. This is very systematic of failed governance, failed government, really.”

But what about the so-called “civilian surge”? The U.S. humanitarian effort? It may be a surprise to most that direct aid is spread very thin (about $30 million in Disaster Foreign Assistance funds through USAID last year). “It’s not boding well,” said Yoshikawa. While the Pentagon has much more – $1.2 billion for the Commanders Emergency Response Teams (CERT) – the military has different, short-term priorities, often linking aid with their own counterinsurgency goals. “I think it’s really hard to know what they are spending money on. It’s really unclear.”

As for the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier this year that they would be focusing not on feeding people or assisting the displaced, but on “building capacity” in areas outside of Kabul. “The U.S. government is pretty focused on political goals, political governance, rule of law,” said Yoshikawa, pointing out there are 80 “priority districts” that get much of the State Department/military aid attention. Progress, again, has been fleeting and mixed.

“The U.S. says it’s seeing progress, but that’s not what we are seeing or hearing from the people on the ground or from other NGOs.”

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. After the initial invasion in 2001, Afghanistan had gone about repatriating hundreds of thousands of Afghans who had fled the country in its earlier conflicts. Now a corrupt and weak government that the U.S. helped to install, plus the endless foreign occupation and violence, have created a new wave of exodus with “millions on the move” and nowhere to go. Reports say it is the worst place in the world to be born and most children do not make it to the age of five.

In America, the television tells us we have to get to the mall right away for the best deals on high tech gadgetry and diamonds; we cajole one another about the extra “holiday pounds” after the cookie exchanges and turkey dinners, not to mention the champagne and the eggnog.

It doesn’t occur to us that this is our problem, that it has been our problem for 10 years and that when President Obama stands up before U.S. soldiers and says there is “progress” in the war that he is purposefully distorting the truth or grossly uninformed by his commanders. What we do know is in southern Afghanistan 100,000 children are going without vaccines and at least half a million Afghans overall have no access to health services because of the fighting. In the north, the homeless face cold nights that aren’t so silent because the Taliban are back.

For these Afghans, there really is no room at the inn, and in many cases, a stable would sound pretty good right now. “It’s just like, reduce the suffering now before it gets worse – that’s all we can really ask for,” said Yoshikawa. “Getting toward a sustainable peace is way far off for now.”

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.