Afghanistan News and Views


AFGHANISTAN: A Rock Between Hard Places
New Book: “A Rock Between Hard Places-Afghanistan as an Arena of Regional Insecurity”
by Kristian Berg Harpviken And Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh

What has driven neighboring states to intervene in the Afghan conflict? This book challenges mainstream analyses which place Afghanistan at the center — the so-called ‘heart’ — of a large pan-Asian region whose fate is predicated on Afghan stability. Instead Harpviken and Tadjbakhsh situate Afghanistan on the margins of three regional security complexes — those of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf — each characterized by deep security rivalries, which, in turn, informs their engagement in Afghanistan. Within Central Asia, security cooperation is hampered by competition for regional supremacy and great power support, a dynamic reflected in these states’ half-hearted role in Afghanistan. In the Persian Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia fight for economic and political influence, mirrored in their Afghan engagements; while long-standing Indo-Pakistani rivalries are perennially played out in Afghanistan.

Based on a careful reading of the recent political and economic history of the region, and of Great Power rivalry beyond it, the authors explain why efforts to build a comprehensive Afghanistan-centric regional security order have failed, and suggest what might be done to reset inter-state relations.

Kristian Berg Harpviken is Director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh teaches at the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Paris, and is Associate Researcher at PRIO.

‘There are few more insightful analysts of Afghanistan’s region than Kristian Berg Harpiven and Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh. Their new book challenges us to rethink our received understandings of how Afghanistan might relate to, and be affected by, its neighbours, and should be required reading for all scholars, diplomats and international officials interested in the stability of Southwest Asia.’ — William Maley, Professor of Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University; author of Reconstructing Afghanistan: Civil-Military Experiences in Comparative Perspective

‘A very useful review of regional politics at a time when Afghanistan’s neighbours are more important to its fate than ever before.’ — Antonio Giustozzi, author of The Army of Afghanistan: A Political History of a Fragile Institution


AFGHANISTAN: Pakistan plans talks with Afghanistan, UN agency over refugees’ return


Afghan refugees arrive to be repatriated to Afghanistan, at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office on the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan, August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Reuters, Thursday, 30 June 2016

The number of Afghans voluntarily returning from Pakistan has plummeted this year

* Pakistan has world’s second largest refugee population

* Just 6,000 Afghans returned home this year, vs 58,211 in 2015

* Afghanistan says working with Pakistan to tackle refugee woes (Adds Afghanistan minister’s comment)

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

ISLAMABAD, June 30 (Reuters) – Pakistan plans talks with Afghanistan and the United Nations refugee agency to move longtime Afghan refugees to camps at home, the foreign office said on Thursday, after the numbers of those returning plunged this year.

Pakistan has the world’s second largest refugee population, with more than 1.5 million registered, and about a million unregistered, refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan, most of whom fled the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s.

The U.N. says the number of Afghans voluntarily returning from Pakistan has fallen to about 6,000, well below last year’s 58,211, as violence worsens in Afghanistan, where the government and its U.S. allies are battling a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it would immediately approach Afghanistan on the political and diplomatic fronts, while the ministry for frontier regions would engage with the U.N. refugee agency and Afghanistan’s ministry of refugees.

The talks would seek ways to ease “early returns as well as the possibility of shifting Afghan refugees gradually from Pakistan to safer and peaceful areas of Afghanistan, where the Afghan government should establish settlements,” the foreign office said in a statement.

Hussain Alemi Balkhi, the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation, said, “We know that the refugees face harassment and hardship, and we are working with Pakistani authorities to address these problems.”

He confirmed plans for a three-way meeting on July 19 with Pakistan and the U.N. refugee agency.

On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif allowed the 1.5 million registered refugees to stay on for six more months.

The registration deadline extension came soon after officials told Reuters at least 500 Afghan refugees had been arrested in the northwestern border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and deported as a security risk.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said more than 2,000 refugees were arrested in the last month, and 400 deported to Afghanistan. (Additional Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik)


AFGHANISTAN: Deciding to Leave Afghanistan, Part 3 of 3: What happens after arrival in Europe

Afghan refugees in Germany are concerned about their asylum application status; here a group of new arrivals is led to the registration centre in Munich in December 2015 (Source Tolonews)., by Martine Van Bijlert, May 19, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this third and last installment, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at what happened since the migrants arrived and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have, now that brothers and sons are in Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. Thesecond dispatch focused on the details of the journey, the routes and practical preparations and can be found here.

Situation after arrival in Europe

During the interviews, migrants’ families were asked where their loved ones were now and how they were doing. The fact that the interviews were done with the relatives of the migrants, rather than with the migrants themselves, obviously means that the information is partial and that everything is seen through the lens of those who stayed behind. But it is also instructive, as it provides insight into the continued linkages with the home front – a factor that tends to be underplayed in asylum interviews. (Many migrants, in particular minors, are coached to claim they no longer have living relatives or that they have lost all contact).

In all interviews except one, the migrants who had left Afghanistan in 2015 had arrived in Europe, although their journey had often been long and stressful (see this earlier dispatch in the series for details). The one exception was an interview with a young man from Kandahar, a migrant himself, who had tried to reach Europe but had failed; he was in Kabul at the time and preparing to attempt the journey again.

All migrants who had arrived in Europe were now awaiting a decision as to whether they could stay or not. Information about their situation tended to be fairly patchy. All relatives knew in which country their family members were staying, but none of them seemed to know the name of city (or they did not mention the city during the interview). Details tended to be about whether they had received money or language lessons, whether they were allowed to work and how they had been housed.

My son is now in Germany, but I don’t know the name of the city where he is living right now. He arrived there almost a month ago. I don’t have a lot of information about his status, but he is living in a camp and is waiting for the bureaucracy to decide whether he can stay. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

They are in Germany. They are learning German over there and now know a little already. I do not know what is going to happen to them. They arrived 40 days ago. They have been registered in Germany now, but not interviewed yet. They were given a card so that they can go to the city and buy necessary things, but they are not permitted to work. My eldest son gets 180 Euros and my younger son gets 150 Euros every two weeks. That is all they have received until now. They were given a room in a block where other Afghan migrants live. I don’t remember the name of the city.(Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

My son is in Belgium. He arrived there almost six months ago. He did not choose a country. He just wanted to leave Afghanistan because he was tired of everything here. … He wants to stay in Belgium and is taking language classes. He is paid by the Belgian government and is happy there. He was supposed to have his interview after two weeks. I don’t know how it went. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul)

The relatives tended to have rudimentary knowledge of the bureaucratic procedures, but often had little detail, other than whether interviews had already been held or whether a decision had yet been taken.

Now, he is in Germany. He has got through two courts in Germany. He gave them his documents that explain the main factors and reasons for him going. His last appearance – in the high court – is going to be next month. He told us on the telephone that they would send him to the next court. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

He has an apartment with two bedrooms. I’m not sure [when they arrived there]. They are waiting for their second or third interview. (Brother of a migrant from Herat, who left with his whole family)

Linkages to home

In the past, once a migrant left his or her home country, communication became cumbersome, erratic and expensive. However, increasedaccess to the internet and the growing use of smart phones, well beyond urban areas and the upper middle class, have made it much easier for families to stay in touch. The access this provides to information all over the world and the ability to stay connected after departure has obviously impacted the migration process. Afghans contemplating the journey can now gather information beforehand, those en route can ask for help and those who have arrived can get their families to send copies of crucial documents needed for their asylum procedure.

We thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route. He read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open, he might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

They went illegally, so they did not take any documents with them. They took money and when they got to Europe, we sent pictures of their national ID cards (Tazkira) via mobile phone. The day they left, my eldest son took one hundred dollars from me and left without our blessings. When my younger son left, we gave him money. His father gave him 150 USD for the journey. When they were in Iran, we again sent them money. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

However, not everybody has easy access to communication. One father said he only had limited contact with his son as neither of them had a smart phone (which would make them dependent on an expensive landline-to-cell phone service rather than speaking via internet services such as Skype). (But his son had also left for Europe without telling his father and had only called him later, so he may also intentionally be keeping his father in the dark.)

He said it was a very difficult journey, but he did not tell us about the details because he did not want to make us upset. Also, neither my son nor I have the device [smart phone] to enable us to talk for a long time. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Hints of regret

Most families said their relatives planned to stay where they had ended up, even though in some cases this was a different country to where they had initially intended to get to, and that they were happy there. A few, however, said their family members in Europe were unhappy.

My 17-year old brother left for Europe. He basically intended to go to Belgium but couldn’t make it, as he was trying to reach Belgium when the Paris attacks happened. So he returned to Germany and then left for Italy. Belgium was his first choice because we believed that people were accepted as migrants easily there. He is currently living in Italy. He arrived there in 2015. He is very, very unhappy there with no legal status. He intends to leave for a city in France where it is believed he would be accepted as an asylum seeker more quickly. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

The case of the younger brother from Nangarhar was further complicated by the fact that the boy had left against the wishes of his family and that the journey had been expensive:

He decided to leave even though all the other members of our family were opposed to it. I am still encouraging him to return because, even after spending around 8,000 US dollars, he now also regrets going. He decided to go because my niece who was already in Europe kept calling him to come to Europe. Also, my brother was not happy here because when he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA), [but] we did not want him to join the ANA, because he would have been killed if he had joined. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

When asked what his vision for his younger brother was now that he was in Europe, the older brother was not very optimistic:

There were serious concerns about him and now we don’t have any hopes for his future. He ruined his life and all we can do is hope for something better for him. We don’t specifically know what will happen to him next; he knows this better. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

In another case, the migrant simply seemed to be tired of moving around and affected by being away from home.

He is exhausted from traveling and he says if his case is accepted in Finland, he will stay in Finland. He is really tired of moving, so he also said if his case doesn’t get accepted, he will return to Afghanistan. (Brother of 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

In several of the interviews it became clear that those staying behind had disagreed with their loved ones’ wish to go. In some cases they were ultimately persuaded, while in other cases they continued to disagree even after their relative had left.

Actually everyone, including his wife, opposed his going. At the same time, family members were not sure how to stop him as neither the economic nor security situations got better. He said he wanted to leave and take the risk just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand, who left behind a family)

My brother had been interested in going to Iran or Turkey. His classmates and friends had discussed it for a long time. They heard life was better there and they would have better job opportunities, but my family did not agree with him. We wanted him to finish his studies and to get a job with the government. It is not easy for parents to send their kids away. Parents want their children to live with them. It was hard for us, but we wanted him to live in a peaceful place. My brother began talking about this topic, but we did not agree with him. But when security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

We all disagreed with his going, all the brothers. We believe more in our own tradition rather than going to another place. We are a traditional family with our own character. I’ve been to many conferences overseas and I know about the difficulties of being a foreigner, especially those with Asian traditions and culture, and languages and religion, even the skin is different. And even if your skin isn’t different, there is racism there sometimes. There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left together with his family)

Relatives who had had misgivings before the migrants left, other than just the risks of the journey, tended to still feel conflicted even after their family members had arrived in Europe. Some of them felt they had left behind a good life and would face greater difficulties in Europe. See for instance, again, the comments of the brother of the journalist from Herat:

I would have preferred him to stay because there is an advantage here for a traditional family and a journalist in having a normal life. He goes there and for many years he will try to learn a new language and a new culture and it will take some years for his case to be accepted – and then the golden time of his life will be over. That’s why I was telling him, and persuading myself, that if there is one chance to stay, it is better to stay. If there had not been a threat, he would have stayed. For an Afghan man, this might be the maximum adventure he can have: a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left with his family)

Visions for the future

Apart from feeling relief that their relatives had safely reached Europe, family members obviously hoped that their loved ones would be allowed to stay and build a life; that they would be able to focus on their education or finding a good job, maybe start a family or bring some of their remaining family over as well and, of course, help out those who stayed behind:

He is in Germany now and has been there for around eight months. He is waiting for some sort of court to decide his case. He intends to stay in Germany. We hope he can help us take our land back [ie pay back the mortgage that was needed to pay for the journey] and that he will help us build a house for ourselves, because we are currently living in a rental house. We also want to get him engaged. We definitely had worries about the journey, but now that he is there, we have some hopes. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

At least now we are relaxed that he has a peaceful life, and will not be seeing robbers or bomb blasts. My hope for him was and still is that he will have a better life and that he may get married or have children, so they would have a better future. If he has a good salary, he can maybe help us too. We don’t know what will happen to my son. It totally depends on the will of God. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

The mother, who had initially opposed her young sons going, now feels relief that at least two members of her family are safe. And she hopes one day she may be able to join them:

I hope that, after enduring the risks and hardships of this journey, the boys study there and have a better future – because we knew that they had no future in Kabul. I would like to go and join them in Germany. Their younger siblings would also like to join them. Afghanistan is not safe anymore and everyone wants to live in a safer place. We are happy with this decision now. If, God forbid, something happens to us in Kabul, then at least two of our family are safe and alive in Germany. (Mother of two migrants, 15 and 18-year olds, from Kabul)

But there were also relatives who had concerns about the life the migrant may lead. For instance, in the case of the man from Helmand, who had left behind his family and had initially only planned to travel as far as Iran or Turkey:

Well, we are definitely hopeful he will get a good job and can at least help support his own family and children. But we cannot forecast the future. It’s up to the Belgian government now. … The only concern we have is that he left Afghanistan and will be working in another country instead of Afghanistan, while he could have spent his energy improving his own country. Also, my parents are worried about his religious practices. Even if he continues his religious practices, they are concerned about the next generation who they think might not stick to our religious beliefs. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

And then there is of course the uncertainty over whether the migrants will be allowed to stay or whether they will be sent back. Many interviewees did not dwell on this very long, most of them merely referred to the fate of the migrant now being in the hands of God and the host country. Others were more outspoken.

The goals and vision we have for him are that he will have a safe and good life. We do not have to worry about his safety anymore. We do not have to worry that Kuchis, or Daesh, or the Taleban will kill him one day. [But] we are not sure about his future. It depends on the host country and whether they give him refugee status or send him to another country or deport him. In this regard, I cannot say anything. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Based on the information I have received from friends and relatives, if he gets accepted in Finland and stays there, I think he will have a better future. He will, at least, not live in war. He will get a better education and will have a better chance of getting a good job. But if his case doesn’t get accepted, he might have a very dark future. He spent more than a year trying to get there. He has been away from his culture during this time. He has also been away from higher education so if he doesn’t get accepted, he will be devastated and will have a dark future. He will suffer psychologically as well. If he returns home, maybe my father and all of us will tell him that we spent all our money on you and you returned home with nothing and no future. So there will be a lot of pressure on him. My father will probably tell him that we don’t have any more money to invest in you and nobody else will risk giving him any money either. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment”

In many cases the wish for their relatives to do well was intertwined with the hope that the risk, the stress and the expenses of the journey would ultimately turn out to have been a good investment, not just for the individual but also for the larger family. In some cases this was an important reason driving the decision to “send” a relative to Europe. In the case of the migrant from Takhar for instance, after one of the brothers was killed and their house was set on fire, the family pooled their resources to send one of them to Europe:

All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he makes it. We specifically chose Germany. We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Similarly, in the other cases, where the decision to embark on the journey seemed primarily driven by other factors, the opportunities that Europe represented still played a role in the families’ considerations.

His employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, so my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. … At first my brother decided to go to Iran. Then his friends encouraged him to go to Turkey and consequently, he was motivated to try to reach Germany after consultation with family members. We thought, if our brother stays in Turkey, all he would do was work as a labourer. So we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. … We always wanted to go to a safer place but we didn’t have enough money to leave as a whole family – we still owe some of our relatives for the expenses we spent on our brother leaving. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

However, the possibility that their gamble may not pay off still looms, particularly for those whose families had struggled to gather the money and those who left despite opposition from their relatives. This is neatly summarised by the older brother of the 20-year old migrant from Baghlan:

Like my brother, my cousins who left, their families also struggle financially. They sold their land and other possessions and gathered money to send their kids to a safe place with better opportunities. It hasn’t been easy on either side. The families are still waiting to hear good news from their boys and the kids live with uncertainties in Europe. The family of one of my cousins who went to Europe still hasn’t paid the smuggler in full, so the smuggler comes knocking on their door every day asking for the outstanding money. 

I have to tell you that all the families that I know of, who sent their sons abroad, are hoping that their sons will get settled in Europe and will help them in return, because they have spent all their money to get their sons there. So far, no family has received anything from their boys in Europe during the last year. The families in Afghanistan are not very hopeful because we know that the influx of refugees in Europe has made it more difficult for Afghans. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment” in this case was particularly strong, given that the young man came from a family that struggled financially.

In a way, travel to Europe has always been a ‘high-end’ addition to the regular diversification and coping strategies that many Afghan families employ. For several families this was not the first child or sibling to travel abroad, nor was it the first instance of displacement. Several families had moved—to the provincial capital, another province, or to Kabul—when the situation in their own area had become too insecure, and many of them had spent long years either in Pakistan or Iran. The family from Herat had spent many years in Iran, with several other distant relatives still living there and two siblings already living abroad.

Many youngsters from the family are still in Iran. Some have left for Europe or are planning to go because of economic difficulties and new restrictions there, but there are dangerous challenges. Many hesitate to go. … I have a small brother in Iran, another in India. But they are similar cultures. There is an advantage with education and facilities and incomes that encourage people to travel to Europe. Many from our own family, however, prefer to stay. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

One of the sons of the family in Helmand had also already gone to Europe in 2000.

Two earlier arrivals

The migrants who arrived in Europe some months ago are still very much at the beginning of their new lives, provided they are allowed to stay. Two interviews done earlier this year for AAN by Anne Wilkens provide some insight into the difficulties the recent arrivals might still face.  Both interviews are with Afghans who were still minors when they arrived in 2010. They were accepted and are, to a certain extent, well integrated. They were quite forthcoming about their difficulties, probably much more than they will have been to their relatives. The evaluation of their stay in Europe is also informed by hindsight:

In Sweden, Jawad has done exceptionally well: he has learned the language and graduated from high school with good marks. But he still thinks his life is tough, albeit in a manner different from before. He misses his country, its nature and his home. … He is not used to living alone and feels psychologically vulnerable: “In Afghanistan we had no money but we were together and we were happy inside. Here it is the other way around: we have money, but inside we are alone.” … He wants to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible, saying again: “In Afghanistan, we were free inside.”

Unlike Jawad, Massud has been reunited with his family. After a couple of years, his mother and five siblings arrived in Sweden, but it was not a happy day for him. Massud felt overwhelmed by his feeling of responsibility for them all: “I cried and cried so much, I had to leave the house. My mother seemed so much older, and was no longer the competent person I thought she was.”… Massud says he has lost himself: “I miss myself and will never be able to find myself again.” He has seen a couple of therapists, but it has not helped him. As he sees it, he has sacrificed himself for his family: “It was not the intention but this is how it turned out.”

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. Respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. The respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).


AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 2 of 3: The routes and the risks

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015)

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015), by Jelena Bjelica, May 18, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this second instalment, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica focuses on what migrants’ families relayed about the details of the journeys, the routes taken as well as practical preparations.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what happened has since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there. 

From Afghanistan to Turkey

All the family members of the migrants interviewed for the study said that their relatives who had travelled to Europe had gone through Iran and Turkey. Most went directly, entering Iran via the western Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Herat.

The shortest distance between Afghanistan and Turkey, as the crow flies, is 2,947 kilometres via Iran. Additionally, the land route from Afghanistan via Iran and Turkey is traditionally also used for smuggling opiates to Europe (this route is sometimes referred to as the “Balkan route.” (see UNODC’s map on the opiate flow from Afghanistan). As the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand explained, many perceived the route via Iran as the usual route from Afghanistan to Turkey.

[…] He first went to Iran and then Turkey. Iran was chosen because it’s the route that everyone else takes. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Some migrants had an Afghan passport and a valid Iranian visa, for instance, as described by the brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat, who fled Afghanistan with his family:

He went legally to Iran with his passport and then with smugglers. I don’t know about the smuggler contact. He had some savings and sold his car; maybe his wife sold her jewellery too. Maybe he borrowed money, I don’t know – he wouldn’t have said, he’s proud. He didn’t borrow money from the family.

Others made a detour via Pakistan because of tougher security along the border between Afghanistan and Iran:

They told us they went to Iran from Pakistan as it was difficult to go directly to Iran due to tight security [as they did not have a visa for Iran]. From Iran, there was another illegal route, but in the end they decided to return to Pakistan, then back to Iran and on to Turkey. It took them 15 days to reach Iran. They had to stop a lot and on the way there was hardly any food. It was a long journey. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

All but one migrant in the sample had not been issued with a Turkish visa. In some cases, the smugglers who organised their travel advised them and their families not to bother getting a passport, while in other instances, families said they did not have enough money to obtain visas (although applying for a Turkish visa through legal channels would be relatively inexpensive) and therefore had to rely on the (illegal) overland route.

Crossing the Aegean Sea

All but two migrants travelled to Greece from Turkey by boat. Of the two who avoided the sea route, one migrant (from Baghlan) travelled overland from Turkey to Bulgaria, then Hungary and finally to Germany. His brother explained that the smuggler chose this route. A 27-year old migrant from Kandahar who returned to Afghanistan and who was interviewed directly, said he decided to try the land route, as he did not feel the smugglers had made sufficient arrangements for a safe boat trip. He was, however, arrested on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

We moved through Iran quickly, but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir, but we did not want to get into the boat as the sea was rough and the weather was bad […] We heard from others about an alternative route so we decided to try the ‘land route’, moving first to Erdine, from where it would only be a very short trip by boat along the coast to Greece, avoiding Bulgaria. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Many of the migrants who did travel by boat spent a long time (anywhere between several days to several weeks) on the Aegean Sea coast, as they often had to make several attempts to cross the sea to Greece. After each failed attempt (for instance because the engine broke down or the boat took on water), the migrants would return to Turkey and wait for a new opportunity to sail. Two interviewees, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul and the brother of a migrant from Sar-e Pul, explained what happened on the Aegean coast to their loved ones:

During the trip from Turkey to Greece, their boat hit a rock and sank but they were rescued. They spent a month in a camp in Turkey and were taken care of by UNHCR. They again tried to reach Greece by boat, but the boat’s engine stopped working. Fishermen rescued them again. The third attempt was also a failure. Only on their fourth attempt did they make it to Greece. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

He faced tough problems and only just reached Europe. He saw companions drown in the sea, when a storm hit. Some were rescued. He said, “We walked for about 20-22 hours to Turkey. Then, a storm caused the boat we were on to sink and a Greek vessel rescued us.” I don’t remember, but two Iraqi or Syrian people, who were in the same boat with my brother, died. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

An interviewee from Takhar described how his brother called home and asked his mother to pray for him to cross the sea safely:

When he was about to cross the sea, he called my mother and asked her to pray for him. He told her: either I will make it or I will drown. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

The Western Balkan route

According to a European Parliament report, throughout 2015 the Western Balkans route was the busiest. It starts in Turkey, heads west into Greece and then into the Western Balkans, at present primarily via the former Yugoslav Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. Some of the region’s aspiring EU candidates, particularly Kosovo and Albania, have been a source of irregular migration themselves, with outward border crossings peaking in 2014 and early 2015. Increased migrant flows from outside Europe, however, have shifted this trend, now turning the region into one of transit. It appears from the interviews that all of the migrants took this Western Balkan route.

Most of the information, however, that family members of the migrants recalled was focused on the journey through Iran and Turkey, with few being able to give much detail on the journey within Europe, either in terms of conditions along the way or the time it took for their family member to reach the country where they are now. For the interviewees, the accounts by their relatives of the routes taken after having left Greece were rather blurred and many had only a vague knowledge of European geography, in particular when it came to Southeastern and Eastern European countries. The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak described his brother’s journey through the Balkans in temporal terms:

From Turkey he went to Austria through different countries, but I don’t remember the names of the other countries through which he travelled. I think he spent one and a half months travelling through all of these countries, 20 days of which he spent in Iran. The main reason for choosing this route was that it was cheaper than the other options and the decision was made to use this way because it was the only one we could afford.(Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

The Balkan route is notorious for human trafficking and migrant smuggling (see the 2008 UNODC report on trafficking and smuggling in the Balkans). The porous borders between the former Yugoslav Republics were the result of ongoing hostilities between the newly established states. The relatively new police and customs departments there did not cooperate with one another, while traffickers and smugglers worked closely along ethnic lines. Since the end of war in the Western Balkans in the early 2000s, new regional forums have been established (such as the Migration Asylum Refugees Regional Initiative – MARRI, see also thisLSE paper on regional initiatives) to improve cooperation between the former republics.

In 2015, the states along the Western Balkans route created a humanitarian corridor. The open borders policy, as well as the relatively moderate political discourse and public attitudes, made them ‘refugee-friendly’ countries, despite reported cases of mistreatment, according to a European Parliament report. The state authorities of Serbia, Macedonia and later Croatia (after Hungary closed its border with Serbia in the summer of 2015) even organised border-to-border transport for refugees in their respective countries. The news of the humanitarian corridor reached Afghanistan and may have encouraged their families to send their relatives on the perilous journey:

[…] the media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul) 

He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Difficulties along the way

Based on the information their families provided, all the migrants had set out between the (early) summer and late autumn of 2015. The families had often only sketchy details of how long the trip had taken, but it was clear that many of the travellers had been forced to interrupt their journey along the way. In Iran and again in Turkey, several had to wait for smugglers to arrange for their onward passage. In one case, a migrant worked in Turkey for seven months to earn money for his onward journey.

He had to leave for Iran, then Turkey [where he stayed some seven months because he didn’t have enough money to travel to Germany]. He found work in Turkey and eventually spent that money, together with money sent by the family, to travel on to Germany. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

Even for those passing through, the stay in Turkey was often long as most migrants entered the country on foot through the mountains. In many cases, they did not tell their families the extent of the difficulties they faced along the way, in order not to worry them. Some family members said they had asked not to be told any details because they would be too upsetting.

However, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul described how smugglers left her sons without food or water during the 15-day walk through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran:

They were told they would walk in the mountains for two to three hours. But in the area between the Pakistani and Iranian border, the boys had to walk for 10 hours per day, without any water for 15 days. The boys told the smuggler they could not go on without food or water. In the mornings, they were given some bread and a bottle of water for the whole day. One day, a boy who was part of their group collapsed and later died from exhaustion. My boys then asked for more water but were usually only given a little bit of muddy water once they ran out of bottled water. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

The brother of a 20-year old migrant for Baghlan shared a similar story:

He told me that he had been stuck on the border between Iran and Turkey for 20 days. I think the smuggler could not get him through the border on one particular day. The smuggler hid him in a desert area with 30-35 other people. In this area, there was a lot of trash and different kinds of animals. My brother said that the food they had lasted for only a day and that for the next three days they had nothing. He said if the smuggler had not shown up on the fourth day, they might all have died.

Other migrants told their families about difficulties that included instances of arrest, mistreatment and perilous journeys by boat. They described the hardships of being at somebody else’s mercy when it came to getting food, water and shelter. Some migrants told their families that the trek over the mountains around the Iranian-Turkish border had been horrible. Others said they had been mistreated either by the smugglers or the local authorities, as described by these two interviewees:

He said he was arrested with two smugglers along the Turkish border with Iran and mistreated. We didn’t have any news from him for almost two weeks. He then had to spend almost one month in a migrant camp in Turkey where the conditions were very bad. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

My brother said a local smuggler in Iran beat him, along with a group of 50 Afghans; he gave them electric shocks and took their money and luggage. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

A good smuggler is hard to find

The interviewees, most of whom had been involved in the preparations of their family member’s journey, described how in most cases the family contacted a smuggler to discuss their options, get assurances that their loved ones would be taken care of, and agree on a price. (2)

Finding the money and the smuggler was necessary. From the time of the initial discussion until he left, I made sure we found a good smuggler who would succeed in getting him to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

I discussed the issue with the smuggler […] There was no need to get a passport for my son, I was told. When my son got to Turkey, I paid the money to the smuggler. We were in touch with the smuggler while my son was in transit, and if something happened to him, the smuggler would report it to me, I was told. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

In Kabul, we found a smuggler and told him that only after the boys reached their destination would we pay him. The smuggler’s mother-in-law lives in our neighbourhood, and her son-in-law knows a lot of people and has connections to many other smugglers along the route to Europe.(Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

With a few exceptions, most families discussed at length the difficulties they faced in getting the funds together. For many, it required borrowing money from relatives and friends and/or mortgaging their homes. Payment arrangements, as well as the cost of the journey to Europe, seemed to vary widely: from 1,500 US dollars to more than 8,000 US dollars per person. (In some cases the price mentioned only concerned the journey to Turkey, with the families not specifying how much their sons or brothers had paid for the boat trip from Turkey to Greece. For the humanitarian corridor in the Western Balkans, where the governments organised the onward journey, no smugglers’ services would have been required).

I discussed the issue with the smuggler, who said payment from Kabul to Turkey was 1,500 USD. (Father of a 19-year migrant from Kabul)

He spent almost 8,000 USD getting from Mazar to Germany. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

Some families said that their brothers or sons would contact them when they needed money while on their journey, and that they would provide them with instructions on how to pay:

He had already talked to the smuggler and paid him 1,500 USD. He paid this money to the smuggler to take him to Turkey. When he got to Turkey, he told his friends he needed more money. These friends then informed us and we sent him the money he needed, which we borrowed from our relatives. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Some migrants’ families were able to negotiate that payment would only be made once their family member had reached Europe, while others paid after each leg of the trip was completed (generally Iran, Turkey and Europe). The mother of the 18-year old and 15-year old from Kabul said that the smuggler told the family:

Whenever your boys call and say they are in Iran or in Turkey, then you can pay the money for this part of the journey.

The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar said that several different smugglers had been involved in his brother’s journey to Germany:

He spent a total of 4,000 USD in order to reach Germany […] We first sent him to Nimroz then smugglers took him to Iran for 600 USD, another smuggler took him to Turkey for 700 USD, then to Greece and from Greece to Germany. It took two months for him to reach Germany.

The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar described how he made a deal with the smuggler for his brother:

I took him to the smuggler and we made a deal and agreed that payment would only be made once he had reached his final destination. The money would not be paid if there were three failed attempts by the smuggler to get him there.

The 27-year old migrant from Kandahar (who was able to give the most detailed account of his journey), was repatriated and decided not to return to Kandahar and based himself in Kabul. He said he paid increments of 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars for each leg of the trip. He also said that smugglers set up a chain of hiding places along the way and they provided the migrants with food and water along the way.

On the way, we had to stay with the smugglers in apartments provided by them. We moved through Iran quickly but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Although the interviewees knew only a fraction of what their family members had endured during their journeys and were thus unable to provide detailed accounts of their relatives’ travels through some parts of Europe (especially through the Western Balkans), it is clear that all the migrants used this relatively new and shorter migration route (when compared to the route via Libya to Italy). The Balkan route, although not devoid of peril, is considered safer than travel through Libya to Italy, as it is mainly a land route. For those migrants coming from the Middle East and Afghanistan, Turkey is within easier reach than Libya. However, there are now new challenges along the road, in particular in the Western Balkans, which include new fences along borders and unanticipated reactions and changes in policies by the primary destination countries, which burdens the transit countries (such as Greece). This is what has most likely led to the emergence of new, secondary routes in the region.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).

(2) The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and smuggling, and manufacturing and smuggling in arms from 15 November 2000 are signed by all states on the route that the migrants described (only Iran has yet to ratify it).


AFGHANISTAN: Why are so many returning refugees still landless?

Nangarhar, 2008: People returning from Jalozai and Naser Bagh camps in Pakistan have found it difficult to find clean water in some of the places they have settled. (Photo Credit: Pajhwok), by Jelena Bjelica, March 29, 2016, original

More than 5.8 million Afghans, about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, are refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taleban according to UNHCR figures. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied, or discovered that a new set of laws had scrapped their tenancy rights. The government plan for distributing land to them, and to IDPs, is now a decade old, but has been one of the most corrupt and ineffective government schemes. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at how difficult it has been for these most vulnerable of Afghans and asks whether anything might now change.

Shortly after the December 2001 Bonn Conference which established the post-Taleban political set up, at UNHCR’s urging, President Karzai passed the Decree on the Dignified Return of Refugees – decree no 297. It became effective as of 22 December 2001. The decree guaranteed the proper treatment of returnees, their exemption from prosecution (except for war crimes and crimes against humanity) and the recovery of lost property. (1)

Although the recovery of property was recognised as a right, in practice, many returnees found they could not just walk in and reclaim their original houses and farms. New occupants often held documents supporting their own claim to the property. In some cases, they may have actually bought the property (from someone who did not own it); in other cases, the new ‘owners’ had acquired legal titles through dubious legal means. In some cases the new ‘owners’ simply refused to leave.

A further complication was that, for many property transactions, no official documents exist. According to this in-depth 2013 AREU study, many people do not have any documentation to confirm their ownership. (According to Afghan law, customary, religious, legal and administrative documents are legitimate.) The same study found that there was no documentation at all for many rural properties for the period from 1961 to 2001:

Most landowners and tenants held and used their land on trust, under customary norms. These norms were community-based and sustained arrangements, which had evolved over time. These drew upon various customary or religious (Shari’a) norms. The shared conventions agreed that a certain field or house was owned by a certain family.

Under the post-2001 land laws, people who had enjoyed customary usage rights over land, in fact, had no right to own the land. This made many people effectively landless.

Other returnees were adversely affected by a decision taken at the Bonn conference to take the 1964 Constitution as the temporary basis for all laws, until the adoption of a constitution. Presidential Decree No 66 (5 January 2002) abolished all decrees and legal documents enacted before 22 December 2001 that were inconsistent with the 1964 Constitution and the Bonn Agreement. This revoked all land rights people had gained through the land reforms in the 1970s and 1980s (for example 250,000 families had been given 600,000 hectares of land by the end of 1979). It also strengthened the state’s de jure ownership of an estimated 80 per cent of the country’s land. (The remaining 20 per cent of the land was in private ownership.)

In September 2002, less than a year after the Bonn conference, President Karzai established a special Land and Property Disputes Court (by his Decree on the Establishment of Land and Property Disputes Court; Circulate Letter No 4035). The court, that was ordered to adjudicate disputes within two months and was supposed to have a special police force to enforce its decisions, was abolished again in November 2003 (Executive Decree No 89).

The same decree created a new institution, the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court, based in Kabul with the responsibility of handling all returnee and refugee property cases. It had a primary court, which was also responsible for areas outside Kabul and was authorised to travel to the provinces with the Supreme Court’s permission to deal with any special disputes, and an appeal court. A year later, in February 2004, another executive decree (No 112) was issued, to allow claimants who were dissatisfied with the special courts’ judgments to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court and the Office of the President. This legal centralisation of power, in particular in the hands of the president, said the AREU study, discouraged returnees from bringing claims against the government, which itself had become the owner of many estates. According to the same study, “By January 2005, the court had dealt with only five per cent of cases before it and an astounding 80 per cent of its verdicts were being appealed.”

In January 2007, a presidential decree (No 105) abolished the authority of the primary courts to handle cases outside Kabul and transferred it to the provincial judiciary. In July 2007, the Supreme Court, using its authority to establish or change court divisions, abolished the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court altogether and its authority was transferred to Afghanistan’s regular courts.

Introducing a land allocation scheme

There were also many returnees who lost their access to land through the abolition of post-1964 land laws or the dissolution of customary arrangements. Others had never had access to land. In 2003, UNHCR estimated that 41 per cent of returnees had no homes or land, while another 26 per cent owned farms or houses, but had found these destroyed or damaged beyond repair on their return. All over the country, IDP and refugee returnees started forming informal settlements on land they did not own. In urban areas, they joined the ranks of other urban migrants who made up cities’ growing informal settlements. (2)

In the face of all these problems and partially in response to UNHCR pressure, in December 2005, Karzai passed another new decree:Presidential Decree 104 on the Land Distribution to Eligible Returnees and IDPs. It was colloquially known as the ‘land allocation scheme.’ It was supposed to ease the return of refugees, but has been ineffective and racked by corruption.

Presidential Decree 104 created provincial commissions chaired by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation that were to vet and approve applications for the allocation of land (Article 7). The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livelihoods was charged with finding available land (Article 9), a responsibility subsequently given to the Afghanistan Land Authority (known as Arazi). By 2006, over 48,000 parcels of 3 to 10 hectares (15-30 jeribs) of land had been identified and listed. However, most of the allocated land was actually on the commons. This land only officially belonged to the state, but communities saw it as their own, shared land which they managed communally.

The implementation of the land allocation scheme was far from smooth. Many affected communities rejected the allocation of lands to those they saw as outsiders. An example of this can be read about in a 2010 TLO study  which describes a case in Zhari Dasht, in Zhari district of Kandahar, where UNHCR and the local government had negotiated a permanent settlement, in line with Presidential Decree 104, for IDPs from the north and west of Afghanistan who had settled in Zhari Dasht in late 2001. Their IDP camp was registered in 2004. The local community, however, resisted the plan so strongly that the government decided that the return of the IDPs to their place of origin would be the only viable solution for them. Most of the Zhari Dasht IDPs never went ‘home’, however, but eventually resettled themselves in Kandahar City and Spin Boldak district of Kandahar.

There have been sustained complaints about how the government has distributed land (see AAN previous reporting here). According to a 2015 UNAMA report on land grabbing, government officials often distributed land for personal gain or because of threats to those who were not eligible. For example, a governor (from a province not named by UNAMA) had “sold land allocated for IDPs and returnees for personal profit,” while in another place, “the Decree 104 commission ha[d] not convened in over four years, ostensibly because no state land ha[d] been made available for allocation, as a result of state land grabbing.” Often, land distribution priorities appeared biased, favouring other groups who might legally be given land, such as government employees. In Herat, for example, the municipal land commission distributed 14,000 parcels of land to government officials and only 850 parcels to returnees and IDPs.

The land actually allotted for distribution to returnees and IDPs often ended up being far from the cities and not meeting basic living standards – with, for example, no access to water and no job opportunities, health services or schools. This may partially explain the relatively low number of applications for plots: by the end of 2014, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation had received some 266,000 applications. The majority of IDPs and returnees may simply have preferred to reside in urban or peri-urban environments, particularly since many of them had become used to a certain level of basic services while in exile. Another important reason may have been the particularly arduous process involved in applying for land.

Presidential Decree 104 – “inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven”

Getting land through the available legal procedure is difficult to the point of making applicants despair. The Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), in its 2013 vulnerability to corruption assessment, described how “many of the [decree’s] articles were inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven, paving the way for corruption.”

To register for the land allocation scheme, the applicant first of all needed to submit three basic documents (article 2): a voluntary repatriation form provided by UNHCR, a requirement that excluded people who had not returned via a formal UNHCR-administered process (for some background on this, see this AAN dispatch), a tazkera (ID document) and proof of landlessness, certifying that the person does not own land or a house in Afghanistan under his/her name, nor in the name of a spouse or under-age child. For IDPs applying for a plot of land, a document confirming their internal displacement status is required.

Providing a document proving landlessness, in particular, turned out to be very difficult. Moreover, the entire procedure to obtain a temporary land ownership deed consisted of six stages (3) and 63 separate administrative steps, almost all of which included the collection of signatures from the different authorities and departments of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. MEC, in its report, described these steps as unnecessary, provisional and aimed at “escaping individual responsibility.” Completing the whole process can take years.

The process was so cumbersome that during the second step of the process the minister himself needed to review each individual application and refer them to the concerned directorate. The chief of staff, heads of different departments, heads of units in the districts, provincial directors of refugees’ affairs and so on, all also needed to confirm, sign off or stamp the application. It was not until the 37th and 38th step of this six-stage process that the provincial commission actually evaluated the application and determined whether the applicant was an eligible beneficiary.

Such a process provided ample opportunity for corruption and ‘rent-seeking behaviour,’ as confirmed by the MEC assessment. Anecdotal reporting indicated that, for a bribe of approximately 300 US dollars per person in the household, an applicant could speed up the collection of signatures, stamps and sign-offs, at least in some stages of the process. But given the number of steps required to complete this bureaucratic process, many people would have felt discouraged by the sheer amount of bribery needed.

The actual fees were rather reasonable and affordable. Based on the Council of Ministers Resolution No 16 from 21 August 2006 (article 6) a person who was approved to receive the land only needed to pay a symbolic official state fee of 1,500 Afghani (then around 30 dollars) per 100 square meters (1 beswa). Usually the land people received was between three and six beswa.

By the end of 2014, after nine years, according to the UNHCR database, the ministry had allotted only 57,500 plots of land (out of a total of 266,000 applications). Of this number, only 39,000 beneficiaries had actually received their title deeds, while the actual occupancy was recorded at just over 21,000 plots. To put these figures in context, on a rough estimate based on UNHCR figures, there may be more than two million landless returnees in Afghanistan who could be eligible for the scheme.

Anwary as minister

Since the Bonn conference, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has been led by seven ministers: Enayatullah Nazari 2002-04; Azam Dadfar 2004; Sher Muhammad Ettebari 2004-09; Abdul Karim Brahui 2009-10; Abdul Rahim 2010; Jamahir Anwary 2010-14; and, since 2015, Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi 2015. It is difficult to distinguish the legacy of each minister, but Anwary’s tenure is probably the best documented in the available media investigative stories, UN reports and MEC vulnerability to corruption assessment.

Jamahir Anwary, appointed in June 2010, (4) was a pharmacy graduate from Kabul University who appeared on the political scene in 2002 as a delegate of the Turkmen shura (representing Turkmen refugees in Pakistan and residents in Afghanistan) who had come to meet the interim government’s senior officials; he was later described as ‘the newly elected representative of the Turkmen community’. (5)

His ministerial tenure (from June 2010 to December 2014) will mainly be remembered for the accusations of corruption, nepotism and embezzlement of government and international aid agencies’ funds. Anwary was called in by both houses of the parliament (Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga). The first time, in February 2012, it was at the request of the Complaints Commission of the Meshrano Jirga, to answer for the appointment of his niece and two cousins in the ministry. Anwary, however, failed to show up and, instead, responded via the media saying “the three people who have been employed were interviewed by a commission [that] consisted of a representative from the ministry and a representative from UNHCR [sic].”

Then, on 10 October 2013, the Wolesi Jirga summoned him for an interpellation session (isteza), a serious matter where a minister can be sacked if he or she does not provide adequate answers to MPs’ concerns. The Afghan media reported that Anwary was summoned over allegations of graft, including embezzlement of funds, failure to clear the ministry’s power bills, anomalies in recruitment and the ministry’s overall failure to address the plight of refugees.

The allegations had, by then, been well documented. A UNHCR evaluation of its Shelter Assistance Program conducted in the fall of 2012 stated that the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation was not considered a reliable partner to take over or continue UNHCR’s program, due to numerous instances of corruption, inefficiency, mishandling of funds, lack of human resources and an inability to demonstrate technical or thematic knowledge of the populations falling under the ministry’s responsibility.

A year later, on 28 September 2013, the Independent Media Consortium (IMC) published an in-depth and widely publicised investigative report about corruption in the ministry. Allegations by the IMC included that Anwary had requested UNHCR to transfer tens of thousands of US dollars to the personal accounts of his family members and others.

A month later, in October 2013, the MEC released its vulnerability to corruption assessment on land distribution for returnees and IDPs, also describing widespread administrative corruption, bribery, forgery, nepotism, embezzlement and poor customer service in the ministry. Although the report did not specify when these practices had taken place, it was published three years into Anwary’s tenure. The report also found that senior officials in the ministry were incompetent and the internal control mechanisms were inadequate. It also found the land distribution process to be corrupted, informal and chaotic (see previous section). Moreover, the 2013 MEC assessment indicated that, due to a sloppy and unnecessarily long procedure, the lack of a central database and widespread corrupted practices, in more than 3,500 cases in Kabul province the same plot of land had been distributed to more than one applicant.

Anwary, however, survived the vote of no confidence held on 9 November 2013. His defence was that “we should not point an accusing finger at each other and instead we should jointly work to resolve the problems facing Afghan refugees.” Many thought it pointed rather to problems with the parliament. President Karzai also chosen to keep the widely discredited minister in post.

New minister: new rules… and new problems

When the current refugee minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi took over the ministry in January 2015, he faced a mammoth task. (6) He not only had to deal with a notoriously corrupt ministry, but his appointment coincided with a growing mass exodus of Afghans to Europe (see AAN previous reporting) and pressure from European countries to ‘take back’ those who failed to get asylum. There was also the ongoing increase in IDPs due to the intensified conflict. (See the ministry’s statistics on IDPs, returnees and refugees, and the 2015 UNAMA report on civilian casualties.)

On 19 May 2015, the new minister introduced what MEC, in its Ninth Six-month Progress Report (25 February 2016), described as a simplified procedure for land distribution. AAN interviews with MEC and ministry officials suggest it is not yet clear how the new procedure will work and whether the minister himself still needs to rule on who is eligible and who is not in the early stage of the application. According to MEC’s monitoring and evaluation unit, 1,534 plots have been distributed based on the new procedure. Everyone is watching to see how the new procedure will pan out.

In the past, as the 2013 MEC report found, the lack of a systematic, computerised database in the ministry provided ample opportunity for forgery and corruption. There is now a database, although it is not yet fully functional – in particular, it is not yet connected to the provinces. However, there is still no streamlined bureaucratic procedure, a ‘one-stop-shop.’

The ministry has also established a legal committee to deal with the 3,500 doubly/triply distributed plots in Kabul province. According to the MEC, 800 cases have since then been resolved. The ministry has also referred several cases to the Attorney General’s Office in relation to the Kabul plots.

Balkhi made these important changes after June 2015 when the High Commission on Migration chaired by President Ghani himself was established. The commission, which brings together 17 different ministries and governmental institutions, held its first meeting on 22 June 2015.

The strong political pressure from the president on refugee and migration issues is related to their high international political profile. Pressure from the president also intensified in the run-up to a UNHCR meeting in Geneva in October 2015 (see here and here), at which aid for the refugees’ ministry was discussed. Both donors and the government had slashed the ministry’s budget earlier in the year. (7)

Solutions never explored and outlook for the future

After the passing of many years and the spending of billions of US dollars, Afghanistan still has huge numbers of returnees and IDPs who are landless. The fact that only a small portion of the millions who could have applied for the government’s land distribution scheme have done so hints at fundamental problems: either people lost hope and interest in the scheme, or the land offered (far from the cities, with not even basic services) was not attractive. A high number of landless returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan have clearly expressed a desire to be located near or in cities, but the government has never proposed public housing schemes which might have catered to them. Possibly, such solutions would have been seen as too ‘socialist’.

Both CEO Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani promised in their election campaigns to facilitate the return of refugees still living abroad. Part of that would have to be creating a system which helps those who have already come ‘home’. There is some sense that the government wants to clean up the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. The spotlight is now on the ministry to see if it can rescue its damaged reputation and start helping those it is supposed to serve.

(1) In 2001, the number of laws regulating land issues was rather complex: next to the constitution, more than 70 laws, edicts, decrees, orders and administrative decisions regulated the land rights. Currently, there are still over 30 different pieces of legislation. For more information on land management and land administration issues in the post-Bonn era see this detailed AREU study: Land, People, and the State in Afghanistan: 2002 – 2012; February 2013

See also the 2014 UNAMA report on the legal framework and the Norwegian Refugee Council’s A guide to property law in Afghanistan, Second Edition 2011.

(2) In Kabul, in 2009, the informal settlements (where settlers included poor people, urban migrants, returnees and IDPs) made up an estimated 69 per cent of the city’s residential area (from Sheila Reed and Connor Foley, Land and Property: Challenges and Opportunities for Returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan, unpublished report prepared for the Norwegian Refugee Council, June 2009).

(3) A permanent ownership deed is supposed to be given by the municipality after five years (article 13), while the beneficiary has to refrain from selling the land for ten years (article 11). The six stages of the whole process are: 1 submission of the application and identity check; 2 checking the proof of repatriation or internal displacement; 3 recording and registering, determining whether this is a deserving or non-deserving applicant; 4 payment and allocation of the land; 5 receiving a temporary deed, after completion of 30-40 per cent of the construction work; 6 receiving permanent ownership.

(4) Between December 2009 and June 2010, Karzai tried to complete his cabinet three times, but never managed to get approval for the full cabinet. In the end, six of the 25 ministries continued to be headed by acting ministers. See previous AAN reporting on this issue here,  here andhere.

(5) Anwary’s official biography also has him as the leader of the Turkmen Peace Council and a member of a leading delegation of carpet traders. He was a delegate for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga and, from 2006-10, the Director General for Pharmacy in the Ministry of Public Health.

(6) Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Abdullah Abdullah’s appointee, was approved by the Wolesi Jirga on 26 January 2015. He is a Shia Sayed from Balkh, a religious scholar and founder of one of the small jihadi parties that fought the Soviet occupation, was backed by Iran and formed Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami in 1989. He was elected as an MP in both the 2005 and 2010 elections and resigned in 2013 to run as vice president to Gul Agha Sherzai in the 2014 presidential elections (see AAN earlier dispatcheshere and here)

(7) The Afghan government slashed the discretionary development budget for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation from 1.2 million US dollars in 2014-15 to 250,000 in 2015-16, due to budgetary constraints and the ministry’s poor expenditure track record. The operational budget for the ministry for 2015-16 was 3 million US dollars. Additionally, aid funds had been on hold for most of 2015 (see, for example, SIGAR’s recommendations to the US government in its August 2015 report); it was concerned about the widespread corruption in the ministry during the last cabinet of the Karzai government.

The ministry’s 2016-17 operational budget is 3.9 US dollars. The development budget, both discretionary and non-discretionary, is 3.7 million US dollars.

AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 1 of 3: Motives for migration

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015)

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015), by Lenny Linke, May 8, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently traveled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this first instalment, AAN’s Lenny Linke takes a closer look at the reasons families gave for either sending or allowing their sons or brothers to leave for Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The second dispatch will focus on the details of the journey, the routes taken and practical preparations. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what has happened since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there.

The decision-making process

The demographic of the migrants in the sample was relatively young (all under 30) and predominantly male. (1) Many family members reported that it was their sons or brothers themselves who had initiated the discussion about going to Europe.

When my son told me he was thinking of going to Europe, I approved; we decided that if my son continued living in Afghanistan, there would not be an improvement in his or our current situation, so it was better for him to go to Europe… We all agreed and there was no reason to disagree. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

To be honest, we thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He himself brought up the issue of going to Europe. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this… (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

In several cases, family members, including wives and fiancées, were initially opposed to the migrants leaving, but several of the migrants subsequently persuaded their relatives to give their blessing and to support them, even if some were still reluctant.

…finally their father agreed to send them, because many times the boys had planned to leave without letting us know. Their father was compelled to send them with his blessings, rather than sending them off to deal with unreliable people. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old migrant from Kabul)

One migrant from Maidan Wardak, whose father was interviewed, had left without telling his family or talking about possibly leaving beforehand: “I was not at home when my son left for Europe… When he reached Turkey, he called and said he was in Turkey and would leave for Europe.”

In some cases, however, families remained antagonistic towards the idea of their relative going to Europe, even after son or brother had left. The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar said, “Well, we all opposed his leaving,” while the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand said “To leave was his personal decision after the economic crisis hit Afghanistan. His wife and children begged him not to leave.”

In other families, the decision to leave for Europe had been a joint decision, where family members had decided to send the migrants away or had urged them to go to Europe. In these cases, worsening security had often been the main, or at least an important, driver for leaving Afghanistan.

It was a family decision to send my brother abroad. We all agreed because we wanted him to live longer and to not die in the war… When security began to deteriorate, we started discussing whether he should go to Europe. We discussed this for a month, and after a month we decided he should go to Europe. We also talked about what he might do in Afghanistan if he didn’t go to Europe.  (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Due to the fact that his employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz).

In fact, we had never thought about such words as ‘going to Europe’ nor did my brother evoke them. In the end, though, we said, “Where should he go?” We thought, “Should he go to Pakistan or Iran?” The media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away…. All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he made it … We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

It was decided by my family that I should leave after I received threatening letters from the Taleban because of my work with NGOs and also because I had worked for the US forces as a translator and project facilitator in rural Kandahar… My mother, my sisters and my wife were the driving force for me and also my brother leaving for Germany, as there was an imminent threat against the entire family as long as we stayed in Kandahar. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar, who was interviewed in Kabul after he was forcibly returned)

In several cases, where deteriorating security had been a main concern, there was a longer period of contemplating going ‘somewhere.’ For example, the brother of the migrant from Herat said:

He [the migrant] was feeling unsafe. I said “You can come to Kabul.” He said “Even there, they will reach me.”… He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. He had been thinking for a while and talking about what he should do. For a long time, I tried to persuade him to stay, but in the end, as the threats against him increased, he said, “I have to go.”

While most migrants travel alone, some leaving wives and children behind, there was one case where a whole family left together.

It’s very difficult [for a father] to keep a family in Herat, both financially and morally, when you are not there. He decided that if they would face any difficulties, they would face them together. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Motivations for leaving

People’s motivations for going to Europe, as reflected in the twelve interviews, were often a combination of frustration felt over the lack of jobs and/or educational opportunities as well as concerns over the deteriorating security situation. Even in cases where the lack of opportunities for employment and education were mentioned as the primary reason for migration, these were usually followed by explicit and implicit references to the security situation. None of the respondents cited the lack of opportunity as the exclusive reason for leaving.

What also emerged from the interviews was that in at least four cases, migrants had either come under threat because of their past employment and/or could no longer find or take on work due to direct insurgent threats or the fear of being exposed to insecurity because of their work.

A lack of economic and educational opportunities

Many of the migrants’ relatives mentioned the lack of economic and educational opportunities as an important factor in the decision to leave. Several of the migrants had just finished high school or university and were unable to find employment or to continue their education.

His main motivation [for leaving] was his failure to get into university. If he had succeeded in the exam, other factors wouldn’t have played an important role. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

…we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant fom Kunduz)

[Advice I gave to my brother:]…you are a medical student in the 6thsemester and you can’t finish your education here, [but] you can keep your education up there. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

When my son finished high school, we thought since there are no jobs and the situation is getting worse day by day, it would be good if he went to Europe, where he could find a good job and have a good future. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

When the boys were studying in school, I could not afford to send them to a private school for better quality education. … My husband is disabled and I am the only breadwinner in the family. Due to financial and family problems, my eldest son could not continue his education. He studied until the 8th grade and then started to work and earn money for the family. … He was working during the day and therefore could not go to regular school. I managed to find a job and my eldest son returned to school. He went to evening school so that he could continue working during the day as well. He was looking for a better paid job but could not find one… (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He said he had studied for almost 18 years, but could not find a job and nobody would hire him. He thought it would be better for him to go to Europe and maybe try to find a job there. It seemed a relatively new decision to leave, which he made after he had sent his CV off to several organisations and not received any positive responses. He only seemed to have decided to leave once his frustration in Afghanistan became too much. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

He was jobless and it was difficult to feed 15 people with the money he earned as a bus conductor. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The main motive was economic. Because his work situation [ability to find a well-paying job] had not been good in recent years, he thought it would be better to leave Afghanistan. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Everyone agreed that because of our family’s bad economic situation there was nothing to do about it except send him away. (Brother of migrant from Takhar)

In one case, the mother of an 18-year old migrant explained that while the general lack of income opportunities had been one factor, the need to earn money in order to get married had also featured in her son’s decision to leave:

Her father asked for 240,000 Afghanis [just over €3,000] as the bride price but my eldest son could not earn that money in Afghanistan and get married quickly. (Mother of two migrants from Kabul) 

Others who did not cite the lack of economic or education opportunities as a primary factor for leaving often brought it up as a secondary factor behind the more dominant security considerations.

The second most important reason was his future, his education and the financial support [he could give] to the family. We wanted him to live in a peaceful place, pursue his education and help his family in Afghanistan.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant form Baghlan)

But there were also migrants for whom life in terms of economic opportunities and professional satisfaction had been good and who, according to their families, would have been better off staying in Afghanistan—had that been possible.

There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. For traditional people, people who have jobs, journalists with credibility in this country, who have a salary, [for them] life is good. But then, when it comes to safety, there is no choice… If there had not been any threats, he would have stayed…For an Afghan man, this might be the biggest adventure he can have: having a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Security threats

About half of all interviewees stated that their family members had gone to Europe because of reasons related, at least in part, to security. While some seemed mainly threatened by the overall deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and did not have any direct exposure to threats or violence, others left because of direct threats or exposure to violence, as experienced by themselves or their immediate family members.

He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. … With no clear idea of the future and of what might happen in Herat – he thought there was no better future in Herat because of the increasing threats and the insurgency in the western region. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

My brother began talking about [leaving], but we did not agree with him. When security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. …The deteriorating security situation was the main reason for my family finally agreeing to send my brother to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

As he’d worked as an interpreter for two weeks, the insurgents told him that because he had been an interpreter for the Americans, he had become an infidel. He could neither come to Sar-e Pul, nor go anywhere else. He was just stuck in Mazar, trapped. As security got worse each day, the obstacles he faced amplified. If he had stayed here, he might have been killed. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Interestingly, while some respondents initially only mentioned the lack of economic opportunities as a primary motive for leaving, during the course of the interview it often became apparent that the migrant of the family had in the past been directly exposed to traumatic events. Even though these events were not given as a reason to leave, they did seem to have contributed to the overall decision.

One day (in late 2014) we had gone for a feast in Logar with relatives there. A boy’s car was attacked; he was taken out of his car and dragged along behind a motorbike. Someone had told the insurgents that the boy was working in a government office. At the time, we were close to where the incident took place. After that incident, we were more frightened. Also, when the explosion happened in the Police Academy [in August 2015], the boys were on their way to Qargha Lake [just west of Kabul]. At the time of the explosion, the boys were in the car in the area and witnessed the incident. They saw the dead bodies of police lying on the ground. After the incident, for three nights, my boys could not sleep. (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

Another reason behind his decision was security. We are from Maidan Wardak, the situation there has not been good and so we chose to move to Kabul. My brother could not go back to Maidan Wardak either, as security there is still bad. People told him that as he was an engineer, it was not good for him to go to Maidan Wardak because the insurgents would try to kill him…. He didn’t feel safe even in Kabul, because once when my father went to the mosque in Kabul, someone threw a hand grenade at him. It only injured him and did not kill him, but this had a bad effect on my brother. He had never previously had any thoughts about going to Europe, but the situation got very bad in Karzai’s final years and it is even worse under the new government. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Beyond direct threats, the deteriorating security situation has clearly been concerning enough, or has affected people’s lives enough to warrant sending a family member abroad. Sometimes even rumours were all it took to make the decision.

…there were rumours that, if there are two young men in a family, the Taleban would take one as a fighter – that’s how we came to the decision.(Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

The insecurity and lack of income/educational opportunities nexus

The lack of security and economic and educational opportunities were the two main reasons given by the respondents for why family members left. But some interviewees clearly struggled to just name one, or to determine which one had been the most important.

 He left because of insecurity and joblessness… at the same time, we see the security situation getting worse and worse. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

Several interviewees highlighted the connection between declining security and rising economic pressures on migrants’ families.

Well, in a way the worsening economic situation is an outcome of the bad security situation. He would say that [even] if we were rich in Afghanistan, we would be threatened and if we were poor, again we would be in a bad condition. He was also threatened by insurgents because he used to work with international organisations. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the interviews, it is apparent that because of their jobs, migrants faced increasing insecurity and threats. In some scenarios, these threats forced migrants to give up their employment or prevented them from seeking new jobs.

My brother was an intelligent guy, he was top of his class throughout high school. He completed a two-year English course and learnt English fluently. Later, he applied for a job as an interpreter in Sar-e Pul. The US forces sent him to Mazar and then they [the US forces] wanted him to work in Helmand province, but because of the risk my father told him not to take the job and never go to Helmand or to other places. Hence, after two weeks working as an interpreter in Mazar, he didn’t go back to work. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

 Being associated with certain activities deemed as inappropriate by the insurgency, for example, put people at risk:

…he was working as a driver and taking female colleagues home from the office … we thought it was becoming more dangerous for him. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

His wife is a teacher and a social activist; he would take his wife to participate in programs organised by these international organisations. People thought badly of him because of this. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

A specific scenario cited by several interviewees concerned the possible recruitment of their sons or brothers into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Without prospects for other jobs or further education, some migrants said they had intended to join the ANSF as a last resort, which caused their families to fear for their security to the extent that they considered it safer to send them to Europe.

My older son had initially said he would join the national army. If he could not find any other job, then he would join the army. His father was frightened about the prospects of him joining the police or the army as the war was going on and he would be sent somewhere to the battleground.(Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

My brother was not happy here because he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA). We did not want him to join the ANA because he would be killed if he joined.(Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

Possible recruitment by the Taleban of unemployed youth was also a concern.

The Taliban were recruiting young men in the area to fight the Afghan government forces. We were afraid they might hire my brother. My brother was young and unemployed, so we feared he might make the wrong decisions. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Sometimes even just the danger of travelling to and from the workplace was cited as an issue of concern. This was either due to not being able to safely access employment or the constant risk that a person is exposed to when leaving the house.

He did not have a good job here and could not go to Dai Mirdad [a district in the south of Wardak province] freely. On the way to Maidan Wardak, anything could happen to him. … He used to say “you [the entire family] are all at home and safe there. I have to deal with the risks and dangers because I have to earn money.” (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The primary motivation was to escape revenge killings and Taleban threats, the secondary motivation was to be able to find a good job, one which we could take on without feeling threatened. My brother and I could not have gone outside the house to find work anywhere in Kandahar because we were afraid of the Taleban and of revenge attacks – we stayed at home, borrowing money from others, relying on our extended family to provide for us as we dared not leave or have any routine, or take a public job, for fear of being discovered and killed. … Even in Kabul or Pakistan, I would not have been safe. I wanted to break the cycle of violence so as to not endanger my own family – the only way to do this was to leave the country. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

‘Pull’ factors

 In addition to the ‘push’ factors related to insecurity and the lack of income and education, about a third of the respondents mentioned that the final decision to leave had been influenced by the actions of others who had already gone to Europe. These interactions seem to have either contributed to the final decision, or appeared to have helped families justify their consent to the migrant leaving once the decision had been taken.

It was not long after we saw other people from the neighbourhood leaving that we decided that our son should also go. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

My younger son’s friends from our neighbourhood – there were three of them, one is 20 years old and the other two are also minors – left for Germany. He was in contact with them via Facebook. (Mother of two young migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He decided to go because my niece, who was already in Europe, kept asking him to come to Europe. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

From my own family, my younger brother left for Europe. After he left, one of my paternal cousins and three of my maternal cousins left as well.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

He said he wanted to leave and take the risk, just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the twelve interviews conducted with families of migrants, a picture has emerged of families either struggling to decide whether to send a family member, or scrambling to come to terms with the decisions already made by their relatives, usually sons or brothers. With regards to the motivation for the journey to Europe, although the majority of the respondents mentioned economic and/or educational opportunities as a main contributing factor, it was clear that in almost all cases declining security had also been a significant (primary or contributing) factor. In some cases where insecurity and threats had been a primary concern, the subsequent negative impact on the families’ income opportunities appeared to have become the final push in the decision to leave.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system, where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister). 


AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: What the future holds for Afghan

Afghanistan-womenAl Jazeera speaks to Noorjahan Akbar, a human rights activist, about the immense challenges facing Afghan women, By Liz Guch, 5/26/16

Afghanistan’s women have made significant gains in recent years, with more girls attending school and more women working outside the home.

But fear still overshadows the lives of many.

A resurgent Taliban recently provoked outrage by publicly executing two women, but as this 101 East documentary shows, the greatest threat many women face comes from loved ones at home.

Activist Noorjahan Akbar talks about the challenges in overcoming conservative attitudes in the face of rising “anti-woman propaganda”.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Noorjahan Akbar: Like the current state of the country, the current state of Afghan women is tumultuous and unstable. While – since the US-led intervention – Afghan women have made a considerable amount of progress, with [today’s] increased insecurity, economic inequality, and radicalism, we are afraid that our accomplishments will be threatened, and the few civil rights and individual freedoms we have will be taken away from us.

Since 2009, the number of Afghan women working has increased, but a large number of female activists and journalists have left the country due to fear of violence.

When I talk about the threat of violence, I don’t just mean the Taliban – even though they are largely responsible for targeting and killing female teachers, police officers, journalists, and activists.

On a daily basis, Afghan women face harassment in public spaces. In fact, nine out of 10 women say they have faced harassment at some point on the way to work or school, and out of those, 14 percent say they stopped going to school because of it. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have faced verbal, sexual or physical violence at home.

The vast majority of cases of violence against women, even the public targeted assassinations, are not met with any legal consequences.

Despite all this, Afghan women are teachers, ministers, parliamentarians, musicians, writers, journalists, photographers, vaccinators and more, and we are working hard to make things better for ourselves and the country.

But in order for us to really participate in rebuilding Afghanistan, our security should be a priority for our government. When our bodies are fair game, when it is always open season on women, when we are fearful of losing our lives on a daily basis, how can we move the country forward?

Al Jazeera: The Taliban recently publicly executed two women – one of them in an apparent honour killing – in northern Afghanistan, according to news reports. Are you concerned that this could signal a downward spiral for Afghan women?

Akbar: The harsh reality is that even though this case caught the eye of the international press, these ‘honour’ killings are not out of the ordinary. Whether by the Taliban or family members, Afghan women are killed regularly for the simple fact of being born female or choosing their own husbands. However, what these specific public executions tell me is that the rule of law has further deteriorated in Afghanistan and that is not good for anyone.

Al Jazeera: Many Afghan women suffer domestic violence at the hands of their family. How difficult is it to change attitudes towards women?

Akbar: It is extremely difficult to change attitudes towards women and decrease gender-based violence anywhere in the world, but in Afghanistan it is hard also because radicalism, Talibanism and gender-based violence at home are all related and perpetuate one another.

Especially in the last few years, there has been an increase in radical anti-woman propaganda in the big cities. Local mosques that were once moderate and somewhat accepting of women’s rights, now spend entire sermons on how women shouldn’t be allowed to work, study, or even speak in public.

In addition to using public executions to make a show of women’s punishment and terrorise women into silence and into the margins, today’s radicals use televisions, social media, sermons, and even schools to perpetuate and sanctify violence.

Al Jazeera: Impressive gains have been made in the number of girls attending school in Afghanistan. Is there a danger that these rights could be eroded?

Akbar: Yes, and we are seeing the erosion right now. In 2014, 163 schools were attacked in Afghanistan.

The majority of these schools were girls’ schools. This year, these attacks have increased. In January, a girls’ school was torched in Kabul – something that hasn’t happened in the capital city since the Taliban took power in 1996.

In February, the Ministry of Education said 700 schools were closed due to insecurity depriving thousands of girls and boys of an education. Just this week, 20 school girls were poisoned in Ghor province.

These attacks are terrifying, not just for those who have faced the violence themselves, but for the country as a whole.

Al Jazeera: International organisations have raised concerns that women’s rights activists are being deliberately targeted. How difficult is it for activists to stand up and demand change?

Akbar: I don’t know any human rights activist working for gender equality who feels safe in Afghanistan.

We have seen our sisters killed and asked for justice only to be threatened and sidelined more. We have called for the prosecution of those who killed Malalai Kakar, Hanifa Safi, Safia Ahmed Jan, Zakia Zaki and many more journalists and activists killed for being outspoken women and we have been told to shut up.

We are told on a daily basis that we shouldn’t talk about the issues we face, the rape threats we get, the violence women around us face because it will bring shame to our country.

The reality is that the fact that these injustices exist is a matter of shame – not people demanding an end for it.

Al Jazeera: Afghan women still face numerous challenges in their daily lives. Are you optimistic about the future? 

Akbar: Yes. I am optimistic because I see the passion with which young women are working for change inside the country and because I know that despite the heartache, the threats and the disappointments this fight are worth it.

Being pessimistic will not help us. It will only discourage us from working. I prefer not giving up. Afghanistan belongs to me and my peers as much as it belongs to the radicals advocating for violence, and we will not surrender the country to them – not without a fight at least.

@liz_gooch, Liz Gooch is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.

Click here to watch the 101 East documentary, “Afghanistan: No Country for Women”.


AFGHANISTAN-Chinese role in #Afghanistan #Pakistan relationship –

FILE - Afghan Taliban fighters are shown Nov. 3, 2015. The U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban.

FILE – Afghan Taliban fighters are shown Nov. 3, 2015. The U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban.

When Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took over in late 2014 and talk of peace and reconciliation with the Taliban gained momentum, skeptics derived hope from China’s newfound interest in the process.

China could succeed, many thought, where the United States had failed — in convincing Pakistan to change its behavior toward the Afghan Taliban. Both the U.S. and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of providing a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan has so far resisted any pressure.

At the heart of Chinese interest in stability in Afghanistan are two major factors. One is fear that religious militancy in Afghanistan will further fuel Islamist insurgency in China’s own Xinjiang province bordering Afghanistan. Militants from the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang have occasionally received support and training in Afghanistan.

The second is hope of extending the One Belt, One Road initiative through the region to Central Asia.

The initiative is an effort by China to build a network of overland road and rail routes, oil and gas pipelines, and other infrastructure projects spanning from West China through Central Asia to Europe while simultaneously developing ports and coastal infrastructure through South and Southeast Asia all the way to the Mediterranean.

What China can do

It may be difficult to precisely measure the kind of influence China can exercise, according to Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based political analyst.

FILE – Delegations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States of America and China discuss a road map for ending the war with the Taliban at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jan. 18, 2016.

The conflicts between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he said, are so inherent that China cannot force them to change. All it can do is encourage the two rivals to downplay them.

China is a new player at this table. For the first 15 years of the war in Afghanistan, it stayed out of security arena, focusing more on economic interests. Now its economic interests have become intertwined with regional security. So it has joined the game, but is still in the learning stage.

China is more likely to watch and wait rather than act prematurely, according to Kabul-based analyst Hamed Sabori.

Still, Khalid Mahmood, one of Pakistan’s former ambassadors to China, thinks the country is ideally placed to play the role of mediator between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“[China] commanded respect in Afghanistan, had good ties to Pakistan, and regional stability was in its own interest,” according to Mahmood.

China initiated contacts with the Taliban and eventually agreed to become part of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), set up to help facilitate reconciliation talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Diminished enthusiasm

The initial U.S.-Afghan euphoria with Chinese involvement has slightly worn off.

The QCG failed to lead to a decrease in violence in Afghanistan. Both Afghans and Americans realized that China would not pressure Pakistan beyond a certain point. With the killing of Taliban leader Mullah Mansoor and the election of new leader Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, chances of peace talks this year are grimmer than ever.

FILE – Pakistani local residents gather around a burning vehicle hit by a U.S. drone strike, May 21, 2016. Afghan Taliban Mullah Akhtar Mansoor was the target of the drone near Dalbandin, Baluchistan, Pakistan.

“I don’t believe that we will see peace talks anytime in the short term,” said Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, deputy chief of staff for communications for Operation Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Analyst Rizvi thinks the Chinese approach has been more measured because it recognizes the limits of Pakistan’s capacity to influence the Afghan Taliban.

Plus, China has a strong alliance with Pakistan, made even stronger by the U.S. courting of Pakistan’s rival India as a regional counterweight to China.

“They [the U.S.] have clearly stated which side they are on, which country they want to raise as [a] counterweight to China … which has implications for Pakistan also,” Mahmood said.

In the eyes of many Pakistanis, including many in the civilian and military leadership of the country, the U.S. does not care about Pakistan’s interests and does not keep in mind its sensibilities when dealing with the region. Mahmood said that drives the country more toward China, which is viewed as a tried and tested friend.

Still hopeful

Nonetheless, China sees stability in the region as being in its own long-term interest. Shahmahmood Miakhel, the country head for the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace, said China has made significant investments in Afghanistan, particularly in the mining sector. These are not short- or medium-term investments, he added, but long-term ones that require a secure regional environment.

Which was why Afghanistan is still pinning its hopes on China.

“China has to work with Pakistan on how to cooperate with Afghanistan,” Miakhel said.

China, Sabori said, is waiting to see how the U.S. and other major players are going to act. Still, it is aware of the danger of continued long-term instability.

“Terrorism is not something that can be confined to a border, so it will finally, at some time, penetrate their border and it will become a major issue for China,” he said.

ISLAMABAD –,  Ayesha Tanzeem, June 02, 2016 5:30 PM

AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan’s Growing Unrest: Implications for India’s Security, By Akanksha Narain, May 26, 2016, 4 min read, original

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to halt the further withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and instead send additional advisers to assist the deployed forces underscores the deteriorating security situation. His decision comes after high casualties among the Afghanistan National Security Forces in combat operations, coupled with the resurgence of Taliban and a fast-evolving threat environment in the region.

Afghanistan is a place where post-war engagement will prove to be a more crucial battleground than the war itself. India cannot be a spectator as chaos ensues in Afghanistan, for it will not be safe from the spillover. Hence, it is imperative for Indian to assist Afghanistan in building sound political structures, a strong military and economy, along with human resources. It cannot afford to let Afghanistan slide back to the days of Taliban rule after 15 years of Western intervention. Against this backdrop, India’s push for Afghanistan to be included in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), in 2005, was a smart move, given close links between peace in Afghanistan and regional security.

The Threat to India’s Security in Afghanistan

India’s apprehensions about Afghanistan’s instability are primarily driven by its own pragmatic security concerns. On March 2, 2016, the Indian consulate in the city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan was attacked, leaving nine dead and many more injured in the fourth attack on the Indian consulate in the city. Earlier this year, the Indian mission in Mazar-e-Sharif saw a 25-hour long shootout between the terrorists and the security forces.

An unstable backyard is not only pernicious to India’s larger strategic interests abroad and future goals but can also impact its internal security. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989, jihadists moved to new conflict zones, including Kashmir. Following 9/11, Pakistani militant groups moved to Afghanistan to fight against the Western coalition; after the withdrawal of ISAF forces from Afghanistan, it is highly likely that they could focus their attention back on Kashmir. Groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) might increase their activities in Indian Kashmir, which saw a steady decline in cross-border terrorism over the past decade. This is further intensified by the spike in the number of young Kashmiris joining militant groups over the past year. Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s route to militancy is a case in point. The 21-year-old commander of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM), described by the locals as the “Robin Hood of Kashmir,” is among the new generation of Kashmiri militants.

The emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group’s local franchise, IS-Khurasan, and al-Qaeda’s South Asian affiliate, AQIS, has further complicated the regional threat environment. Presently, the two militant rivals are currently locked in a furious competition for influence among the local jihadist groups and monopoly over the illegal drug trade. InDabiq, Islamic States’ flagship monthly magazine, the group has clearly mentioned its intention of expanding its presence in Khurasan, which includes India, though the presence of traditional groups like the Taliban and geopolitical conflicts in the Af-Pak region and Kashmir lessen Islamic States’ traction. Similarly, though AQIS has not carried out any significant terrorist attack since its creation in September 2014, it has been reported to be building deep terror networks in South Asia.

Securing India’s Strategic Interests

If history is anything to go by, Afghanistan has served as springboard not only for al-Qaeda and the Taliban but also for Kashmir-focused terrorist groups. The re-emergence of al-Qaeda’s camp and the presence of Kashmiri militant groups in Afghanistan could be detrimental to Indian regional security and economic interests. During the 1990s, al-Qaeda and the Kashmiri militants worked hand-in-glove with each other in Afghanistan. The hijacking and diverting of an Indian plane by HUM in 1999 to Kandahar, then under the Taliban rule, secured the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, who later founded JeM.

In order to mitigate the threat from an unstable backyard, India has employed a “soft-power” approach in Afghanistan. Its aid, estimated at $1.5 trillion, and development projects are an attempt to strengthen a war-ravaged young democracy, thereby attempting to reduce the vacuum which may allow the Taliban and other groups to emerge.

Another aspect of India’s interest in Afghanistan relates to its need to reduce Pakistani influence in the region. India should contain and balance Pakistan’s influence, which may otherwise hamper Indian interests. Afghanistan has been the battleground for an India-Pakistan proxy war since 2001. New Delhi needs Kabul to get a better view of Islamabad and hence it is pertinent that it fosters positive relations. This relationship can only blossom if Afghanistan is stable and strong.

The threat, however, is not just to Indian embassies and consulates but also to New Delhi’s economic interests in the country. In 2011, a consortium of six Indian companies was awarded mining rights in the Hajigak area. However, after a debate over reducing their initial plan of investing $11 billion to $1 billion, the consortium eventually decided to pull out. The increasing flux in the region was one of the contributing factors behind this significant decision.

The mounting fears in the country are not only an impediment to Indian companies’ ability to tap into Afghanistan’s mineral resources, estimated at $1 trillion, but can prove to be detrimental to ever-growing Indian energy demands. The proposed gas pipeline project TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India), which seeks to connect an energy-rich Central to South Asia, will only see the light of the day if stability is established in Afghanistan

It is important to note that Afghanistan not only serves security and economic interests but is also closely tied to India’s vision of being a regional leader and a great power, coupled with its competition with China over resources and its need to counter Pakistani influence. India’s ability to mentor a nascent democracy will go a long way to demonstrate to the world that India is indeed a major power, especially a responsible one. However, this vision can only be materialized if Afghanistan does not descend into a state of chaos and conflict.

The Way Forward

India’s civilian-centric policies, be they the construction of the Salma Dam project or offering annual scholarships to Afghan students, will only bear fruit if India ensures that events do not unfold the way they did after the Soviet pull-out from the country. It is India’s pragmatism that drives its decision not to put boots on the ground and instead invest in constructing the new Parliament building in Kabul and gifting a 97-foot high Afghan flag to in order to cement their friendship.

India, however, needs to enhance its current assistance to Afghanistan given the growing security challenges and economic difficulties. Suffering huge losses from a resurgent Taliban, especially now that the group has grown stronger and expanded territorially, Afghanistan has asked India to provide military supplies. In response to Kabul’s military and economic demands India needs to take a tough decision – how is the regional superpower going to address the burgeoning threat in Afghanistan while keeping in mind its own strategic interests?

Akanksha Narain is a Research Analyst with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 


AFGHANISTAN: Time to Put the Squeeze on Pakistan, by The Editorial Board, May 12, 2016, 2 min read, original
Afghan security forces in the Daykundi province on Wednesday.

Nearly 15 years after 9/11, the war in Afghanistan is raging and Pakistan deserves much of the blame. It remains a duplicitous and dangerous partner for the United States and Afghanistan, despite $33 billion in American aid and repeated attempts to reset relations on a more constructive course.

In coming weeks, Gen. John Nicholson Jr., the new American commander in Afghanistan, will present his assessment of the war. It’s likely to be bleak and may question the wisdom of President Obama’s goal of cutting the American force of 10,000 troops to 5,500 by the end of the year. The truth is, regardless of troop levels, the only hope for long-term peace is negotiations with some factions of the Taliban. The key to that is Pakistan.

Pakistan’s powerful army and intelligence services have for years given support to the Taliban and the Haqqani terrorist network and relied on them to protect Pakistani interests in Afghanistan and prevent India from increasing its influence there. Under American pressure, the Pakistan Army recently waged a military campaign against the Taliban in the ungoverned border region. But the Haqqanis still operate in relative safety in Pakistan. Some experts say the army has helped engineer the integration of the Haqqanis into the Taliban leadership.

Pakistan’s double game has long frustrated American officials, and it has grown worse. There are now efforts in Washington to exert more pressure on the Pakistan Army. Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has wisely barred the use of American aid to underwrite Pakistan’s purchase of eight F-16 jet fighters. Pakistan will still be allowed to purchase the planes, but at a cost of $700 million instead of about $380 million.

Mr. Corker told The Times he would lift the hold on the aid if Pakistan cracks down on the Haqqani network, which he called the “No. 1 threat” to Afghanistan and American troops there.

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan is also getting tougher with Pakistan’s leaders. He courted Pakistan for more than a year in the hopes that the army would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. But the surge in violence forced him to effectively end negotiations. Last month, he threatened to lodge a complaint with the United Nations Security Council if Pakistan refuses to take military action against Taliban leaders on its soil.

While such pressure makes sense, severing ties as the United States did in the 1990s after Pakistan developed a nuclear weapon is unwise. The two countries still share intelligence, and Pakistan allows American drones to target militant leaders in the border region. Given that Pakistan has the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal, America needs to be able to maintain a dialogue and help Pakistan keep the weapons out of the hands of extremists.

Last year, more Afghan civilians and troops were killed than in any other year since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. Since taking office in 2014, Mr. Ghani has been a more reliable leader than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. But his unity government is crippled by political infighting, endemic corruption, a budget crunch and an unsustainable troop casualty rate.

That grim reality presents difficult choices for Mr. Obama, who must decide whether to keep the current troop strength and possibly to change the military’s role to fight the Taliban more directly.

President Obama declared, with undue optimism, more than 16 months ago that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” It will be left to his successor to figure out how and whether the Taliban can be lured into political negotiations. That will only happen if the American government finds a way to convince Pakistan to stop fueling the war.


AFGHANISTAN/ON THE MEDIA: Threatened with death for working on TV


AFGHANISTAN: As Afghan war escalates, schools forced to close

Afghanistan School Security

FILE — In this Jan. 13, 2016 file photo, an Afghan teacher, in brown, helps school children run from the site of clashes near the Pakistan consulate in Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. One of Afghanistan’s proudest achievements has been getting millions of children, especially girls, back into school since the toppling of the Taliban, but that gain is crumbling across the south and in other war-torn parts of the country. Hundreds of schools have been forced to shut down because of fighting or Taliban intimidation. (AP Photos/Mohammad Anwar Danishyar, File)

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — One of Afghanistan’s proudest achievements has been getting millions of children, especially girls, back into school since the toppling of the Taliban. But that success is crumbling across the south and in other battleground areas of the country, where hundreds of schools have been forced to shut down.

Sometimes the cause is fighting, sometimes it’s intimidation from the Taliban.

Sometimes it’s both, as in the case of the Loy Manda high school in southern Helmand province, part of the Taliban heartland. When the Taliban waged an offensive last winter, the school in the Nad Ali district was caught in the fighting between the militants and Afghan government forces.

“We had six rooms, books, chairs, but now everything is destroyed,” said Hekmatallah, the headmaster, who like some Afghans goes by one name.

He’s working toward reopening, but he had to get permission from the Taliban or else face their retaliation. They said they would allow it, if only boys attend — no girls — and if they are only taught a curriculum meeting the Taliban’s hard-line version of Islam. Taliban mines from the time of the fighting still surround the school, and government forces are stationed just 40 yards (meters) from the school — a potential target for extremist attack.

Between the damage and the danger, none of the school’s 650 students can attend.

That’s the fate for an increasing number of children in the battlezone regions of Afghanistan. In 2015, 615 schools in the country’s 11 most volatile provinces had to close because of violence, according to the Education Ministry. That was on top of the around 600 schools that remained shut down from the year before in those areas.

Almost half the 2015’s school closures were in the final months of the year as the Taliban did not take their customary winter break. Violence escalated across the warmer southern provinces, which were the hardest hit by closures, ministry’s spokesman Mujib Mehrdad said. Last year, 105 of Helmand’s 545 schools shut down, and in neighboring Kandahar, the figure was 150 of 545 schools The heaviest closures were in nearby Zabul, where more half the province’s schools — 140 out of 242 schools — shut their doors.

The United Nations counted 25 students, teachers and other school staff killed in Taliban attacks or crossfire in 2015. In eastern Nangarhar province, the Islamic State group seized control of several districts near the border with Pakistan and terrorized women and girls, banning them from school and work, and in some case forcing them into marriage, according to residents who fled the area.

But extremists’ ideological hatred of the schools and girls’ education is not the only cause of school shutdowns. Human Rights Watch, the New York-based monitoring group, says the Afghan military continues to deploy weaponry in or around schools in battleground areas and uses them as fixed firing positions, even after President Ashraf Ghani banned the use of schools as military bases last year.

That puts children at “grave risk of attack by insurgents who then see schools as military targets,” HRW’s Afghanistan researcher Ahmad Shuja said.

During their time ruling Afghanistan in the 1990s until their overthrow in the 2011 U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban banned girls from school and mandated that boys learn the Quran by rote. Once they fell from power, schools and universities welcomed women back as teachers and students. With funding from the international community the number of children in school grew from 900,000 in 2001 to 8.3 million in 2011, according to figures from the U.N. assistance mission to Afghanistan. UNAMA says girls account for 39 percent of the total — up from near zero under the Taliban.

But in districts where the Taliban have regained control or have enough power to intimidate residents, they have returned to barring girls from the classroom and dictating curriculum for the boys.

In Helmand, where the Taliban control smuggling routes for drugs and other contraband, heavy fighting in recent months has put a number of schools like Loy Manda on the front line of the war, said the head of the provincial education department, Abdul Matin Jafar. In Gereshk district, he said, the education department building was attacked by insurgents, “was completely destroyed and now we have no office there to operate from.”

Mohammad Mosa took his children out of their school in Nad Ali soon after the fighting started, and sent them to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, not just for their safety but to ensure a well-rounded education. The Taliban had told parents in the district that they could re-open the school on condition they hire one of the militants to ensure that only Islamic subjects were taught, he said.

“Our kids were terrified of going to school as both sides are firing rockets, destroying our neighborhood,” Mosa said.

Even temporary school closures result in lower attendances, particularly by girls, once classes resume. In the northern city of Kunduz, which was besieged by the Taliban in October, at least three schools were commandeered by the armed forces for use as bases. False reports were carried by the local Tolo television station that Taliban had entered a Kunduz University women’s dormitory and raped residents during their assault on the city in September. As a result, fewer women returned to their studies once the city was cleared of insurgents, the school’s dean Abdul Qudus Zarifi said.

The HRW report said that girls “often bear the brunt of these disruptions because parents are wary of sending daughters to schools occupied by armed men.”


AFGHANISTAN: Interview- Don’t let Afghanistan become forgotten crisis – Red Cross official

By: Emma Batha           22 Apr 2016          Reuters 

Afghan men clear the rubble of their damaged house after yesterday's suicide car bomb attack on a government security building in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Afghan men clear the rubble of their damaged house after yesterday’s suicide car bomb attack on a government security building in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

LONDON, April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The world must not let Afghanistan become a forgotten crisis, a senior Red Cross official said on Friday as he warned of spiralling violence, donor fatigue and a worrying “brain drain” of educated professionals.

“The international community must keep their attention on Afghanistan. It’s far from being over. It’s not the time to switch off,” said Jean-Nicolas Marti, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Afghanistan.

He warned that violence – which is at levels not seen since 2001 – would likely escalate in the coming year.

“The security situation has really deteriorated … and my prediction is a further deterioration,” Marti said. “Potentially the 18 months ahead of us will be much tougher.”

Marti is meeting government officials in European capitals and Washington to press for greater political, financial and humanitarian support.

“The message is (we need) to make sure that Afghanistan doesn’t become a forgotten or ignored conflict,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in London.

Marti was speaking just days after a suicide attack in Kabul killed 64 people and injured hundreds more in the deadliest single incident of its kind in the capital since 2011.

The Taliban, which claimed responsibility, is believed to be stronger than at any point since it was ousted by U.S.-backed forces in 2001. Fighters loyal to Islamic State have also emerged in pockets of the country.

Marti said the ICRC had evacuated 600 war-wounded in the first three months of the year – a high number given that fighting usually tails off in winter when mountain passes are snowed in.

“It … demonstrates that the fighting season is going to be tough this year and the humanitarian response needs to be up to it,” he said.

The Taliban, which wants to drive Afghanistan’s Western-backed government from power, announced the start of their spring offensive on April 12.


The ICRC said it was particularly alarmed by the rising number of civilian casualties which hit a record high for the seventh successive year in 2015, with over 11,000 non-combatants killed or injured.

Attacks against medical facilities and staff have also risen 50 percent in the last year, making it more difficult for civilians to access healthcare.

Marti said the ICRC was launching a flying surgical team which will tour hospitals in provincial capitals around Afghanistan, training medical staff to respond to emergencies.

An estimated one million people are displaced within Afghanistan and others have fled abroad. Afghans are the second largest group of refugees and migrants arriving in Europe behind Syrians.

Marti warned of a “brain drain” as middle class professionals pack their bags in an exodus which could have serious implications for the country.

“What makes me pretty worried about the future of this country is that I know Afghans … who were here 10 years ago hoping to create a future for Afghanistan and who are now picking up their belongings and fleeing to Europe or to Canada.

“(This) illustrates for me that they are losing hope for the future of this country.”

Afghanistan is suffering from donor fatigue, partly because international attention was focused on Syria and Iraq, he said.

“We’ve seen a decrease in general interest for Afghanistan, but the situation is actually getting worse. It’s dangerous.”

(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit to see more stories.)


AFGHANISTAN: Afghan teenager braves threats, family pressure to lead women’s orchestra

 Mon, 18 Apr 2016  By: Mirwais Harooni  Reuters

Mina Salarzai, a member of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practises at Afghanistan's National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

Mina Salarzai, a member of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, practises at Afghanistan’s National Institute of Music, in Kabul, Afghanistan April 9, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

KABUL, April 18 (Reuters) – Like many teenagers, 19-year-old Negin Khpalwak from Kunar in eastern Afghanistan loves music, but few people of her age have battled as fiercely to pursue their passion in the face of family hostility and threats.

Playing instruments was banned outright during the period of Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and even today, many conservative Muslims frown on most forms of music.

Negin took her first steps learning music in secret, before eventually revealing her activity to her father. He encouraged her, but the reaction from the rest of her conservative Pashtun family was hostile.

“Apart from my father, everybody in the family is against it,” she said. “They say, ‘How can a Pashtun girl play music?’ Especially in our tribe, where even a man doesn’t have the right to do it.”

Now living in an orphanage in the Afghan capital of Kabul, Negin leads the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women at the Afghanistan National Institute for Music that plays both Western and Afghan musical instruments.

When she went home on a recent visit, her uncles and brothers threatened to beat her for a performing appearance on television, and she had to return to Kabul the next day.

“Compared to women outside Afghanistan, we feel we are in a cage,” she said.

In a country notorious internationally for harsh restrictions on women in most areas of life, Negin’s story highlights a double challenge.

“The formation of the orchestra is an achievement in itself,” said Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicologist who returned home from Australia after the fall of the Taliban to help found the National Institute for Music in 2010.


While children at the school have the support of their parents, they often face pressure from their wider family as well as from religious authorities, he said.

“The bravery of the girls sitting in the orchestra and the leadership of a young female conductor is an achievement for Afghanistan,” he said.

Some of the women say their relatives are proud of their achievements, but they face suspicion from others, as well as intimidation.

“When I have my musical instruments with me, people talk a lot behind my back,” said Mina, a trumpeter in the orchestra, whose mother is a policewoman in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

“There are a lot of security problems, and if we go from one place to another with our instruments, then we have to go by car,” she added.

The dangers awaiting performers in Afghanistan were brutally highlighted in 2014, when Sarmast was nearly killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up during a show at a French-run school in Kabul.

He has not been discouraged, however. The formation of the girls’ orchestra was the best response to extremists, he said, adding that the school was trying to help Negin continue her education, despite the family problems.

Negin remains fiercely determined to continue on a path that has given her a new sense of identity.

“I am not that Negin anymore,” she said. “I have been leading this orchestra for six months now, and leadership takes a lot of effort.”

She is ready to leave her family behind for the sake of her music, she said, although, in Afghanistan, family is crucial to most people’s sense of their position in the world.

“I will never accept defeat,” she said. “I will continue to play music. I do not feel safe, but when people see me and say, ‘That is Negin Khpalwak’, that gives me energy.”

(Additional reporting by; Sayed Hassib; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)



Dir: Pietra Brettkelly
New Zealand / Afghanistan / 2015 / 91mins

We’re delighted to announce a Q&A with director Pietra Brettkelly, via skype, on Saturday 30 April following the screening at 18:30. Click here to book.

As Afghanistan teeters on the edge of an unpredictable future, A Flickering Truth unwraps the world of three dreamers, the dust of 100 years of war and the restoration of 8000 hours of film archive.

Afghanistan’s rich film history might well have been lost forever, if not for the brave custodians revealed in this doc, who risked their lives to conceal films from the Taliban regime. The journey through thousands of hours of dusty film reels yields new surprises every day. Watching rediscovered material sparks youthful recollections among the archive staff – of the films they saw or made, and of the society they have lost. As the caretakers thread old projectors with film from unmarked reels, the country’s history comes alive with images of former leaders, beloved actresses, and landmarks that have since been destroyed.

A Flickering Truth is a testament to the urgency and necessity of film preservation.


AFGHANISTAN: Afghan schools, hospitals under threat, U.N. says in grim report

Mon, 18 Apr 2016    By: Josh Smith    Reuters

Teacher Mahajera Armani and her class of girls pose for a picture at their study open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan September 19, 2015.

Teacher Mahajera Armani and her class of girls pose for a picture at their study open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan September 19, 2015.

KABUL, April 18 (Reuters) – Schools and health facilities have come under increasing threat as violence spreads in Afghanistan, making it harder for children especially to get access to education and medical care, the United Nations reported on Monday.

Western-backed Afghan government forces are locked in a protracted battle with Taliban insurgents who are at their strongest since they were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

International donors have poured billions of dollars into reconstruction in Afghanistan, including education and health programmes, but the conflict threatens to undermine services provided to millions of Afghans, the new U.N. report said.

Although direct attacks on schools and health facilities dropped slightly from previous years, U.N. monitors recorded 257 conflict-related incidents in 2015, up from 130 in 2014.

“It is simply unacceptable for teachers, doctors and nurses to be subjected to violence or threats, and for schools and medical facilities to be misused or attacked,” Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“All parties must take measures to protect education and health services in Afghanistan,” he said.

Sixty-three medical personnel were killed or wounded in 2015, most of them in a single, mistaken attack by a U.S. warplane on a Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in the northern city of Kunduz in October.

In 2014, 25 health workers were killed or wounded.

A further 66 medical personnel were abducted in 2015, compared with 31 the year before.

Deaths and injuries among teachers and other education workers were down, to 26 in 2015 from 37 the year before, but abductions spiked to 49 from 14 in the same period.

Reports of threats and intimidation against medical and education workers also increased dramatically.

Violence forced more than 369 schools to close last year, affecting more than 139,000 students and 600 teachers, according to the U.N. report.

Among the hardest hit areas was eastern Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan, where militants linked to the Islamic State militant group forced the closure of at least 11 clinics and 68 schools.

Insurgent groups were blamed for the majority of incidents, but pro-government forces were also reported to have harassed medical workers and used schools as fighting positions.

At least 600 civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, with another 1,343 wounded, U.N. human rights investigators said on Sunday, with urban warfare causing a spike in casualties among women and children.


AFGHANISTAN: Disabled young Afghan artist dreams to become professional teacher

By KHAAMA PRESS – Thu Apr 14 2016, 10:26 pm   KHAAMA 

The story of a young disabled Afghan girl has gone viral in Afghanistan with reports and stories surfacing the media regarding her extraordinary drawing skills.

The young Rubaba is disabled from her legs and hands but she dreams to become a professional teacher in the future despite her family is suffering from poverty and she is not able to walk and perform like other children.

Her heartbreaking story has attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of people after she appeared she in various Television reports, causing the social media users to overwhelmingly share her stories in the internet.

The 16-year-old Rubaba says she wants to become a professional artist and teacher in the future as she is practicing the art at home using her teeth to grab the pencil.

The young girl says she is also interested to learn English language and attend classes in school similar as other children.

She was born disabled but Rubaba says she has learnt a lot by studying at home and looking at her brothers and sisters.

Rubaba is now able to write and is hopeful to have more achievements in the future as she believes disability is not a barrier to stop someone from reading, writing and participating in social affairs.


AFGHANISTAN: All Hail, the Brother of the Lion of Panjshir!

PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan — On a recent Monday afternoon in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province, in front of a whooping crowd of bearded ex-rebel commanders, a stocky, one-legged veteran grabbed the microphone to make himself heard: “The mujahideen will seek martyrdom against the Taliban,” he shouted. On stage, presidential envoy Ahmad Zia Massoud, as a consummate Afghan politician would, posed for selfies while a group of elderly men ceremoniously wrapped a blue and green chapan cloak over his shoulders. The message Massoud had come to deliver played well with the northerners. It also probably surprised, and infuriated, his boss, the president.

Massoud carries one of the most revered names in Afghanistan. His older brother was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the celebrated leader of the northern resistance against the Soviets, and later the Taliban, who was killed by al Qaeda in 2001 and has since been declared a national hero. So when the younger Massoud went on a weeklong tour of five northern provinces in February, and invited me along for part of it, he drew large crowds.

Playing to a growing feeling of angst in a populace that has spent the last year watching the Taliban gobble territory at a steady pace, Massoud attempted to portray himself as a steadfast hand of resistance in a government much criticized for its failure to defeat the insurgency. He attacked the army leadership for incompetence. He ridiculed the president’s most sensitive political gamble: attempts to reboot peace talks with the Taliban through improving relations with Pakistan. And most controversially, he called on the commanders to rally their men and arms for the spring fighting season.

While Massoud didn’t use the contentious word “militia,” for all intents and purposes, that is what he was trying to mobilize.

While Massoud didn’t use the contentious word “militia,” for all intents and purposes, that is what he was trying to mobilize.  And militias were supposed to be a thing of the past. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has told local, private militias — which were once espoused by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, though the Defense Department often just called them “local police forces” — to stand down. Their litany of human rights abuses often did more to instigate unrest than fight it.

Massoud’s tour of the north exposed just how dysfunctional Afghanistan’s so-called national unity government has been ever since it was conceived (with help from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) after the disputed 2014 election. Ghani, the official winner, became president, and Abdullah Abdullah, who also claimed victory, his chief executive. Since then, the national leadership has been mired in conflict but generally tries to keep differences behind closed doors. Massoud, however, took his complaints on the road. He actively undermined the president’s agenda, and that for a man named the president’s special representative for reform and good governance.

Political gridlock has stalled reforms — most notably on the economy and the electoral system — andsapped many Afghans of any hope they had left of being able to create a prosperous, safe future inside the country. Afghanistan’s international partners, eager for signs that it won’t collapse if left to its own devices, are also impatient with the unity government they helped create. And to make matters worse, some prominent officials, fueled by opportunism and ego, threaten to implode the government from within.

Recently, a scuffle between supporters of two northern strongmen, Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Balkh province Gov. Mohammad Ata Noor, over whose face should be allowed to adorn posters in the streets ended in armed clashes. At least one person was killed. Several prominent politicians, some of them former Ghani supporters, have created councils whose official purpose is to keep the government on the right track without explicitly opposing it. In practice, the councils seem to have served more as platforms for disgruntled mujahideen and sidelined officials to claim a place in the limelight. All the while, ex-President Hamid Karzai is believed to be waiting in the wings for an opening to return to the national stage.

That opening is moving closer. According to the agreement underpinning the unity government, a vote must be held this fall, before the government’s second year runs out, to turn Abdullah’s post as chief executive into a prime ministerial position. Nobody believes that is going to happen. In March, the embattled commission chief who oversaw the 2014 elections resigned, paving way for much needed electoral reforms, but even if the commission began now, it would not have sufficient time to prepare for the vote.

While the government will likely be able to extend its election mandate, as long as its international partners maintain their support for it, in response, political opponents of all colors will likely claim that the government is illegitimate. Meanwhile, Ghani and Abdullah have also failed to agree on key positions, including a defense minister. They also continue to argue over a new intelligence chief, and it wasn’t until this weekend that they managed to get an attorney general approved, a year-and-a-half after he was supposed to have begun his charge against corruption, a possibly bigger evil than armed insurgents. The frailty of the unity government has become so obvious that Kerry, during a visit to Kabul on Saturday, felt the need to make it “very, very clear” to opponents that the government was to last the entirety of its five-year term.

Ahmad Zia Massoud traveled with his entourage in army helicopters and on the government’s dime, but his message to northerners directly contravened his boss, the president.

Two demands are emerging, said Haroon Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. Some demand early presidential elections; others are pushing for a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, which would attract strongmen, opposition politicians, and elites from all over the country. While a so-called traditional Loya Jirga has no binding legal authority, it could easily have more public credibility than the current government and could be used to whip up frenzy and mount a serious challenge to the government.

“A traditional Loya Jirga will not be controllable,” Mir said.

So Massoud has hit a sore spot at the right time, politically speaking. Afghans feel increasingly alienated from their leaders, and his was the first government face many in the north had seen in a long time. His crowds often numbered more than a thousand people. On a Sunday in February, outside a rally at a wedding hall, I found myself squished in the middle of a dozen thickset, brawling men, clawing and shoving their way through an entrance door barricaded by three soldiers. Inside, bathed in fluorescent lights, Massoud was showered with applause. Finally, it seemed, someone from the government was giving the north the respect it deserved.

“Our province was central for the jihad, but we have been forgotten,” one snazzily dressed elder from Samangan with a long white turban proclaimed when it was his turn at the microphone.

To many northerners, Massoud’s tirades sound honest. To sensitive ears in the palace, though, he could sound like a mutineer.

This lament resonates. To many northerners, Massoud’s tirades sound honest. To sensitive ears in the palace, though, he could sound like a mutineer. A mutineer, that is, with a rank akin to vice president, whose entourage travels in national army helicopters, all on the government’s dime.

Ali Mohammad Ali, a Kabul-based security analyst, put it this way when asked about Massoud’s political moves: “Using government resources and turning them against the government is wrong.”

Some among Afghanistan’s foreign allies, whose patience with the government is already wearing thin, feel that Massoud’s maneuvers are only making matters worse, undermining a government that is already struggling to assert its legitimacy and is taking a beating on the battlefield.

“It is irresponsible for a government official to attack the security forces in a situation where the country is at war,” said Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s special representative and ambassador in Kabul, about Massoud’s tour. “Everyone in the government doesn’t have to agree. But the discussions shouldn’t take place in public. It is disrespectful towards the security forces who are out there dying every day.”

Nearly two months after his return to Kabul, Massoud’s mutiny has yet to materialize. Nevertheless, his protest is a sign of a recent willingness among some officials to capitalize on the weakness of the government, even if they are a part of it. It also puts into question the president’s broader public support. Massoud was a key member of Ghani’s election team and is the only representative among the president’s top allies who is Tajik, the country’s second-largest ethnicity. (Ghani is Pashtun.)

“Ghani can’t claim that he is a national leader if he doesn’t have support from [such a fundamental] sector of the Afghan population,” said Mir. Vice President Dostum, an Uzbek, has also made a habit of going to his home base in the north when he seems to feel sidelined. If such officials continue to play regional powerbrokers, Mir said, “the name of the national unity government loses its meaning.”

Ahmad Zia Massoud is celebrated on stage in Samangan, one of the five provinces in his northern roadshow.

It was predictable that the Taliban would exploit the vacuum left by the international military withdrawal. The government’s inability to prevent the Taliban from gaining ground is rooted, many think, in the brittle relationships inside the leadership. Though far from the traditional Taliban heartlands, the north has recently been hit by fierce Taliban offensives. Last September, Kunduz became the first provincial capital since 2001 to fall, temporarily, to the Taliban. Even now insurgents are within a couple of miles of several more capitals. In January, militants destroyed three power pylons in Baghlan, disrupting electricity southward to Kabul.

When Massoud’s entourage arrived in Baghlan a month later, I heard security officials swear to his advisors that they had cleared the area around the electricity towers. But as we flew over the area only hours later, we saw insurgents fighting on the barren ground below. Some of them took potshots at our helicopter.

Incidents like this foster claims that the security forces don’t take the worsening situation seriously. As politicians appear inept at securing the provinces, some Afghans start looking around for others to lead them. That is one reason the Taliban can still gain significant support. It is also a reason some are nostalgic for Karzai, and why others long for old strongmen. And so the public anxiety Massoud is trying to exploit is real.

When I probed him about the need to arm and reinforce old commanders the government had chosen not to include in its security forces, Massoud was unequivocal. “The mujahideen are very keen to support our army, and they have a lot of experience,” he told me on a cold soccer pitch ringed by mountains, yelling to be heard above the rotor of the helicopter, as it prepared to fly us onward. “The mujahideen are a very big social group in Afghanistan. Now that we are in an emergency situation, we need the mujahideen to support our troops.”

When I put to him that Afghanistan’s international partners are worried about the resurgence of irregular forces outside the auspices of the government, Massoud insisted that he is not out to create militias. He wants to form local “councils of resistance,” centered in Takhar province, where his brother was headquartered, and he wants the government to enroll the mujahideen in the national forces. However, if that doesn’t happen — and it is unlikely to — “then our mujahideen will do something on their own to fight against terrorists,” he said.

Crowds of old mujahideen commanders flocked to meet Ahmad Zia Massoud, partly out of respect for his late, celebrated brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom they used to fight for.

Ahmad Zia Massoud doesn’t immediately fit the prototype of a guerrilla commander. For one, he doesn’t have his brother’s charisma. On billboards, Ahmad Shah, known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” looks radiant, like a splicing between Bob Marley and Che Guevara. In contrast, Ahmad Zia, stern-faced and calm, looks more like a serious dad. When speaking in public, he folds his hands across his abdomen, as if trying to appear as unimposing as possible. His hands are soft, like a politician’s, not a fighter’s.

But the Massoud name goes a long way with the mujahideen. One of them is Baghlan’s provincial council chief, Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, who said he went to Massoud’s rally out of loyalty to the family legacy.

“If the government continues to waste time, people will take up weapons and fight the Taliban. They will ask the government to leave them alone so they can fight on their own,” he said. Another commander, Jalan Bajgar, said the mujahideen had long deterred the Taliban from attacking police posts just by being well-armed, but the insurgents had grown bolder. “We need bigger weapons and commanders to go to the front lines,” he said.

The idea of private armies scattered across the north makes foreign diplomats uneasy. “It might solve a local security problem, but it doesn’t strengthen the state,” Mellbin said. “We have invested enormous sums in moving Afghanistan out of fragility towards stability. So undermining the authority and legitimacy of the state is not a solution for those of us who would like to see a stable Afghanistan.”

In March, Ghani got a rare win in his attempts to restart the peace process when a delegation from the insurgent group Hizb-e-Islami visited Kabul to pledge their readiness to talk. Last week, the group dropped a previous demand that all international forces must leave Afghanistan before they want to talk peace. Though not as militarily important as they once were, the government hopes Hizb-e-Islami’s concession will help convince the Taliban to join the peace process as well.

That is a formula for a paralyzing tug of war.

But the consensus is that there will be no peace without serious reforms. On one side, Ghani has proved the president many feared he would be: a professorial micromanager wary of delegating responsibility. At the same time, Abdullah is facing pressure from his northern supporters, who still believe he was robbed of the presidency, to claim his fair share of influence in the unity government.  That is a formula for a paralyzing tug of war.

“The government has become very fragile,” Mir said. “It wasn’t built on a vision for the country; it was based on pure power sharing. It hasn’t come together on a specific agenda. People in government want to preserve their own interests.”

Before Massoud left Baghlan, the provincial police chief delivered some good news. Over a breakfast of bread, tea, and deep-fried fish, he reported that security forces had pushed the Taliban back, so engineers could finally repair the destroyed electricity towers. Massoud’s convoy drove to a snow-speckled mountaintop, which constituted the front line, to look at the pylons from afar. It was impossible to make them out, but the army commander said engineers were working away. While he and Massoud pored over a map, canon gunners blasted three shells from a 122 mm howitzer in the supposed direction of the Taliban. A week later, after Massoud had safely returned to Kabul, electricity had still not returned. The Taliban fired back and hit the governor’s compound with a rocket, killing one employee. Government forces later retook the district but not without U.S. planes raining bombs on the insurgents. It confirmed the often painful view of many Afghans that, politically and militarily, their government is still beholden to the United States.


AFGHANISTAN: What became of 25 young Afghan deportees?

By Kristy Siegfried   6 April 2016 IRIN

Zakir was just 14 when he fled pressure from Taliban fighters to join their ranks and embarked on the long and dangerous journey from Afghanistan to Britain.

In the UK, he found not only safety but also the opportunity to pursue the education he could never have in Afghanistan. But his legal status was temporary and shortly before turning 18, he received a letter from the Home Office saying his status would soon expire and he faced the prospect of being returned to Afghanistan.

Now aged 23 and still waiting for a decision on his final appeal to remain in the UK, Zakir’s life has been on hold for the past five years, but he remains determined to avoid deportation to his home country.

“There is no way I can go home,” he said in a pre-recorded speech played at an event in London on Tuesday night to launch a study into what happens to former child asylum seekers forcibly returned to Afghanistan. “People are still looking for me [there],” Zakir said. “My culture has changed. I feel British.”

The research, which followed 25 returnees over 18 months, shows that Zakir’s fears are well founded. It discovered that the young people experience numerous severe difficulties after their return to Afghanistan. These range from insecurity to a lack of social networks, work or education opportunities, and mental health problems. More than half the returnees said they planned to leave Afghanistan again. By the end of the research period, six had done so, while the whereabouts of 11 others was unknown.

Young Afghans make up the second largest group of unaccompanied children who apply for asylum in the UK – 656 out of 3,043 asylum applications from unaccompanied children made in 2015 were Afghan. The majority are given only temporary leave to remain and are placed with foster families or in the care of local authorities. Reaching 18 means not only leaving the care system but also losing the right to remain in the UK. Applications to extend status or appeal the original decision on their asylum applications are rarely successful.

“Most adult Afghans get some kind of protection status on appeal, but it’s much more common for young people to be refused because of inconsistencies in their stories,” explained Emily Bowerman, a programme manager with the Refugees Support Network (RSN), which provides educational and legal support to young unaccompanied refugee children in London and produced ‘After Return’, the report released on Tuesday.

“Imagine a 15- or 16-year-old who’s probably spent a year travelling. When they have their initial interview after they arrive in the UK… often they struggle to articulate their claim for asylum,” Bowerman told IRIN.

According to Home Office data, 2,018 young people have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan from the UK since 2007. A lack of post-return monitoring means very little is known about their whereabouts or wellbeing, but there is mounting evidence that security conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated over the past year, since the withdrawal of international forces. Last year saw the highest number of civilian casualties since 2009.

An August 2015 court injunction that had halted deportations to Afghanistan from the UK due to the worsening security situation was successfully overturned by the Home Office last month.

The ‘After Return’ study found that 12 of the returnees interviewed had experienced security incidents including bomb blasts and targeted attacks. One was beaten unconscious by unknown assailants in Kabul and another witnessed the killing of another young returnee.

“Being a returnee does increase their risk,” said Bowerman. “It makes them stand out and subjects them to particular targeting by Taliban groups.”

She added that it also affected their ability to form new friendships or reconnect with family. “Other people in society fear they’ll put them at risk,” she said.

Many young people in the study hid their status as returnees from new friends while less than half were living with their families. In some cases families were still paying off debts incurred from funding their migration to the UK and couldn’t afford to support them. Some even resented their return.

Only a fifth of the returnees had found stable employment in Afghanistan, where jobs are already scarce and their lack of personal connections and status as returnees worked against them.

Feelings of isolation, stigmatisation and hopelessness about their futures meant that 22 of the 25 returnees were struggling emotionally and 15 had mental health issues including severe anxiety and depression.

“I have seen my worst days after the return to Afghanistan,” said one. Another talked about being constantly mocked by people: “They say I have wasted my life and now have returned with empty hands. It feels so depressing from inside.”

RSN is hopeful the findings will be used as evidence that could result in fewer young Afghans having their asylum applications refused or spending long periods in limbo before ultimately being returned.

Zakir has been offered a place at university and even a bursary, but he can’t accept either until his immigration status is resolved. In the meantime, he has to sign in with the Home Office every two weeks and lives in constant fear of being detained and deported.

“I have made friends and a future for myself here in London, but I am facing having all of that taken away from me.”



AFGHANISTAN: Amina Azimi — Raising the Voices of the Disabled in Afghanistan

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