As of last week, Afghanistan has become home to the world’s newest refugee crisis. The Taliban captured Kunduz in September and have been forcing Afghan pilots in Tajikistan to return to their homeland. These Afghans were originally in a training program with the U.S., which will now be disrupted by this new development.
This is a significant setback for the U.S. and NATO allies. Enduring firefights, bombs and bullets in Afghanistan were some of the most dangerous and expensive tasks undertaken by NATO soldiers overseas since World War II. The Taliban’s insurgency deep inside Afghan territory has forced the U.S., which at one point had over 100,000 personnel on the ground, to focus more of its attention and manpower on this area.
This move by the Taliban isn’t necessarily a surprise. It is consistent with their recent behavior of moving from more rural areas inside Afghanistan deep into urban centers such as Kunduz after NATO troops began pulling out in 2014 — a move many have warned would increase the violence and, therefore, human displacement.
With the U.S. soon to exit the country completely and the Taliban back in control of such a key city, it is important to understand what this new development means for Afghans trying to escape the conflict–and why they are doing so now after 14 years spent in relative peace since NATO’s initial invasion in 2001.
Afghan migrants on the Greece-Macedonian border on May 4, 2016.
Airstrikes are one of many elements that have helped push Afghans out of their homeland. Afghanistan is not only dealing with traditional Taliban violence but also U.S.-led airstrikes that have killed hundreds of civilians in recent years. This violence has increased Afghans’ distrust of the U.S.-led coalition and their government — propped up by foreign aid, which has decreased dramatically since President Barack Obama announced his plans to withdraw all but 13,000 troops back in 2014
The Taliban’s recent takeover of Kunduz city coincides with increasing tensions between news outlets and the Afghan president regarding the whereabouts of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Weeks ago, President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan’s intelligence agency of sheltering Omar, saying he had been dead for two years. The Afghan government has since
accused Pakistani news outlets of using doctored footage to prove that Mullah Omar is alive and healthy.
This is significant not only because it’s a departure from Ghani’s strategy of including Pakistan in the security solution for Afghanistan but also because it questions his sincerity while attempting to cut deals with other countries. For example, Ghani was recently caught on tape discussing a prisoner swap with Pakistani Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif. Despite accusations from the U.S., Taliban and Afghan government, Omar’s death still has not been proven.
Afghanistan is also experiencing a second Arab Spring. Since 2011, demonstrations have increased throughout the country as Afghans grow tired of political corruption and economic instability. This form of protest is less prominent in Afghanistan than Syria or Libya due to its social fabric — one that was beaten down by years of war and modernization.
Yet, Afghans still see the same problems as other Middle Easterners: unemployment and a widening gap between the haves and have-nots. The frustration is especially palpable among youth — those who make up nearly half the population and will soon be entering Afghanistan’s workforce . These demonstrations also coincide with terrorist attacks such as the one in Jalalabad in April, which was the deadliest since 2001. Furthermore, a scandal erupted surrounding the Afghan Parliament’s speaker, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, after he was accused of ignoring voter fraud and not appointing enough women to his office.