Fighting intensifies as Taliban make rapid gains throughout Afghanistan
Javed Safi has spent decades building a life and a business in his family’s homeland, Afghanistan, but says he doesn’t feel at home. He says neither Afghans there, nor Pakistanis in Pakistan, where he was born, appear willing to accept him as one of their own.
His description as a muhajir, or refugee, he says, seems to follow him everywhere. “I was a stranger there [in Afghanistan]. I was born in Pakistan and had never been to Afghanistan before. When I arrived there [in Afghanistan], I was treated as a foreigner. It was very difficult for me to find a place to live and to do business there.”
I first met Safi at a hotel near Haji Camp in Peshawar in 2009. He was excited to expand his business in Afghanistan, to open hotels there. When I met him a decade later, his optimism had vanished. “What I found in Afghanistan was very ironic,” he told me. “In our own country, we were called muhajir (refugees).”
The situation is becoming increasingly uncertain for people like Safi as the Taliban take control of more provincial capitals.
Independent sources say the Taliban now control 247 districts out of 421 and the government in Kabul 65 districts. The remaining 109 districts are being contested. The 247 districts under Taliban control include nine provincial capitals: Kunduz (province of Kunduz); Shabarghan (province of Jawzjan); Zaranj (province of Nimruz); Aibek (province of Samangan); Sar-i-Pul (province of Sar-i-Pul), Taluqan (province of Takhar); Faizabad (province of Badakhshan); and Farah (province of Farah).
Major urban population centres, such as Kandahar, Jalalabad, Herat and Kabul are still under government control. Heavy fighting is expected over these cities.
Thousands of families have fled these cities and taken shelter at the Haji Camp in Kandahar and at New Park in Kabul. Reports of intense battles between the Taliban and government are pouring in from Lashkar Gah, Mazar-i-Sharif, Pul-i-Khumri, Kandahar and Herat.
As the Taliban continue to gain ground, the Ashraf Ghani government has sacked its chief of army staff, Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai and replaced him with Haibatullah Alizai. Official sources in Kabul have also confirmed the resignation of Finance Minister Khalid Payenda and said that he has left the country in view of the recent Taliban advances.
Analysts in Kabul say that these are signs of the pressure the government in Kabul is under. “If the Taliban are not stopped, it is possible that in another three months, they will be ruling the country,” they say.
The fighting has left thousands of families stranded in various Afghan cities. Thousands of families have once lived in Pakistan. Many are trying to again move to Pakistan.
Many families that migrated to Afghanistan when Afghan refugees were evacuated from Pakistan have close relatives in Pakistan. In many cities of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, thousands of families have settled down and obtained muhajir cards that allow temporary legal residence. As uncertainty grows in Afghanistan, so do the contacts across the border.
Most of the refugees leaving Afghanistan in the current wave are relying on relatives already in Pakistan.
“About a dozen families are contacting people here from Nangarhar. Most of them are contacting their relatives in Pakistan and asking for accommodation. Some families are trying to go to other countries by applying for visas through the embassies of these countries based in Islamabad,” says Qadir Khan, an Afghan driver who ferries people between the border and Peshawar.
Afghans in Peshawar say they have lost reliable ground contact with people in Kabul and Jalalabad, especially in the Sarobi district where Taliban have set up check posts at Mahipar and Tangi.
Meanwhile. property prices have gone up in Peshawar. Afghans in urban areas have become much richer over the past 20 years. Some of them are now buying properties in expensive areas of Peshawar.
The situation at the Pak-Afghan border at Chaman-Spin Boldak is very uncertain. Across the border, the Taliban are hoisting white flags of their emirate. Although they have hinted at resuming business activities at the border, no one understands how to maintain customs and payments.
Thousands of Afghans are married to Pakistanis and living in Pakistan. The first refuge for those from Afghanistan today is their families already living in Pakistan.
The cross-border networks have meant that, at least so far, the movement of Afghans into Pakistan does not resemble the situation when refugees first arrived in the 1980s, when hundreds of thousands crossed over every day amid extreme disarray.
The money and the means to travel Afghans have at their disposal today do matter. However, one of the main reasons the situation has not reached the level it did in the past is the lack of intensity in the fighting. The war has simply not escalated to the point where people are forced to flee in large numbers.
From talking to journalists and business circles in Kunduz, Jalalabad, Kandahar, Jawzjan, Baghlan, Balkh, Wardak, Kunar, Paktia, Laghman, and some other provinces, it becomes apparent that there is still hope that Afghan security forces and the Taliban are avoiding war in the densely populated areas.
Some believe that the war will escalate with the onset of winter. If that happens, the refugees will flood not only Pakistan but also Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran.
The Pak-Afghan border at Torkham is closed from time to time due to the Covid-19 situation.
The situation at the border at Chaman-Spin Boldak is very uncertain. Across the border the Taliban are hoisting white flags of their emirate. Although they have hinted at resuming business activities - Kabul has virtually lost contact with Spin-Boldak - no one understands how to maintain customs and payments. Afghans who do business in nearby Quetta, meanwhile, are trying to settle down somewhere in Balochistan.
“The situation is very bad. Our containers were stuck for several days. We were stranded on the Kandahar-Kabul highway,” said Tayyab Agha, who has invested in the Pak-Afghan transit trade. “The Taliban had stopped us and used us as human shields. Helicopters would come and go looking at us from the skies because there were hundreds of people. Afghan army was forced thus to give way and we crossed the border and reached Quetta.”
Agha says he will not return to Afghanistan until the situation is back to normal.
“Hundreds of families are moving to Turkey via Iran from Kandahar and Ghazni. The human smugglers are making a lot of money to transport them. These human smugglers are offering various packages through social media groups with assurances to transport them to Europe.” Agha says.
Millions of Afghans are suffering in the country. They have left their villages because of the war. Education and health issues are on the rise in many areas. Since there are already millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and Pakistan’s own economic situation has already deteriorated, Islamabad has already said that it can no longer afford take in more Afghans.
In Pakistan, there is great concern over the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and several options are being considered to help the displaced Afghan people. One suggestion is to set up camps inside Afghanistan close to the border with Pakistan. Such camps can be set up in Kunar, Nangarhar, Khost and Kandahar.
Another proposal is to create separate zones inside Pakistan near the Afghan border in the recently integrated districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and in border districts of Balochistan, where Afghan refugees can be accommodated.
A major issue at the moment is the tension between the governments in Islamabad and Kabul. The Afghan government is under intense pressure following the US military withdrawal. It has been blaming Pakistan for its problems. Irresponsible statements by some Afghan officials have created a climate of mistrust between on a very public level.
The US presence in Afghanistan had contributed to a very different kind of mood among Afghan officials. Now that the US is leaving, some of them are behaving as if they have been awoken from a dream of a smooth and prosperous Afghanistan. For 20 years, Afghanistan has been treated like a project. That is partly the reason why Afghan forces have been unable to stop the Taliban from capturing major cities and most of the border crossings. Many cities are currently under a Taliban siege. The only effective counter-attacks so far have been through aerial bombardment. The Taliban still hold most of the land.
According to the UNHCR, the worsening security situation in the wake of foreign troops’ withdrawal and Taliban advances, has forced an estimated 270,000 from their homes since January, taking the number of displaced people to more than 3.5 million.
If the issues between the government in Kabul and the Taliban are not resolved through dialogue, large-scale migration will become unavoidable. For many refugees this will be the third time they will be migrating in four decades.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer on terrorism, conflict and peace development. He can be reached at frkakakhelgmail.com