- Twenty years on from 9/11, Afghanistan remains battle-scarred by displacement and migration following the withdrawal of international troops.
- Although some people were evacuated, many remain trapped, and neighboring countries will be impacted by this crisis for years to come.
- The international community must work together to counter the economic, political and security implications created by this humanitarian disaster.
Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, the country that was widely considered a haven for those behind the attacks – Afghanistan – is again without a functioning government and is facing a dual humanitarian-displacement crisis.
The intensity of the crisis was clear as US-led coalition forces worked around the clock to evacuate their citizens and Afghans most at risk of violent retribution from Taliban. The unconditional withdrawal of the US-led coalition troops, allowing the Taliban to gain ground and causing the collapse of the Afghan state, have exacerbated conditions that will see Afghanistan remain one of the major countries in the world for displacement and migration for years to come.
In April 2021, the US decided to withdraw troops by the end of August regardless of the repercussions to Afghanistan. Troops from other NATO nations followed given their dependence on the higher capabilities of the US military. As the troops begin to leave, large swaths of territory across Afghanistan started to fall to the Taliban in quick succession, leading to the collapse of Kabul on 15 August.
Attention quickly turned to urgently evacuating foreign and Afghan nationals whose lives were deemed most at risk. The evacuation was the most intense in recent history, transporting over 120,000 people out of Afghanistan in less than a fortnight on military cargo planes. Images echoed the equally chaotic fall of Saigon some 45 years prior.
The humanitarian and displacement crisis resulting from these recent events will continue for years to come, with the largest burdens to fall on the Afghan people and countries neighbouring Afghanistan. “Anticipatory displacement” has seen thousands depart ahead of the allied withdrawal, but only the minority with the resources and connections could do so.
Prior to the current events, Afghanistan was already dealing with a humanitarian crisis, with half a million people internally displaced due to conflict and disaster, more than 800,000 newly returned Afghans from Iran and Pakistan, and 14 million (or 35% of the country) facing hunger and in urgent need for food. And this was before the allied troop withdrawal and the collapse of the state.
The immediate collapse of the Afghan government has brought into sharp focus its highly fragile political, security and economic foundations. Afghanistan has long been among the most aid-dependent nations in the world, receiving billions of dollars per year in civilian aid in recent years. IMF and the World Bank have already frozen their programmes in Afghanistan and the US treasury has blocked its dollar reserve, further accelerating the imminent economic collapse.
In addition, a large part of the Afghan population depends on subsistence agriculture, which is highly affected by climate change in the form of drought and seasonal floods. All creating the perfect storm for major displacement outflows that could remain for many years to come, if not generations. Recent reports indicate that approximately 20,000 Afghan have crossed the border to Pakistan and people are also fleeing to Iran despite barriers. The current population of over 2.6 million Afghan refugees – the second highest group globally – is set to increase as displacement intensifies.
The symbolism of the Taliban victory on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary is inspiring other extremist groups around world and the region. The Taliban takeover is a serious blow to international counterterrorism efforts of the last two decades. How the Taliban responds on the issues of both global terrorism and human rights will be instrumental in determining its relationship with the international community, including that of foreign aid to Afghanistan. The Taliban is critically in need of aid, but faces the reality of needing to radically change how it raises funds.
The security threats associated with the Taliban takeover and the re-emergence of global terrorism leave many, including minority groups such as Hazara, Uzbek and Turkmen (amongst others), at extreme risk of further displacement. The ISIS-KP attack on Kabul airport that killed over one hundred people signals a new era of terrorism in Afghanistan.
Pressure on Afghans to engage in irregular migration after internal/cross-order displacement will be very high, although so will pressure on states to impede movements and stem flows, especially through traditional routes to Europe via Iran and Turkey.
Gender implications are profound as dangerous irregular migration is highly gendered, leaving women and girls behind, compounding vulnerabilities. Afghan girls and women are set to lose the most from the Taliban takeover, given the restrictions placed on their participation in the society including the right to education and work. Such rights will be highly restricted even in the best scenarios. Early signs of these limitations have already emerged with gender segregations in education facilities and workplaces.
Mass movement of people from Afghanistan will see growing pressure as other nationalities seek to move with them along the major corridors, potentially echoing the 2015 Syrian refugee movements from Turkey to and through Europe. However, the transition routes are heavily barricaded and deterrence regimes are in place in most destination countries. Afghans will become stuck inside their country and in transition countries such as Iran and Turkey, exacerbating humanitarian and protection issues in the region.
Whether the international community can urgently facilitate large-scale in-country programmatic solutions to prevent a large-scale humanitarian catastrophe and mass displacement depends in part on ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. Those who were evacuated in recent weeks have started to arrive in the US, Europe, Pakistan, Mexico and Uganda but overall numbers remain small and hopes of large-scale programmatic solutions are slim.
In the short-term, the Taliban may have financial resources to cushion themselves from international sanctions. However, this will not extend to the Afghan people, who will be the ones to suffer the most and potentially for many years to come, especially if the Taliban isolate themselves in a pariah state.
The article was originally published in the World Economic Forum. You can read it here.