Afghanistan war: Let the refugees in!

The Rudd Labor government is supporting US President Obama’s intensification of the war in Afghanistan, which can only increase the number of Afghan refugees. Yet at the same time, Labor is preparing to deport en masse Afghan asylum seekers, who have had their claims for protection visas frozen. According to the Melbourne-based Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, refugee and humanitarian entrants are at the lowest level in 35 years: just 6.6% of the government’s overall immigration program.

Labor lied blatantly in its April 9 visa freeze announcement. “As the situation continues to improve in parts of Afghanistan, we expect more people will have their asylum applications refused and they will be returned to their homeland”, said immigration minister Chris Evans. “The government is committed to building a strong partnership with Afghanistan and working with international organisations to facilitate the return of those people found not to be refugees.”

The May budget stated: “The Government will provide $5.8 million over two years to deploy two officers from the Department of Immigration ... to Kabul, Afghanistan. The officers will liaise with the Afghan Government and relevant international organisations to assist with the appropriate settlement and reintegration of returned Afghan nationals.” But the situation for civilians in Afghanistan is becoming worse, not better. Obama himself warned on May 13 that the war would become more intense in the months ahead.

Military escalation

There are 134,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan. This is to reach 150,000 by August. US soldiers in Afghanistan will soon outnumber those in Iraq. In February, 15,000 US, NATO and Afghan government troops participated in the largest ground offensive of the war in Marjah. More than 23,000 troops are being massed in the southern province of Kandahar for a major offensive.

The war has killed more than 1800 coalition soldiers. The number of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2009 was 318, double the 155 killed in 2008. At least 208 NATO soldiers, 130 of them from the US, have died so far this year. On May 20, the official death toll for US troops in Afghanistan since the start of the war in 2001 reached 1000. According to the April 13 UK Guardian, 270 members of the British military have died in Afghanistan since 2006. Currently 1550 Australian troops are deployed in Afghanistan; they have suffered 11 deaths and 126 wounded since 2002.

Washington believes its current “surge” can retake key population centres from anti-occupation forces, entrench the corrupt and unpopular Karzai puppet government and allow US forces to start withdrawing next year. But the anti-occupation forces and the Taliban have vowed to unleash a new nationwide campaign from May 10, targeting diplomats, members of the Afghan parliament, foreign contractors and the international military force.

Rising civilian deaths

The official US-NATO figures on Afghan civilian deaths are undoubtedly understated, but they may provide a guide to how the situation is changing. Civilians killed by US-NATO troops have more than doubled this year as the war intensifies. According to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the war and occupation killed 72 civilians in the first three months of 2010, up from 29 in the same period in 2009.

In neighbouring Pakistan, more than 300 people have been killed in US drone missile strikes against alleged insurgents this year, bringing the total deaths in such attacks to more than 1000 since August 2008.

The number of civilian deaths has increased more rapidly than the escalation of US-NATO troop numbers. In particular, shootings of Afghan civilians by US and NATO convoys and at military checkpoints have risen sharply this year. At least 28 Afghans have been killed and 43 wounded in convoy and checkpoint shootings this year — 42% of total civilian deaths and injuries and the largest overall source of casualties at the hands of US and NATO troops, according to statistics kept by the military.

In the same period last year, eight Afghans were killed and 29 wounded in similar episodes. For all of 2009, 36 Afghan civilians were killed in convoy and checkpoint attacks, according to the UN. A recent military-commissioned survey of almost 2000 residents of Kandahar province found that US and NATO convoys were perceived as equally as dangerous as roadside bombs and more dangerous than Taliban checkpoints.

ISAF admits that 90 Afghan civilians were killed by US and NATO troops during the first four months of the year — almost two and a half times the number during the same period last year — while 100 others were wounded. The deadliest episode occurred in February, when 27 civilians who were mistaken for Taliban fighters were killed by US attack helicopters.

Death squads

A May 17 British Channel 4 News report from Kandahar said that NATO has been turning to Afghan militias, “private armies” of warlords and tribal leaders, to fight the Taliban. Irregular Afghan militia groups trained by US intelligence and special forces agencies are increasingly being blamed for theft, corruption and targeted assassinations. They have been accused of involvement in raids aimed at the Taliban but in which innocent men, women and children have been killed.

The report noted that US and NATO commanders were increasingly turning to local warlords, who were often “almost unaccountable” for their actions. It said that the private armed groups are feared more than the Taliban, especially in the southern city of Kandahar, which is at the centre of the US-NATO military escalation. Assassinations often publicly blamed on the insurgents are said to be frequently carried out by militia “death squads”.

Erica Gaston, a Kabul-based field worker for the Open Society Institute, said NATO commanders had yet to address the problem of irregular forces that lay behind many deaths of innocents. “We often find that the irregular forces are at the root of some serious abuses ... You can talk about changing the rules of engagement, or issuing new directives. But that simply doesn’t apply to a group of armed men who are simply paid to go in on an operation and add extra force to it.”

A US-NATO offensive in Marjah that began in February has increased the violence towards civilians and contributed to retaliatory attacks. Attacks on US contractors, construction companies and aid organisations have risen since Obama launched the troop escalation in December 2009.

Recent attacks have centred on Kandahar, where the US is expected to launch an offensive in the next few weeks. Of the 289 civilians working for US contractors killed between the start of the war in late 2001 and the end of last year, 100 died in just the last six months of 2009. Kandahar will follow the same pattern as Marjah and will only increase the level of violence for the civilian population. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported on April 14 that there has been a 30-40% increase in Afghan civilians injured by home-made bombs or improvised mines in Kandahar.

According to a January 19 Reuters report, in rural areas where the government has little or no presence, a resurgent Taliban provides a “shadow” government. The war has spread into areas previously less affected, such as the north, north-east, west and central areas, and the insurgency is now capable of inflicting damage in the heart of the capital, Kabul.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict said that last year was the most deadly since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. UNAMA reported 2412 civilians deaths in 2009, the highest since 2001 and a 14% increase over 2008, with 3566 Afghan civilians wounded. Even these figures may be understated: “If the non-combatant status of one or more victim(s) remains under significant doubt, such deaths are not included in the overall number of civilian casualties. Thus, there is a significant possibility that UNAMA is under-reporting civilian casualties.”

A survey conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Afghanistan: Opinion Survey and In-depth Research 2009, said: “[V]ery few people in Afghanistan have been unaffected by the armed conflict there. Those with direct personal experience make up 60% of the population … In total, almost everyone (96%) has been affected in some way, either personally or due to the wider consequence of armed conflict.”

ISAF forces have ignored the consequences of placing military bases among civilians in towns and residential areas. Afghans have protested against US-NATO attacks and raids on homes, hospitals, bazaars and communities and have asked ISAF troops not to enter because their presence draws retaliatory attacks by anti-occupation forces, said the ICRC.

Millions forced to flee

An April 15 Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) report from the Norwegian Refugee Council said the numbers of internally displaced refugees have increased to an estimated 240,000 because of the intensified fighting in many regions. An additional 89,000 have been displaced by natural disasters. According to Oxfam in November 2009, three out of four Afghans have been forced out of their homes at some point since 2001.

The US aid agency Refugee International reported on April 24: “The security situation inside Afghanistan continues to deteriorate in many parts of the country, making it difficult for the UN and international aid agencies to provide adequate assistance. Armed conflict and natural disasters have displaced around 270,000 Afghans, including more than 100,000 in the south where it is most difficult to deliver assistance.

Today more than three million registered refugees remain in exile — 2.1 million in Pakistan and 900,000 in Iran — and hundreds of thousands more are living abroad to escape economic hardship or targeted violence. Many are now being pressured to return home despite the fact that living conditions are not always secure or provide livelihood opportunities.”

For most Afghans, the IDMC said, “neither physical security nor access to jobs, health care and education have improved sufficiently. Infrastructure and homes have been destroyed, and, with them, Afghan livelihoods. Afghanistan now ranks 181 out of 182 countries in the UN’s Human Development Report and is amongst the world’s most gender-unequal states.” Forty per cent of the population is unemployed.

A December 10, 2009, ReliefWeb report stated: “Food insecurity is endemic across Afghanistan. At present, 7.3 million Afghans are at risk of hunger. [Internally displaced people] are particularly vulnerable. Nearly half the population is chronically malnourished, almost 6 per cent acutely and 1.6 per cent severely.”

According to the UN Humanitarian Action Plan, in November 2009, Afghanistan had the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world at 1600 per 100,000 live births. In the same month, UNICEF reported that Afghanistan had the highest infant mortality rate in the world — 257 deaths per 1000 live births — and 70% of the population lacks access to clean water. Afghanistan also slipped three places in Transparency International’s annual index of corruption perceptions, becoming the world’s second most corrupt country. After the fall of the Taliban regime, more than 5 million Afghans returned home, the vast majority from Pakistan and Iran. Afghanistan’s population increased by 20% and is now estimated to be 25 million.

But the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on December 29 that the intensification of the war slowed returns from Pakistan and Iran in 2009, which dropped to the lowest level since 2002. While 50,000 Afghans have been encouraged to return from Pakistan and Iran with cash grants from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) since January. There were still some 2.7 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran on May 23, many of whom have lived there for over two decades.

The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission found that 67% were unable to return to their places of origin due to a lack of land, or left after finding that their land had been occupied by others. Many of the returnees have settled in spontaneous camps in the east. Others have settled in Kabul, one of the world’s fastest growing cities since 2002, said a UNHCR January 2010 report.

Land mines restrict areas available for cultivation and prevent people from returning home. The UN Mine Action Centre reports that most victims of mines are refugee returnees or internally displaced persons. In 2008 mines and other explosives claimed the lives of 752 people, most of them children.

In 2009, international aid was 90 per cent of public expenditure in Afghanistan. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the Afghan government and ISAF have linked development projects to achieving the ISAF’s counter-insurgency objectives. A September 16 Boston Globe report said that channelling relief and development assistance through “provincial reconstruction teams” tied to US and other countries’ military and political interests has increased local conflict and fuelled corruption.

Labor racism

Labor is not ignorant of why Afghans seek asylum in other countries and are forced to become “boat people”. On March 23, Evans admitted that the UNHCR 2009 report Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries “was a timely reminder that push factors such as conflict and human insecurity are the key reasons why people flee their homes to seek protection in industrialised countries like Australia”.

Mandatory detention has failed to deter desperate asylum seekers from fleeing the consequences of Labor’s support for imperialist wars. The Rudd government has tried to shore up its racist mandatory detention policies by covering up the reality that war creates refugees. Labor hopes to placate criticism of its anti-refugee policies by pretending that the situation in Afghanistan is improving and justifies the forced return of asylum seekers. This lying response to a small increase in “boat people” fleeing war-ravaged countries only adds to the racist core of Labor’s refugee policies — mandatory detention, offshore processing and excision of islands from the migration zone.

The escalation of the war will increase casualties, the destruction of homes, property, personal assets and livelihoods, displacement and violent assaults for Afghan civilians. Freezing asylum claims with the aim of returning refugees to a war zone is the direct opposite of a “humane” refugee policy.