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Afghanistan: What Now for Refugees?
Afghanistan: What Now for Refugees?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator
A group of Afghan women, former refugees newly returned from Iran, gather at a UNHCR returnee camp in Sari Pul, Afghanistan, 30 August 2009. UN PHOTO/Eric Kanalstein
Report 175 / Asia

Afghanistan: What Now for Refugees?

As international efforts focus on the worsening insurgency in Afghanistan, the issues of refugee return and the mobility of Afghans in their country and around the region have been overshadowed.

 

Executive Summary

As international efforts focus on the worsening insurgency in Afghanistan, the issues of refugee return and the mobility of Afghans in their country and around the region have been overshadowed. Meeting the needs of returnees and addressing population movements remain an essential part of finding a solution to the conflict. These issues must be better integrated into policymaking. They play a role in many of the sources of discontent that undermine the legitimacy of the government in Kabul – from land disputes to rising crime. Migration has a positive side as well since those living abroad sustain much of the economy, but a comprehensive approach to displacement and migration is needed, including better coordination among Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, if the benefits are to start outweighing the risks.

With the rural areas increasingly insecure, many returning Afghans have migrated to towns and cities, causing rapid urbanisation that is contributing to rising poverty, unemployment and criminality. Kabul’s population has tripled in just seven years. Since young, displaced and unemployed men are particularly vulnerable to recruitment to the insurgency, the needs of a fast-growing poor and largely marginalised population must be urgently addressed. Moreover, as Afghans attempt to resettle in their home provinces or migrate to the country’s more secure and economically productive zones, land disputes risk sparking deep-rooted tribal, ethnic or sectarian violence.

Afghan mobility should not be perceived solely as a source of conflict and instability. Internal and regional mobility has enabled families to diversify their sources of income. Remittances are essential to the economy, and households that are able to provide for themselves are a blessing for a state struggling to ensure security and provide basic services. The contribution of returning refugees to reconstruction and development through skills acquired in exile is already significant, and should be facilitated further through national reconstruction and development programs.

The country’s institutions are ill-equipped to meet the needs of repatriating families, overcome obstacles to resettlement, and tackle the continued refugee presence in neighbouring countries. The government’s inability to provide for and protect its returning citizens by ensuring nationwide basic services and the rule of law has led to an increasing questioning of its legitimacy. These shortcomings compel many Afghans to rely on informal networks and other parallel structures based on patron-client relations that undercut the establishment of a durable state-citizen relationship.

While it struggles to ensure sustainable returns, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) faces mounting pressure from Iran and Pakistan, the main refugee hosting states, to maintain high repatriation figures. However, UNHCR cannot resolve the refugee problem on its own. Broader efforts to address Afghan displacement are urgently needed that extend beyond a purely refugee/IDP (internally displaced persons) framework. Responsibility of meeting returnees’ needs must also be delegated to a range of UN agencies and Afghan government actors and ministries.

The prolonged refugee presence and the persistence of unchecked cross-border movements have increased Pakistan’s and Iran’s leverage over their neighbour. Moreover, with migrants and terrorist networks often using the same transport routes, making it difficult to distinguish insurgents from migrants, Tehran and Islamabad are inclined to seal their borders and pressure the millions of remaining Afghan refugees to return home. As Iran and Pakistan toughen their stance, the threat of mass deportations strains Kabul’s relations with both countries. If carried out, such deportations would further destabilise a fragile state. 

Cross-border mobility will continue regardless of any attempts to curtail it. Efforts to improve security within Afghanistan and in the region must therefore integrate internal and cross-border population movements. The governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran must explore legal and political channels to liberalise and enable regional mobility, which would facilitate administrative control of cross-border movement and reinforce their capacity to control their populations and their territories. Such measures will also strengthen UNHCR’s ability to provide for the most vulnerable segment of the Afghan population in exile. For such approaches to succeed, however, they must be strongly endorsed by the international community and made an integral part of peace building in the region. 

Kabul/Islamabad/Brussels, 31 August 2009

Speech / Asia

Afghanistan's Peace Process Will Be Long, Incremental and in Need of a Mediator

Speech by Laurel Miller, Program Director for Asia, at the United Nations Security Council Arria Formula Meeting on the Peace Process in Afghanistan.

Distinguished speakers and participants, thank you for the opportunity to join you for this discussion today. 

As all the preceding speakers have emphasised, a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan would be the best way to advance peace and prosperity in that country and contribute to security beyond its borders. But it goes without explaining that peacemaking is hard, and more often than not it fails. As an independent observer, I can perhaps best contribute to this discussion by highlighting a few key risks and realities that are important for those supporting an Afghan peace process to reflect in their policies and diplomacy, if the process is to have the greatest possible chance of success.

First, if the peace process succeeds – in other words, in the most optimistic scenario – the process will result in a government of which the Taliban are a substantial part, and which is structurally different than what we see today. What exactly the Taliban share and the structural changes will be can only be determined through negotiations, but trade-offs have to be expected. To anticipate otherwise would be to hope for Taliban surrender and there is no sign of that.

If and when the Afghan parties begin substantive negotiations, their starting positions are likely to be very far apart on the most fundamental questions of the political system and what kinds of democratic features it will and won’t have as compared to the existing system. Either there will be compromises on these questions or there will not be a negotiated settlement – in which case, the bloodshed will continue, with or without a foreign troop presence, and Afghanistan’s economic prospects will remain stunted.

One policy implication of this reality is that it is more important to focus support on the peace process than on specific outcomes. This isn’t to suggest that supporting countries abandon their own values. But it is to say that without placing an end to the bloodshed, to the human toll, at the apex of desired outcomes in the nearer term, other desired outcomes – rights, justice for victims, democratic features – are unlikely to be realised over the longer term. If the mantra “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led” means anything, it should mean that members of the international community will support the outcomes of Afghan peace negotiations without imposing their own redlines.

Another policy implication is that, if a negotiated settlement materialises, promoting its implementation will require providing financial support to a government that includes the Taliban. This is a reality that may be difficult to absorb for some parliaments and publics of countries that have been at war with the Taliban for two decades.

A second reality I’ll highlight concerns timing constraints on the peace process. As I’m sure is well-known to this group, peace processes generally are lengthy, often years-long affairs. In Afghanistan’s case, the relatively straightforward U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February took nearly a year and a half to negotiate, after years of quiet preparatory steps. The more complex topics to be negotiated among Afghans will not easily be amenable to quick resolution. An incremental approach to negotiations, in which compromises are gradually accumulated, building toward the most difficult issues would offer the best chance for the parties to evolve their positions and acclimate their constituencies to compromises. This kind of approach takes time.

The U.S.-Taliban agreement, however, has shortened the time horizon for talks. It’s not hard to imagine some flexibility on the agreement’s May 2021 deadline for a full withdrawal of all foreign forces and other non-diplomatic personnel, particularly considering that none of the other deadlines in the text have held so far. And, it is theoretically possible that the Biden administration will revisit elements of the deal or interpret some of its requirements more stringently; such modifications could extend the withdrawal timeline. Regardless of any Taliban flexibility or stiffened American conditionality – or even U.S. abandonment of the deal, though I don’t expect that – the withdrawal provisions have undoubtedly shaped Taliban expectations. The withdrawal timeline was a big win for them, and they had insisted on that win up front, before commencing talks with other Afghans. It is unlikely Afghan talks can be sustained if that win is not sustained. And, unfortunately, it is also unlikely that talks would continue after a full withdrawal. The timeline may be somewhat elastic, but probably can’t be stretched very far.

I mention the timing issue in part because some have been understandably frustrated with the dramatic urgency of U.S. diplomacy over the last couple of years and may be hoping for that to change. I cannot predict what the Biden administration’s approach will be. But I can say that objective analysis of the options available will have to treat the U.S.-Taliban agreement as a ‘fact on the ground,’ and will have to resolve the tension between the timing expectations that it created and the benefits of an incremental process. 

Finally, I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion for Security Council members’ consideration. A missing feature in the peace process so far is an empowered, impartial mediator. It is difficult to see how the parties will be able to bridge the substantial distance between their starting positions without such help. Several governments have informally played a mediation role in the process so far, but this ad hoc approach is less likely to be effective as the talks get more difficult.

A Security Council imprimatur for a mediator would be helpful. Such an imprimatur would reflect the common interests of council members in a stable Afghanistan that contributes to regional stability and provides no safe harbour for transnational terrorists. It would also signal the clear backing of key countries for the peace process – countries whose support will be needed not only to keep the process on track but also to create conditions for effective implementation of any results.

Over the next two months, while the future direction of U.S. policy cannot be certain, the crucial task will be to keep the Afghan talks, currently stalled, on life support. After that point, a push to put in place a mediator could help re-energise the process.

Thank you.