Afghans are once again attempting to flee their country. Desperate scenes at Kabul’s airport and crushing crowds at border crossings represent a microcosm of the panic spreading through the country that is barely accessible to global media: a vacuum ensured by the systematic killing of journalists and activists by Taliban in the past year. The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports the displacement of over 550,000 Afghans since January 2021 alone, a number that does not take into account those displaced since 2001, many of whom have yet to resettle. How and where is the world going to accommodate another flight of Afghan refugees?
Sadly, humanitarian impulse by itself appears to be insufficient for generating solutions for the expected Afghan displacement, a protracted tragedy 40 years in the making. The expected exodus has produced responses that include the shutting down of borders in the adjoining countries and the EU’s assurance to its residents that they will take measures to prevent illegal migration from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Washington hopes to fly out as many of its Afghan partners as possible and has sought assurances for their security from the Taliban.
However, some hope for the human crisis emerges from the strategic and political realist framework that utilizes refugees as tools for contestations between global and regional powers to advance their global and domestic agendas. At the onset of the Cold War, Western powers opened their doors to Eastern Europeans in order to send a message of their stance to the Soviets, while addressing their own labor shortages. Similarly, in the 1980s, Pakistan, the United States, and their other allies that included China, used Afghan refugees for waging a successful war against the Soviets.
More recently, after the October 2001 American operations that dislodged the Taliban, the United Nations encouraged the repatriation of more than 6 million Afghans, despite the ongoing insecurity in Afghanistan, in order to legitimize and reconstruct a nation after an invasion that killed 5,000 people and displaced over 800,000. After 2019, Iran, the second largest host to Afghan refugees, also pressed for the repatriation of Afghans as an expression of its ire at a defense agreement between the United States and the Ghani administration.
The recent images of Afghans fleeing from Kabul also provide similar strategic and political openings. The reversal in stance of some Republicans to support Afghan refugees is due to a combination of the emerging strategic reality and the fodder it presents to criticize the Biden administration. The Trump administration had reduced the number of asylum seekers permitted into the country and attempted a ban on migration from Muslim countries more broadly, supported by Congressional Republicans. The latest Pew Center survey claims that over 80 percent of Americans support taking in Afghan refugees, albeit only those that helped the United States.
Ironically, the current crisis is also a consequence of the Biden administration’s decision to implement Trump’s policy to transfer American security resources to the Indo-Pacific region. The realist leadership in the country in both parties saw little strategic value in keeping troops in Afghanistan. Media images showing the Afghan families being welcomed at American airports sends a message of Washington’s position toward China and Russia, who have been more open to dealing with Taliban.
The unfolding of the new strategic environment driven by the Russian and Chinese presence in Afghanistan also presents opportunities for affirming old alliances and creating new ones. Washington’s European allies, who were not prepared for such a hasty departure from Afghanistan, are also confirming their commitment to the liberal order. Europe’s refugee concerns are driven by the 2015 Syrian migration crisis. That crisis also included a wave of Afghans looking for new sanctuaries amid increased conflict in Afghanistan and expanded efforts by Pakistani authorities to remove Afghan refugees from their territory. The EU now must balance the new strategic realities with its domestic pressures. Germany announced it will accept at least 10,000 Afghans. Meanwhile, Uganda, Colombia, and Mexico have also agreed to help the United States in providing intermittent solutions to the refugee crisis.
Afghanistan’s neighborhood also appears to be responding to their own unique pressures. While Pakistan repeatedly announced that it cannot accommodate more Afghans, several thousands have already crossed its borders. The country will need to apply humanitarian methods in order to maintain its relevance to the global powers it relies on economically. It must also appease its Pashtun population, which continues to ignore the closed border and welcomes the Afghans as kin. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Taliban allies have yet to recognize Pakistan’s borders. Such political pressures provide openings for the displaced as it did in the 1990s.
Iran, too, is likely to expand its support for Afghans’ Shia minorities, such as the Hazaras, to send a message to the Sunni Taliban regime. Thousands of Hazaras fled to Iran when the Taliban consolidated its brutal regime in the 1990s. As the Iranian regime is dedicated to advancing Shia interests in the Middle East, Afghan’s Shias offer recruitment grounds for Iran’s proxy armies in Syria and other places.
No other nation in modern history has experienced four consecutive decades of violence perpetuated by the actions of local, regional, and external powers who clash, invade, and then abandon in response to their shifting political and strategic interests. Successive waves of Afghan refugees and continued displacement unarguably constitute a protracted human tragedy without an end in sight. Yet, time and time again the involved powers have acknowledged and aided refugees for political and strategic reasons; therefore, the solution to the current human crisis will likely emerge from the same motivations.