The Failure to Protect: Battle-Affected IDPs in Southern Afghanistan

Alex Mundt and
Alex Mundt Consultant, Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement
Susanne Schmeidl
Susanne Schmeidl Senior Research Fellow, Griffith University (Australia)

June 22, 2009

In early May, villagers in a remote corner of Western Afghanistan recounted how they tried to secure children, women and elderly men in a series of village compounds for safety during a raid on their village. After their houses were bombed, the villagers loaded the dead bodies onto trucks and brought them to the provincial capital as graphic proof of the carelessness of the international military forces and the enormous toll of the conflict on innocent civilians.[1] A military investigation of the incident later found that significant errors were made by American military personnel and that the civilian death toll in Farah would have likely been far lower had strict rules designed to minimize civilian casualties been followed.[2]

Civilians have long borne the brunt of the conflict in Afghanistan. During a working visit to Afghanistan in August 2007, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) expressed concern that the methods both of the Taliban and of anti-insurgency operations were disproportionately impacting civilians.[3] Since then, the situation has only deteriorated, and is expected to worsen in the coming months with the increased international military presence and accompanied rise in “kinetic activities” in the South.[4]

According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), civilian casualties in 2008, totalling 2,118, were 40% higher than the year prior.[5] Speaking at the Brookings Institution in the wake of the Farah bombing, Afghan President Hamid Karzai noted that the success of the new American strategy depends on “making absolutely sure that Afghans don’t suffer—that Afghan civilians are protected.” Echoing this view, the new US Force Commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, stated that the new measure of effectiveness would be the “number of Afghans shielded from violence,” rather than the number of insurgents killed.

While civilian casualties are widely covered by the media and have emerged in recent years as a rallying point for disaffection with the international military presence, broader protection concerns, particularly the plight of battle-affected IDPs, remain invisible and largely unacknowledged. The renewed counterinsurgency strategy of “clear, hold and build,”[6] assumes that displacement is a short-term phenomenon, linked only to the more visible aspects of military engagement. Relief agencies, as a result of access restrictions and a subsequent lack of information, or a wariness of creating pull factors and longer-term aid dependency, have likewise tended to reinforce this simplistic view of displaced communities eager to return once the bombs have stopped falling. However, in its 2008 IDP profile, the National Task Force noted that “the assumption that we have made, that most “battle-affected” IDPs do not move too far from their homes and rapidly return home once the fighting has ended is likely to be seriously challenged.”[7]

Research conducted by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement and the Afghan NGO The Liaison Office (TLO) suggests that the assumptions regarding battle-affected IDPs are indeed flawed in at least three key, interrelated respects:

  1. The estimates of battle-affected displacement are likely grossly underestimated;
  2. The reasons for displacement are more subtle and complex than is commonly held; and
  3. The perceived short-term nature of displacement is the result of a lack of realistic alternatives among rural poor rather than a preference to immediately return to villages of origin.

The figure of 235,000 IDPs, estimated by the national IDP task force in its December 2008 national profile, has become the standard (and static) reference point for internal displacement in Afghanistan. However, the numbers largely reflect protracted caseloads in “contained” camp-like situations known to the UN Refugee Agency and other relief organizations rather than providing a more fluid picture of a dynamic situation of active and increasing conflict. For example, since 2004 there may be as many as 200,000 new arrivals in Spin Boldak, a southern district of Kandahar province bordering Pakistan, many of whom cite increasing insecurity as the cause of flight from areas of origin.[8] When added to the increasing numbers of those squatting in the poor outskirts of Kandahar-city, this single southern province most likely hosts more than twice the original, officially recognized IDP figure for the country as a whole. The picture differs little in the neighboring provinces of Helmand and Uruzgan, where reports of new IDP arrivals have multiplied in recent months.[9]

Actual numbers aside, preliminary interviews with “battle-affected” IDPs also suggest that the group may not be as homogeneous as previously thought. The assumption that IDPs are only driven by actual battle is misguided, at least according to IDPs themselves, many of whom fled either pro-actively in fear of anticipated fighting or as a result of increasing intimidation and harassment by Taliban and/or pro-government elements. The more subtle aspects of the conflict—the breakdown of law and order, loss of livelihoods, and a lack of access to critical social services—have left rural inhabitants with few options to ensure their safety and survival.

On the one hand, they have to deal with an inept, and often highly corrupt, Afghan government unable to provide basic security and access to services. On the other, they are confronted by a growing and highly mobile insurgency well-known for its brutality. Compounding these difficulties are international military forces with often-conflicting objectives of providing security for the local population (ISAF/NATO) while at the same time pursuing an intensified counterinsurgency strategy (Coalition/Special Forces). An IDP from Khas Uruzgan explains the dilemma of being caught between the front lines: “There are now six governments—PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), Hazara Militias[10], ANA (Afghanistan National Army), ANP (Afghanistan National Police), District government, and the Taliban. We are caught in the middle of all of them. If you side with the government, then the Taliban will kill you. If you side with the Taliban, the government will take you or the bombs will fall. The fighting was getting worse, so we left. There is no choice.”[11]

Others speak of harassment from Taliban forces in terms of extorting food, beatings, or threats if individuals are considered pro-government. A former police-chief from Gizab district in Uruzgan (which is currently under full Taliban control) said most ex-government officials or pro-government elders have left: “All people working for the government fled, all tribal elders fled, and anyone with money fled. “[12] For this category of conflict-induced IDPs, displacement tends to be long-term and IDPs make strategic choices regarding safe-havens. Yet rational choices by IDPs concerning where to settle tend to obscure national and international perceptions regarding their rights as IDPs, including their fundamental right to seek assistance and safety in any part of the country.[13] For instance, the availability and cost of rental accommodations, the prospects for livelihoods, and levels of ethnic antipathy have all emerged as factors in IDP decision-making, but at the same time have reinforced a perception of IDPs as economic migrants rather than battle-affected populations.

The defining characteristic of the decision-making process appears to be the self-awareness among IDPs that they will be largely on their own, wherever they choose to settle. In reality, this has translated into a situation in which only wealthier households are able to afford the luxury of a safe haven from the increasing and unpredictable violence. The rural poor in conflict-affected areas are left to fend for themselves and make compromises with whichever side holds the upper hand in a given area. That civilians flee direct conflict or aerial bombardment and then immediately return to villages of origin as soon as the situation stabilizes feeds a convenient narrative of the Afghan government, the international military, and relief agencies, all of whom prefer to see displacement as a short-term phenomenon with limited protection and assistance needs.[14] In truth, the reality is far more complex and many civilians, particularly the most vulnerable, have few options other than to remain in situations of unpredictable armed conflict.

While the protection of Afghan civilians has assumed its rightful place on the agendas of military and humanitarian actors alike, the sole focus on preventing civilian casualties has overshadowed other key elements of human security. Unfortunately, increased civilian displacement is a natural by-product of any armed conflict, yet the protection of battle-affected IDPs seems to have fallen largely outside the security equation in Afghanistan. Military actors, conscious of their respective public’s limited tolerance for prolonged engagement in Afghanistan, are perhaps reluctant to acknowledge the true scale of forced displacement—generally a key indicator of worsening security. Humanitarian agencies, long conditioned to view Afghanistan through a post-conflict lens, want to avoid the creation of pull factors and aid dependency that often characterize emergency, rather than development contexts. And finally, with upcoming elections, a national government with rapidly diminishing reach is determined to put its best foot forward and campaign on the glowing achievements of post-conflict Afghanistan. Sadly, IDPs are paying a high price for this wilful ignorance. As one IDP puts it, “Why is there no help for the IDPs? What is the problem with us? We had big expectations that international agencies would help us. The international community has spent millions and millions, but still the government here cannot stand on its own feet.”[15]

[1] Rahim Faiez and Jason Straziuso, “Afghans Allege Dozens of Civilian Deaths from US-Led Bombings,” Huffington Post, 5 May 2009. 

[2] Erich Schmitt and Thom Shanker, “U.S. Report Finds Errors in Airstrikes,” The New York Times, 2 June 2009. 

[3] United Nations Press Release, “UN Expert Concerned About Growing Problem of Internal Displacement in Afghanistan,” August 20, 2007.

[4] Interview, Representative, US Army, 14 June 2009.

[5] UNAMA, Afghanistan: Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, 2008, United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, Human Rights Unit, January 2009.

[6] Mainly applied by Coalition Forces and selected PRT lead nations.

[7] National IDP Profile, p.14.

[8] Interview with Spin Boldak IDP shura leader. 8 June 2008. Subsequent visits to Spin Boldak confirmed large numbers of tents and makeshift camp-like accommodation.

[9] IDP Task Force Meeting, 12 May 2009, confirmed new battle-affected displacements of 1200 households in Lashkar Gah, and 183 families as a result of fighting in Ghor. UNHCR since has received additional unconfirmed reports of displacement from Uruzgan and Kandahar.

[10] IDPs from Khas Uruzgan also note one reason for leaving the harassment by a Hazara-dominated Afghan National Police that is working together with American Special Forces and, among others, conducts house searches. As one IDP put it bluntly: “I went to Spin Boldak to save my dignity. We don’t want to see our wives and daughters without their shawls, searched in front of us. We were humiliated.”

[11] Interview, Kandahar-city IDP from Gizab district in Uruzgan, Kandahar-city, 30 May 2009.

[12] Interview, Kandahar-city IDP from Gizab district in Uruzgan, Kandahar-city, 30 May 2009.

[13] United Nations, 1999, Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (New York: Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs).

[14] Currently, only the International Committee for the Red Cross, through its national counterpart, the Afghan Red Crescent society, provides one-time emergency food and NFI assistance to confirmed IDPs.

[15] Interview, tribal elder of a Spin Boldak IDP settlement, Kandahar-city, 29 May 2009.