Internal displacement is generally regarded as a natural, albeit unfortunate, byproduct of armed conflict that implies a response by the national government concerned and increasingly, by the international community. Situations of large-scale internal displacement are complicated by the fact that the governments in question are frequently directly involved in the conflict which gives rise to the displacement or simply lack the capacity to protect citizens effectively when violence erupts. At the same time, international actors, mindful of national sovereignty, or influenced by geopolitical
or other concerns, are often unable or unwilling to fill the protection gap in a coordinated way that is timely and sufficiently effective.
Perhaps no situation illustrates these complexities better than Afghanistan, where forced displacement—as a result of endemic fighting and chronic natural disasters—has been a nearly constant element in the lives of millions of people for over three decades, creating the world’s largest post-World War II refugee population and leaving more than one million internally displaced. Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, nearly 5 million refugees and one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have attempted to return home, lured by promises of peace and economic development. Approximately 2.8 million refugees remain in exile.6 Many of those who did return were unable to go back to their homes. As international efforts in Afghanistan have floundered and fighting against a resurgent Taliban intensifies, internal displacement is again on the rise.
This has made internal displacement a highly politicized and controversial topic in Afghanistan, particularly in terms of its relationship to military strategy. The debate has largely centered on the need to limit aerial bombardment and other combat operations in order to reduce civilian casualties, which would in turn reduce forced displacement from villages and lessen resentment against the international presence. In some quarters, particularly among donor nations and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) responsible for security in Afghanistan, an increase in the actual numbers of IDPs might be one indicator of their failure to stabilize Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.