One irony of the current security situation in Afghanistan is that foreign forces, whose ostensible aim is to protect civilians while fighting the Taliban, may be responsible – directly or indirectly – for the bulk of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, whose number is rising.
About 400 individuals were displaced each day in 2006-2010 – 730,000 in total – mostly due to military operations by US/NATO forces, according to the Oslo-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), an affiliate of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
The so-called “surge” in US/NATO troops and increased counterinsurgency operations in 2010 resulted in the displacement of about 85,000 people in the volatile south of the country alone. About 10,000 were also displaced by anti-insurgent offensives in the north, IDMC said.
“The US and ISAF [NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] currently lack an understanding of internal displacement in the context of their operations,” Jacob Rothing, an IDMC country analyst, told IRIN, adding that their own standard operating procedures to minimize civilian displacement were not developed and used by US/NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, local militias hired by the government and its US/NATO allies for counterinsurgency purposes, were extorting communities and grabbing land, resulting in further internal displacements, Rothing alleged.
ISAF said it could not “agree or disagree” with the allegation that forces under its command were responsible for most of the civilian displacements in Afghanistan.
“We have not seen the means by which the causes of conflict-related displacements are assigned,” said John L. Dorrian, an ISAF spokesman.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said it was not in a position to say which warring party was most to blame for most internal displacement.
“We can certainly say that people are mostly displaced by conflict – all fighting parties have to be blamed,” said Nader Farhad, a UNHCR spokesman in Kabul.
ISAF, meanwhile, said that its counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign was focused on the protection of civilians.
“The clear principle that Gen David Petraeus [commander of all US/NATO forces in Afghanistan] has conveyed to ISAF troops is that civilian casualties and collateral damage are detrimental to ISAF’s cause,” John L. Dorrian, a NATO/ISAF spokesman in Kabul, told IRIN, adding that if troops operated contrary to the COIN principles “tactical victories may prove to be strategic setbacks”.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported in March that civilian casualties attributed to foreign forces dropped by 26 percent in 2010 compared to the previous year, but the number of noncombatants killed and wounded by armed opposition groups increased by 28 percent in the same period. Over 2,770 Afghan civilians were killed in 2010, UNAMA said.
However, the Taliban rejected UNAMA’s report, calling it “biased”.
“While US and ISAF forces made successful efforts in 2010 to minimize civilian casualties and loss of life, they have not made equivalent efforts to reduce the scale of forced internal displacement, despite its scale and the demonstrated impact of displacement on support for international forces,” said an IDMC report released on 11 April.
Government’s weak capacity
Over one million people were displaced in 2002 after the Taliban regime was toppled by a US-led military intervention. Most of the Pashtun IDPs who had left their homes in the north of the country in 2001-2002 have either returned to their home areas or have been integrated elsewhere in the country, according to aid agencies.
However, with the intensification of conflict over the past five years, tens of thousands of people, mostly in the volatile south, have been forced out of their homes.
While international aid agencies have responded to some of the immediate needs of IDPs (mostly food and non-food aid items), the government has been criticized for its ineffectiveness in solving problems associated with displacement.
“The Afghan government is generally unable or unwilling to assist IDPs,” said the IDMC report.
Islamudin Jurat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugee and Returnee Affairs (MoRRA), agreed there was a lack of institutional capacity to provide long-term solutions to the growing internal displacement.
“MoRRA is part of the government and there are capacity weaknesses all across government. We don’t overlook this but we are committed to building and improving our capacity,” said Jurat.
More IDPs in 2011
More than 390,000 IDPs are currently scattered across the country, mostly in makeshift camps and informal settlements, according to UNHCR, which also says the real number of IDPs could be significantly higher as it does not have access to all of them.
About 49 percent of IDPs are female and 51 percent are male. Fifty-four percent are under 18 and fewer than 2 percent are over 60, according to IDMC.
Despite the unprecedented US/NATO military presence (over 150,000 soldiers), insecurity is widely anticipated to exacerbate in 2011 with more tragic consequences for civilians.
“The IDMC expects displacements to rise in 2011 in comparison to 2010,” said Jacob Rothing, adding that 78,000 people were displaced between September 2010 and January 2011 compared to only 18,000 in the five preceding months.
“Displacement is already increasing in the north,” he said.
Other humanitarian agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have also warned that the security situation has become “untenable” for civilians.
“The first two months of 2011 have seen a dramatic deterioration in the security situation for ordinary Afghans,” ICRC said on 15 March.
To reduce civilian displacements, IDMC said, US/NATO forces should abide by their own standard operating procedures to protect civilians “before, during and after” military operations and develop appropriate monitoring and reporting mechanisms on forced displacements.
“We would strongly encourage the military leadership to develop such guidelines in consultation with UNHCR, IDPs and other competent organizations,” said IDMC’s Rothing.
NATO/ISAF said it was providing “an enormous amount of humanitarian aid” to Afghans – almost 500,000 beneficiaries in the first quarter of 2011.
Aid agencies, however, contend that in terms of humanitarian response they come first, and that NATO/ISAF’s best help would be to avoid or at least minimize civilian displacements as a result of their military activities.