Can the EU justify sending additional troops to join the war in Afghanistan even while maintaining a policy that says the country is safe?
It has been over 150 days since Donald Trump became president of the US and the world finally has his position on the country’s longest standing war. Trump has decided to avoid the matter of Afghanistan altogether and pass the buck to his defence secretary, Jim Mattis, who in 2005 offered his belligerent and orientalist view on Afghanistan, stating, “You go into Afghanistan, you got guys who slap women around for five years because they didn’t wear a veil. You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”
By March end, just over two months into his term, Trump and Mattis showed what they were capable of by killing nearly 1,500 civilians in Iraq and Syria, 200 of whom were killed in Mosul, Iraq, on one calamitous day. According to Donatella Rovera, senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, “Evidence gathered on the ground in East Mosul points to an alarming pattern of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes which have destroyed whole houses with entire families inside”. Rovera went on to say that the US military action was a “flagrant violation of international humanitarian law”. Between March 23 and June 23, the US coalition killed at least 472 civilians in Syria, 137 of whom were children.
After barely a word by anyone in the US leadership, the sudden rush to escalate a losing war has begun – the US is courting EU and NATO leaders to commit more soldiers to support its surge in Afghanistan to quell the Taliban militancy and stop a growing ISIS-Khorasan from spreading. While EU politicians debate the merit of sending more troops on the Mattis’s behest, there’s another predicament they should bear in mind – how can the EU send more troops to escalate a war that by all accounts has no end in sight and at the same time maintain a policy of deportation against the Afghans?
The EU narrative of choice has been that ‘Afghans are safe’ to deport to – arguing that those flooding out of Afghanistan are not ‘refugees’ but are either ‘economic’ or ‘irregular’ migrants who are not fleeing immediate danger, but merely “economic hardships”.
The ‘safe zones’ of Afghanistan
Those displaced by the ongoing fighting, which will intensify greatly with a troop surge, are mainly from Afghanistan’s rural areas. Escalated fighting will continue to increase the number of internally displaced people (IDP), as they search for safety in IDP camps or move to the five major cities – Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar Sharif, Herat and Kabul.
Are these cities really safer?
This past month, at the start of Ramadan, a truck carrying a massive payload of explosives tore through one of the “safest” streets in Kabul. The bomb was of extraordinary magnitude and is said to be the biggest to have gone off inside the city since the US/ NATO war began in 2001. The explosion left a 13 foot crater in the ground and destroyed much of the German Embassy. It also took the life of at least 150 Afghan civilians and wounded another 400.
The following day, people took to the streets to protest the security failures that precipitated the attacks. Five protesters were shot dead near the presidential palace by authorities.
The next day, a triple suicide bombing at the funerals for those who had died in the previous day’s protests left another seven people dead and 119 people injured.
This series of shocking incidents have exposed gaping holes in the narrative of choice by German and EU leaders, forcing the question – can Afghanistan be “safe” when your own embassies have been blown up?
The situation is Afghanistan is so dire that the UN reported at least 12,000 war-related civilian casualties, including 923 children, and 2,589 injuries in 2016.
Too little, too late?
At a peak of the US-led war, there was an estimated 100,000 foreign troops on the ground in Afghanistan, yet this was not enough to immobilise the Taliban.
A recent assessment released by US intelligence suggests that the number of additional troops requested – 3,000 to 5,000 – will not be enough, but rather 50,000 troops would be needed to back Kabul’s government and stop the advance of a resurgent Taliban, which now controls an estimated 40% of the country and is strongly contesting another 30%.
Escalated violence last year lead to an estimated 700,000 people being internally displaced, while another million were forced back into Afghanistan after being expelled from neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
According to the UN, another 450,000 will likely be displaced this year, an estimate arrived at even before the US announced its plans to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan.
About 51% of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 25, meaning that more than half of the country’s population have not known a day of peace in their lives, and if they can’t find it inside Afghanistan, they will continue to risk their lives to get to Iran, Turkey, over the Aegean Sea and into Europe in search of peace.
The EU is exposed on this issue and cannot continue to play this double narrative against the Afghan people; either Afghanistan is safe and stable or it is seeing a violent war that the EU is involved in – it simply cannot be both.
Regardless of if Germany, the UK or other countries sign off on more troops, the EU’s policy and narrative of ‘Afghanistan being safe’, which is void of an on-the-ground analysis, needs to end and Afghans risking their lives to reach Europe need to be accepted and protected as refugees.
Mohammed Harun Arsalai is an independent journalist and political activist from the Bay Area, California, and co-founder of the independent media project, Documenting Afghanistan. Currently based in Afghanistan, his recent work focuses on refugees, the war on terror and militant groups operating inside Afghanistan.