The worst-case scenario for Afghan women is playing out before our eyes. The international community cannot sit by idly.
The Taliban continued this week to roll back Afghan women’s rights by decreeing women must be fully covered from head to toe — including their faces — to appear in public. This follows decrees limiting women’s ability to work, women’s and girls’ access to education and even limiting their freedom of movement. Afghan women are rapidly facing the worst-case scenario many feared when the Taliban took over last summer. While the Taliban justify these moves as in accordance with Islam, they are, in fact, contradicting Islamic tradition and Afghan culture as the group looks to resurrect the full control they had over women and girls when they ruled in the 1990s.The two-page order says that because “99 percent of Afghan women are already observing Islamic hijab there is no reason for the remaining one percent not to follow the Shariah-prescribed hijab.” The order further states that black clothes and scarves that are not tight-fitting are an acceptable type of hijab along with the preferred burqa. But the first and best form of “obeying hijab” for women — meaning covering their faces — is to “not leave home without necessity.”Domestic violence in Afghanistan is already high: A 2021 poll of over 200 women’s rights experts ranked Afghanistan as the worst place in the world to be a woman. Before the Taliban’s takeover, there were laws and policies, and governmental and non-governmental institutions mandated to protect women’s rights. Since their takeover in August, the Taliban have suspended Afghanistan’s constitution and other laws protecting women’s rights. Additionally, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, independent commissions such as the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Commission to Eliminate Violence Against Women, and women’s rights organizations have all been suspended.In the absence of protection mechanisms for women, violence against women at home and other forms of abuse perpetrated against Afghan women and girls are on the rise and can be expected to increase more due to this decree.
The Taliban Prove They Haven’t Changed
Rather than changing their reviled policies from the 1990s, the Taliban are reverting to form as they seek to demonstrate their hardline credentials over groups like Islamic State-Khorasan Province and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. The Taliban have even called on Afghan media to explain the importance of the hijab for women.
The second part of the Taliban’s order lists punishments for violators: First a warning to the (male) head of the household, then a summons to a government office, followed by three days in jail for the male guardian and ultimately a court case with even harsher punishments to follow. The order is silent on whether women who do not cover properly will be beaten as they were in the 1990s, but it does specify that “women who conduct activities within organs related to the Emirate and do not observe hijab are to be dismissed from their positions.”
The Taliban say the decrees is based on Islam although the vast majority of Muslims — outside Iran and Saudi Arabia — do not follow the type of dress code the Taliban are prescribing for Afghan women. Given that Afghanistan is an overwhelmingly Muslim, traditional and patriarchal society, a significant number of conservative Afghan men will not object to the Taliban’s decision.
The Taliban are reinforcing Afghanistan’s patriarchal system, where men decide for and on behalf of women. The order legitimizes men’s control over women and the humiliation of women in public, paving the way for increased domestic violence, harassment and oppression of Afghan women and girls. Further, the decree gives ammunition to conservative Afghan men who aim to prevent women from exercising their right to participate in public life. It essentially encourages harassment and oppression of women and girls. Fundamentally, it shows that the Taliban’s policies concerning women have not changed.
The Taliban’s hijab decree not only runs counter to Afghanistan’s history and culture, but it also demonstrates their narrow understanding of Islam.
An Affront to Afghan history
While the exact time when the burqa was introduced as a cover for women in Afghanistan is unknown, Afghans believe that the burqa — or chadari as Afghans refer to it — was imported from Persia and later in the 20th century from India. It is therefore a relatively modern and foreign phenomenon. Over the past several decades Afghan women have categorically rejected the narrative that the burqa is a part of an Afghan traditional dress code for women.
Afghanistan is an agriculture-centered country, where women have been active in farming. Loose clothing and head scarves have been and continue to be worn by women throughout the country to allow them to work on farms, forests and livestock.
The Taliban are undermining Afghan culture and imposing a type of hijab that was foreign to a majority of Afghan women before the 1990s. Some Afghan women have made the personal choice to wear a burqa in a public setting. But it wasn’t until fundamentalist mujahedeen groups took control of the country in 1992 that many women were forced to wear a burqa to disguise their identity and avoid being harassed by mujahedeen fighters and criminals. Despite the mujahedeen’s decision that women must be fully covered while in public, the vast majority did not submit to this requirement.
In 1996, when the Taliban took control of the country they enforced the state-imposed burqa on women. It wasn’t only the type of cover they imposed on women, but the color of the burqa itself and the clothing underneath was also prescribed. Women found to wear stylish and bright color clothes under the burqa were publicly beaten, whipped and humiliated. There was no way around it.
A Narrow Understanding of Islam
The Taliban’s justification for imposing the hijab in the name of Islam and Shariah is contradictory to the spirit of Islam. The Taliban use “hijab” as a synonym for women’s clothing and cover. However, Quranic references to the hijab are not necessarily about women’s clothes. Islam ordained a perdah, or “curtain,” for the wives of the Prophet, not for all Muslim women. A majority of Islamic scholars agree that hijab refers to the curtain in the front a door of a home that women in the Prophet Muhammad’s household were obliged to use. According to the Quran and other important Islamic texts and traditions, the face, hands and the feet are not included as part of required forms of Islamic dress.
The Taliban’s proposed penalties for violating their dress code are another point of dubious Islamic legality, stating that the male guardian of any woman who does not follow the obligations in this order will be punished. Yet according to basic legal principles and Shariah norms one cannot be arrested or punished for the action of others — not to mention the implication that women are under the control of the men who would be punished for their alleged transgressions.
Perhaps the most troubling point about the Taliban’s order, however, is that essentially calls on woman to avoid public life: “The best way to obey the hijab for women is to not go out of the home.” Again, to stay at home was an option for women in the Prophet’s household not for all Muslim women, as the Quran clearly states in Chapter 33:33.
By ordering women to stay at home, the Taliban are throwing more obstacles in front of women to prevent them from taking part in public life. This seemingly ignores the vital role Muslim women have played in social, political, economic and cultural life throughout the history of Islam. For example, one of the Prophet’s wives, Khadija, was a successful businesswoman who managed and employed men as her subordinates and partners, including the Prophet. Women have held positions as mayors, judges, military commanders, teachers, architects and so on throughout the Muslim world. Justifying restrictions on women’s mobility and access to rights has nothing to do with Islam. If anything, it proves the Taliban’s ignorance of Islam — and the ignorance of others who have employed Islam to suppress women.
In response to the hijab decree, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said Monday, “We’ve addressed it directly with the Taliban … There are steps that we will continue to take to increase pressure on the Taliban to reverse some of these decisions, to make good on the promises that they have made.”
Since taking power, the Taliban have shown that they are largely immune to pressure. Despite harsh sanctions and the withholding of diplomatic recognition, they have remained unbowed and unwilling to concede. While the international community has predicated diplomatic recognition on maintaining Afghan girls’ access to education, the Taliban have made moves to limit such access. After 20 years of hard-won gains, Afghan women and girls are watching their rights evaporate before their eyes.
“What is happening right now in Afghanistan is the most serious women’s rights crisis in the world today,” Heather Barr, the associate women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch, recently wrote. The international community cannot sit by idly. The U.N. Security Council is meeting today to discuss the Taliban’s decree. Closed door conversations and statements of condemnation are not enough — urgent action is needed now.
Afghanistan is also in the midst of a massive humanitarian and hunger crisis. The Taliban need financial assistance and sanctions relief to address these humanitarian challenges. They also want formal diplomatic recognition. The United States and concerned partners should leverage financial assistance and sanctions relief to incentivize the Taliban to respect women’s rights. It is the least that can be done for the brave Afghan women who have and continue to stand up against the Taliban and their repression.
Mohammad Osman Tariq is a senior advisor for the Religion and Inclusive Societies program at USIP.
The data is clear: While violence overall has decreased from the height of armed clashes between former Afghan government forces and the Taliban between May and August 2021, there has been a marked shift in violence against women, journalists, and educators that was simply not there under the previous government’s rule. Women have been forced to cover their faces and all but forbidden from public space. The Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan (ISKP) has launched several high-profile terrorist attacks, fueling ethnic and religious tensions. Other trends in the data reveal a worrying rise in violence against former Afghan government forces, recently confirmed by the New York Times, and intense infighting between various Taliban factions and interests.
These factors present significant risks for renewed conflict in Afghanistan and the region, and underscore two important points. First, it is critical to continue data collection efforts despite the risks in order to accurately and independently assess violent trends under Taliban rule. Second, tracking trends on terrorist threats in Afghanistan may provide one of the only sources of credible information on resurgent terrorist activity, particularly transnational terrorist groups that already have an established foothold in the region, such as al-Qaida, the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), and Central Asian terrorist groups.
During the reporting period, APW recorded hundreds of incidents related to bombings, assassinations, abductions, and other forms of violence perpetrated by the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Using its exhaustive local networks and social media monitoring, APW is also working to map the leadership and interlinkages between these terrorist groups as they swap loyalties and engage in intense infighting, leading to new terrorist agendas and greater risks for the entire region.
Between August 2021 and March 2022, APW and ACLED recorded 33 incidents of Taliban infighting. Highly successful efforts made by the Taliban during their campaign last year to co-opt key actors in the north and other non-traditional Taliban strongholds seem particularly tenuous now, as there are inadequate spoils of war to placate these actors and their patronage networks. The Taliban government has coalesced around its real centers of gravity — the southern Kandahari leadership, the notorious eastern Haqqani network, and the emerging Ghazni-led intelligence apparatus — leaving little space for other ethnic and minority groups.
In the last few months alone, at least six new armed opposition groups have been announced opposing Taliban rule, many made up of former Afghan security forces (ANDSF) left behind and continually targeted for retribution by the Taliban, despite the general amnesty announced last year.
While the National Resistance Front (NRF) was the first group to engage in armed resistance against the Taliban under the leadership of the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud in Panjshir, several former ANDSF groups have also been more recently announced, including the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF) and the Pashtun-led Afghanistan Liberation Movement (ALM), demonstrating wide ranging and multiethnic opposition to the Taliban, including from within the Pashtun majority.
Between Taliban infighting, the plethora of emerging armed opposition groups, and the ever-changing terrorist landscape, violence in Afghanistan is set to rise with the fast-approaching summer fighting season. As the Taliban fail to placate their rank and file, or deliver on basic governance, the façade of a strong and united Taliban that governed effectively from the shadows is likely to dissipate. The reduction in violence visible in the data between September and December last year, interpreted by some as implicit evidence of local support for the Taliban, may be short lived.
Afghanistan fatigue remains high among international donors as fraught evacuation efforts and an impasse over girls’ access to education continue to dominate diplomatic overtures to the Taliban. The horrific events unfolding in Ukraine, which pose a direct and immediate threat to NATO, have also, understandably, diverted attention away from Afghanistan.
But just like the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the collapse of the Soviet Union before that, history suggests that when the international community abandons Afghanistan, violence and extremism tend to simmer before they explode onto the international stage. The question now is has the international community learned its lesson or are we doomed to repeat the same mistake in Afghanistan again?
As the World Looks Away, Violence Is on the Rise Again in Afghanistan
Kabul, Afghanistan, May 12, 2022 — A new IRC report confirms that the economic crisis that has engulfed Afghanistan since August 2021 is now the primary driver of persistent food insecurity threatening the survival of nearly 20 million Afghans, who are experiencing extreme hunger in the face of continuing political uncertainty and economic calamity.
Unemployment and poverty are now the greatest drivers of internal displacement. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) sees firsthand that humanitarian aid cannot replace a functioning economy and state. In Afghanistan, the collapse of both is driving 97 per cent of the population into poverty. The current humanitarian crisis could kill far more Afghans than the past 20 years of war.
For the first time in almost a decade, some Afghans are experiencing famine. New analysis from the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) shows that 20,000 people are experiencing IPC 5 – the most extreme level of food insecurity. New assessment findings show that economic shocks, not conflict, COVID or drought, are the most common challenge facing households and the most common driver of needs.
In response to these trends Afghans are forced to turn to increasingly desperate coping mechanisms. 43% of Afghanistan’s population is living on less than one meal a day, levels of household debt are rising driven by the need to buy food, and reports of child marriage and labour as well as organ sales are rising.
Meanwhile, the escalating conflict in Ukraine is having a devastating impact on global food supplies. As the price of grain increases and seed oil imports are jeopardised, countries like Afghanistan are being pushed further towards famine.
Vicki Aken, IRC Afghanistan Director, said, “The fact that Afghanistan is facing record high figures of food insecurity is an indictment of the policies adopted by the international community towards Afghanistan. Although we are nearing the end of the lean season, the country is still in the grips of one the worst droughts in decades, which has severely hampered food production and left millions without a source of income. But it is the economic crisis that has pushed Afghans to the brink.
“The crisis in Afghanistan is evolving into a catastrophe of choice as the policies of international donors designed to economically isolate the Taliban are simultaneously collapsing the Afghan economy and pushing nearly 20 million Afghans into a state of acute food insecurity. The freezing of Afghanistan’s foreign reserves, the grounding of the banking system, and halting of development assistance, which financed most government services, have had swift and catastrophic impacts for ordinary Afghans. Today 90% of Afghans surveyed report food as their primary need. Between 2021 and 2022 the number of households reporting debt has risen from 78 to 82. The cause of rising family debt is easy to identify – the need to buy food.
“At the same time, the role of women in society is continually called into question and it is becoming more difficult for them to access work. With over thirty years of experience in delivering humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, the IRC knows that women play a vital role in accessing the communities who need it most as they are the only people who can reach the most vulnerable, particularly women and children. Recent decrees on girls’ education and other restrictions are making it increasingly difficult for them to do so, and we are profoundly fearful that the situation could continue to deteriorate.
“This is a pivotal moment for Afghanistan; the world cannot afford to look away as its economy teeters on the brink of collapse and the progress of the last twenty years is lost. The international community can and should do much more to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of innocent Afghans, with action to avert Afghanistan’s slide into total economic collapse urgently needed.”
To date, the US and other Western governments have focused on providing humanitarian funding based on a famine prevention strategy, putting in place important humanitarian exemptions and offering much-needed clarity on sanctions regimes at the bilateral and multilateral levels. However, the severity of the situation facing ordinary Afghans requires more than humanitarian solutions.
The report outlines key recommendations for immediate actions to support public service delivery and the humanitarian response, such as:
Fully fund the humanitarian appeal and quickly translate humanitarian donor pledges into funding for frontline responders and support their ability to operate.
Launch the UN’s Humanitarian Exchange Facility (HEF) as a temporary mechanism to provide liquidity.
Disperse the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) immediately to support critical service delivery, including health, livelihoods, agriculture and education services which remain available; commit to replenish the ARTF.
Steps needed towards international engagement in support of the Afghan economy include:
Urgently convene key stakeholders including IFIs, UN and key donors on the Afghan economy.
Deploy technical assistance to Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB).
Provide guidance and reassurance to the private and banking sector.
To read more detailed recommendations, view the report here.
The IRC began work in Afghanistan in 1988, and now works with thousands of villages across ten provinces, with Afghans making up more than 99% of IRC staff in the country. As Afghanistan struggles to recover from ongoing conflict and natural disasters, the IRC: works with local communities to identify, plan and manage their own development projects, provides safe learning spaces in rural areas, community-based education, cash distribution provides uprooted families with tents, clean water, sanitation and other basic necessities, and helps people find livelihood opportunities as well as extensive resilience programming.
New IRC report calls for specific actions to avert growing needs in Afghanistan, as almost half the population lives on less than one meal a day
Panicked Afghans by the thousands tried to escape their country as the United States evacuated last year. They feared that a victorious Taliban would offer no more respect for basic rights, especially those of women, than the movement did when it ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. For its part, the Taliban issued soothing promises of an “inclusive” government that would eschew the executions, persecution and forced veiling of women that marked its first reign.
Those who fled distrusted the Taliban, and evidence is mounting that they were right. Having announced in March that it would break a promise to reopen secondary schools to girls, the Taliban on May 7 ordered almost all Afghan women to wear clothing that covers them from head to toe, preferably the shapeless garment known as a burqa. The decree further urged women to stay home except when necessary, and made their male relatives — “guardians” — legally responsible for violations of the dress code. It amounts to quasi-house arrest for half the country’s people.
Small but courageous groups of women staged protest marches in Kabul on Tuesday. In at least one instance, they were met by Taliban operatives, who threatened to shoot them, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — though there were apparently no casualties or reported arrests. Other women in Kabul appear to be resisting the new edict passively, refusing to don a burqa and continuing to travel through the city unaccompanied, according to a May 8 Associated Press report. The Taliban has not yet enforced the rule strictly, though whether because of some unofficial grace period or because of policy disagreements within the ruling group is impossible to say.
What is clear is that women must fear enforcement, because hard-line opposition to their freedom is now the Taliban’s official declared position. “Islamic principles and Islamic ideology are more important to us than anything else,” said Shir Mohammad, a spokesman for the Taliban Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. Theocracy of this stripe is wrong in principle. In this case, moreover, the Taliban appears to be articulating its own extreme traditions rather than any religious consensus. Of course, there is no opportunity for democratic discussion on such matters in Afghanistan, since the ultimate decision-maker is the Taliban’s leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, who is not only unelected but also — almost literally — invisible. He has appeared in public only twice since 2016; subordinates issued the new decree in his name.
The Taliban’s reversion to repressive type presents a challenge for the United States and other democratic countries, which — laudably — decried this latest broken promise. The U.N. Security Council took up the matter Thursday at the request of Norway, but at a closed session. The Biden administration has conditioned diplomatic recognition and economic aid on Taliban respect for human rights. Though a difficult line to draw, given the Afghan people’s desperate humanitarian needs, the United States has been right to draw it; this country and its allies cannot bankroll a regime that so blatantly subjugates women. We, too, have basic principles to uphold.
The economic crisis and the country’s hardening stance towards irregular migrants are making Turkey a less hospitable destination for Afghans fleeing persecution or searching for livelihood opportunities abroad. In the first part of this report, Fabrizio Foschini looked at trends in Afghan migration to and through Turkey and how migrants have faced increased bureaucratic obstacles since the economic crisis of 2021, and hostility by broadening sections of the Turkish public opinion. In this second part, he explores the livelihoods and locations of Afghan communities in Istanbul, their role in the Turkish economy and how they are perceived in Turkish society. Through the voices of those interviewed, he looks at the difficulties and risks facing Afghans when travelling to Turkey and when trying to leave it, given both Turkish security forces and those of neighbouring European Union countries have tightened their control of borders.
Construction site in Kucuksu, seen from Yenimahalle, Instanbul. Photo: Fabrizio FoschiniThe first part of this report can be read here.
From scraps to blocks
The 2021 Turkish movie Kağıttan Hayatlar (Paper Lives) tells the story of Istanbul’s çekçek workers, the rubbish collectors. They contribute to keeping the megalopolis reasonably clean by pulling around bulky handcarts filled with anything that might be profitably recycled. The movie explores the plight of a group of rubbish collectors, portraying them as street kids abandoned by their parents. Determining the nationality of the individuals in what is depicted as a brotherly community of underdogs is certainly not the primary objective of the movie. Yet the story could have been realised with a cast and characters composed mostly of Afghans. Instead, despite the true-to-life portrayal of their squalid living conditions and young age, there is no overt mention of their status – only hints that they might be undocumented migrants, such as whenthey are told by their minder: “Don’t get caught by the cops.”
Afghan çekçek collectors – most often, young or even underage boys – are a common sight across Istanbul, from the peripheries to the more upmarket areas. Indeed, in central neighbourhoods like Galata or Cihangir, they are likely to be the only Afghans one will meet. Collecting rubbish is typically the first job newcomers can get as they don’t speak the language or have any documents. This can be a transitory occupation, ranging from a few months to a few years, or it can become a lifelong occupation. AAN met an elderly Faryabi, who, despite having lived some 15 years in Turkey and having learnt the language perfectly (helped by his native Uzbek), was still working collecting rubbish, having been promoted only in a minor way, from the streets to the depot where the rubbish is sorted. He was still undocumented and his remark as to why – “Kasi mara kar nadarad” (nobody bothers /cares about me) – somehow reflects the attitude of the Turkish state towards those carrying out this unregulated yet vital economic activity.
If çekçek collectors are active all over the city (see here), other prospective jobs for Afghans are more closely connected to specific areas. Two neighbourhoods where most Afghans in Istanbul seem to live provide a snapshot of their lives.
Zeytinburnu, a large municipality on the western side of the city, is the most famous of the two. It features a veritable Afghan enclave. Its southernmost area close to the Marmara Sea hosts the most visible and sizeable Afghan community in Turkey.
Contrary to common assumptions about immigrants filling dilapidated neighbourhoods or second-rate areas, Zeytinburnu, although not central, is reasonably tidy and very well-connected by public transport. Indeed, the completion of the Marmaray railway in 2019 made it one of the best-connected suburbs to downtown Istanbul’s tourist and business areas.
With its long-settled population of Uyghurs and people from Central Asia, the Caucasus and former Soviet republics, Zeytinburnu has long been a multi-ethnic neighbourhood in a multi-ethnic metropolis. Afghans first settled there some three decades ago, and although it was only a small community back then, they have since become a useful bridgehead for more recent arrivals.
Those early pioneers of Afghan immigration now hold Turkish citizenship and own real estate in the area, which they are keen to rent out to their compatriots. Many Afghan families, arguably most of those present in Istanbul, reside in Zeytinburnu, where one can find the highest concentration of community-oriented services and shops – Afghan associations, restaurants, bakeries, call centres, ice-cream sellers, supermarkets displaying cricket bats, dastmals (scarves), green tea, national flags and other items that make life in exile more bearable. As such, Zeytinburnu is where many Afghan newcomers would more naturally have connections or acquaintances, and where those with little hope come searching for help, shelter or information on how to proceed further. The neighbourhood tends to become home both for the Afghans who settle in Turkey and those who are only transiting, as it is the best place to keep in touch with Afghan communities spread between their homeland and Europe.
Afghans in Zeytinburnu tend to be busy with ‘typical’ Afghan chores, such as baking naan and roasting kebabs, or employed in jobs more specific to the place they inhabit. The neighbourhood is dotted with small textile factories, often single, street-level rooms, easily recognisable by the number of young Afghans, Syrians and other foreigners grouping around them for a tea-break or the call to prayer. Indeed, the import of food and provision of services directed to fellow Afghans is a sector expanding, along with with the size of the migrant community. Most store or restaurant owners, however, were either early settlers or individuals who recently moved there, but had enough capital at their disposal to invest in permits, rent and imports.
Then there are those who, either less connected or hoping to resume an onward trip to Europe, resort only to occasional jobs. On the seaside quay of Zeytinburnu, lined with a carefully tended public park, groups of young Afghan children can be seen wielding reflex (SLR) cameras and taking pictures. This is not an NGO project to allow migrants to document their lives. These children are professional photographers, asking passers-by to have their pictures taken (to be shared by USB or WhatsApp). The cameras are all identical (Canon 600D, mounting a 70-200mm medium zoom lens, brand Ultrasonic). Although some of the children AAN interviewed claimed to have bought them for 5,000 TL (around 370 USD in December 2021’s exchange rate), the cameras may have been given to them by local street stall vendors in exchange for a share of their earnings. Except for weekends, when locals crowd the promenade and families picnic on the grass, they seem mostly to take pictures of their Afghan friends. However, given they charge only 2 lira (around 0.17 USD) per picture, the treat of a seaside portrait taken with a professional camera – a welcome change from the endless series of clumsy selfies – is attractive to a much broader range of potential clients.
Moving away from the centre, Beykoz is a remote municipality compared to the well-connected Zeytinburnu. Holed up along the Bosphorus on the Asian side, it features two neighbourhoods with a strong Afghan presence: Küçüksu and Yenimahalle. The historic fin de siècle palace and park are reminders of Küçüksu’s past as a leisure resort outside the city. As the name ‘little water’ suggests, a small creek flows through the neighbourhood to the Bosphorus. Its well-watered valley, sheltered from the winds and close to the waterfront, is home to many villas and plant nurseries. A few hundred metres inland, in front of a mosque at a crossroads, Afghan daily labourers gather every morning hoping for a day’s work. On a hill on the right-hand side, recently-built middle-class homes and several new residential projects are starting to host the city’s ever-expanding population. The opposite hill, on the northern side of the valley, is a patchwork of older and shabbier buildings. This is Yenimahalle, where most Afghans live when they are not busy working on construction sites. The neighbourhood was originally developed in the 1960s and 1970s as an informal settlement by migrants from the Black Sea region and eastern Turkey, including those of Kurdish origin. Newcomers would mostly squat on what was back then state-owned land and build makeshift houses. They would later claim the property as their own and try to regularise their tenure with the municipality. The area is nothing close to degraded, but unclear land property documents, the availability of old houses and apartment blocks and poor public transport links contribute to keeping prices down. Several years ago, some Afghans made their way here to work in the construction sector and more have since followed in search of affordable housing and jobs in the continuing construction boom – Istanbul’s growth has expanded into this area of small orchards and hilly scrublands, slowly encroaching onto the forested areas to the east.
Local Afghan residents claim they currently number 10,000 (albeit with only 50 to 60 families among them), while the municipality says there are just over half of that figure (see a short documentary on migration in the area here). Be that as it may, despite Afghans constituting the main foreign residents in the area, their presence is much less visible here than in Zeytinburnu, as are community-oriented services. Indeed, the area only has one Afghan shop and community association, which consists of a desk with a young, educated Uzbek Afghan sitting behind a laptop inside a storehouse filled with imported rice and cooking oil for sale. The majority of the Afghans here are young men – undocumented despite having been here for several years – from four of Afghanistan’s northern provinces, Faryab, Balkh, Jawzjan and Samangan. At the time of AAN’s visit, the number of Faryabis, in particular, seemed to exceed all other groups. This influenced the pattern of community interactions, enhancing not only various types of solidarity, but also some forms of exploitation, such as sub-letting houses to high numbers of people and facilitating the quest for jobs or permits in exchange for a cut of the future earnings.
Indeed, when AAN interviewed them, a large group of migrants from Faryab had just convened over a meal of qabuli pilau (an Afghan rice dish made with carrots, raisins, and meat) to discuss fundraising to refurbish a historic mosque back home in the Shirin Tagab district of Faryab province. AAN spoke to Faryabis from different ethnic backgrounds and all said they had come to Yenimahalle/Küçüksu to be near their fellow Faryabis. However, as they also corroborated, an Uzbek or Turkmen background, greatly enhance the ability to learn Turkish, access the job market and be accepted in Turkish society – at least until recently.
Despite having arrived in 2019, A young Pashtun boy from Faryab was still seen pulling his çekçekon a steep hill. His limited Turkish had prevented him from finding a better job, not that those employed in construction, which is to say most Afghans, fare much better. Never certain of finding regular work, they risk injury on the construction sites if they do get work, while knowing that they cannot access the public healthcare system if they need it. Contracts are only for those with a kimlik (Turkish identity card) who can find legal employment in closer and higher-profile construction sites around Küçüksu. Undocumented workers only have access to ‘shadier’ sites, less concerned about safety, especially in Umraniye. They can earn as much as 200 TL/day (around 15 USD) if hired for short periods, but when they are hired for longer periods their earnings never exceed 4,000 TL (300 USD) a month.
Labourers reported to AAN that this would normally have been enough to send as much as 50 per cent of their earnings to their families back home, but since the devaluation of the lira and growing inflation, they can hardly earn enough money to cover their own expenses.
Other categories of workers may have more steady employment, but are paid even less. A boy from Kapisa in his early twenties working in a textile workshop in Zeytinburnu since 2016 reported making 3,500 TL (263 USD) a month. Other textile workers said they were only earning 700 TL (52 USD) a week. A Kabuli who had arrived only six months earlier and worked as a shawgerd (assistant) at an Afghan restaurant in Zeytinburnu earned 2,400 TL (180 USD) a month, not nearly enough to help with his sister’s medical expenses back home.
As for the child photographers, one of them claimed to be able to make as much as 4000 TL (300 USD) a month, but his earnings included managing a street stall. For the others, taking pictures must represent a small-time occupation suitable for the winter months to help cover their costs when an onward journey to Europe is not possible due to bad weather.
“Difficult to proceed, unthinkable to go back”
Gone are the days when the security forces at the Iran-Turkey border largely let Afghans pass through unmolested (see AAN report here). They now seem determined to catch and detain all migrants they can in Turkey’s eastern wastelands. Yet, even a three-metre-high concrete wall cannot prevent Afghan migrants from crossing. There will always be areas too steep or rocky to be walled and always migrants fit enough to jump over or dig underneath the wall or able to offer bribes too tempting for truck drivers to turn down. Security, however, was reinforced along the border in the months following the fall of Kabul in August 2021 and the authorities seem able to catch most migrants soon after they enter Turkish territory, or during their journey to Istanbul and the western border.
According to an Afghan researcher based in Turkey and interviewed by AAN, as many as 95 per cent of the Afghans who cross from Iran these days are likely to be stopped and detained by the Turkish police. Reportedly, it now takes up to a month for migrants to travel between Van and Istanbul, with internal checkpoints and police cordons now positioned not only close to the eastern border, but also all across the country and up to their final destinations in western Turkey. This makes the journey slower and more risky. Those detained are either sent directly back to Iran (see a New York Times report here) or put into exceedingly overcrowded detention centres. From there, they are either deported to Iran or, if they are caught in the western part of Turkey, brought to the Bulgarian (or Greek) borders and let go.
One Afghan from Helmand arrived in Istanbul in late November 2021, one and half months after escaping Afghanistan and recalled crossing the Iranian-Turkish border and his subsequent journey on to Istanbul with bitterness:
When we were near Maku in Iran, moving towards the border, we met four or five Afghan migrants coming back towards us, all bruised and battered. They told us they’d had a car accident. We said that judging by the nature of their wounds, it was impossible it had been a car accident. Clearly, they’d been beaten. They told us the smugglers had told them what to say, but that indeed it had been the Turkish police. Our own smugglers then told us not to relate the incident to the other people at the khabgah [safehouse].… The route in Turkey is very bad now; at every khabgah they [the smugglers] were beating migrants and asking for more money, more than what was due to them.…
I was on this truck with maybe another hundred people, not under the tarpaulin or in a container, but in an open trailer. The police stopped us and everybody started to rush to make good an escape. I said to myself: I’m not going to run and have the cops chasing or firing at me. I’ve only entered this country without documents, I haven’t committed any crimes against it. But the cops didn’t give me any paper and instead took me to the Bulgarian border. There was a barbed wire wall and a human wall of Bulgarian cops. Not even a fly could pass through. So I turned around, walked a few hundred meters towards Turkey and…there was a line of parked cabs waiting to bring migrants who had been deported there back to Istanbul! I paid 1,600 TL (118 USD) for the ride, it’s nearly three times the normal cost, but I didn’t know that then. Now, I can’t even go out to the streets for fear of the police.
Why would the Turks not take all the data they need and register me? Take a biometric scan, but give me some sort of paper? What do you think I came here for? Leisure? If I’d wanted to come to Turkey, would I have waited until now? America has played with us and now we don’t have a country anymore. Four years at the police academy, three years of service and suddenly everything has vanished.
While some details of this story reveal the uneasiness of the smugglers and their accomplices, thousands of whom had reportedly been arrested in 2021 (see an article by Politico here), it is migrants who suffer the worst of the police crackdowns, as the former policeman went on to describe:
[Turkish security forces] are bad with Afghans. Especially with the Hazaras they are really nasty. I have been in a detention camp with people from fifteen provinces. They’d slap me in the face, but they’d kick a Hazara in the mouth with their boots. They’d stop short of treating us too badly because we are Sunnis, but they’d discriminate against Hazaras because they’re Shi’a.
The Turkish authorities’ aim – to make sure Afghans did not remain in Turkey – was apparent:
They would ask us many times where we were headed. They wouldn’t let us go until they were satisfied that we planned to continue toward Europe and not stop in Turkey. I was detained in Sakariya. I was on a truck with more than 100 other migrants. They took my fingerprints and I was sent to a camp in Izmit and detained incommunicado for three days. When I told them I was going on towards the EU, they sent me to the Edirne camp and after a couple of days, they took me close to the Bulgarian border and left me there.
Police raids against undocumented Afghans also occur in Istanbul. However, Zeytinburnu offers some degree of protection for undocumented migrants, given the long-term and large presence of Afghans. The Afghans in Yenimahalle, on the other hand, were very afraid of the possibility of being rounded up and deported. Even in Zeytinburnu, many interviewees said that the police were now acting on political orders, the danger of being detained was becoming more real. A young father of three from Takhar who was unable to register his family described such an experience:
I’d just came back from the Bulgarian border. I was deported there by the police after one and half months of detention in Malatya [a city in Turkey’s Anatolia region]. They picked me up from the bridge connecting Zeytinburnu to the seafront promenade. It was not the local policemen – I know them and we are on good terms, but the migrant police who has their HQ in Tuzla and periodically carry out raids.…
At the Malatya camp, food distributions were barely sufficient. The police would pose with beverages, food packages and hygienic kits provided by the EU, taking pictures as if they were distributing them, but would later pocket part of them, giving only a small share to the 300 of us detained there.… I’m not upset by the hardship, but concerned they may pick me up again. Who will support my wife and kids if I’m in jail?
Another cause of concern for Afghans is the hostility of the Turkish population. An Afghan researcher interviewed by AAN recalled that when he first arrived, around a decade ago, and was sent to live in a small town on the Black Sea and Afghans were then a rare occurrence. Locals, especially elders, would inevitably associate them with positive images of the nation that had stood by Turkey during the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century and in the aftermath of Word War I. As their number grew, their image deteriorated. Nowadays, they are often labelled as uncouth, lowly and even dirty.
In previous years, Afghans were not linked with the negative assumptions associated with some other refugee groups, namely Syrians. Turkish perceptions of Syrians, near neighbours and former subjects of Turkey’s Ottoman empire, have been shaped by age-old stereotypes about Arabs. The fact that Syrians came with their whole families has also served to bolster negative views of them, as pervasive presence of Syrian women or child beggars across the city is not easily condoned by Turkish society. Afghans, who are typically single men, have tended rather to be seen as hard workers (when work is available). However, what previously worked in their favour has gradually transformed as the economic crisis hit into accusations of Afghans stealing jobs from Turks. Even the Afghans who traditionally applied for lower-level jobs compared to Syrians are now seen as competitors by Turks.
The predominance of single young men has also, however, brought with it concerns of possible involvement in criminal activity or violence, as it does in European societies. As an academic research paper, Two Worlds Meeting in One Neighborhood, about the Yenimahalle neighbourhood of Istanbul documented, many Turkish residents feared that undocumented individuals from a war-torn country were potentially dangerous. Occasional remarks by Turkish citizens to the author – even by those with little or no actual contact with Afghans – confirmed this unease.
These perceptions, that Afghans are dangerous, are a mirror image of the actual danger migrants are in, given their vulnerability to local criminals, security forces and exploitative employers and landlords.
The cost of staying and the price of leaving Turkey
Despite all the other deterrents, ultimately, the single most important factor capable of scaring Afghans away from Turkey is the economic crisis there. Turkish salaries are ceasing to become attractive at a time when being able to send home remittances is more needed than ever.
In a way, the situation is similar to what happened previously in neighbouring Iran, where hundreds of thousands of Afghan migrants had similarly lived and worked until the economic crisis and depreciation of Iran’s currency there made their presence unattractive for either Afghans or Iranians. Afghans have repeatedly had to employ mobility to stay resilient and survive. Despite its many advantages, such as geographic, cultural and for some even linguistic proximity, the moment Turkey can no longer guarantee minimum earnings that would enable Afghan migrants to support families back home, it will not be worth going through all the risks and hardships that an ‘illegal’ life there implies.
The costly services of an association or a lawyer to try to get permit, most likely one forged nowadays, adds to the burdens. Who would spend USD 2,000 for a counterfeit kimlik, when he can save the money for the next stage of the trip?
The teenage photographers on the Zeytinburnu shoreline have no doubts about this. They point to the boats anchored offshore as though they, and not the smaller yachts or fishing boats in Izmir, would be the ones to take them past Greece and straight on to Italy. One young boy from Kapisa has pinned his hopes on the boat trip since he failed to cross by land shortly after he arrived in the summer of 2021:
I left Afghanistan in June, travelled across Iran, arrived here and made it to the Greek border to cross by land, but I was stopped by Turkish police in the last mile and taken to a detention centre in Edirne [a province located in Turkey’s European part]. I thought they would certainly deport me, but while I was there, Kabul fell to the Taleban and so they couldn’t. After a couple of weeks, they let me go. I will never try again by land. Next time I will get on a boat and reach Italy. These boats stay away from the coastline in open waters. If the Greek police catch the boats, they can either send them back or ignore them and let them go through. It’s very dangerous now, and it has mostly stopped because of winter, so I will wait until spring.
He said smugglers wanted around USD 8,000 for the trip to Italy, while other Afghans claimed it could cost as much as USD 10,000. Other reports on Europol’s crackdown on smuggling rings, such as here, put the price at 5,000 euros (USD 5,650)
Investigations by Europol claimed that over 1,100 migrants had been smuggled to Italy this way, while also reporting that in three shipwrecks in December 2021, over 30 migrants may have lost their lives in Greek waters (read this Reuters’ article). What is clear from talking to Afghans in Zeytinburnu is that, despite the high costs and as yet unclear dangers of such crossings, this relatively new route is quickly becoming the option of choice for Afghans as an alternative to the long stopovers, risks of pushbacks and abuses along the Balkan Route (see a report by ECRE here).
This is the case for those who can afford the sea route. Others, many of whom are unable to save the money needed, do not entertain hopes of going to Europe this way. Rather, they will have to face the first of the many obstacles along the Balkan Route, crossing the heavily-guarded borders into Bulgaria or Greece. Given the smugglers’ difficulty in guaranteeing results and the high cost of the trip, an increasing number of migrants seem to be opting to act on their own, without the help of a smuggler network, a practice known as khod-andaz (to throw oneself or self-launched). Such was the case of a man in his thirties whom AAN met in an Afghan nanwai (bakery) in Zeytinburnu. He used to work with foreigners in Kabul’s Green Village (a heavily-guarded international residential and commercial compound on the outskirts of Kabul) and left the city in a hurry a few days after the Taleban takeover, arriving in Istanbul in late October:
Since I arrived, I’ve already tried four times to cross into Greece. Every time the Greek police stopped me, stripped me to my underwear, beat me, stole my phone and money and sent me back. Every time I buy a cheaper phone, maybe one day I will have to do without altogether.
Police abuses and pushbacks constitute a real danger. The practice of forcibly stripping migrants of their clothes may have caused the death of 19 people, who in early February froze to death close to the Greek border (responsibility for the episode is still argued over between Greece and Turkey, see here). However, the harshness did not seem to deter the man who used to work in Green Village:
I will try until I succeed. I have to go to Germany. What am I supposed to do here? There’s no work I can do in Turkey and there’s no way Turkey is going to work for me.
Even for those with an official kimlik, the dire economic situation has now brought their long-term plans into question. The young Uzbek baker, in Turkey since 2020 and already speaking a very fluent ‘urban’ Turkish, shook his head as he listened to the Kabuli traveller’s stories and waited for the next batch of sambosa (samosa) to be ready to take out of the oven. After a while, he ranted against his fellow compatriots:
This would be such a nice country to stay in. Why are my compatriots moving on? They should stop here – register, create a community, make business and do not give the Turks the impression that we Afghans are desperate, backward, poor.
Yet, as he looked at his customers coming back from the mosque after prayers, he did not look entirely convinced and added:
It’s not their fault. They cannot think straight right now. It’s all because of this economic crisis and what is happening in Afghanistan.
Afghans have appreciated Turkey’s strategic location over the past years. Although unsuitable as a destination for seasonal labour in the way Iran had been for decades for many impoverished Afghans, Turkey was close and accessible enough to allow for a return journey home every couple of years or so. Sometimes, Afghans would even use deportation as a chance to travel home without incurring costs. Now, as the country seeks to turn into another migrant-proof fortress, this advantage has gone. To be sure, few Afghan labourers will opt to go back for good to an impoverished homeland where living conditions, despite the end of the conflict, are only getting harsher.
Even the two young men from Keshem who featured in the first part of this report, who had returned from Afghanistan legalising their status are now caught in this impasse. With a work permit, they have been able to access better-paid jobs and start their own business. However, they still could not bring their wives legally and doing so illegally would be too risky and too expensive. Their choice now is between earning as much as they can to send substantial remittances before going back, or moving elsewhere where they can hope to be reunited with their families. The depreciation of the Turkish lira and the political and economic woes that have befallen Afghanistan seem to have made up their minds:
I work and I am a shareholder in a shop in Zeytinburnu. We import items for consumption by refugees, such as rice from Pakistan, etc. On average, I make around 3,000 TL a month (around 226 USD), but this job is better than others because I have no one above me to order me around and I can decide my daily workload myself. Still, I want to go to Italy and from there to Germany. Two of my brothers are there. They’ve been accepted there, one in Munich and one in Frankfurt. Once there, I will be able to reunite with my family
First young man from Keshem
I work as an audio technician with the production of Turkish comic TV serials. I had no previous background in that, but I improvised myself as one once here. I earn good money, 4000 TL/month (300 USD), and work is guaranteed. As soon as one series ends, another one starts.
Second young man from Keshem
Apparently, this second young man had found a way of life in Istanbul that suited him, but the devaluation of the Turkish lira had made it less attractive. Now, he too, plans to travel to Italy and beyond. Questioned on his priorities, about whether to first earn in Turkey to send some money home (in the face of the tough times ahead), or to get to Europe to try to bring his wife there, he narrowed them down to one: “I am thinking only of getting out of Turkey, one problem at a time.”
The worsening inflation in Turkey threatens the country’s overall economic growth and is denting the major construction boom that has been ongoing for over a decade. This may have major repercussions on how refugees fare in Turkey. Until now, the large informal sector has meant that the market has been able to absorb the social and political costs of hosting high numbers of Afghan migrants (read a Manara article here), but this equation could be permanently altered in the event of a continued crisis. In this case, the temptation to blame Afghans and other foreigners for part of the country’s economic woes and ramp up the crackdown on them could prove too much for the government to resist, especially in the lead up to the June 2023 elections.
Turkey’s continuing interest in playing a role in Afghanistan in the near future probably also reflects the country’s intention to resume deportations of Afghan migrants in cooperation with its counterpart in Kabul – albeit this time a Taleban one.
The Turkish government may also be trying to hit the jackpot by once again turning a problem into an opportunity. One aspect of the current Afghan crisis – refugees – will remain a core concern in European countries. The recent displays of Turkey’s efficiency in securing its eastern border (see a Politico report here) are probably meant for the benefit of both internal and international audiences, and to pave the way for further economic deals along the lines of those brokered in 2016. However, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself warned the past summer (see here), walls and closures will not stop Afghans from trying to get to Europe, especially as the situation in their own country is so much worse than any of the obstacles they might encounter along their journey. Increased stakes, such as the pressing need to reach Europe and secure remittances for families left in an ever poorer and less serviced Afghanistan as well as a hike in prices exacted by smugglers, will simply mean further dangers and costs for the Afghan migrants.
Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Kate Clark
The economics of this business – large outlay for small returns – seem to make little sense, but it is probably related to the wider smuggling business, as it allows the kids to make small earnings and cover their costs while awaiting the next stage of the journey.
Based on the 1934 Settlement Law, which prioritises people who share the same Turkic ethnic and cultural background, the first Afghan refugees in Turkey in the 1980s – a hundred or so Kirghiz from the Pamirs, followed by small numbers of mostly Uzbeks and Turkmen – were granted asylum and settled in accommodation in towns across central and eastern Turkey: Tokat, Kırşehir, Sivas, Şanlıurfa, Van and Hatay. They mostly relocated to Istanbul or Ankara after some years. Despite this shared Turkic background, the recently deteriorating perception of Afghans among the Turkish public includes those speaking Turkic languages. Likewise, migrants from Turkic-speaking Central Asian countries, despite having constituted numerous communities in Turkey for longer and being better integrated within Turkish society compared to Afghans, still experience varying degrees of discrimination.
The regime intensifies repression and suffering while failing to address the country’s urgent humanitarian needs
Two decades ago, photographs of blue burqas became perhaps the totemic image of life under the Taliban, as Afghan women’s rights were invoked and exploited to justify the country’s invasion. On Saturday, the Taliban once more ordered women to cover their faces in public. While Afghan women have courageously protested against the injunction, the reaction internationally has this time been muted. That it follows other punitive restrictions creating what some have called “gender apartheid” – preventing teenage girls from studying and women from working outside healthcare or education, or travelling outside their home town without a male guardian – makes it all the more appalling. Ukraine is absorbing the world’s attention. But the muffled response surely also reflects the wish of the US, the UK and others to put the failure of the last 20 years behind them, and the fact that behind the rhetoric, women’s rights remain a low priority.
Though the Taliban justify the burqa as a matter of tradition, this has only been the case in the most conservative rural areas. For many Afghan women, this is a wholly alien and unwelcome imposition. Yet, equally, their greatest concern may not be the edict to cover their faces per se, but the fact that this is the latest blow removing their ability to work, earn, or be present in the public sphere, and handing control of their bodies to the men in their families. Authorities also suggested that women should not leave their homes if possible, emboldening enforcers on the ground. Women cannot even decide independently what risks they are willing to take, since if their faces are seen in public their male “guardians” face fines, jail time and losing their jobs. (Women who work for the government will also be fired.)
The growing repression demolishes Taliban claims to have changed since they last ruled Afghanistan. Even when they swept to power last August, some outsiders entertained the idea that this was a more moderate “Taliban 2.0”, given the promises to protect the rights of women and not seek retribution. The last-minute reversal of a promise to allow secondary education to resume for girls across the country highlighted internal divisions. Some clerics sympathetic to the militants have called for older girls to be allowed back to school, and in some areas they are already studying. But all the evidence is that the power of hardliners is becoming entrenched.
At stake is not only women’s freedom, but also the survival of families amid economic collapse. While the Taliban increase their repression, they show little interest in or ability to tackle the immense humanitarian catastrophe. People are starving. In March, the World Bank halted $600m-worth of development projects, saying women’s rights were not being respected. UN Women says that restrictions on female employment have cost up to $1bn, or 5% of output.
Other countries have limited scope for action, but must clearly and consistently reiterate their support for women’s rights as a necessity and priority for Afghan women themselves. They should not send all-male delegations to meet the leadership. And they should consider how funding can offer leverage: paying for education where teenage girls can attend school, for example, may help to generate pressure in neighbouring communities. Afghan women will not be “saved”, in the narrative once propagated by western leaders. But nor must they be abandoned. They must be heard, and given every element of support that can be mustered.
The Guardian view on Afghan women: the Taliban turn the screws
The number of Afghans in Turkey has been steadily growing, with those already settled or in transit to Europe joined by thousands more fleeing Afghanistan following the Taleban takeover in August 2021. Turkey already had the world’s largest refugee population, and the new arrivals, coming in the midst an unprecedented economic crisis, has only heated up the increasingly hostile political debate about migrants. In the first instalment of a two-part report, Fabrizio Foschini looks at the worsening political and economic environment facing Afghans in Turkey, and at the bureaucratic hurdles preventing many from regularising their status that contribute to making Afghans a largely undocumented presence.Young Afghans walking towards the sea in Zeytinburnu, Istanbul. Photo: Fabrizio FoschiniIn a second report, the author look at the diverse livelihoods of Afghan migrants in Istanbul and reports on the dangers experienced by those making it across the Turkish-Iranian border and the risks facing those trying to leave Turkey for the European Union.
– The number of Afghan refugees arriving in Turkey, already on the rise since 2018, has soared following the Taleban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 and subsequent political uncertainty and economic collapse.
– As events unfolded in Afghanistan last summer, Turkey became alarmed about the prospect of a new influx of refugees and the reaction by its government has since been one of trying to keep Afghans out. A border wall with Iran is nearing completion and police checkpoints have been set up on migrant routes close to main cities, as well as along Turkey’s western borders with the European Union (EU).
– Public perception of Afghan refugees among Turks has worsened since the fall of Kabul. The unprecedented devaluation of the Turkish lira in November 2021 and the economic crisis it triggered have contributed to an increase in tensions with migrants and anti-migrant prejudice.
– The economic crisis and police threats have brought further uncertainty to those Afghans who were living in Turkey, many of whom are undocumented despite having lived there for years. Besides exploitation by employers and a lack of access to public services, they are now facing the threat of detention or deportation to Iran.
– Given the regionally prevalent securitarian approach to border control, ie prioritising ‘security’ above everything, Afghans are finding it increasingly difficult not only to enter Turkey, but also to transit through to the EU. This comes when even long-term residents are unsure whether to remain or try their luck elsewhere. The costs and perils of a journey to Europe are likely to mount, but given the worsening situation in Afghanistan as well as uncertainties in Turkey, this may feel like the only option.
Facts and figures
Turkey has long been an important point along the transit route to Europe for Afghan migrants attempting to enter the EU through its sea and land borders to Greece and Bulgaria. Moreover, since the economic crisis in Greece in the late 2000s and the expansion of Turkey’s economy, the country has increasingly become a stopover for Afghans who never intended to go further or who could not afford to do so without first earning some money. These migrants mostly settled in major Turkish cities and engage in low-wage labour, especially in the construction, textile sectors and other industrial sectors. The comparatively few Afghans who wanted to stay in Turkey applied for international protection and were given documents. The rest have remained undocumented. The Turkish authorities initially tolerated them because they were a cheap (and transient) labour force. A separate group are Afghan businessmen who relocated their assets and eventually their families to Turkey, a country they saw as both safe, economically vibrant and culturally close.
The number of irregular Afghan migrants arriving in Turkey has increased since 2018, when according to the Mixed Migration Centre, some 100,000 irregular Afghan migrants entered the country. This led to the first wave of opposition among the Turkish people. At the time, Turkey was host to the highest number of refugees worldwide as, indeed, it still is. The government’s response was to focus on securing its border with Iran and resorting to mass deportations to Kabul (see AAN’s previous report here). These, while couched under the term ‘voluntary repatriations’ were regularly aimed at undocumented migrants who were held for months in detention camps (see here).
Despite the rising rate of deportations to Afghanistan, possibly as many as 40,000 in 2019 (see here), over the two subsequent years, the pace of arrivals increased as Afghans struggled with growing insecurity and the decline of government control over large swathes of territory. Turkey once again became the main gateway for refugees heading to Europe. The Turkish government tried to secure financial support from the EU in what it hoped could be a revival and expansion of the so-called “EU-Turkey deal” of March 2016 to include non-Syrian refugees. It also attempted to deter irregular migration by periodically increasing police raids against undocumented migrants (see AAN’s previous reporting).
However, the steady influx of Afghans into Turkey did not diminish and gathered pace as territory fell to the Taleban in summer 2021 (reported, for example here) and especially after the country the Taleban captured Kabul in mid-August 2021. The media frenzy in Turkey that ensued, about the expected incoming mass of refugees, and the lack of dedicated major support schemes by international organisations has made the prospect of more migrants less and less palatable to the Turkish public. Even before the Republic’s fall, the issue was a bone of contention between the government and the political opposition (see here), resulting in more pressure to control borders and use police action against migrants. By then, a de facto moratorium on deportations to Afghanistan had been declared by the countries previously backing it (see here), such as Germany, the UK and the Scandinavian states, and Turkey followed suit. Nonetheless, attitudes towards new arrivals, or towards those Afghan migrants already in the country, changed for worse.
Opportunity turns into a problem
Attitudes towards Afghan migrants also comes in the context of Turkey’s relationship with the Afghan state. For the past two decades, Afghanistan has been of relative strategic interest to Turkey, which found itself in the rare position of being a regional country with historical and cultural links to Afghanistan as well as an untarnished reputation gained by steering clear of previous Afghan conflicts. From this vantage point, Turkey has consistently sought a presence and role in Afghanistan in an attempt to improve its international and regional profile, first through its participation in the NATO missions in the country – indeed, it has at times been among the major contributors to ISAF and the subsequent Resolute Support (see here), and later, by becoming an active player in the quest for an Afghan peace process.
By 2021, Turkey was looking at the Afghan crisis as a suitable arena for diplomatic and military intervention in order to mend its strained relations with the US and other NATO members and boost its prestige among Muslim countries (see an Al Jazeera article here). As the Taleban offensive against the then Afghan government unfolded, Turkey was indeed poised to play a pivotal role by taking charge of Kabul international airport, the last link connecting Afghanistan – and the foreigners still there – with the rest of the world. This ‘last ditch’ intervention would have fit the US need for a controlled exit and remaining oversight capacity by a NATO member state. Ultimately, this did not work out as the Taleban’s opposition dampened Turkey’s enthusiasm and the government’s rapid collapse came before the US and Turkey could agree on details. While the idea was revived after thAssociation Taleban takeover, it has yet to materialise despite ongoing talks with the Taleban and recent announcements about a deal that would see Turkey and Qatar manage the airport jointly (see reports by Chatham House and Reuters here, here and here ).
Besides the Taleban’s own ambivalence towards the plan, which would have again seen the presence of international security firms inside the airport, by the last months of 2021 such a critical engagement had become less attractive for Turkey. Ankara had apprehensions of its own, owing to the uncertainty surrounding the Taleban government’s international relations, the realisation that Afghanistan’s importance on the NATO agenda was in decline and by the fact that, by then, Afghanistan had gone, in Turkey’s politics, from an arena offering opportunities for international recognition to an internal problem of its own, in other words, the growing number of Afghan migrants.
Frequent media reports about the mass exodus of Afghans towards Turkey on their way to Europe set the tone for Turkish public opinion (see for example here) and unease about the groundswell of migrants turned into outright hostility. Turkey’s economic decline triggered further strain in public attitudes towards migrants. After nearly a decade of rapid expansion, Turkey’s economic growth had been slowing since 2018, when the economy first went into recession. However, the depreciation of the Turkish lira (TL) was never so bad as it became in the second half of 2021 (see here) when the currency plummeted to 18 TL for USD 1 in November, compared with 7 TL to 1 USD a year earlier. Currently, inflation levels are conjuring up ghosts of the 1980s and 1990s when Turkey experienced a similar economic decline (see here).
The issue of migrants, coupled with the downsizing of Turkey’s diplomatic ambitions in Central and southern Asia, became tools for the opposition to criticise the Turkish government (read an article by Reuters here). In particular, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, CHP) lambasted President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s perceived inactivity and started a nationalist social media campaign with the slogan “Borders are our honour” (see here). A new ultra-nationalist political formation, Zafer Partisi (Victory Party), was established on 26 August 2021, only days after the collapse of the Afghan government, with the declared objective of sending all migrants present in Turkey home, Afghans and Syrians alike (see here).
The ruling AKP (the Justice and Development Party, abbreviated officially to AK Parti in Turkish) was quick to follow its opponents lead. On 19 August 2021, Erdogan warned that Turkey would not become “Europe’s refugee storehouse” (see here).
On previous occasions, Erdogan had attempted to use the migrants as leverage to call for additional financial support, including threatening to open its borders and let refugees cross into the EU (see here). This time, however, Turkey has found itself needing to prevent a mass influx of refugees by focusing on reinforcing control of the Turco-Iranian frontier. In July 2021, Erdogan announced that Turkey would be resuming the construction of a wall along its border with Iran. It was not by chance that on 15 August 2021, the day the Taleban entered Kabul, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar inspected wall construction sites and border police garrisons in the eastern city of Van (see an article by Hurriyet here).
Fencing the 534 kilometre frontier with Iran is not a new project. A 144 km stretch of the wall had already been erected in Ağrı and Iğdır provinces in 2018 when border crossings were frequent in those areas. A new section will eventually cover an additional 243 km, mostly in Van province, with the first 64 km slated for completion by the end of 2021. Once complete, the wall would cover a significant stretch of the border between the two countries. The project was funded in part by the so-called ‘EU-Turkey deal’ which provided Turkey a total of six billion euros to stem the flow of irregular migrants to the Greek Islands. These funds supported, for example, the building of some 103 watchtowers along the wall (see a report by Politico here).
But how many people are arriving from Iran? If thousands of Afghans are leaving their country every day for Iran in the wake of the Taleban’s victory, the number of those actually entering Turkey is the subject of much speculation. In late July 2021, reports put the number of undocumented migrants entering Turkey daily at between 500 and 2000, mostly from Afghanistan (see here). Last October, the governor of Van, Mehmet Emin Bilmez, claimed that, thus far in 2021, security forces had detained 10,000 undocumented migrants in Van province alone and had stopped a further 91,000 attempts by people to enter the country illegally (see here and here). His words point to a key feature of Turkey’s border control policy – detained migrants are routinely subjected to informal ‘pushbacks’ – meaning that they are expelled back to Iran upon arrival or after a period of detention (read reporting by the New York Times here).
The lack of information regarding the number of new arrivals has fuelled the Turkish public’s wariness about Afghans in Turkey. The last figures provided by The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in late 2018 put the number of Afghans registered as international asylum seekers in Turkey at 170,000, while estimates about their total, including those who were undocumented, ranged around 300,000. After that, responsibility for registration was transferred to the Turkish government, which has not made all figures publicly available. However, an Istanbul-based association of Afghans in Turkey, Uluslararasi Afghan Turkleri (Afghan Turk International), interviewed by AAN in December 2021, said they thought there were around 600,000 Afghans in the country, fewer than half of whom were registered, and that more than 100,000 were living in Istanbul alone. Other Afghan organisations in Turkey give higher estimates, sometimes as many as 800,000 (see here), although they may be overestimating numbers to highlight the importance of their type of organisations.
Indeed, border security may be a major concern for the Turkish political elite, regardless of their background; both the ruling AKP and its rival CHP would probably agree on using irregular migration as a pretext to reinforce border control and militarise the eastern frontier. However, it is public opinion in big cities such as Istanbul and Ankara that has been raising the temperature, with people alarmed about the growing concentration of refugees in cities and the perception that they are taking over entire neighbourhoods and this is prompting the government’s tough stance against Afghan migrants.
A close-knit migrant community divided by paperwork
The aptly titled “Ghosts of Istanbul,” the Association for Migration Research’s (GAR) detailed January 2021 report, puts Afghans living in Istanbul into five categories:
Those who are undocumented without passports or with expired visas;
Those who have been registered in different satellite cities, but informally live in Istanbul;
Those who are in transit to Europe;
Those who are established, who have residence permits or citizenship; and
Those who arrive via official routes, either for business or education.
According to the report, most Afghans living in Istanbul fall into the first category and are young men.
Afghans living in Turkey generally fall into two main categories: first, those who have legalised their status and hold the coveted kimlik (or kimlik kartı, Turkish national identity card). This group enjoys the relative stability offered by a recognised legal status and its associated benefits, such as freedom of movement and access to education and healthcare. Second and more typical are undocumented irregular migrants who are either transiting through and intend to stay only for the time necessary to arrange the next stage of their journey, or those who have lived and worked in Turkey for several years, even decades but have no legalised status. Members of this second group have no legal protections, cannot send their children to school or access basic services such as healthcare.
The reasons for remaining undocumented are many, from the priorities of Afghan migrants themselves to the legal and bureaucratic hurdles they encounter in Turkey.
Importantly, in what looks strange in the current situation, but which is a curious historical hangover, Turkey grants political asylum only to refugees proceeding from European countries (for an introduction to Turkish asylum laws, see this paper by the Heinrich Böll Foundation). Those coming from Asia, including Afghans, who register with the Turkish authorities, must apply for international protection, which would pave the way for Turkey to give them temporary asylum pending acceptance of their application for resettlement in another country. Registration comes with certain benefits, such as the right to work, healthcare and education. These temporary migrants, however, cannot choose their place of residence, including the city and province. The Turkish government assigns them to designated locations until their application to a third country, which can take several years, is accepted. Major cities and employment hubs such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa or Antalya have long since stopped accepting asylum seekers. Afghans are more typically assigned to faraway provinces and small towns across Turkey. Many are unhappy being sent to these remote locations, even when they plan to stay for the long haul, as they cannot access connections or social capital to start their new lives. Instead, migrants often opt to remain undocumented in order to live among the Afghan communities that have developed in major cities. While it is more common for families, who represent only a small fraction of the Afghans in Turkey, to have registered, many remain undocumented, and their children can not go to school.
Over the years, the Turkish government’s attempts to tackle the issue of undocumented Afghans have been inconsistent. Until recently, it largely viewed them as communities in transit, far fewer in number than Syrians and almost self-sufficient, as they do not tap into public services, but do find employment opportunities in the burgeoning informal sector, such as in construction or textiles. However, hostile public sentiment has translated into a less hospitable government approach. Indeed, an assessment in mid-2021 pointed out that single men trying to register for international protection were likely to see their applications rejected by the Turkish Directorate of Migration Management (see here). As the head of a small Afghan-Turkish association in Istanbul put it:
The EU countries have shaped their conceptual and institutional reaction around the concept of ‘muhajer’, refugee, as somebody in need of assistance. Turkey instead does not have this approach. ‘Muhajer’ here doesn’t make much sense – there are no programmes for refugees. The state supports the Syrians only, and that for maybe 50 per cent of their needs. It does not support Afghans. The Afghans all work and pay for everything out of their own pockets.
Indeed, the terms ‘hard-working’ and ‘invisible’ have often been attributed to Afghans by the Turks, who until recently compared them favourably to the much more numerous, better assisted (and stigmatised) Syrians (Ghosts of Istanbul, p 31; 36). This explains why, at least until 2018, the Turkish government had not felt the need to intervene.
However, between 2018 and 2019, a number of undocumented Afghans were allowed to regularise their status by registering with state institutions and getting legal recognition on Turkish soil. Then, by travelling back to Afghanistan, they were entitled to return to Turkey legally on payment of a fee, and if successful in securing a job, to obtain a short-term work permit which they could renew every year. A union of Afghan-Turk organisations reportedly lobbied for this government initiative and the main beneficiaries of this limited opportunity were people from Turkic minorities or northern Afghanistan.
Such was the case for two boys from Keshem in Badakhshan, who arrived in Turkey four years ago at the age of sixteen. In 2019 they returned to Keshem and had come back to legalise their status. While back in Afghanistan, they had both got married. They did not bring their wives back to Turkey with them and did not hope to do so legally. Several Afghans interviewed by AAN confirmed that such family reunions had become no longer possible for the past few years.
Significantly, said almost all Afghans interviewed by AAN in Turkey, there had been no registration of any Afghans since the fall of Kabul. Some interviewees, however, said this had in fact been the case since early 2021. The only way to obtain a legal permit was to enter with a valid Turkish visa. Some Afghan-Turkic associations justified Ankara’s (still unofficial) decision on security grounds, saying that Turkey cannot know the identity or intentions of new arrivals, but the move seems to reflect the government’s uncertainty about what to do with Afghan migrants as a whole.
Even before the registration of Afghans came to a halt, getting hold of a prized kimlik was no easy task and did not depend solely on one’s agreeing to be settled in remote locations. The transfer of registration from UNHCR to the Turkish Directorate General of Migration Management in September 2018 brought delays to procedures and increased the number of rejected applications filed by Afghans. A 2019 report by the Asylum Information Database noted that applications for international protection by Afghans seemed to be rejected by default.
A young man from Yangi Qala district in Takhar province told AAN that after almost four years in Turkey, he had tried to regularise his status and register himself and his family in early 2021. He was sent to live in an Anatolian town with his wife and three children, but was then told that, to receive his permit, he would have to pay a fine of 4700 TL (around 630 USD at the time) because they had had a baby in Turkey and not registering her. Eventually, they left Anatolia and came back to Istanbul. After the fall of Kabul, he was ready to pay the fine, and attempted to register again, for the sake of sending his children to school. By then, however, it had become impossible, as the Turkish authorities were not accepting new applications.
It comes as no surprise then that a major feature of the Afghan community, one noticed by those working in migrant support organisations as well as by the broader Turkish public, is its close-knit and labour-oriented character. Around the world, Afghans have few references other than their kin and fellow compatriots, and with the collapse of the Republic and uncertain status of Afghanistan’s diplomatic missions abroad, this sentiment will likely be heightened.
The settlement patterns favoured by Afghan migrants, driven more by economic or legal constraints rather than by cultural norms in an environment such as Turkey, have contributed to shaping an image of Afghans among the Turkish people. Afghans, even more than Syrians for whom the government manages accommodation schemes, tend to group together in areas where rents are cheaper and services and opportunities among a community of fellow countrymen are on offer (see this National Public Radio (NPR) report about the Afghan community in Trabzon helping newcomers). This is of great importance for the newly arrived, who are often cash-strapped and struggling with a new language and unknown bureaucracy, but it does reinforce the perception, however wrong-minded, that spiralling refugee communities in Turkey are developing a ‘parallel society’.
Yet despite this social solidarity, within the Afghan community in Turkey, there are major differences in status. These do not apply only to those members of the Afghan economic and political elite, including many members of the former government who relocated to Turkey after having, for years, invested their assets in the country. They are mostly settled in Beylikduzu, one of Istanbul’s westernmost suburbs, which expanded as a high-income residential area in the 2000s. The divide among Afghan migrants always has to do with whether or not one has a kimlik. Those with and without a kimlik can live side by side in the same housing block, but while some exist for the state, others do not. The first can access schools and hospitals, travel to other parts of Turkey or simply walk freely down the street without having to hide in the shadows. Most importantly, they have access to better-remunerated jobs and can also legally rent a house – and sub-let it to crowds of their ghost-countrymen until they earn three or four times the rent.
As is apparent from the interviews in the second part of this report, these simple things remain out of reach for a majority of Afghans in Istanbul, whose lives remain fraught with danger and uncertainty.
Edited by Jelena Bjlica and Emilie Jelinek
The deal stipulated that all irregular migrants crossing into Greece from Turkey would be readmitted into the latter country, while for every readmitted Syrian national, a Syrian living in Turkey who met the required criteria for asylum in Europe would be resettled there. Meanwhile, the EU allocated 3 billion Euros to finance facilities and projects for refugees in Turkey and committed to mobilise up to an additional 3 billion Euros until 2018 if requirements were met (see here).
Turco-Afghan relations go back several centuries. Although limited in scope, have always been extremely cordial. In fact, Afghans in the previous government saw Turkey as a model. Even the Taleban, although certainly distant on ideological grounds and resentful of Turkey’s participation in the NATO mission, have appreciated its role as a strong and independent Muslim country.
Alarmist reports on Afghan refugees, often with exaggerated numbers, are not altogether a novelty in Turkey. For example, in 2018 CNN Turk stated that 1.5 million Afghans were waiting to enter Turkey from Iran. The estimate given by a local organisation working with migrants was widely circulated and fed into the public’s fear about the growing number of refugees Turkey was hosting.
Turkey applies a geographical limitation to the 1951 Convention regarding the status of refugees. The 2013 Law on Foreigners and International Protection in the legal provisions regarding asylum in Turkey introduced an exception for Syrians, who have been granted temporary protection and access to public services.
According to some registered Afghans interviewed, until a few years ago, Turkish authorities would let applicants choose among a number of available locations, major cities excluded, but since 2021 these choices are no longer available and all registration came to a stop. For many newcomers, which of the many provincial centres of Turkey they were assigned to would make little difference, except relatively big cities with job opportunities in the industrial and manufacturing sectors such as Kayseri, where an early and well-organised Afghan community has developed, and families are relatively numerous (the city finds itself on the main route from east to west, travelled by migrants).
As noted by AAN in 2020, differences in the treatment of Afghans by the police and by public service agencies, depending on the municipality, must be taken into account. This is true even at a more political level: at the time of AAN’s visit in December 2021, while the police in many parts of Turkey and Istanbul itself were intensifying raids and detentions of undocumented Afghans, the municipality of Kadikoy, governed by the same CHP party whose national leadership is so vocal about the need to stop migrants from crossing the borders, organised and hosted a public event on Afghan women with renowned director Sahraa Karimi.
Refugees or Ghosts? Afghans in Turkey face growing uncertainty
Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan attacks lead to growing tension between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan. What’s at stake?
Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban are teetering on the brink of a major crisis. Since coming into power, the Taliban has defied Pakistan — its main state benefactor during the insurgency against the United States military and the deposed Afghan government. It has done so by challenging the status of the Afghan-Pakistan border and providing a haven to the anti-Pakistan insurgent group the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, which has killed thousands of Pakistanis and seeks to establish a Taliban-style, Shariah-compliant state in Pakistan. This has stunned Islamabad, which was operating on the assumption that the Taliban would be beholden to Pakistan out of gratitude for years of support.Tensions have mounted, in particular, due to the TTP’s growing attacks targeting Pakistani security forces in the eight months since the Taliban’s takeover. On April 21, in a major escalation, Pakistan carried out coordinated airstrikes inside Afghanistan at suspected TTP locations but ended up killing civilians. In response, the Taliban summoned Islamabad’s envoy in Kabul and the group’s defense minister, Mullah Yaqub, threatened retaliation in case of more attacks, albeit without naming Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan lodged the strongest protest to date on the use of Afghan territory by terrorist groups and indicated that it may engage in cross-border action again.This turn of event raises questions about how we got to this point, the Taliban’s calculus on the TTP, policy options available to Islamabad and what is at stake for the United States.
Why Did Pakistan Opt for Airstrikes?
Pakistan’s use of cross-border airstrikes is tied to the trajectory of the TTP in Afghanistan and Pakistani leadership’s growing frustration with the Taliban’s failure to restrain the TTP. Since its resurgence a few years ago, the TTP has strengthened its bases in Afghanistan to attack Pakistan — especially in areas where the Taliban’s territorial influence as an insurgency was significant. After taking over the country, the Taliban gave the TTP de-facto political asylum. The TTP has used its improved political status in Afghanistan to step-up cross-border attacks and is now regularly sending fighters into Pakistan.
In the first months after the Taliban takeover, Pakistani officials downplayed the Taliban’s political approach to the TTP in public and privately asked the Taliban to limit the TTP activities in Afghanistan, demanding a crackdown. Instead the Taliban asked Pakistan to address the TTP’s so-called “grievances” and offered to mediate talks. After a start-stop dialogue process spanning several months, the TTP appears politically stronger and emboldened. In April, the TTP launched a spring offensive named “Al-Badr,” the most significant insurgent onslaught against Pakistan in recent years.
Pakistan’s turn to fighter jets was a response to the month-on-month escalation in violence and growing loss of security. It likely had at least two coercive goals. First, Pakistan probably used the bombing to send a message to the TTP that its cross-border haven is not as safe as it assumes, in the hope of deterring it from further cross-border action. And second, Pakistan wanted to give a shock treatment to the Taliban to get them to reconsider their approach to the TTP. Pakistani military leaders seem to know that their military action on Afghan territory is unpopular with Afghans. So, they may have hoped that the strikes will bring pressure on the Taliban to reverse policies that create grounds for Pakistan to undermine their domestic political standing — or at the least, the strikes will drive a wedge in TTP-Taliban ties and compel Taliban pragmatists to consider the cost of their support to the TTP.
But Pakistan may have also overplayed its hand: The strikes killed at least 20 children among other civilians. Contrary to official Pakistani claims, there are no credible reports of killed TTP leadership. More significantly, even if some pragmatists feel the need to keep hostilities with Pakistan in check, the Taliban at large appears unmoved, as the TTP’s status in and activities from Afghanistan remain unchanged. At the same time, anti-Pakistan sentiment within the Taliban appears to have surged, shoring up support for the TTP within the Taliban. Pakistani strikes have also reinvigorated anti-Pakistan sentiment across Afghanistan’s political spectrum, who see them as a violation of Afghan sovereignty. Standing up to Pakistan or even militarily responding has the potential to shore up the Taliban’s domestic political standing.
The Taliban has made little effort to conceal their support for the TTP in Afghanistan. But the logic of their support since August 2021 — despite facing several other challenges — remains unclear.
The Taliban Calculus on the TTP
The Taliban has made little effort to conceal their support for the TTP in Afghanistan. But the logic of their support since August 2021 — despite facing several other challenges — remains unclear.
Some argue that at the heart of the Taliban-TTP relationship is an ideological alignment on a jihadist project seeking to implement a Shariah-compliant political order through force. The TTP subordinating themselves to the Taliban by pledging allegiance to Taliban chief adds to the alignment. Others point to history: Many in the TTP supported the Taliban in its nascence, including by providing suicide bombers. The Taliban and the TTP also share al-Qaida as an ally. There are strong interpersonal, war-time bonds between the influential Haqqani family and the TTP and between some southern Taliban leaders and TTP’s political leadership. There is abundant ethnic amity, built around tribal ties and disdain of the Pakistani state — at least in the rank-and-file and middle tier of the Taliban.
Given this history and context, one explanation for the Taliban’s post-takeover position is that they want to use the TTP as bargaining leverage with Pakistan. A competing perspective is that the Taliban want a likeminded political actor such as the TTP to ultimately rise to power in Islamabad. A third perspective is that given the deep support the TTP enjoys in the Taliban rank-and-file, as well as the size of the TTP in Afghanistan, the Taliban face capacity constraints to go after the TTP — partly due to ISIS-K’s growing threat. Finally, some Afghan opposition leaders see the Taliban’s position and the TTP violence as an elaborate ruse by Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, the ISI, to absolve itself of supporting the Taliban over the last many years.
Whatever the motive, the bottom line is that the Taliban are unwilling to act against the TTP in any meaningful way.
Pakistani Policy Response
Pakistan’s use of airstrikes, as opposed to covert action, shows that it wanted to send a public message to the Taliban. The reported use of manned platform over unmanned weapons capability, which Pakistan has been building up in recent years, is also notable — a previous, more limited targeting attempt relied on a drone but the missile failed to explode. Yet the targeting capability remains blunt which limits its utility — and given the civilian harm it may even be counterproductive. More attacks that kill civilians can trigger a Taliban response in addition to generating more recruits for the TTP. Given the concurrently metastasizing Baluch separatist threat in Pakistan, such a violent escalation will substantially add to Pakistan’s security burdens amid a domestic economic crisis.
On the other hand, Pakistan’s hope that the Taliban will help manage the TTP problem may have also run its course. The Taliban appear to be insisting that Pakistani leaders accommodate the TTP with peace talks. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s new coalition government, under pressure from recently ousted prime minister Imran Khan’s unrelenting political challenge, may be tempted to give talks another chance to keep a lid on violence and focus on the economy. In a previous stint as chief minister of Punjab province, Sharif tried to broker a province-level cease-fire with then TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, going as far as publicly pleading with the TTP to spare Punjab. This time, the TTP’s demand of concessions before a long-term cease-fire could lead to a deadlock.
There is no strong indication that Pakistan is ready to turn against the Taliban. This may be due to ideological inertia on viewing the Taliban as the safest counter to purported Indian influence in Afghanistan. It could also be for lack of a viable political alternative to support in place of the Taliban.
Still, in the near term, Pakistan is likely to search for more coercive leverage against the Taliban. On the lower end of the spectrum, Pakistan may seek to manipulate the Taliban’s internal politics by trying to marginalize Taliban leadership more supportive of the TTP. It may attempt a crackdown against families of Taliban leadership as well as assets of the Taliban leadership that remain in Pakistan. It can also get Pakistani religious clerics who the Taliban are responsive to, to condemn their behavior. On the higher end, it can close border crossings to put an economic squeeze on the Taliban — which, given their limited revenues, will bring enormous pressure on the Taliban and aggravate the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Implications for U.S. Policy
One major question confronting U.S. policymakers is: How should U.S. policy respond to the growing terrorist violence in Pakistan? Amid the growing demands of strategic competition, U.S. counterterrorism resources are limited — and Pakistan’s self-inflicted mess is certainly not the U.S. government’s responsibility. Yet the political and security situation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in general and in Pakistan in particular is trending in a direction that can bear on even minimally defined U.S. national security interests — like Afghanistan’s state survival, the risk of transnational and regional terrorist activity emanating from the region and nuclear security. Washington should pay careful attention to the Taliban-Pakistan relationship and the escalating terrorist violence in Pakistan. Policymakers should also identify clear thresholds of level and type of terrorist activity in Pakistan, in addition to Afghanistan, which will require a shift in gears on the counterterrorism approach. Any expansion in the territorial influence of the TTP in Pakistan as well as operations of al-Qaida, which relies on the TTP and is increasingly messaging against India, will be signs of such dangerous terrorist activity.
The U.S. government should also gauge Pakistan’s receptiveness to a new coordinated and coercive approach to the Taliban. Many policymakers remain frustrated by Pakistan’s adversarial role against the United States in Afghanistan, so they are likely to be skeptical of any coercion plan involving Pakistan. Additionally, what type of pressure, if any, can alter the Taliban’s calculus is challenging to anticipate. But with growing international asks of the Taliban and limited headway, coordinated multilateral pressure, including by countries with relatively more leverage like Pakistan, is better than the alternative. And as the airstrikes indicate, Pakistan is looking for coercive leverage against the Taliban in a way that it hasn’t in the past. There may be an opening as Pakistan re-calibrates. Policymakers should explore ways with Pakistan to jointly press the Taliban on a range of political issues important to U.S. priorities, like counterterrorism. Pakistan can do so, in part, by publicly signaling that the Taliban’s recognition is off the table and stop pushing some of its allies on recognition. It can also downgrade the diplomatic treatment of the Taliban and align its messaging on counterterrorism issues with that of the U.S. government.
The U.S. government has not commented on the Pakistani airstrikes but it should carefully assess Pakistan’s processes on targeting by airpower to alleviate civilian harm. This can be done through existing bilateral military-to-military channels. If Pakistani airstrikes continue to harm civilians at a similar scale, it will not only be a breach of the law of armed conflict but also radicalize populations in the targeted area, which can be counterproductive at weakening terrorist threats in the region. And if Pakistan’s cross-border targeting relies on U.S. systems, Pakistan can fall out of compliance with end-user restrictions on U.S. government provided equipment — which generally require compliance with international humanitarian law.
Finally, Pakistan’s deteriorating ties with the Taliban offer important insights for U.S. policy interests on the Taliban’s political trajectory. They demonstrate that, in ways similar to the pre-9/11 era, the Taliban are willing to take major risks over their commitment to foreign jihadis in Afghanistan and concerns of international actors are secondary — even at a time when they lack diplomatic recognition. This speaks to the type of regime the Taliban are: They are neither as nationalistically inward nor as interested in catering to international concerns as touted by some analysts. Policymakers also need to be realistic on the Taliban’s commitment on preventing the use of Afghan territory for international terrorism.
The Biden administration has established a sponsorship program to help admit and support tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, but too many Afghan evacuees, including some who helped U.S. troops and personnel, have been left without adequate support in this country or spurned altogether.
For many of the 80,000 or so Afghans who made it to the United States after the fall of Kabul last year, the challenges they face in acclimating to a new country are mounting. Thousands of others still in Afghanistan or nearby countries have been denied entry to the United States or wait in limbo. Congress could help but has not.
Most Afghans who arrived here were airlifted from Kabul during last summer’s chaotic U.S. withdrawal, then housed in temporary quarters at military bases. They have since been resettled in communities across the country, but often without the financial and logistical support normally accorded refugees by the government. That’s because Afghans, including thousands who assisted our troops and risked their lives doing so over years, have not been granted refugee status — and because the Trump administration gutted the infrastructure for resettling refugees.
Around the United States, scores of private groups staffed by volunteers have formed to help. They have provided Afghans with funds, as well as assistance in forming community attachments, navigating red tape to apply for asylum and accessing government aid. That help has been critical, but it is a poor substitute for systematic government assistance. Aid to some Afghan refugees has run dry, leaving them unable to pay rent or facing eviction.
In March, the Biden administration offered temporary protected status (TPS) for 18 months to Afghan refugees who had already been admitted, a designation that can be and often is extended. It did so after announcing the same benefit for Ukrainians already here. TPS also comes with work authorization, but it provides no pathway to legal permanent residence or citizenship. Without those gateways, many Afghans are effectively stateless, unable to return to their country and uncertain of their long-term prospects in this one.
Meanwhile, there are tens of thousands of unluckier Afghans who did not manage to board a flight to the United States last summer. Many remain in Afghanistan, at risk from the Taliban; others are in nearby countries. About 45,000 have requested humanitarian parole to come to the United States, overwhelming Washington’s processing capacity. Only a few hundred have been approved; 2,200 have been denied, while the rest remain in limbo.
That raises a question: Why can’t the administration stand up a program for U.S.-based individuals and groups to sponsor Afghan refugees to come here, as it has done for Ukrainians? Or why can’t it streamline admissions processing for Afghans who helped U.S. personnel, escaped their country and want to come here? After all, many are as qualified as the refugees admitted en masse last summer.
Congress has not moved to grant a path to citizenship for Afghan refugees, as it did for Cubans after Fidel Castro took power, Vietnamese following Saigon’s fall and Iraqis after the wars in Iraq of recent decades. Many Afghan refugees, having worked side by side assisting Americans in a dangerous place, might now wonder whether they have a future in this country.
Don’t forget the Afghan refugees who need America’s support
Another wave of Covid-19 struck Afghanistan early in 2022 with doctors throughout the country reporting a rise in cases from January onwards. The devastation suffered by the Afghan health system since the suspension of most foreign aid following the Taleban takeover left it wholly unprepared to deal with the wave. While cases are now tailing off, AAN’s Rohullah Sorush and Thomas Ruttig (with input from Sayed Asad Sadat and Sayeda Rahimi) examine the impact of Taleban rule on Covid-19 reporting, assess the progress of vaccination campaigns and testing, and look at the many problems facing the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) as a result of the suspension of aid.Dr Salma leads a health education session to curb the spread of COVID-19 among women in Afghanistan. Photo: Angela Wells/IOM, 5 March 2021.
A very different MoPH under the TalebanThe fourth wave of Covid “is hitting Afghanistan hard,” the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned in late February. Doctors across the country confirmed the rise in cases to AAN. In Kabul, the 100-bed Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital was receiving between 85 and 90 patients daily in mid-February. According to several doctors at the hospital, around 80 per cent of patients were testing positive for the virus. While numbers being tested have been extremely low, almost half the samples taken in diagnostic centres are showing positive results, according to the World Health Organisation quoted here. This, the IFRC said, indicated “an alarming spread of the virus.” Doctors at the Afghan-Japan Hospital said they lacked the means to identify the virus’s variety, but were almost certain it was the Omicron variant (see media reporting here). This wave came after the country had been cut off from foreign aid which had been supporting the health sector leading to the closure of many facilities. Meanwhile, just ten per cent of the Afghan population is fully vaccinated.
In spite of the rise in Covid figures, the MoPH under the Taleban has been reluctant to share information with the media and public about the pandemic, and when they do, there is generally a significant discrepancy between their reports and data from other sources. Given that the health sector was the area in which the Taleban retained the former Republic-era minister for longest (keeping Dr Wahid Majruh in place until 21 September while replacing all the other ministers immediately), this inertia has come as a surprise. It was thought that by retaining qualified health staff, the Taleban had understood the gravity of the health crisis (AAN reporting here). Indeed, the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan’s Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its regular quarterly report released in January 2022, had said that after the takeover, the Taleban authorities had “generally been supportive of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in the provinces” and “endorsed the implementation of mosque-to-mosque vaccination efforts” in cities such as Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Kandahar, Herat and Jalalabad. This was followed, according to SIGAR, by a national Covid-19 vaccination campaign launched by UNICEF and WHO to increase uptake and avoid approximately 1.9 million doses of available vaccines expiring on 16 October 2021. However, it is increasingly apparent that such efforts petered out. Certainly, when it comes to informing the public via the media, the Taleban now only share data via voice messages or video clips to a WhatsApp group for journalists once a week, if that.
The MoPH is led by acting minister Dr Qalandar Ebad, appointed on 21 September 2021 (see AAN reporting here). He has appealed to people to protect themselves from the virus and to get themselves vaccinated: “According to Sharia, keeping yourself safe is a must. So please get Covid-19 vaccination to be safe from the virus,” he said in a televised broadcast on 29 January 2022 (see here). So far, however, other measures have not been forthcoming.
Testing for Covid-19
Despite calls for people to ‘stay safe’, testing for the virus has drastically diminished since the Taleban takeover. Data as of 13 April 2022 indicates that of the almost milliontests carried out throughout the country since the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, only 185,690 (almost 20 per cent) of these had been conducted since the Taleban took power in August 2021. This is at a rate of some 23,000 tests per month in the six months under the Taleban, compared to over 43,000 tests per month under the previous administration. The number of confirmed cases throughout the pandemic gives some indication of the severity of each Covid wave that has hit the country, with the third wave (in June 2021) seeing the highest number of recorded daily cases at 2,023 per day. Since the Taleban takeover, the highest number of cases registered has been 992 per day (on 10 February 22). However, given the low number of samples now being analysed, it is likely thatthe realnumber could be much higher. This supposition is supported by WHO data, which indicates that almost half (47.85 per cent) of the samples collected have been positive.
During the first wave, there were 34 labs throughout the country able to process Covid-19 tests, AAN reported, with an overall capacity for testing 6,565 samples per day, although that level was never reached during the first two waves (the first wave in June 2020 and the second was in November 2020). It was only in spring 2021 during the third wave, that labs were examining more than 6,000 samples a day (AAN reporting here). Following the Taleban capture of power, the most samples examined in any one day has been 2,073. According to WHO, however, there are now 38 functioning Covid-19 labs across the country with a maximum capacity for analysing 10,250 samples per day. Although the number of labs analysing Covid-19 samples has increased, according to WHO, the number of daily cases reported has decreased. This indicates that fewer people are getting tested. Not a single case of Covid was reported throughout January or February 2022 in five provinces: Badakhshan, Jawzjan, Daikundi, Farah and Uruzgan. Other provinces have similarly reported very few cases in these two months.
Given the high positive rate when patients are tested, the low reporting of Covid indicates low levels of testing rather than low prevalence of the disease. In hindsight and according to official figures, the wave’s peak appears to have come in mid-February, when about 900 cases were being reported daily nationwide. By April, confirmed cases were noticeably lower: since 1 April, daily cases reported nationwide have ranged between 24 and 100. We spoke to hospital staff in three different provinces to get some idea of how the wave is tailing off.
From the Covid hospital in Lashkargah in Helmand province, Dr Massud told AAN they were still seeing between 10 to 80 patients every day. He thought numbers would be higher were it not for the opium harvesting season, which means many people are reluctant to leave their land. He said they were hospitalising at least three to four patients every day. On the day we spoke, 13 April, they had hospitalised 11 people, seven women and four men.
From Paktia and the 50-bed Covid hospital there, Dr Khaled said that, compared to the winter, Covid-19 cases had certainly decreased in the province. They were still seeing patients and currently had two in hospital with serious symptoms, but in general, they were advising people to stay home if they had mild symptoms because of their limited facilities – two labs, but a shortage of medicine.
In Kapisa, Abdul Mutaleb Hamed, who is in charge of the province’s Covid-19 hospital also said fewer patients with Covid-19 symptoms were seeking help. He estimated that seven in ten people in the province have been infected with Covid-19, likely the Omicron variant. His current concern is a lack of vaccines: there was still demand in the province, he said, but no vaccinations were available and he had asked MoPH about this.
Suspension of foreign aid means fewer hospitals open and a lack of equipment
The decrease in the number of people getting tested is linked to the breakdown of large parts of the health system since the Taleban took power, due to a halt in development aid. Among the clinics and hospitals that had to shut were around three-quarters of the country’s public Covid health facilities, although the number of Covid clinics closing is unclear, and accounts differ. In late December 2021, Pajhwok reported the MoPH as saying that, of the 38 Covid-19 clinics, 17 remained active and 21 were inactive “due to the financial crisis.” On 26 February, MoPH spokesman Jawed Hazhir confirmed this figure to AAN, saying there was one clinic per province in Kabul, Balkh, Ghazni, Helmand, Herat, Kandahar, Kapisa, Khost, Kunar, Nangrahar, Nuristan, Paktia, Panjshir, Parwan, Samangan, Wardak and Zabul. Those that had closed due to the financial crisis, he said, were in Badakhshan, Badghis, Baghlan, Bamyan, Daikundi, Farah, Faryab, Ghor, Jawzjan, Kunduz, Laghman, Logar, Nimruz, Paktika, Sar-e Pul and Uruzgan.
The IFRC has reported a much lower number, saying fewer than ten Covid-19 hospitals were functional and that they had been unable to keep up with demand. Al-Jazeera reported only five functional clinics in the country, saying that 33 others had been forced to close due to a lack of doctors, medicine and heating (see this Al-Jazeera report). WHO noted that out of the 11 that were active, nine were partially functional. Their January 2022 report confirmed the closure of Covid-19 hospitals in Logar, Bamyan, Daikundi, Badakhshan, Farah and two hospitals in Kabul, the Qasab 100-bed and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
The foreign funding that does remain is a lifeline, but also only a drop in the water. The Pajhwok report said the main hospital in Kabul was funded by WHO, while those in Nangrahar, Herat, Helmand and Kandahar were funded by the International Organisation of Migration (IOM). Both eyewitness and media reports from various provinces have confirmed that very few hospitals are still operational.
Zalmai, a resident from Khost, told AAN on 1 March that the Covid-19 section in their provincial hospital (still open in late February, according to the Taleban) was no longer active and there was neither medicine nor oxygen. Similarly, in Nimruz, the Covid-19 hospital closed for a period, as staff had not been paid; however the NGO, Cooperation and Humanitarian Assistance (CHA), had picked up the costs at the 20-bed clinic for two months, enabling the clinic to reopen on 20 March (see Hasht-e Sobh reports here and here). It said that this was a result of the US government allowing certain emergency transactions into Afghanistan again after 25 February when the US treasury introduced new waivers to US sanctions. In Ghor, CHA funding has dried up and while the main hospital is still open, doctors have not been paid since before the Taleban took over, according to the head of the Covid-19 hospital there, Muhammad Sharif Qazizada. There is no more medicine, he said, and two of its four doctors had left because they had not been paid. CHA told AAN in March that UNDP had reissued their contract to fund the Covid-19 hospital in Ghor after the Taleban takeover, but that UNDP had only provided funds for a month. In Laghman, the head of primary healthcare, Dr Muhammad Asef Safi, told AAN on 9 March that after their 20-bed Covid-19 hospital was shut down on 15 January due to a lack of funding, the number of Covid-19 cases started rising in the eastern provinces:
Covid-19 patients come to the central hospital of Mehtarlam because we have a lab there, but after diagnosis, they are sent to [the regional centre] Jalalabad for treatment because the hospital here does not have medicine or equipment. Also, after the [Taleban] takeover, the number of patients coming to public hospitals has increased, but there’s also no medicine or equipment. Staff members at the central hospital in Mehtarlam have not had any salary for the past six months.
Daikundi’s Covid-19 hospital, formerly funded through the multi-donor Sehatmandi programme, has been closed since December 2021. The deputy director of the provincial public health department, Dr Sayed Eshaq Hussaini, told AAN on 10 March:
There was a hospital built by funding from Ayatollah Sayed Ali Sistani in Daikundi [Ayatollah Sistani is a leading Shia cleric in Iraq, with many followers in Afghanistan. The hospital was inaugurated on 23 Saur 1399 / 12 May 2020]. It’s named Amir ul-Mumenin Hospital. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it was allocated for [treating] Covid-19 and then, the [Afghan] NGO, Move Welfare Organisation (MOVE), started supporting it. Then, another hospital was built for Covid-19 patients in Daikundi. WHO provided a PCR machine for testing. However, now that hospital isn’t active. It’s been closed for four months. Staff have not received their salaries for four months either. Patients come to the central hospital in [Daikundi’s provincial centre] Nili. They have signs and symptoms of Covid-19, but the PCR testing and diagnosis [equipment] is not active.
In Badakhshan, the provincial director of public health, Dr Majdud ul-Hakim, told AAN on 8 March that the hospital in Faizabad had shut down:
Covid-19 cases have been on the rise since the weather got cold, but the hospital is not active anymore. It is because all services such as tracking Covid-19 cases and hospitalisation have stopped due to lack of funding. Patients refer to private doctors and get some medicine. There is a PCR lab in the provincial hospital, but very few people refer there. No one exactly knows the number of people infected with Covid-19 recently. Many people do not go to the public hospital because no service is provided to them.
In Bamyan, without donor support, the hospital would not be functioning. A doctor at Bamyan’s public hospital, Dr Na’im, told AAN on 5 March thatthe Agha Khan Foundation had been funding doctors and nurses to work with Covid patients. “The Covid-19 section has ventilators and oxygen,” he said, “but people have to buy medicine from pharmacies outside the hospital.”At the same time, said another doctor at the hospital, Azim Besharat, Bamyan’s capacity to take in Covid patients has been reduced. He told AAN in early March that there used to be 20 bedsallocated for Covid patients in Bamyan’s government hospital. This special ward has now been moved to a new wing, but only has ten beds. He said the Agha Khan Foundation had hired three doctors and three nurses. In Herat, MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) is supporting the Shahid Razi Covid-19 hospital in Guzargah, in Herat city and it is running as normal. In Kabul, the Afghan-Japan Hospital alone remains open for Covid patients, although doctors there said in March they had not been paid in five months (see here).
On 11 April, health officials in Faryab told Salam Watandar News that the 40-bed Covid-19 hospital there had closed. They said they had to close it because their salaries haven’t been paid for the past nine months.
Various organisations – WHO, NGOs and foundations – have stepped in to fill the funding and support gap for some hospitals around the country. Without that, there would be no operational Covid-19 treatment centres in Afghanistan at all. Some hospitals are only able to remain open because local staff are continuing to work despite not being paid in months. Moreover, according to WHO, the Covid-19 hospitals that are still active are facing other difficulties, such as shortages of food, fuel and other supplies. A doctor at the Esteqlal public hospital in Kabul, which had offered treatment for Covid-19 patients during the first, second and third waves, told AAN that the situation with hospitals in the city was “very bad.” Many doctors, especially women, he said, had left the hospital and that Covid patients were not being treated there anymore. An MoPH staff member told AAN: “You go, you work, but there is no food and no heating in this cold weather. Staff are not getting their salaries regularly either.” Raising concerns about the influx of non-professional officials under the Taleban, he said, “not only hospitals, but also the ministry looks like a mosque.”
Thanks to donations from various countries, the number of vaccinations went up in Afghanistan after the Taleban takeover, but overall, they remain low. On 1 January, India donated half a million doses of Covid-19 vaccines and promised to send another half a million (though the second batch has yet to arrive). In December 2021, China donated 800,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine, one of three million doses it said it would deliver to Afghanistan.
There seems to be a discrepancy between the number of people who have been fully vaccinated, according to Taleban and according to the IFRC. On 1 April, MoPH spokesman Hazhir in the video clip sent to journalists and also posted on his Facebook said that at least 8.5 million Afghans had already received the Covid vaccine and that the process was ongoing in 377 Covid-19 vaccination centres throughout the country (of which 16 are in Kabul). He said that since the Taleban came, China, Italy, Austria, India, France as well as the COVAX programme – a partnership between WHO, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and UNICEF – have donated 4.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to MoPH. In addition, China, Asian Development Bank (ADB), India and COVAX have promised to donate 6.6 million more doses of Covid-19 vaccines by mid-2022.
Hazhir also said that before the takeover, 1,200 vaccination centres were open and active, but then due to lack of support, they were reduced. In a press release, however, the IFRC said that only ten per cent of the population (circa three million) was fully vaccinated (with either two doses of AstraZeneca or a single dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine). WHO statistics also show a substantial decrease in the number of Afghans currently being vaccinated. In its January 2022 bulletin, the humanitarian health cluster reported that in December 2021, 420,372 individuals had been fully vaccinated while the figure was at 115,739 in January, almost a quarter of December’s figures.
Despite an announcement at the end of February of a public health campaign being launched to promote nationwide vaccinations and the MoPH’s claim on 1 April that it had 2.8 million doses of Johnson and Johnson vaccines, 600,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccines and 100,000 doses of AstraZeneca, there has been no campaign so far. Vaccinations are, however, ongoing in hospitals and vaccination centres.
Growing poverty, overburdened hospitals and limited awareness of Covid
The suspension of so much foreign aid has not only had a devastating impact on the country’s health system, but also on people’s livelihoods generally. Many can no longer afford private health treatment and must rely increasingly on government-run health centres and hospitals, which are both under-equipped and lack capacity. (Read AAN’s latest economic reports here, here and here ). The head of monitoring and evaluation at the Afghanistan Medical Council, Dr Khesraw Yusufzai, told AAN on 12 March:
After the fall of the former government, 90 per cent of the health facilities collapsed. Fortunately, the Sehatmandi project has resumed in all provinces. However, the national hospitals, as well as Covid-19 centres still have a lot of problems. Covid-19 cases, particularly of the Omicron variant, are on the rise, but there is no donor [analysing possible cases of] it. In addition, national [ie government-run] hospitals do not have any budget either. The government pays the salary for the staff, but you even cannot find a syringe at those hospitals. Patients have to buy everything from the drugstores.
Furthermore, many people simply cannot access Covid hospitals, even in the provinces where they exist, given that many live in remote areas and cannot afford transport to provincial centres, as a resident of Jaghatu district of Ghazni, Khatira Hedayat, explained:
A month ago, three members of my family got sick. They had symptoms of Covid-19, like fever, headache, coughing and a sore throat. There is only one clinic in our area, which doesn’t provide enough health services, so how can they take care of patients with critical conditions? We had to take my family members to Ghazni city, but there, also, the hospital doesn’t provide good services. We had to see private doctors and buy some medicine. Many people live in remote villages in districts of Ghazni and when they get sick, particularly if they are infected with Covid-19, financially, it’s difficult for them to go to the city for treatment.
Yet even without people pouring in from remote areas, hospitals are still overwhelmed. In Parwan, between 1,200 to 1,300 people are being referred daily to the only public hospital in the province, Hasht-e Sobh daily reported. According to the hospital’s director, Abdul Qasim Sangin, they only have the capacity to treat 300 to 400 patients per day. Paktia’s Covid-19 clinic is also buckling beneath the burden of so many daily referrals. Dr Khaled, who works there, told AAN on 1 March:
Because the Covid-19 hospital in [the neighbouring province of] Paktika is closed, patients come to Paktia for treatment. We don’t have enough capacity. We’ve asked the MoPH to send us Covid-19 diagnosing kits, but they’ve not sent them yet. We have two Covid-19 labs, but we’re faced with a shortage of kits. We don’t have enough supplies and medicine.
Given the difficult working conditions, patchy salary payments and many other issues (such as the ban on secondary education for girls), it is no surprise that the health system is losing professionals. Dr Yusufzai of the Afghanistan Medical Council pointed to this as a serious problem facing the Afghan health system since the Taleban takeover:
Our specialists and cadres have left the country. There are others leaving these days. If they cannot go to European countries, they can get visas and go to Pakistan and Iran. Every day I see hundreds of people at the gates of Pakistan and Iran embassies in Kabul. They get visas and leave the country.
Pervasive, widespread poverty has limited the public’s awareness of Covid-19 and its readiness to take precautions. Many Afghans have simply been preoccupied with very real daily difficulties, without the extra burden of having to wear a mask or keep their distance from others, as AAN reported in 2021 (see for example here and here). Women’s access to health has been particularly hampered by Taleban restrictions, although for many women, especially those living in rural areas, problems with access have just continued, before and after the fall of the Republic, because of poverty, cultural norms and previously, insecurity (see this 2021 special report).
The public health system under the Republic was already underfunded (see this AAN report). Many provinces only had basic health services. The system was not free as the law stipulated: many personnel charged fees for (scarce) medication, often sending patients to buy it from private pharmacies linked to or directly owned by them. The same was the case with clinics: doctors working in public hospitals that lacked resources used to refer patients to their own (better-equipped) private clinics.
Omicron does appear to be less serious than earlier variants with relatively lower mortality and hospitalisation rates, and while the vaccination rate in Afghanistan is low, the fact that many people have been infected previously will also give some protection. Afghans reported to us that people generally had become less concerned about Covid, treating it as an ‘ordinary disease’ and were therefore taking fewer precautions to limit infections or get treatment. “Even if people have signs and symptoms, they just take medicine such as painkillers, but they don’t go to any clinic or hospital,” Abdullah said. He said people were more concerned about poverty. Muhammad Taqi from Mazar told AAN that people with symptoms did not bother going to hospital to be tested:
They only buy medicine from pharmacies. People don’t take Covid-19 seriously. They don’t maintain social distancing. They don’t wear masks either. They’re not afraid of being infected with Covid-19 and consider it an ordinary disease.
Similar sentiments came from residents of Kabul, Khost, Gardez and from Badakhshan, where Matiullah from Baharak district said:
I think a lot of people have already had Covid-19. Many people here have had a cough, a sore throat and fever, but they see private doctors and take some medicine. They don’t take Covid-19 seriously. They don’t wear masks. The Covid-19 hospital is not active anymore to test people if they have Covid-19 and provide them treatment.
The particular risk from the Omicron variant of ‘Long Covid’, when symptoms last longer than three months, is not yet clear, given its relatively recent emergence.
With Afghans struggling with a whole host of problems, given how the breakdown of the economy has exacerbated the already widespread poverty, it is not surprising that there has been less public attention to the still ongoing Covid pandemic. The lower risk to patients of the Omicron variant may also be playing a part in this. However, the Taleban administration’s response to the most recent wave has been unsystematic, at times even seemingly playing down its scope, with the slow provision of up-to-date, detailed information especially glaring. They are also lagging in reacting to a countrywide measles outbreak (more about this in a forthcoming AAN report).
The was a glimmer of hope in the qualified praise by UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, in her 2 March 2022 briefing to the Security Council in New York for “progress that we have been making with the de facto authorities on expanding the polio programme.” Cooperation on anti-Covid vaccination also indicates that the Taleban are capable of reacting to public health needs, but in other areas, there is still much that needs to be better.
The weak response to the fourth wave of Covid is also symptomatic of a much wider health crisis in Afghanistan, with women, in particular, facing particular problems since the Taleban cracked down on their ability to move freely including to health facilities. The suspension of foreign aid has had a devastating impact on the country’s already ailing health system, leaving fewer hospitals and clinics open. Those still running often lack the necessary medical supplies or equipment to deal with the pandemic or money to pay staff. With qualified medics fleeing the country, the outlook for the health sector is bleak. Despite efforts by NGOs and international agencies to provide stopgap help to a handful of hospitals around the country, Afghanistan’s healthcare needs are vast and immediate and will not end with the waning of this latest wave of Covid-19.
Edited by Emilie Jelinek and Kate Clark
 A doctor at the Bamyan hospital told AAN, “Every day around 20 people are tested. If we were to test everyone, 70 per cent would probably be positive on Covid-19.” He said all 23 patients who had tested positive since 5 February, including 15 women had had to be hospitalised. At a Covid-19 centre in Paktia, a doctor told AAN, “We had 20 patients today, ten of whom were hospitalized in our emergency ward. This means Covid-19 cases are on the rise and we are already experiencing the new wave.” In Mazar-e Sharif, resident Muhammad Taqi said that at the beginning of March, “around two weeks ago, many people got sick. Everyone I saw told me that all his family members were sick. They had sore throat and cold. It is not clear if they were infected with corona.”
 According to his official bio on the MoPH website, Dr Ebad reportedly holds degrees from medical faculties in Jalalabad and Islamabad.
 The ministry has not responded to AAN’s queries, either via phone or messenger.
 Data received by AAN via the MoPH’s Whatsapp group under the Islamic Republic just a few days before the Taleban takeover shows that a total of 738,599 samples had been tested since the start of the pandemic.
 Figures were higher in the initial phase of the virus ( see this AAN report), with around 400 per day; the figure was at 290 per day during the second wave at its highest (on 24 November 2020) and during the third wave 2,203cases per day (on 17 June 2021,as per AAN’s previous reports on Covid-19 here and here).
 See research from Imperial College London, published on 17 March 2022, here: “After adjusting for a number of factors, the risk of hospital admission for Omicron cases was found to be less than half (59% lower) compared to the risk for Delta cases. The risk of dying was 69% lower for those with Omicron compared to those with Delta infections.” Vaccination, the research found, lowered the risk greatly, as did having previously been infected: “Having had COVID-19 previously also offered some protection, likely due to the immunity from a past infection: the risk of hospital admission was 45% lower for unvaccinated cases who had had a known past infection, compared to unvaccinated cases for whom the infection was their first.”
This article was last updated on 19 Apr 2022
The Fourth Wave of Covid-19 Hits Afghanistan: “According to Sharia keeping yourself healthy is a must”