Aid Diversion in Afghanistan: Is it time for a candid conversation?

Diversion of aid in Afghanistan is in the news again, this time with allegations by the United States Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko, that the Islamic Emirate or its officials are diverting humanitarian aid. Language in a draft US appropriations bill would prohibit any US assistance going “directly or indirectly” to the Taleban, something which Sopko has warned could have “serious” consequences for aid organisations. The Emirate has denied the allegations. Guest author Ashley Jackson* has been looking into the Taleban’s actual influence over aid, hearing from aid workers on the ground about their experiences and delving into the role of both donors and the Emirate in its delivery. She asks if aid diversion is any worse – or better – than the historical ‘norm’ in Afghanistan and suggests that, whatever its level, there is a need for a candid dialogue that would lead to practical and ethical steps to ensure aid reaches those most in need.
You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the link below.

The European Union defines aid diversion as:

[A]id taken, stolen or damaged by any governmental or local authority, armed group or any other similar actor. Such act is to be considered diverted aid even if the aid is re-distributed to other people in need other than the intended beneficiary group.

This report explores the dynamics that drive aid diversion, arguing that it cannot be understood in isolation from the political, economic and historical factors and patterns. It distinguishes between aid diversion, which is not always malicious or self-serving, and broader corruption, defined as the abuse of power for personal gain. It also notes that indirect benefits to a government that may arise when aid frees up resources for other tasks (for example, aid supporting basic services could allow more spending on the military), or by supporting the macro-economy) is also not aid diversion. However, it  is part of the debate on the amount and nature of aid given to Afghanistan under the Islamic Emirate. These three categories – diversion, corruption and indirect benefit – are often confused or conflated in the current debate over aid to Afghanistan.

Aid diversion is a serious issue that could result in a further reduction of aid to Afghans. Therefore, this report aims to provide some context for assessing donors’ concerns because, while accusations of widespread diversion of aid are increasingly common, detailed evidence is harder to come by.

The report investigates aid diversion in Afghanistan, specifically examining:

  • How aid diversion is defined, and how it is distinct from both corruption and the indirect benefits that aid brings to any government, including the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA);
  • The historical context of aid diversion in Afghanistan, beginning with the eras of the anti-Soviet jihad and subsequent civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s, through the first Islamic Emirate and the Islamic Republic, including the Taleban’s manipulation of aid during the insurgency;
  • The dynamics of the aid industry since Taleban returned to power in August 2021, including the scope and patterns of aid diversion under the IEA; and
  • The responses of aid workers and donors to IEA attempts to control or divert aid.

Finally, it concludes by exploring what might be done differently to mitigate any harm to Afghans in need of assistance.

Edited by Kate Clark and Roxanna Shapour

* Ashley Jackson is co-director of the Centre on Armed Groups and author of ‘Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations under the Taliban’, Hurst & Co, 2021.

You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the link below.


Aid Diversion in Afghanistan: Is it time for a candid conversation?
read more

Keep on Moving on the Balkan Route: No quarter for Afghan asylum seekers in Croatia and Serbia

The number of Afghan refugees moving along the Balkan Route has remained very high this summer. In particular, a great proportion in their earlier 20s and often under-age Afghans seem to be taking the long trip to central, western and northern Europe. From Turkey, they usually cross Greece and Bulgaria in order to reach Serbia. Once there, most Afghans opt for the ‘Western Balkan route’ leading through Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and finally Italy – where routes for further possible destinations split once again. Among these countries, Croatia became, in January 2023, the European Union’s foremost external border facing the Balkan Route, while non-EU Serbia, remains a midway staging point for migrants, beyond the EU borders yet conveniently close to their final destinations. During a recent visit to Croatia and Serbia, and through long-term observation from the vantage point of Trieste, the Italian city close to Croatia and Slovenia where one of the western branches of the Balkan Route leads, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini has sought to understand what is happening to Afghans transiting through these two, very diverse yet closely connected, countries.
In Savamala, traces of past frequentation by migrants, such as cheap hostels and restaurants, are still visible in the neighbourhood, which is now the site of major building projects. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 25 July 2023. A country in the EU: Croatia

Almost ten years ago, a young Afghan told me the story of how he had been unwittingly tricked by Croatia’s membership of the EU. After an odyssey of several months across Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary – he was one of those low-budget DIY travellers who, without even a GPS, counted only on their skills to make it to their destination – he had managed to cross the Serbian-Croatian border undetected. Coming out of a plum tree orchard where he had spent the night, and still wet from having waded a creek to get there the previous evening, he walked into a Croatian hamlet and inquired from the first person he met his basic whereabouts: “Which country am I in? Is it in the European Union?” “Yes!” was the somewhat upbeat reply “This is Croatia, we’re in the EU!”
It took my friend, who had hurried to the nearest police station and duly applied for asylum, hoping his roaming was over, some days to understand that the people he had met were highly enthusiastic because Croatia had in fact just joined the EU a few days previously, in that fateful July of 2013. It took him some more time to realise that the country had no proper reception system yet and offered no viable chances to asylum seekers, at least not to Afghans.[1] He eventually decided – and managed – to leave Croatia and told me his tale when he was freshly arrived in Trieste, where he would apply for – and eventually obtain – asylum.

Croatia’s position in refugees’ mental geography of the so-called Balkan Route has become clearer since those early days, and more sharply defined: had my friend hit the border four or five years, later he would not have thought of grabbing the chance to seek asylum there. Croatia is now largely seen by migrants as an obstacle to overcome during their hoped-for movement westwards and its security forces and government’s attitude as uncompromisingly hostile.

Maybe it is not so paradoxical that Afghan migrants’ increasingly poor perception of Croatia has developed in the same years that saw the completion of Croatia’s accession to full EU membership. In January 2023, it made the last two big steps forward, with the adoption of the EU’s common currency, the euro, and entry into the Schengen Agreement, a treaty which led to the creation of the Schengen Area in which internal border checks have largely been abolished. Bulgaria and Romania are members of the EU, but not Schengen, while Greece, a Schengen member, has a sea border with the rest of the Union, something which facilitatesits control of migrants’ movement. That leaves Croatia, together with Hungary to the north, the main external border for those approaching the EU from the southeast. EU strategies and concerns about what it deems ‘the migrant crisis’, therefore inform Croatia’s policies and behaviour towards migrants more than the internal political debate about them. This is also because, so far, despite the migrants having a highly visible presence, very few have stopped and settled in Croatia.

However, an increase in the number of asylum requests filed in Croatia during the first months of 2023 pointed to possible imminent changes in the country’s position and role in migration along the Balkan Route, and inspired this research and report. Let us then first have a look at some numbers.

Asylum seekers in Croatia: inflow and outflow

In the first six months of 2023, the most important entry to the EU for Afghans remained what is known as the Western Balkan route. [2] It was along this route that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, listed the highest numbers of detections of illegal border crossings by Afghan nationals – 6,392 – far more than the 2,437 detections along the Eastern Mediterranean route (from Turkey into Greece or Bulgaria or from Turkey by sea to the Greek islands or to Italy).[3] The Frontex numbers look to be an undercount given the increasing trend in migration in recent years. Moreover, in 2022, in Croatia alone, the Ministry of Interior reported far more: 14,877 illegal border crossings and 1,390 asylum requests provided by the Ministry of Interior.

Actual figures for Afghans travelling along the Western Balkan route must be even higher, given there are also undetected border crossings by Afghans. For example, in 2022, Hungary effected more than 25,300 pushbacks of Afghan nationals to Serbia, according to its police statistics (quoted by the Asylum Information Database – AIDA). A majority of Afghans, moreover, unlike Syrians who typically try to cross north into Hungary (the most direct route to their destinations in northern Europe), opt to keep moving west, from Serbia through Bosnia and then Croatia, on the western branch of the Balkan Route which leads towards Italy. This will be the specific focus of this report. [4]

The constant flow of Afghans arriving at Italy’s north-eastern border further provides a glimpse of the overall numbers moving through Croatia. In 2022, the number of migrants crossing from Slovenia into Italy, traced by the Border Police of Trieste, or who spontaneously presented themselves to the authorities there, amounted to around 13,000. This figure coincides roughly with the number of migrants in transit assessed by a group of solidarity organisations active in the city, which also estimated that over half were Afghans, (see their recent report). In particular, according to them, in the third quarter of 2022, Afghans made up 75 per cent of the total number of migrants transiting through Trieste. In the case of non-accompanied minors arriving in Trieste, Afghans accounted for 85 percent of the total during 2022.

In Croatia itself, these two trends, the increase in the numbers of overall arrivals and of Afghans, were also monitored. In 2022, 12,872 asylum requests (of all nationalities) were made, against a mere 3,039 of 2021 (see AIDA’s annual country report about Croatia). Then in 2023, the first partial data showed an enormous jump in asylum requests: by 20 March, as many as 6,280 individuals had applied for asylum in Croatia, an 800 percent increase compared to the same period in 2022. By 30 June, according to the Ministry of Interior’s statistics Croatia had received 24,367 asylum requests, among them, the majority (5,925) filed by Afghan nationals.

It was difficult not to link the new pace of asylum requests with the changed political and economic situation of 2023 – Croatia joining the Schengen agreement and adopting the euro. The game-changer of being inside Schengen, for example, was mentioned by an unnamed police official to the Croatian daily, Vecernji List:

Previously they went to Slovenia, a Schengen member and sought asylum there because then they could no longer be returned to a country outside of Schengen. Now that Croatia in is Schengen, they don’t need to wait to arrive in Slovenia, so they’re asking for asylum here. 

Was it possible that a Croatia now in Schengen could become more attractive as a destination for migrants, and that those who had just transited through it, could become more interested in trying to stay, given the country’s fast-expanding economy and its hunger for cheap seasonal labour in tourist sector? Moreover, this year, Croatia fell into line with most other EU countries with respect to the waiting time imposed on asylum seekers before they can legally seek a job; it was brought down from nine months to just three.

A second look at the situation however quickly dispelled this theory. Firstly, the assumption that all asylum requests would lead to those seeking asylum remaining in Croatia is misleading. A number of factors point to relatively few new asylum seekers stopping in the country for good. They include the fact that the increase in asylum requests in Croatia was paralleled by migrants transiting through to Trieste. Also, the numbers of recorded illegal entries into Croatia and Slovenia (the next country along the route westwards to Italy) during the first six months of 2023 were roughly equivalent – 26,871 and 25,431 respectively (see for example figures given in this report by Ansa). This points to the outflow of migrants from Croatia into Slovenia keeping pace with the number of new arrivals, including those who applied for asylum. In 2021, researchers at the University of Zagreb had assessed that almost 90 per cent of those applying for asylum in Croatia left the country after a short time, leaving their requests pending. The current estimate is that around 85 per cent do so.

Further elements reinforce the likelihood that few of the new asylum seekers stop in Croatia for good. As already mentioned, so far, Afghans constitute by large the most numerous group of asylum seekers in Croatia this year. Yet it is realistic to infer that, in the case of Afghans even more than that of other national groups, the great majority leave the country and move westwards. According to information shared by a Zagreb-based independent organisation offering legal assistance and advocacy for asylum seekers the Centre for Peace Studies (Centar za mirovne studije, CMS), asylum requests made by Afghans in Croatia are usually rejected, even after appeal (in both the 2nd and 3rdinstances). Despite an increased focus on Afghans on the part of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and its partner organisations in Croatia, such as CMS, this is not yet reflected by changes in the asylum policy at the national level. Only a negligible number of Afghans, mostly individuals who worked with NATO forces and could prove direct collaboration with Croatians, managed to settle in Croatia after being evacuated in 2021. Few Afghans would choose to stop in a country showing such reticence in granting asylum, especially when they are so close to more attractive destinations deeper inside the EU.

Croatian police behaviour towards Afghans likely plays another key role in keeping them on the move. The country’s borders with Bosnia and Serbia, are heavily patrolled, along with transit routes in the interior of the country; according to the Croatian Prime minister 6,700 police guard and patrol the border. The Croatian police often engage in so-called ‘pushbacks’ – that is, the immediate and illegal expulsion of individuals who may have applied for asylum, if given the opportunity.

Migrants intercepted by the police not only close to the border, but even at greater distances from it, are routinely brought back and forced to re-enter Bosnia on foot, without a formal transfer to Bosnian authorities, and usually through deserted tracts of the border far away from their original crossing point.

CMS estimated around 25,000 pushbacks to Bosnia in the years 2019-21 (smaller numbers of pushbacks towards Serbia have also taken place). The overall number of pushbacks may have slightly diminished in 2022 –the Danish Refugee Council counted 3,461 pushbacks to Bosnia; however, Afghan nationals constituted the main victims of this practice, with 919 such cases. In the first six months of 2023, the volume of pushbacks involving Afghans has continued unabated, with 475 recorded.

Instances of police abuse against migrants have been consistently reported and denounced by NGO workers and the media, in Croatia and elsewhere over the past few years and have recently been detailed in a major report by Human Rights Watch. Leaving aside the issue of ‘chain-pushbacks’, which involve more than one country, in this case Slovenia and Italy (more on this later), such abuses range from the blanket denial of access to asylum to arbitrary detention, theft and damage of personal property, physical violence and degrading treatment. As documented in a CMS report, police officers who take part in such operations most often have their faces covered to avoid identification and likewise cover up the pushback as instances of prevention of illegal border crossings.

Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that held Croatia responsible for the death of a six-year-old Afghan girl, Madina Hosseini, who was run over by a train after being pushed back by the police to Serbia in 2017, the Croatian police continue with its abusive practices. They have evidently become engrained in the operational routine of Croatian police forces tasked by their and other European governments, which support Croatian border control economically and operationally through Frontex, with checking unauthorised migration. The actions of the Croatian police should be considered an integral part of the deterrence measures put in place to ‘protect’ the whole of the European Union, not just their own country: the push-backs are just one of a range of measures – bureaucratic hurdles, low recognition rates and threats of deportations – variously deployed by different EU countries.

The mother and the sister of Madina Hosseini, the young Afghan girl run over by a train after being pushed back from Croatia, at her graveside in the Serbian border town of Šid. Photo: Jelena Bjelica, 28 December 2017. 

Even when Afghans are not subjected to pushbacks, NGO workers reported that this nationality is are often treated worse than other migrant groups such as the (far fewer) Syrians, so that the idea that they are not welcome in Croatia is quickly and firmly impressed upon the transiting migrants. A number of conversations with Afghan refugees travelling through Croatia corroborated this point.

Talking to Afghans outside of Porin Hotel

The main reception centre in Croatia is in the former Hotel Porin, on the southern outskirts of Zagreb. The centre opened in 2011 with a capacity of 600. Although meant for single men, it currently hosts a mixed population which include several families.[5]The authorities might have considered its location, away from the city centre, convenient. It has proved uncomfortable for those living there. There is a foul-smelling major waste disposal nearby, a huge and largely abandoned freight train exchange station and untended expanses of grass. The area swarmed with ravenous mosquitoes even more than the average Zagreb suburbs in the wet and stormy summer of 2023.

The entrance gate of the Hotel Porin, the main reception centre for asylum seekers in Croatia, in the southern outskirts of Zagreb. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 21 July 2023.

The camp is closed to all but government personnel and the Red Cross. Médecins Sans Frontières used to have access but has recently suspended its operations there. However, Afghan migrants are regularly to be found moving around the old hotel’s fenced precincts, squatting in the greenery that surrounds it, exchanging information or walking back from the city after a failed departure. At lunch time, in particular, many Afghans who have not been able to secure accommodation in the complex try to obtain some food from their acquaintances inside.

For someone who used to speak to migrants on the Balkan Route a few years back, and to those arriving in Trieste, the first contact with Afghans in 2023 Croatia was telling. The first person, a particularly sombre-looking young man from Maidan Wardak, apologised profusely in Dari for requesting to see my ID. He would not talk to me unless he could reassure himself beyond any doubt that I was not linked to either the Croatian security forces or Frontex.

I‘ve just been let out of police detention, you know. I spent last night in the hold-up. I’d arrived here yesterday morning, the police identified me and sent me to the camp [Porin]. I left the camp shortly after and went to the train station to catch a train and continue my journey. However, before the train started, the police checked it, carriage by carriage, and there was no place to hide. They were very angry at me for leaving the camp, and even more so for having taken the train. They said, “You have no right to board trains or buses here, you can only move around the way you came – walking.” They brought me to the police station and kept me there for the night. As soon as I’d fall asleep, somebody would make a noise or shake me to force me to stay awake. Then they let me go, but told me: “Go on or we’ll deport you back to where you came from.” The Croatian police don’t care about us applying for asylum. They only want to fingerprint us because the more fingerprints they take, the more money they receive from the EU.

According to CMS in Zagreb, Afghans crossing into Croatia face three possible legal outcomes, if caught by the police and identified as migrants. Some migrants receive access to asylum applications and are subsequently sent to Porin or another reception centre – from where most eventually resume their trip westwards. A second possibility is that the person receives a ‘return decision’, a seven-day warrant ordering them to leave Croatia. 30,000 such decisions were issued in 2022, in particular to migrants from Burundi (who used to be able to travel to Serbia without visas) but also to many Afghans. Reportedly, this practice is continuing without a clear pattern and leaves migrants facing an uncertain fate. The return decision in fact can result in their being allowed to continue traveling, or their being held and then pushed back to Bosnia. A third option – an expulsion decision – has also become more frequent this year (more details in this analysis by Balkaninsight), especially after a ministerial summit of the western Balkan countries and the EU in Rome in April 2023. Migrants may be issued an expulsion decision, which results in Bosnia formally readmitting them. They are delivered to the Bosnian police. This is reported to have happened even after a person asked for asylum in Croatia.[6]

Whichever they get – authorised to ask for asylum, given a seven-day warrant to leave the country or a formal expulsion decision – it is difficult for migrants to make sense of any of it. At least when it comes to Afghan nationals, there were many complaints about the paucity of translation services – and communication in general – on the part of the police. The complaint of a young man from Takhar province, formerly a member of the Afghan National Army (ANA), was echoed by nearly all his compatriots: “There’s never an interpreter with them [the police], the paperwork is all in Croatian and many policemen don’t even bother to try to speak English with you.”

Most Afghans AAN spoke to were convinced they had not applied for asylum in Croatia, although they had given their fingerprints to the European Asylum Dactyloscopy Database (Eurodac). According to the Dublin Regulation, once a person is identified by the Croatian police, their asylum request is up to Croatia to process, because it was their EU country of entry, even if they do not afterwards complete their application there.[7] They are also be liable to be sent back to Croatia, if they travelled on to another EU member state. The readmission of Dublin cases to Croatia is a relatively frequent instance, and actually one on the rise since Croatia’s accession to Schengen, especially by countries with big volumes of Afghan asylum seekers, such as Switzerland. The phenomenon led a group of Croatian NGOs to travel to Bern in mid-June to meet the Swiss Secretary of State for Migration to advocate for a stop to the practice. They cited the lack of sufficient capacity in their country’s reception system for accommodating refugees (read about the delegation in the Swiss press). Being sent back, of course, does not necessarily prevent migrants from trying to travel west again and apply for asylum elsewhere.

The Porin hotel was fully booked during the days AAN was in Zagreb. Afghans hanging around the hotel said that some newcomers had been made to sleep in the hallways and others could simply not be accommodated inside and slept rough in abandoned wagons in the nearby railway area. When the author visited in late July, the rough sleeping was especially grim, as Zagreb was hit by a quite unprecedented hurricane. It caused extensive damage and several deaths in the city. The Croatian capital was ravaged by bouts of heavy rains and wind for the full following week.

One of the Afghans who was sleep rough outside Porin was a young boy from Dand-e Ghuri in Baghlan province. Hardly looking as old as the 16 years he claimed, he had been sent by the Croatian police to what he termed “a camp for minors” (likely the reception centre in Kutina) upon arrival. He left it after just one day, however, and proceeded to Zagreb, but could not find a place inside Porin. While waiting for some sympathetic compatriot to bring him food from inside the hotel, he related what had led him to leave in haste the arguably better reception he would have received at the camp for minors:

I left my country two years ago, shortly before the fall of the Republic. I wasted a lot of time in Turkey because I had no money to pay for the next leg of the trip. I worked as a shepherd near Istanbul, and also in the city, but it was never enough. My family sold everything in order to have me out of Afghanistan. They sold the last sack of rice, even some of the little land they owned. My little sister is at home. My whole family is only waiting for me to get to some place where I can start to help them. It’s two years I’ve been gone and not a single time have I been able to send some shirini [literally “sweets”, presents or sums of money given as gifts to relatives, friends or associates] to my father. There’s no money left at home. How could there be? We are sharecroppers: one quarter of our harvest the Taleban take as taxes, one quarter goes to the landlord, one quarter is just for our own consumption to eat and stay alive, and with the sale of the remaining quarter you have to meet all the other expenses of the family. … The time I spent in Turkey, the way I used to slave for a small sum of money there made me reflect a lot. Now I need to get somewhere fast, somewhere I can get an education, find a good job, start a different life.

As for where this more favourable final destination could be, in the minds of those traveling, there are a few recurrent ideas. While some mention France and potentially further, possibly to the UK, or Switzerland, most seem to be directed to Germany. However, the majority of those interviewed by AAN declared they aimed first to get to Italy, and so were trying to catch a train or bus to Rijeka, Croatia’s Adriatic seaport, only 50 kilometres away as the crow flies from its ‘twin’ city in Italy, Trieste.

Migrants cannot fly, however, or even, apparently, be allowed to take a bus or train, but must only walk. Two former members of the ANA from Mazar-e Sharif related what had happened to them the day before:

Yesterday, we went to the main station to catch a train, but the police were on the platform and sent us back to the camp [Porin]. They called a taxi and forced us to take it and followed us in their car. The taxi driver had first said the ride would cost 30 euros and we gave it to him, but then he started saying that it was 30 for each of us and got angry at our refusal to pay the additional money, so he stopped the cab after just a couple of blocks and the police came and threw our backpacks out of the car and we had to walk back to the camp. The policemen told us we could continue our trip, but not by any form of transport. They even threatened us: Go quick, move on or we’ll deport you back to Afghanistan. 

Taxi drivers are a key component in what Afghans call ‘the Game’, played along this section of the route, both as transporters of migrants for short distances, but also, often, as police informers.

­From Serbia onwards, the role of traffickers is much less direct and their presence ‘on the ground’ negligible. Of course, there are those traveling under more high-profile and costly arrangements, such as direct transport by vehicle, which according to one police investigation can cost up to 5,000 euros from Bosnia to Italy or up to 8,000 euros if somebody wants to get further west, for example to Spain. However, most migrants, especially single young men, are left to themselves after they leave Serbia and cross the border into Bosnia. The traffickers keep in touch over the phone and provide guidance by sending GPS positions which they must reach, stage by stage.

A short distance from the gates of Porin, the author met a group of Afghans squatting in the tall grass, listening attentively to a twenty-year old from Bagram talking in Pashto with smugglers on his phone. He was telling them about the difficulty of boarding public transport and the poor conditions of his and his companions’ feet after the tiresome trekking they had been forced to do in the previous days and afterwards recounted to the author his recent journey.

I arrived two days ago. I slept outside Porin, I cannot enter [the complex] or eat there as I gave no fingerprints to the police – I actually have not met any so far. I came all the way with a friend from my district. We paid 3,000 USD to travel from Turkey to Serbia. During that part of the trip, we always had a rahbalad [guide] with us and when we were detained for some days in Bulgaria, somebody from our smuggler network waited until we were out and guided us into Serbia. From Serbia onwards, we were alone. Now it works through “locations” only. The smugglers give you a series of locations via GPS and you follow them: a station, a road, a border crossing. From Belgrade, they brought us to a river border and told us to jump into the water to get into Bosnia. On the other side we took a taxi. It cost 50 euros for each of the passengers to be brought close to Bihac. Then we went to a camp called Lipa and after around a week, we crossed into Croatia. On the way, there were people coming back to the camp whose phones had been broken or stolen by the Croatian police. We crossed a forest which had no paths. Luckily we met no police, although we could hear the drones buzzing over our heads. Then we walked until Zagreb. Now we are waiting for the new location from our contact. … Altogether, for the trip Bosnia to Italy (with locations) you pay 700 USD if the trafficker is a rafiq [a friend or associate], otherwise 800 USD.

The chances are that somebody among the migrants gets a discount if he becomes a jelawro (‘lead-the-way’), informally taking charge of a small group and keeping in touch with the smuggler network to enhance the group’s possibilities of successfully arriving at  the next stage (and the smugglers’ of getting paid in full). Recently, there have been press reports about an increase in the number of traffickers arrested by the Croatian police. According to CMS, many of these arrests have been made among migrants who had reached Rijeka or other places far from the border with Bosnia. This could point towards their real role, as jelawros, rather than real members of a smuggling network.

Besides providing a barrier on behalf of the EU at the border with non-EU Bosnia (it became a candidate country only in December 2022), Croatian police efforts seem directed at keeping pressure on migrants to move on once they are inside Croatia. Over the past few years, for example, the route from Zagreb to Rijeka (by train or bus), from Rijeka (by train) to the inland town of Buzet on the Istrian peninsula (the westernmost area of Croatia which bulges out into the Adriatic Sea), and from there on foot across Slovenian territory (at its narrowest point – around 15 km) and into Italy, had become well-established. Police crackdowns on migrants in Rijeka have recently caused part of the flow to shift towards Pula, a seaport at the tip of the Istrian peninsula: which would be a counterintuitive detour for those trying to get to Italy. The aim of this ‘keeping migrants on the move’ is probably to make sure one single route does not become too prominent and crowded, with the risk of it developing into a public scandal or something which could tarnish the image of the country advertised as a tourist paradise.

Crossing Croatia is not as gruelling as crossing Bulgaria with its higher levels of abuse and violence or an impassable obstacle such as Hungary. Still, it comes like a cold shower for migrants convinced that they have finally overcome the harshest part of their trip, that they are finally on the doorstep of western Europe and that with that, will come better standards of reception and human rights, as one man said:

In Serbia and Bosnia, the people are good and the police don’t bother us migrants. In Croatia, we’re treated like animals. Elsewhere, the violence, the hostile behaviour is on the border and once you’ve made it away from there, you’re fine, people aren’t hostile and the police don’t bother you. So, once you’ve arrived here in Zagreb from the forests on the Bosnian border, you think you’ve come out of the jangal [the jungle, here used also in a figurative sense] and reached ‘the city’. But then, you realise that the behaviour of the police here in the capital is the same as on the border. Actually, the police here mistreat you as you would expect someone to do in the jungle, while out there in ‘the jungle’ [referring here to the refugee camps of the Bosnian Una-Sana canton, located in forested areas] people were treating us in a more civilised way. 

The Zagreb government’s hostile attitude is compounded by the migrants’ own lack of interest in remaining in Croatia; hence, they seldom reach out to the very committed organisations which offer legal aid and other forms of support. The positive perception of police and Bosnian and Serbian people’s attitudes noted by the two ex-soldiers from Mazar and many other migrants AAN spoke to reflected their personal experience, that is, of a relatively swift and smooth crossing. However, the full picture is not so rosy nor so simple in Serbia and Bosnia, which have been at the centre of the ‘migrant crisis’ for years, as the author discovered when he took a closer look at the situation of Afghan migrants still in Serbia.

Talking and walking in Belgrade

For many migrants, having experienced a first taste of the EU in Greece or Bulgaria, Serbia may look like a comparatively relaxed stage of the trip. Access to asylum-seeking is available, but not everywhere: according to members of a Serbian NGO providing legal and psychosocial support to migrants, Klikaktiv, the police do not easily provide the possibility to register outside Belgrade and even in the capital, this opportunity is not available at all times. Despite improvements in the reception capacity of the 17 camps active across Serbia, for which the EU is the major funder, not many possibilities are offered to those who apply for asylum besides accommodation. The wait to legally seek employment amounts to nine months and, before a positive decision has been made, according to migrants solidarity organisations in Belgrade, no language or professional courses are available. At any given moment, there are around 3,000 migrants hosted in the reception centres, but very few opt to remain in Serbia. Most move quickly on to Bosnia and Croatia.

Serbia’s role is mainly one of transit, and in recent years, of an increasingly swift transit. According to the annual report by the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and Migration, 124,127 migrants were registered and hosted in reception centres during 2022. On average, they stayed in the country for 16 days, a considerable decrease from the 30 days of 2021 or the 36 of 2020. Reportedly, over 73,000 migrants had already transited through Serbia’s camps in the first six months of 2023. Afghans were the most represented nationality to pass through the Serbian reception centres in 2022, amounting to over 36 per cent of the total.

It is often vulnerable cases, families or people with medical conditions who access reception centres out of their own free will. They may need to stop for a short while in order to recover, while other migrants try to continue on their path almost immediately. Outside the official camps, there is indeed another migrant population in Serbia, estimated at between 3-4,000 and constantly flowing into and out of the country and thereby renewing itself. This is centred on smugglers’ rented safehouses and the many squats located on the northern border with Hungary. At the western border with Bosnia, there is also a constant flow, but far less ‘housing’ because it is easier and quicker to cross.

The crossing into Bosnia is also the route generally favoured by Afghans, many of whom therefore end up stopping in Serbia for only a couple of days. According to both migrants and NGO workers interviewed by AAN, crossing into Bosnia is now relatively easy. From Belgrade, migrants move to minor border crossings near quiet towns in western Serbia such as Loznica. Migrants described wading or swimming across rivers – though crossing the Drina, which largely marks the border between the two countries, would require along most of its course advanced swimming skills – read here about migrants stranded mid-river. Different interviewees related also crossing rivers by bridges, either secretly, through a system of ropes hung under the bridge, or quite openly – just walking across. At some minor border crossings, such as Ljubovija, migrants can be taken across the river into Bosnia directly by car: according to the Serbian NGO, Klikaktiv, it is relatively common to see cavalcades of vehicles with non-local plates crossing this and other nearby ‘sleepy’ border towns. Some migrants may be picked up by cars on the Bosnian side. These ‘all-inclusive’ migrants who pay more and travel fast, stay with smugglers throughout, and are often brought directly to the Croatian frontier and even beyond.[8] The average migrant, however resorts to public transport once on the Bosnian side.

Map by Roger Helms for AAN

On both sides of the frontier, the police often opt to close their eyes to migrants’ crossing, or can be bribed by smugglers if necessary. The lax attitude of the police in Serbia has often been commented positively on by migrants and looks to be a constant from AAN’s previous visit to the country’s migrant squats in 2016 (read this and the other reports from the series). However, things might be changing in this respect, as episodes of violent repression of migrants at border crossings have recently been documented and seem to be on the rise. Klikaktiv has also reported police pressure on migrants trying to use public transport to reach Belgrade from the south.

The shift in Serbian police attitudes is not happening only at the borders: a short walk in downtown Belgrade in the same places researched in 2016 at the height of the ‘first Balkan Route crisis’, showed that a lot had changed in the city as well. The area of the once dilapidated central train station in the Savamala neighbourhood, that has since been relocated, has been transformed into a new upscale Belgrade Waterfront project, radically changing the city skyline and profile of the neighbourhood. This means also that migrants’ presence in the area, previously a ‘natural’ hub for those transiting, is nowadays less tolerated.

Around the remains of the old train station in Savamala (read here a report on BBC Serbian about its past glory, and last days), the absence of refugees is made more conspicuous by the signs of their previous presence: PCO shops, where people could phone home or contact smugglers, and kebabs once lining the main avenue are now shut, together with the cheap hostels that would accommodate families or migrants coming to Serbia in a more high-profile way.[9] Tents and shacks have disappeared and illegal squats inside the abandoned wagons near the old train station have been removed. Serbian police are known to raid such urban squats in order to destroy them and deport their occupants to the camps in Šid near the Croatian border or in Preševo near the border with North Macedonia (read this report by Klikaktiv).

By mid-2023, only a few migrants were visible around Belgrade’s former main railway station in the Savamala neighbourhood. In the past, it was a busy hub. Photo: Fabrizio Foschini, 25 July 2023.

The nearby park, universally known by migrants as ‘Afghan Park’ since at least 2015, where smugglers used to hold court (read this instalment of the previous AAN series on Afghan migrants in Serbia) now looks to be only frequented by migrants part-time. With the coming of spring and then summer, it started to fill again with newcomer migrants arriving from the Bulgarian or Macedonian border, but they do not spend all their time there and are frequently rounded up and forcibly relocated by the police to camps far away from the city.

Arriving at Afghan Park one morning shortly after 11am, the author could witness from afar such an operation. Two dozen migrants, seemingly Afghans, had been made to sit on the grass while a dozen police agents counted and identified them in order to have them board a big police bus, already waiting by the side of the road. Some civilians stayed there throughout the process, possibly NGO workers who had come with their own translator to make sure the migrants were advised and accounted for and that none ended being pushed out of Serbia.

Moving a couple of lanes above the park, in front of a line of shops selling hiking gear, a few migrants were apparently waiting for the police operation to be over before moving out of cover. Three were Afghans from the southeast, speaking Pashto over the phone and a bit uneasy about speaking Dari to a stranger. They hurried to declare that they were already accommodated in a camp at the outskirts of the city and had only come to town to do some shopping.

Walking down another lane leading back to the park, there was another group of Afghans who had apparently left it in the wake of the police arrival. They were mostly Pashto speakers as well, with at least two very young boys among them. Although arguably keen to put more distance between them and the police bus on the other side of the road, they did not look over-concerned by it (the vehicle was also shielding them from the agents inside the park). However, the conversation with them was cut abruptly short by an old lady from a balcony above, who started protesting loudly that it was not permitted to talk to migrants (arguably taking the author for a local). She kept urging the migrants to go back and immediately report to the police in the park, as it was not allowed for them to stay in the city. Indeed, the Afghans did not look at ease stopping anywhere in the area and kept hurrying onwards, so the interview had to be continued while walking several hundred metres. It was a full reversal of how easy it was to spot and engage in conversation with migrants in Belgrade only a few years back. The information they provided was necessarily sketchy, but its interpretation made somewhat easier by the circumstances.

They had not been stopped by the Serbian police and had kept clear of the camps. Although they claimed they were sleeping in various city parks, they seemed to be following a clear leader – a tall, bearded guy walking a few dozen metres ahead of them – and had shopping bags full of food with them. They said they would stop to rest for a couple of days before hitting ‘the game’ towards Bosnia. When asked if they were ‘khod-andaz’ (migrants who self-organise their trip) or were with smugglers, they seemed to find the idea funny and replied “We’re with smugglers, of course.” They added that the police in the park did not see them and they did not wish to be seen, else the police might bring them back to the camps “two hours away [located in the south of Serbia.” They complained that the Serbian police were making some problems for migrants, that people were forced to go to the camps and that the police sometimes sent some of their number back to Bulgaria.

On returning to the park, I found it deserted. The migrants had boarded the police bus, which seemed now ready to start. The whole process had taken around one and a half hours. A few more Afghans, altogether not more than half a dozen, were squatting or sleeping in the more secluded parts of the park esplanade in front of the old train station, now a restored monument, not creating even a visible trouble to passers-by. Ironically, above their heads, a big travel agency placard atop an unfinished building promised that with it: “Every day, you could go to Turkey”.

Discussions with NGO workers and researchers at Belgrade University confirmed the impression that, regardless of the still significant numbers of migrants passing through Belgrade, they are much less visible in the city. The causes for this are the authorities’ changed attitude, as well also the nature of the operations run by the smuggling networks in Serbia. Migrants constitute a minor source of concern for the Serbian government, provided they do not become too visible in central areas of the city. To disincentivise their presence, besides raids and forced relocation to camps out of the city, the authorities have discontinued the provision of services to migrants in the area. The main hub offering assistance to migrants in the city centre was Miksalište. It had been transformed over the years from a volunteer organisation to a state-run info point (read this paper on its history and the transformations of migrants reception in Belgrade), forced to relocate in 2016 due to the demolitions planned for the Belgrade Waterfront and was shut down for good on 31 December 2022.

The withdrawal of the state left a free hand once again to the smugglers, not only to arrange for the migrants to cross frontiers in a swift way, but to organise every other aspect of their stay in Serbia. Today, migrants who do not seek reception in the government camps are fully dependent on the smugglers for transport, accommodation, food and communications – hence the lack of need for PCO shops and food stalls. This of course, has its backlashes. Migrants who cannot pay smugglers can face serious abuses and are often exploited for labour or sex. Many such migrants have to work for the smugglers in assisting the accommodation or transport of other migrants and are kept in isolation and are very difficult to access, whether by NGOs keen to help, or the security forces. The situation is of particular concern for vulnerable categories, such as unaccompanied minors – Klikaktiv assessed that in the first six months of 2023, there were three times as many of these crossing Serbia compared to the same period last year.

Recently there have also been numerous instances of violence between smugglers, believed to be caused by competition between rival groups. The string of violence started in July last year, with a shooting between two rival groups of Afghan smugglers in a squat near the northern border with Hungary, which ended in one member killed and also caused serious injuries to an Iranian girl who was caught in the crossfire. The episode made some impression on the Serbian media back then, but this year, despite several similar incidents – at least five, including one recorded in March on the border with Bosnia which resulted in the death of an Afghan – they have not attracted much public interest nor police reaction. The fact that they happened in liminal places, such as migrants’ squats or in remote border towns and did not involve Serbian nationals, has so far kept the profile of such crimes low in the eyes of the state and public. Klikaktiv, however, denouncing the threat posed by smugglers to migrants and NGO workers, indeed all citizens, lamented the lack of political will to deal with the problem on the part of the authorities (see their most recent report).

Where does the Balkan Route end?

During the 1990s, when the civil wars that resulted in ethnic cleansing and mass displacement across the territories of former Yugoslavia, the use of the old terms ‘Balkanisation’ and ‘Balkanise’ as pejoratives denoting fragmentation, chaos, insecurity and unlawfulness was revamped.[10] A joke about the Balkans’ physical borders, told by people writing about the region at that time, suggested the impossibility of even ascertaining where ‘the Balkans’ started or ended, as no country coming out of the dissolution of Yugoslavia would accept being called part of the ‘Balkans’, and would cast the label with its now stained connotation onto its neighbour.

Nowadays, it could prove equally hard to define where the Balkan Route starts or ends, judging by the behaviour of the EU states. Is the situation faced by Afghan migrants at the supposed end of the route radically different? Legal provisions may be different, but the reality is not.

A long chain of push-backs of thousands of migrants, including many who intended to apply for asylum, from the Italian border near Trieste to Slovenia, and from there to Croatia and Bosnia, was ongoing between 2019 and 2021. The ‘chain push-backs’ were exposed only through the work of independent organisations and lawyers who investigated complaints made by some deported asylum seekers. The sensation the news made and a court sentence back then put a stop to such practices, but recently, authorities at the regional and national level have been openly advocating for their resumption.

Meanwhile, Trieste’s train station, just inside Italy, and the square in front of it are crowded with hundreds of migrants, half of them transiting through the city on their way to further destinations, the other half waiting to access a reception programme after having applied for asylum in Italy. Waiting times for a place to sleep in the city can now last more than fifty days (read here about conditions in Trieste). A reception system made of small flats scattered across the city, that once worked very effectively, has been hampered by cuts to funding and the preference given to the creation of big hubs that relocate high numbers of migrants away from the cities. The identification of the venues for such hubs has, however, become a bone of contention between the administrations and their constituencies, as communities stand up and reject them, while political parties squabble over responsibilities (read reports in Italian and English). Transfers to reception programmes in other parts of Italy have been blocked since November 2022 because of the priority given to arrivals by sea over those who travel by land They have only just recently, sporadically, resumed in the face of the crisis.

Italy is not a lone example of controversial and ineffective policies. Austria has reinstated border controls with Italy and even fenced part of its border with Slovenia in 2015 at the height of the ‘Balkan Route Crisis’. It has maintained these controversial measures, which are a de facto breach of Schengen, even in the face of diplomatic tensions, and despite the fact that most of its migrants currently arrive from Hungary (across a border which Austria also controls). At the other end of the Alps, France likewise reinstated border controls in 2015 and proceeds routinely to effect “entry refusals” against migrants coming from the Italian side of the border, even when they are traced well inside its territory (read about it in this AIDA report).

As for the Balkans, speaking in strictly geographical terms, they remain the battleground of choice for the externalisation of migration control strategies implemented by various EU countries or groups of countries (see this recent paper on the role of, for example, the Salzburg Forum, which brings together several  Central European states in a security partnership). Such externalisation of migrant control strategies is often done in a controversial or chaotic manner, despite the refugee crisis having been one of the EU’s long-term concerns for over a decade now. The current trend sees an extension of the externalisation of such practices to non-EU countries in the region, such as Serbia and Bosnia (read this paper on the subject).

It is unclear whether a more comprehensive set of EU policies aimed at dealing with the migration crisis on its south-eastern borders will appear any time soon. It seems likely that, for the time being, the conditions met by Afghans crossing Serbia and Croatia will remain far from ideal. Serbia, with no obvious chance for a quick accession to the EU, will likely retain a somewhat permissive environment for transiting migrants. However, if the partnerships with the EU in border security and reception system were to be expanded, there might be a change in that equation. This would also depend on the levels of economic aid and/or political concessions that the EU is willing to make to get Serbia to act to block migrants moving westwards. On one hand, additional incentives could be created for migrants to apply for asylum in Serbia and have their cases processed there; this would include language and vocational courses and the possibility of being relocated to an EU country at a later date. On the other, Serbia could also become a country to which the EU could return unwanted migrants and failed asylum seekers, thanks to its position exactly outside of the EU and that it is not bound by the EU’s legal framework. Such a development is already being reported for Bosnia, whose policy and attitudes towards migrants is even more linked to EU policies and funding (read about an agreement allowing Bosnia to repatriate Pakistani migrants).

As for Croatia, for the time being the possibility that it could itself become a target destination for Afghan asylum-seekers must be excluded, despite its entry into the Schengen area and the burgeoning touristic sector which could offer jobs. These potential attractions are countered by the unwelcoming attitude of the security and political forces, low wages, language difficulties and, even more so, the lack of a diaspora community to link up with. Until a thorough rethinking of EU migration policies comes into being or the Union’s external frontiers are pushed somewhere else, the hostile reception given to migrants in Croatia is unlikely to change. Moreover, Croatia’s long and tortuous border risks it being relegated to its role in the 16th to 18th centuries in the Hapsburg Empire, of being a Militärgrenze, a military frontier, where normality and the rule of law are sacrificed in order to protect the tranquillity of what lies behind – in exchange for dubious economic or political benefits.

Afghan migrants, trying to move from Turkey towards central and western Europe, are faced with a series of countries displaying varying policies and attitudes, from outright hostility and violence to laissez-faire and opportunism. Such inconsistency en route continues well beyond the Balkans for the many among the transit population aiming at destinations further afield, such as France, Germany or the UK. Theirs is not an experience of moving from the wild ‘jangal‘ to the lawful ‘city’ – the Dari and Pashto word used by migrants, paytakht, ‘at the throne’s feet’, conjures even more the idea of law and order connected to it. Rather, the experience of those travelling through the West Balkan route amounts to a rough introduction of what they will encounter deeper into the European Union, a set of migration laws and policies which are unclear and uneven from one country to another.

Edited by Jelena Bjelica and Kate Clark


1 A reception system for asylum seekers of sorts in Croatia did exist in 2013, but it had only recently been expanded and become more effective. Croatia has received nearly 47,000 asylum requests since 2004, when the first laws about asylum were passed, of which more 40,000 were filed in the last seven years, after the announced ‘closure of the Balkan Route’, ie, the humanitarian corridor of September 2015 to March 2016, following Germany’s Angela Merkel’s announcement that Syrians fleeing the civil war could be welcomed. Only a tiny fraction of the asylum requests, 1,015, have received a positive answer, according to information given by the Centre for Peace Studies in Zagreb, 19 July 2023.
2 Frontex data about the Western Balkan route refers to border crossings between EU and non-EU countries, between Bulgaria and Hungary and Serbia, Croatia with Bosnia and Greece with North Macedonia and Albania. It does not include Croatia’s detection of irregular migrants deeper inside its territory – see an example of Frontex’s methodology here.
3 In the last few years, an alternative sea route has emerged from Turkey directly to the southern shores of Italy. More expensive than the land route to Italy, it is sought by those, including many families, who cannot contemplate the hardships of the land route. It is nevertheless no less dangerous, as the shipwreck off Cutro in February 2023, which cost almost one hundred lives tragically proved. Half of them were Afghans, but there were also Pakistanis, Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians, Somalis and others, reported AP.
4 As further background readings on Afghan migration to Europe, see two AAN dossiers presenting several reports on Afghan migrants here and here.
5  Besides Porin, there exists a reception centre for vulnerable cases in Kutina, some seventy kilometres southeast of the capital, which has been recently renovated and can host up to 140 people; and two transit centres in Trilj and Tovarnik, close respectively to the borders with Bosnia and Serbia, where migrants caught crossing the border can be detained until moved elsewhere or readmitted to the neighbouring countries. Minors, among them many Afghans, are reportedly often hosted in structures meant for problematic minors, despite the objections raised against this practice by the NGO community in Croatia.
6 A similar bilateral agreement permitted Slovenia to readmit a number of migrants to Croatia in past years. This practice has been diminishing since 2022, when Croatia started refuse further readmissions (see this report on Slovenia by AIDA).
7 The Dublin Regulation is actually a series of treaties among EU countries aimed at combating so-called ‘asylum-shopping’ by migrants, that is, the attempt to reach deeper into central and northern Europe for what they consider more favourable destinations. The argument is that asylum-shopping creates undesirable volumes of illegal movement across the Union. However, by ordering that asylum seekers must be transferred back to the countries of first entry (and fingerprinting), the agreements have arguably increased such movements, as the so-called “Dubliners”, usually after long and frustrating waits, relocate in order to avoid being deported to places they do not want to be, usually moving to third EU countries to try their chances there. A more common criticism of the Dublin Regulation is that, if implemented systematically, it would lay all the burden of the reception of asylum seekers and the processing of their cases on the southern and eastern countries of the EU.
8 At official border crossings where document checks are regularly carried out, some migrants can also try to use forged documents to cross. However, only a small number of migrants can afford to buy such documents and their purchase and use are more often linked to attempts to travel via airports and seaports.
9 Between 2017 and 2018, for example, Iran was temporarily granted a visa-free status by the Serbian government (read this report about its revocation). Back then, many Iranian nationals would travel to Belgrade only in order to proceed further to the EU and seek asylum there. As they were often traveling with their families many would rent cheap rooms rather than join the illegal squats.
10 These terms with its pejorative meaning have been in use in English (and corresponding terms in German, French and Italian, among other languages) since the 1920s in reference to the Balkan Wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Fabrizio Foschini


Keep on Moving on the Balkan Route: No quarter for Afghan asylum seekers in Croatia and Serbia
read more

Afghanistan women suffer 2 years after Taliban takeover

Two years after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has banned all women from visiting the country’s premier national park. “Going sightseeing is not a must for women,” the head of the ministry explained. Band-e-Amir, a UNESCO World Heritage site about 155 miles west of Kabul, is known for blue lakes and sweeping cliffs. It was last in the news for being the first park in Afghanistan to employ female rangers. The announcement of the ban came on Women’s Equality Day.

At this point, there is only so much the West can do to help Afghanistan’s women.

Yet they need as much help as they can get. After two decades in the wilderness, the Taliban claimed after seizing Kabul that women would be allowed to study, work and “be very active in our society.” All lies.

Last month, about 100 young Afghan women who earned scholarships from an Emirati billionaire to attend the University of Dubai were blocked from leaving the country as they tried to board a charter plane. With daily humiliations big and small, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to be a disaster for the women left behind. The Taliban regime forces half the population to live in prisonlike conditions, a waste of human potential.

With U.S. troops offering protection, 3.6 million girls were enrolled in primary and secondary schools and about 90,000 received higher education. Now, women are flogged by men for such crimes as “escaping from home.”

An Aug. 30 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom says the majority of the 100 religious edicts issued by the de facto government since August 2021 directly enforce severe restrictions on women and girls. Millions are also starving. The International Rescue Committee says women and girls account for almost 80 percent of the Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance.

“Child marriage and attendant maternal mortality have increased,” according to an Aug. 17 Human Rights Watch report, “and gender-based violence, particularly in the home, continues to skyrocket.”

In July, the Taliban ordered the closure of every beauty salon in Afghanistan. With gyms, parks and classrooms no longer accessible, salons were among the final sanctuaries. Visiting beauticians offered a rare taste of freedom. When some women protested, security forces dispersed them with fire hoses.

With the regime determined to stamp out any ember of joy for women, it’s no surprise there’s a suicide epidemic. Afghanistan has become one of the few countries in the world where more women than men die by suicide. The Guardian told a heartbreaking story on Aug. 28 about an 18-year-old who tried to take her own life after her dreams of becoming a doctor were dashed and her family sold her into a forced marriage with a cousin who is addicted to heroin. According to the Guardian, “Some see suicide as the only remaining form of defiance possible.”

Anyone who advocated withdrawal from Afghanistan, including both President Donald Trump and President Biden, deserves a share of the blame for these foreseeable consequences. Because of the U.S. government’s decision to abandon Afghanistan to extremists, Washington has limited leverage to undo the Taliban’s edicts. The U.S. government can refuse to recognize the Taliban so long as Afghanistan’s rulers commit such wide-scale human rights abuses. The State Department can designate Afghanistan as a country of particular concern. Congress can make it easier for Afghans in the United States on humanitarian parole to apply for permanent legal status after undergoing appropriate vetting.

Afghanistan is a party to, and clearly in violation of, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, as well as the convention on the rights of the child. The convention is difficult to enforce, but the U.S. government should declare that the Taliban’s treatment of women constitutes an ongoing crime.

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said in a June report that the Taliban might be responsible for “gender apartheid.” This term should stick. Notably, South Africa’s representative to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council urged the international community to treat gender apartheid “much like it did in support of South Africa’s struggle against racial apartheid.”

The United States might have surrendered most of its leverage. But that does not mean the United States should fail to use all it has left.

Afghanistan women suffer 2 years after Taliban takeover
read more

Developing Afghanistan’s mines will uplift Afghans

Abdullah Azzam

Adviser to the government of Afghanistan

Al Jazeera

Recently signed contracts will help the country tackle unemployment, underdevelopment and currency issues.

Afghanistan is one of the world’s most resource-rich nations in the world, boasting over 1,200 mineral fields. According to estimates, its mineral wealth is worth $3 trillion and it includes resources such as gold, chromite, copper, iron, lead, zinc, coal, natural gas, petroleum, precious stones, lithium, talc, and various rare earth elements.

Recognising the transformative potential these resources could have for the Afghan economy, the interim government of Afghanistan has sought various ways to develop them. On August 31, Afghan government officials inked seven mining agreements with local and international corporations.

These landmark contracts entail long-term commitments spanning five to 30 years. The projects include the development of four iron blocks in Herat, one lead and zinc block in Ghor, the gold reserves in Takhar, and the copper resources of Aynak Two. The participating companies are poised to invest more than $6bn over the next three decades.

The revenues from these projects and the associated development and job opportunities will give a major boost to the Afghan economy. They are essential for improving the wellbeing of the Afghan people.

It is currently not possible to estimate the exact profits the government will receive from these projects, as exploration of the mining sites is ongoing. However, per the contracts, the Afghan state retains 56 percent of the shares in the gold mine, 12 percent in the copper one, 20 percent in lead one, and 13 percent in each iron block. Apart from that, the finance ministry will also levy relevant taxes on these projects which would create another revenue stream for the state.

The economic benefits stemming from these contracts extend beyond revenue generation. Notably, they are expected to catalyse industrial development across the country.

For example, the lead and zinc project, given to the Kabul-based Afghan Invest company, comes with the added responsibility of completing the remaining 13 percent of a 500-kilovolt power interconnection project which would ensure the import of electricity from neighbouring Turkmenistan. This would help meet our growing energy demands and supply electricity to almost all industrial parks in the country, allowing their operational hours to be extended from 12 to 24.

Increasing the power supply could also help develop Afghan agriculture. Currently, the majority of agricultural activities in the country rely on manual labour; better access to electricity could help with the mechanisation of this sector. According to the head of the Afghanistan Chamber of Industry and Mines (ACIM), Shirbaz Kaminzada, the additional supply of electricity from Turkmenistan could boost agricultural and industrial production to the account of $2bn.

Furthermore, the power interconnection project would also lower the electricity bill of the country. Turkmenistan’s electricity is sold at lower prices; importing it would decrease costs and allow the Afghan government to negotiate better rates with its other two power suppliers: Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The development of the iron mines will also benefit the industrial development of Afghanistan, as it will supply iron ore to numerous steel factories in the country. Simultaneously, the lead mine will ensure a consistent supply of raw materials for eight domestic battery-producing companies, potentially transforming Afghanistan into a battery-exporting nation.

These mine projects will also benefit the country by helping tackle the high unemployment rate resulting from the termination of employment for Afghans working for foreign contractors and subcontractors following the withdrawal of foreign troops in 2021.

Activities related to the projects are expected to create job opportunities for more than 50,000 individuals across various fields. These include jobs for geologists, engineers, miners, machine operators, transportation personnel, equipment manufacturers, logistics specialists, and security personnel.

Furthermore, the mining companies are obligated to invest in community development initiatives as part of their contracts. This will create additional employment opportunities in healthcare, education, and other sectors aimed at enhancing the quality of life for local communities. These initiatives have the potential to alleviate poverty and elevate living standards, particularly in severely underserved provinces, such as Ghor.

The mining projects will also help the Afghan government with another major issue: the instability of the Afghan currency. Following the withdrawal of foreign troops and the departure of numerous contractors, depositors in Afghan banks swiftly transferred hundreds of millions of dollars to foreign accounts, leaving the country grappling with a severe shortage of foreign currency.

This depletion negatively impacted the value of the Afghani and banks faced the looming threat of bankruptcy. Da Afghanistan Bank had to resort to urgent monetary stabilisation policies to save the Afghan currency and it succeeded, but the country is still in need of foreign currency.

The mining projects are poised to bolster the influx of foreign currency into the country. Each of these seven mines boasts European and Asian partners who are well-equipped to facilitate the export of processed materials to international markets. This influx of foreign currency is expected to contribute significantly to the Afghani’s stabilisation, fortifying the nation’s economic outlook.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Developing Afghanistan’s mines will uplift Afghans
read more

New UN Report Charts the Emirate’s Treatment of Detainees: Allegations of torture and ill-treatment

Kate Clark

Afghanistan Analysts Network

UNAMA has released its first report dedicated to the treatment of detainees since the Taleban takeover and alleges that the use of torture by the police and General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) is “systemic.” The report details methods of torture familiar to earlier generations of detainees – electric shocks, beating and suspension – but also a new one – waterboarding – presumably learned from the CIA. The report also traces violations of due process, such as forced confessions, being held incommunicado, not notifying a detainee’s family of the arrest. Upholding these rights, UNAMA says, is crucial for preventing torture and helping to ensure fair trials. The Islamic Emirate has denied the allegations. AAN’s Kate Clark has been reading the report and the Emirate’s rebuttal.

UNAMA has reported regularly on the treatment of security detainees since 2011; its earliest reports on the arbitrary detention of ‘non conflict-related detainees’ were published in 2009. All can be read here.

Previous reports by AAN concerning torture and detentions have included extensive reporting from the Islamic Republic era and the actions of the then intelligence agency, the NDS, Afghan police and CIA-proxy forces, as well as United States forces, both CIA and military, operating at CIA black sites, US military forward operating bases, Bagram airbase and Guantanamo Bay. 

UNAMA has said it had documented more than 1,600 human rights violations and that just under half of these were acts of torture and ‘ill-treatment’, which includes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The allegations were drawn from more than 130 in-depth interviews, carried out between 1 January 2022 and 31 July 2023 with Afghans, including 24 women, who had been held in police lock-ups, GDI detention centres and provincial prisons. It covers both security and criminal detainees.[1] The reported violations took place in 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.

UNAMA attributed just over half of the violations (57 per cent) to the GDI, the body charged with maintaining Afghanistan’s “internal and external security, which encompasses treason, espionage, terrorism and anti-government propaganda,” and just under half (47 per cent) to the police, who come under the command of the Ministry of Interior; the police have “jurisdiction over general law enforcement and public security.” The remaining one per cent of violations were allegedly carried out in Afghanistan’s prisons.

As to those whom UNAMA documented as having been abused while in detention, 24 per cent were journalists or civil society activists; 21 per cent were former government officials (seven per cent civilians; and 14 per cent, security and defence personnel); nine per cent were (actually or perceived to be) affiliated with armed groups (NRF or ISKP) and the remaining 44 per cent were individuals with no particular affiliation. Two per cent had been detained (only by the GDI) because they were family members of people whom it wanted information about.

Unlike most of its previous reporting, UNAMA did not distinguish between detainees held on ‘ordinary’ criminal and security-related charges. It has also not identified the facilities where torture was most prevalent. The historical pattern for security-related detainees under the Republic, and under earlier governments, was for the bulk of torture to be committed in a few locations, especially certain intelligence agency directorates, such as Counter-Terrorism (numbered successively as Directorate 5, 90, 241) and Investigations (17, 40, 501) in Kabul, and by particular police and other forces – Kandahar police and NDS featured prominently in UNAMA reporting during the Republic era, for example, as did the various CIA-proxy forces. UNAMA does not say whether such clustering in the use of torture has persisted into the new era, but if it were able to do so, identifying the facilities and forces would add an extra level of accountability to UNAMA reporting.

Ill-treatment during arrests

UNAMA’s report has documented how arrests are often accompanied by ‘excessive force’; international human rights norms require the use of force to be proportionate and as a measure of last resort only. Numerous interviewees, said UNAMA, recounted how security forces had come to their place of work or home or dragged them from cars, delivering “beatings and kicks, including when they were already on the ground, and being struck with the butts of weapons… insulting [them], often restrain[ing] their hands, as well as blind-folded or hooded them, and forced individuals into vehicles to be transported elsewhere.” Rarely did the officials produce warrants or clearly identify themselves.

UNAMA said the experience for the detainee was “akin to being kidnapped rather than arrested,” particularly when an arrest was accompanied by beating, restraints, blindfolding or hooding. It said this alone “would instill a justifiable fear in those detained of imminent harm or being killed, causing mental suffering which could meet the threshold of severity required to constitute torture or other forms of ill-treatment.”

Torture under the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

The descriptions of torture and ill-treatment once detainees were in custody, reported to UNAMA, will sound familiar to anyone who has monitored detentions in Afghanistan over the decades. Here are the accounts of two individuals:

For eight days, I was tortured, it was always at night not during the day. I was taken to a room specifically for torture. There were different methods of torture used on me. I was beaten four or five times and when I was becoming unconscious then they threw water on me to make me come around, be conscious. It was becoming cold at night. During the first two days they were beating my feet. I couldn’t wear shoes as my feet were swollen. Then they beat me with power cables and pipes. Then they used a portable electric shock machine on me.

Interview of 25 May 2023, GDI custody, quoted by UNAMA p24

He told his fighters to lay me down without giving me the chance to answer his questions. They kicked me up to my head, and all parts of my body. Two of them took a piece of wood and beat me. I cried for help. Four of them held my hands and feet, and one of them put his foot on my neck and pressured it that affected seriously my breathing. I felt that I would lose my life. After this they stopped torturing me. 

Interview or 9 November 2022, police custody, quoted by UNAMA p 24

UNAMA listed the following methods of torture being used:

  • being beaten by numerous means, including being punched or kicked, struck with the butts of weapons, typically around the head or shoulders, or with other instruments, such as metal piping or cables, to their backs or the soles of their feet, often while restrained. Some described the beatings as so severe they lost consciousness. UNAMA said beatings comprised the overwhelming majority of the 259 instances of physical aggressions and were attributable to police and GDI alike;
  • receiving electric shocks to various parts of their body, causing some to lose consciousness (11 instances, 4 attributable to police; 7 to GDI);
  • being choked or suffocated, including by hand or wire, or having a towel or plastic bags placed over their heads or faces (9 instances, one attributable to police, 8 to GDI);
  • being hung from the ceiling by their hands (4 instances, all attributable to de facto GDI) and cuffed in stress positions (3 instances, attributable to de facto GDI);
  • having pipes with water forced in their mouths (5 instances, 3 attributable to police and 2 to GDI);
  • being left outside in cold weather during winter for extended periods (2 instances, both attributable to GDI); and
  • seeing a GDI member place a big stone on the stomach of another detainee whose hands were cuffed.

The security services of the Islamic Emirate appear to mostly use the same torture methods as their predecessors. Beatings, suspension, stress positions and electric shocks have been reported by former detainees back through the 2000s, the 1990s and 1980s to when, in 1980, the KGB helped set up the Afghan intelligence agency in the form it now takes (for more detail on 1978-2002 period, see the Afghanistan Justice Project report). However, there is a new twist – forcing water into the mouths of prone detainees so that they experience drowning. The CIA did not invent ‘waterboarding’, but did introduce it to Afghanistan in their interrogations of ‘War on Terror’ detainees. Presumably, some of Afghanistan’s current security officials learned the technique through experience. (For more on the history of this method of torture and its current, euphemistic name, see this 2008 article from The New York Times Magazine.[2])

The UNAMA report also documented other acts “causing mental suffering that in the circumstances of detention and coercive interrogation could amount to torture.” They included threats to kill detainees or their family members, blindfolding and restraining detainees for extended periods during custody or throughout coercive questioning. Detainees were also “frequently” screamed at and insulted, including calling women ‘prostitutes’ and men ‘infidels’, ‘bad’ or ‘false’ Muslims’, ‘dogs’ and ‘sons of the Americans’, and having their heads forcibly shaven.

“Numerous interviewees,” UNAMA said, described being blindfolded or hand-cuffed when “taken from their cells, including for questioning, and stayed that way for the duration of their interrogations.” This meant they could not identify who was questioning them and were made “vulnerable to abuse.” The experience of hooding, wrote UNAMA, of being unable to see their interrogators “would have heightened the fear, stress and sense of perceived threat.” It says:

While sensory deprivation of itself can cause psychological effects, including fear, anxiety, high levels of stress, disorientation, and a sense of powerlessness, the Committee Against Torture has found that questioning while applying “hooding under special conditions” constitutes torture, and this is particularly evident where hooding is used in combination with other coercive methods of questioning.

UNAMA also reported the deaths of 18 individuals in custody in the period under review; 11 had been held by the GDI and five by the police.[3] Six of the individuals were former members of the ANSF (the Republic-era Afghan National Security Forces), six “actual or perceived” members of armed opposition groups, such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) and National Resistance Front (NF), and six unaffiliated with other groups of interest. UNAMA stresses that these deaths were distinct from “the numerous instances of extra-judicial killings committed by de facto authorities, including by de facto security forces, occurring outside contexts of custodial detention,” which this report does not detail.

Forced confessions and other violations of procedural safeguards

The other violations documented by UNAMA were of procedural safeguards and the right to due process. They include being forced to make a confession – it reported 80 instances of this, including at least 40 where the detainee had reported torture or ill-treatment before being forced to sign documents. In almost all instances, reported UNAMA:

[I]nterviewees signed or thumb-printed documents without having read the documents or having had their content explained. In several instances where interviewees expressly asked to know the content, de facto security officials refused to let interviewees read the document or refused to read it aloud to blindfolded or illiterate interviewees.

Where torture is used, said UNAMA, it aims to “obtain forced confessions or other information.” A primary driver of torture, mentioned in previous UNAMA reports focussing on security detainees, is the Afghan criminal justice system’s acceptance of a confession as enough in itself to convict a person without any other supporting evidence.[4] That appears to be unchanged and is a theme which will be returned to.

UNAMA has also documented multiple instances of the following violations: being kept in solitary confinement; not being told the reasons for arrest; not being told of the right to a lawyer; or being allowed to see a lawyer; not having a lawyer present during interrogations; not having their family notified of the arrest and not allowing family contact; no medical check-up; inadequate healthcare and lack of access to independent medical personnel and; not being brought promptly before a judge to whom they could challenge the lawfulness of their detention.

Torture and ill-treatment flourish amid secrecy and lack of due process. Keeping detainees incommunicado, without access to family, lawyers, independent medical personnel or a judge, can, in UNAMA’s words, “increase the risk of undocumented torture and abuse.” It also increases the likelihood that detainees will not get a fair trial.

Laws regarding torture and ill-treatment and the Emirate’s response to the UNAMA report

The prohibition against torture in international law is absolute. Several orders issued by the Emirate’s Supreme Leader, Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada, have suggested that torture is permitted with a court order, but is otherwise strictly banned as an act of zulm (oppression). (Read the orders in the original Pashto and Dari and AAN’s unofficial translation here and our analysis here).[5] At the same time, a Code of Conduct on Reforming the Prisoners’ System, issued by decree by Hibatullah in January 2022, has, said UNAMA:

[N]umerous articles that prohibit torture or ill-treatment of persons deprived of their liberty. The Code of Conduct is clear that security officials, prisoners’ guards and prison personnel are prohibited from torturing, tormenting or punishing prisoners (art. 33). In particular, the Code instructs de facto security authorities to refrain from torture or ill-treatment which “contravenes Sharia principles, ethics and human dignity” of suspects or criminals, starting from the point of arrest, through transfer (arts. 3, 5). It cites as examples of behavior to be avoided, torturing or tormenting suspects, using foul or insulting language in front of people or relatives, and sitting on people’s head or stomachs.

The Code of Conduct, reports UNAMA, says that detainees are “not to be tortured in any way during their detention and nor are confessions to be obtained through force or duress” (article 36) and that security officials “shall not try to extract confessions from a suspect.” They shall also “refrain from threatening, torturing, and videoing them because such a confession does not fall within the orbit of the court’s judgment” (article 39).

Most significantly, says UNAMA, the Code says, “[a] judge cannot pass judgement based on another’s investigation, or testimony or confessions which the investigator or interrogator heard. Recourse requires that the judge hears the confession or witness evidence, deems it admissible and bases their judgment upon it” (article 39). It also cites an instruction to the Supreme Court made by Mawlawi Hibatullah in September 2022 that a confession without evidence has no legal value unless made in front of the judge.

The responses to the report from the Ministry of Interior, GDI and Office of Prisons Administration, and the Supreme Court, collated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and published as an appendix to the UNAMA report, make it clear that officials do understand that, under the law, there is an absolute prohibition against torture.

The Ministry of Interior pointed to Decrees 1521 (a copy of which AAN has not seen) and 29 as prohibiting corporal punishment and the torture of detainees and said the ministry’s Human Rights Directorate has also dispatched 16 committees who have visited 60 police units in the capital and provinces to monitor the force. The GDI said the UNAMA report suggested the GDI carried out torture “purposefully and as a means of obtaining confessions,” but that, according to its own code of conduct, this was “prohibited and in all cases of detainees’ torture, the offenders were treated strictly and in accordance with the policy.” The Prisons Administration said: “Fortunately, Sharia (Islamic religious, social, and cultural values), which have been approved to protect and respect fundamental and Islamic rights, prohibit the torture of people even for the purpose of obtaining the truth.”

All three bodies gave detailed rebuttals of the report, including the ways in which they were carrying out their work lawfully. However, the scale and apparent routine nature of the torture reported by UNAMA indicates a gap between what officials have asserted and what actually happens on the ground.[6]

Two of UNAMA’s recommendations – it made similar ones also during the Republic – were to the Supreme Court that it should:

  • Issue clear instructions to de facto judges to ensure that any statement of an accused used in court has been made with full and informed consent, and to ensure that coerced or other unlawfully obtained statements are not admitted or relied upon under any circumstances as evidence in court proceedings;
  • Issue clear instructions to de facto judges to ensure that any allegations that confessions were coerced or unlawfully obtained while in custody are fully investigated and those responsible are held to account.

In response, the Supreme Court said it “appreciates efforts exerted by UNAMA,” but repudiated the allegations. It said it assigns delegations to monitor the situation of detainees and has an inspection team that visits the provinces and monitors the situation of detainees “at close quarters.” It called UNAMA’s accounts of torture, deaths in custody and of the previous administration’s police officers and other employees being killed “far from reality” because such acts would “contravene the Islamic principles.” The Supreme Court did not respond to the issue of forced confessions or relying solely on a confession to convict a person.

Law and practice under the Emirate and the Republic 

In the past, the problem with torture in Afghanistan has lain not in a lack of laws prohibiting it, but in their not being implemented.

Under the Republic, there were at least eight legal instruments prohibiting the use of torture; they included treaty obligations (which still apply) and various laws.[7] Yet, the use of torture against security detainees only really diminished after domestic pressure mounted on countries providing soldiers for the NATO mission. In the end, ISAF decided it could not hand over security detainees to the NDS unless the NDS stopped torturing them and brought in various mechanisms to help/put pressure on the NDS to change its ways (see AAN reporting on this from 201120122013and 2015). That focus did bring down the overall incidence of torture, only for it to rise again after the end of active military engagement by ISAF in 2014, albeit never to the same high levels. In its last report published under the Republic in February 2021, there was a mixed picture: overall, UNAMA was still documenting that one in three security detainees had been tortured; within that, however, the use of torture by the NDS was dramatically lower than had been reported in 2011, by the police, it was somewhat down, and the CIA proxies, the NDS Special Forces and Khost Protection Force, and the Afghan Local Police (ALP) were still using it extensively. In 2023, UNAMA also reported that almost half of the security detainees interviewed had been asked to sign or thumb-print documents which they had not read.

In other words, the use of torture fell, but it was still resorted to, particularly in some facilities and by some forces, in the last years of the Republic. There was still impunity for torture. Despite all the laws and fine words from the Afghan government, both the police and NDS could carry out, order or permit torture without any fear of prosecution or even sacking or demotion. Indeed, UNAMA tracked NDS directors and senior police being promoted after its reporting had identified them as being in command of facilities where torture was carried out. Speaking to officials in private, the author was given the impression that they believed that the fact of the insurgency meant torture was necessary for information-gathering. There was no taboo on using it, at least for security-related (mostly suspected Taleban) detainees. This was also evident in the frequent reliance on confessions by judges, even in the face of allegations of torture.

Similarly, torture against detainees suspected of terrorism or of having information about terrorists was carried out on the 2002 orders of then US President, George Bush, by the CIA and US military. Used in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the torture was referred to euphemistically as ‘enhanced interrogation methods’. In 2014, President Barak Obama admitted to America’s use of torture, but declined to hold anyone accountable (press conference transcript here). He was speaking ahead of the release of a US Senate Intelligence Committee that documented the CIA’s use of torture. An earlier report by the Senate Committee on Armed Services, ‘Inquiry into the Treatment of Detainees in U.S. Custody’, had also documented the use of torture by military personnel. Yet, no US official has been held accountable for this policy in a court of law and the only investigations/prosecutions have been into officials accused of using unauthorised interrogation techniques. Even then, investigations have been administrative rather than criminal, and into low-ranking officials; any punishment has been limited to disciplinary actions, even when detainees were killed. Those ordering and sanctioning the breaches have remained untouched by the law.[8]

That failure by the US and Republic-era governments and courts to hold those carrying out and ordering torture accountable was a factor in leading the former Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, to recommend an ICC investigation in 2017.[9] She had reported in 2016 that there were reasonable grounds that the United States military and CIA had “resorted to techniques amounting to the commission of the war crimes of torture, cruel treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, and rape” and the Republic’s national security forces had committed “the war crimes of torture and cruel treatment.” (At the same time, Bensouda also recommended the ICC investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed by the Taleban.)

This report by UNAMA does not distinguish between security detainees and the wider population of detainees, nor does it focus on particular facilities. Nor does it try to draw direct comparisons between the incidence of torture then and now. However, one clear conclusion that can be drawn from UNAMA’s report is how patterns of abuse continue. That waterboarding has been added to the list of methods of torture used by the Afghan state is horrifying, but hardly a surprise, given it may have been used by US forces on some of those now in power in Afghanistan.

In the 2002-­21 era, both American and Afghan politicians and security officials who ordered or carried out torture enjoyed impunity, as had those in power in Kabul in earlier generations. For the cycle to be broken, as UNAMA has repeatedly called for over many years, there has to be accountability, safeguards and a change in what evidence is allowed in court. In this report, UNAMA has put forward many practical suggestions as to how the current government could safeguard the dignity and safety of detainees and allow fair judicial processes. So far, at least, while it has good rules on paper, the Islamic Emirate does not seem to be implementing them.

Edited by Rachel Reid


1 Almost all of UNAMA’s previous reporting covered security detainees only.
2 In the article, William Safire describes it as one of the “bland bureaucratic euphemisms” that are coined to “conceal great crimes,” but it is also a torturer’s joke. “It refers to surfboarding,” he says. The torturers are “attaching somebody to a board and helping them surf. Torturers create names that are funny to them.”
3 Two of the deaths were in prisons, but UNAMA says their deaths were not attributable to torture or ill-treatment.
4 See for example, UNAMA’s 2011 report on the treatment of security detainees: 

In almost all criminal cases in Afghanistan, including national security prosecutions, the case against the defendant is based on a confession, which the court usually finds both persuasive and conclusive of the defendant’s guilt. In most cases confessions are the sole form of evidence or corroboration submitted to courts to support prosecutions. Confessions are rarely examined at trial and rarely challenged by the judge or defence counsel as having been coerced.

5 For example, Decree 8, Vol 5, 4 November 2019 says: 

If kashf ul-haal [information gathering] is required from a suspect, only provincial and intelligence officials have the right to keep them in custody for this, and this detention should not go beyond a month. If there is need for more time to collect information, an extension should be requested from the court. Using ta’zib [torture] should be avoided during detention because the authority for ta’zib and tazir punishments [punishments given at the judge’s discretion, rather than being specified in the Quran] lies with the court. If others opt to torture or punish someone, it is not justice but zulm [oppression]. Preventing zulm is a wajeb [obligation], while allowing it to happen is haram [forbidden].

Decree 29, 15 March 2022 says:

If kashf ul-haal is required from a suspect, only security and intelligence officials have the right to keep them in custody for this purpose, but the detention should not exceed ten days. If more time is needed to gather information, an extension should be requested from the court. Likewise, no one can release a prisoner once their sentence is complete without a court order. Any kind of torture should be avoided during detention because torture and tazir are the sole prerogative of the courts. This would not be justice but cruelty: preventing cruelty is a duty, while permitting cruelty is forbidden. 

Compare also order 65, vol 6, 2 November 2020.

6 One snapshot, possibly representative, possibly not, of the proceedings of a court in Helmand can be seen in a short documentary film by Victor Blue and Ross McDonnell and published on The New Yorker website. ‘Swift Justice’ shows a judge ordering a man accused of stealing away to be beaten in order to gain a confession. He also rules that a widow does not have to marry her brother-in-law who is insisting on his right to marry her; instead, the judge rules that the woman can go home to her father’s house instead, as she and her father had been asking for.
7 Instruments criminalising torture in Afghanistan include: 

Penal Code 1976

If the public service official tortures the accused for the purpose of obtaining a confession or issues an order to this effect, he shall be sentenced to long imprisonment.

7 October 1976, article 275

United Nations Convention Against Torture, acceded 1 April 1987

Constitution of Afghanistan 2004

No one shall be allowed to order torture, even for discovering the truth from another individual who is under investigation, arrest, detention or has been convicted to be punished.

26 January 2004, article 29

Presidential Decree No 129 To Implement The Afghan Fact-Finding Delegation’s Suggestions On The Presence Of Torture And Ill-Treatment In Detention Centres

The Attorney General of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is ordered to prosecute those who violate article 51 of the Prisons and Detentions Law [3] in the light of the findings of the delegation’s report which has reported on the torture and mistreatment of detainees and prisoners, this in order to prevent torture and mistreatment and the conviction of any innocent detainee in the future.

Issued by Hamed Karzai, 16 February 2013, article 1

Criminal Procedure Code 2014

[T]he judicial police officer, prosecutor and court themselves or through means of another person, in any case, are not allowed to force the suspect or accuse to confess using misconduct, narcotics, duress, torture, hypnosis, threat, intimidation, or promising a benefit. If the statements of the suspect or accused person are taken in violation of the provision set forth in paragraph of this article, they shall not be admissible.

5 May 201, article 22

Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, acceded April 2017

Decree on the Prohibition of Torture 2017, which later became the Law on the Prohibition of Torture 2018

It defined torture for the first time in Afghan law as:

[A]n act which causes pain or physical or psychological suffering against a suspect, an accused or a convict or any other person for the purpose of forcing [the individual] to confess, give information or force another person to give information or to force an individual not to do an act. (article 3)

5 March 2017

2018 Law on the Prohibition of Torture;

Revisions to the Penal Code 2018

These improved the definition of torture, punishments and other mechanisms for its prevention and provided for compensation for victims of torture.

8 A 2017 report by the author detailed the lack of accountability in the US criminal courts in the light of a civil case against the two psychologists who had designed and overseen the implementation of the CIA torture programme which had won compensation for two survivors of CIA torture and the family of Gul Rahman. He was an Afghan who had died of hypothermia after being left semi-naked on a bare concrete floor in a CIA black site near Kabul in November 2002. See ‘Held Accountable for Torture: CIA psychologists compensate family of dead Afghan’.
9 The judges of the Pre-Trial Chamber declined to order an investigation into crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly taking place in Afghanistan at all, a decision overturned on appeal. However, the current Chief Prosecutor has decided to prioritise the investigation of crimes allegedly committed by the Taleban and ISKP, and ignore, for now, those of US and former Afghan government forces. See AAN’s latest report on this, from July 2022: ‘Delaying Justice? The ICC’s war crimes investigation in limbo over who represents Afghanistan’.
Kate Clark

New UN Report Charts the Emirate’s Treatment of Detainees: Allegations of torture and ill-treatment
read more

Chinese Investments in Afghanistan: Strategic ecnomic move or incentive for the Emirate?

When the West withdrew from Afghanistan, many assumed its acquisitive neighbour, China, would reap the economic benefits of the change of government in Kabul. Afghanistan has immense, but largely untouched mineral and hydrocarbon wealth, including strategically valuable metals, such as lithium. That assumption was fed in the first half of 2023 by a flurry of high-level business meetings and some potentially significant contracts between Chinese companies and the Islamic Emirate, including on mining projects. Given the perilous state of Afghanistan’s economy, major investment could help Afghans, as well as potentially giving the Emirate a more stable economic footing. Yet, in reality, Chinese engagement in Afghanistan is still tentative. This raises the familiar question of whether the Chinese government is pursuing real economic interests there or using them to incentivise the Emirate to play along with its security concerns. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig tries to decipher the real deals from the spin, and weighs the arguments in the debate over what Beijing’s primary motivations is – security or economy?
You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the link below.

In the first six months of 2023, there was a series of business deals and contacts between Chinese companies and Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA) officials in mining and other sectors, supported by China’s leadership in Beijing and its embassy in Kabul. The Afghan media, including state-owned media outlets, covered these deals and meetings between IEA officials and Chinese business delegations extensively and a number of Western researchers have also weighed in on the issue. The coverage has been conspicuously less widespread in Chinese, perhaps reflecting Afghanistan’s relative insignificance for it. Yet, what might seem like ‘small fry’ projects for China – a mere ‘slip road’ in its global Belt and Road Initiative – hold the potential to inject significant income into the Afghan economy and the Emirate’s lean coffers.

While China’s policy remains difficult to read, it is not indecipherable. Its activity in Afghanistan appears big because of two facts: first, the United States-led West has left, and this has opened more space for other actors; secondly, there is relative peace, making business easier. That does not mean, however, that China will (or is inclined to) step in with investments to match the amounts the US invested in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021.

China’s engagement in Afghanistan needs to be seen in the context of its long-term strategy to secure access to strategic resources, including land and food and, increasingly, its global rivalry with the US. Afghanistan is not an unimportant piece on this chessboard. Given its wealth in minerals, gas and oil, the country has long-term potential for Chinese companies, small or large, private or state-owned, particularly if it remains relatively stable under the Emirate. However, only two years after the Taleban’s second takeover, it is probably too early to say whether China and its (state-run or state-owned subsidiary) companies have now, in contrast to the two decades of the Islamic Republic, really started to work, including on such mega projects as the Ainak copper mine in Logar province.

This report brings together available details on the deals and highlights some contradictions and question marks in the media coverage. It also considers China’s engagement under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in order to provide context, and finds that although, at first glance, the Chinese players involved have changed, there is, in fact, some continuity.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour and Rachel Reid

You can preview the report online and download it by clicking the link below.

Thomas Ruttig


Chinese Investments in Afghanistan: Strategic ecnomic move or incentive for the Emirate?
read more

Two Years of the Taliban’s ‘Gender Apartheid’ in Afghanistan

Afghan women and girls deserve moral and material support to sustain their resiliency against the Taliban’s worsening repression.

Two years after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the human rights situation in the country is abysmal, with women and girls experiencing the worst of the regime’s policies. There is growing evidence that the Taliban are committing the crime against humanity of gender persecution of women and girls, an assertion Human Rights Watch made in a new report. This summer, the World Economic Forum slated Afghanistan last of the 146 countries it ranked in a study on gender gaps. The U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan said in a special report that the Taliban’s “large-scale systematic violations of women’s and girls’ fundamental rights in Afghanistan … [constitute] gender persecution and an institutionalized framework of gender apartheid.” The scope of the Taliban’s women’s rights restrictions is truly unprecedented.

Advocates often apply the term “gender apartheid” to describe two-tiered systems of men making all the decisions about political and social affairs and assigning themselves agency in all public spaces while women are relegated to work that can be done from home or traditional gender roles of child-raising and homemaking. This is the situation Afghan women and girls find themselves in today.

Tightening the Noose

In the Taliban’s first press conference after taking Kabul in August 2021, spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that the Taliban were “committed to the rights of women within the framework of Shariah” and that the group would not discriminate against women. While the Taliban have made similar claims in the past, these words quickly proved hollow.

Indeed, immediately after seizing power the Taliban prohibited girls from attending secondary schools and transformed the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, tasked with safeguarding women’s rights in all 34 provinces, into the ironically titled Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue. This marked the beginning of a string of more than 140 orders and decrees that have thoroughly dismantled all existing mechanisms, laws and institutions that were put in place to protect against human rights violations and promote women’s rights.

This graphic depicts what Afghan women see through their burqas and serves as a portal to learning more about Taliban restrictions on women’s social and political life.
This graphic depicts what Afghan women see through their burqas and serves as a portal to learning more about Taliban restrictions on women’s social and political life.
The regime has renamed and repurposed the Attorney General’s Office, which is now called the General Directorate for Monitoring and Follow up of Decrees and Directives. The Taliban also eliminated institutions like the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Commission to Eliminate Violence Against Women, shelter and safe houses for battered women, civil society-led protection and empowerment programs and women-led organizations. They also rescinded laws and policies geared toward eliminating violence and harassment against women.

By the end of 2021, the Taliban’s first four months in power showed that they were not going to treat women any different than they did during their previous rule in the 1990s. In the early period of their current rule, Taliban decrees and edicts restricted women from working or teaching at public universities, from working for the government, or traveling beyond 45 miles away from the home without a mahram (or male guardian). The Taliban decreed that women must be accompanied by a mahram — even during surgery — while visiting male health providers

In the last two years, it continued to get worse. The Taliban decreed that the best form of hijab — which they use as a synonym for women’s covering or clothing — is for Afghan women to wear a burqa (i.e., to be fully covered from head to toe) or to simply stay home. The Taliban also banned women from working for the U.N. and NGOs and restricted women from entering public parks and participating in sports. The regime also invalidated thousands of divorce cases decided under the previous government. Their most recent decree called for the closure of beauty salons, leaving some 60,000 women without an income to support their families.

These restrictions and rules continue to be more brutal and draconian. Whereas two years ago, women could travel a short distance without a mahram, today women must have a male guardian to even leave the home. In 2021, women were banned from many jobs, but could work for NGOs or the United Nations. Today, as noted above, they cannot work for these organizations. Until December 2022, universities were open for women, but now female students and instructors are not allowed to enter public or private university campuses.A longer-term threat that has also emerged over the last two years, which would perpetuate the Taliban’s misogyny over future generations, is the “madrassafication” of the education system in Afghanistan. This has three forms: the curriculum of the regular public schools is being revised to accord with the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam; girls and boys are being encouraged to attend madrassas rather than public schools; and new “jihadi madrassas” are being created in every province that provide boys with military and Islamic education. The Taliban are also putting more investment into madrassas for both boys and girls. Parents are further incentivized to send their girls to madrassas because there are fewer harassing raids, like expelling girls under the age to 12 who are taller or physically bigger for their age.

An archive of the Taliban’s decrees and edicts infringing on the rights of Afghans. 

A majority of Afghan citizens oppose the Taliban’s draconian female education restrictions and there are reports of local communities quietly looking the other way. But the Taliban have increased enforcement — establishing the Female Moral Police Department in August 2022, who are deployed to public and private educational institutions and women-only markets to inspect women’s hijab.

But Afghan women are not prepared to concede all that they had achieved over the last two decades. Many have bravely gone to the streets to demand their basic rights despite being met with Taliban violence and repression. While most public protests have largely subsided, they have been replaced with indoor protests with women and girls holding signs in Dari, Pashto and English rejecting Taliban policies. Outside the country, women have issued statements, launched media campaigns and even conducted hunger strikes to urge world leaders and the U.N. to recognize the Taliban’s gender apartheid and hold the regime accountable for crimes against humanity.

It has now been 725 days that girl students above sixth grade have not been able to attend school and 265 days since universities have stopped accepting female students. Under the Taliban today, Afghan women are deprived of their livelihoods, identity, education, employment, leisure, travel, sports and equal access to humanitarian aid. The Taliban dictate what women should or shouldn’t do in the privacy of their homes, even prohibiting listening to music. As a result, Afghan women face serious mental health issues including fear, anxiety, anger, helplessness, insomnia, lack of self-respect and thoughts of suicide and self-harm. The Taliban’s anti-women policies have emboldened the country’s patriarchal norms.

Now What?

The Taliban’s leadership has shown over the last two years that they are unwilling to deliver on the promises about women’s rights made during the Doha Agreement negotiations with the United States. Indeed, they are putting measures in place to effectuate generational change that is alien to hundreds of years of Afghan culture. The response must have equal scope and resolve: to push back with arguments, resources and accountability measures at local, national and international levels over many years.

While a parade of Islamic religious authorities has declared that both traditional and mainstream interpretations of Islam do not relegate women to being objects or second-class citizens, this argument has so far failed to overcome the Taliban’s desire for what they claim is a “100% Islamic system.”

A more pragmatic motivation for social decrees against women could be to avoid defections by the most radical of the Taliban’s supporters to ISIS or other more extreme terrorist groups. The Taliban’s success as an insurgency movement relied on recruiting young male fighters who are themselves from conservative rural areas and/or educated in radical madrassas — often in Pakistan — and were attracted to fight based in part on a call to rid Afghan society of un-Islamic Western values, particularly an alleged disrespect to women. If the Taliban do not deliver on these fighters’ visions of a so-called “pure” Islamic society, this argument goes, they may fight for ISIS and seek to overthrow the Taliban.

“The situation for women and girls is dire and catastrophic. Their rights have been more or less wiped out,” said Richard Bennett, the U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Afghanistan. 

The problem is that the Taliban’s overriding lesson from their unexpected victory after a grueling decades-long insurgency is that loyalty is one of the most important Islamic virtues and unity is the key to success. Therefore, even though there are plenty of private dissents from important Taliban leaders over women’s rights restrictions, the religious authority of the emir, Sheikh Haibatullah Akhundzada, and the practical recognition that a divided Taliban is weak means that Haibatullah’s distasteful decrees are nonetheless obeyed.

So, what can the international community do? In the face of dogmatic Taliban resistance to change, an “all-of-the-above” strategy has the best chance of success. This should include:

  • Continuing to apply public and private pressure from all sides to prevent normalization of the Taliban’s gender apartheid as other forces of change are applied.
  • Giving political and financial support to international accountability mechanisms including the International Criminal Court, U.N. special rapporteur and entities documenting human rights violations.
  • Providing asylum and protection to victims and survivors of Taliban’s atrocities.
  • Tying international sanctions to women’s rights abuse, not just counter-terrorism rationales.
  • Giving Afghan women a seat at the table in all international diplomatic fora where Afghanistan is being discussed.
  • Funding women’s rights advocacy groups in Afghanistan and abroad along with supporting Afghan media to have female reporters and guests and to cover women’s rights stories.
  • Funding private education of girls through all available means — online for those with internet access; underground for those with community-based “secret schools”; through scholarships at high school and university levels to study abroad.
  • Amplifying messages of Islamic scholars and political leaders from Muslim majority countries that show how classical Islamic scholarship and contemporary practice in the Muslim world contradict the Taliban’s restrictive women’s rights decrees — especially to religious leaders and constituents in Afghanistan that are not Taliban but may not know about comparative Islamic practices.

A fundamental principle of international law is that the world has an obligation to combat atrocities committed in another jurisdiction, including for crimes against humanity like gender persecution and gender apartheid. To that, one can add an extra degree of moral duty for the United States and allied donor countries that created the conditions for the Taliban’s return to power without meaningful safeguards for the rights of women, which were a central objective of the West’s governance and democracy policies.

Afghan women deserve moral and material support to sustain their resiliency against the Taliban’s gender persecution. The United States and the international community should continue to firmly communicate to the Taliban that their regime’s legitimacy is dependent on protection, respect and guarantee of the rights of all Afghans regardless of their gender and social and political affiliation, and fulfillment of their obligation under international laws and conventions to which Afghanistan is a party to. The United States and the international community must make it clear that there will be legal accountability for the crimes against women that have occurred.

Two Years of the Taliban’s ‘Gender Apartheid’ in Afghanistan
read more

Afghanistan’s Two Years of Humanitarian Crisis Under the Taliban

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 immediately exacerbated the country’s precarious humanitarian situation, leaving millions in need of food assistance and other support. Two years later, the situation remains dire, with Afghan women and girls acutely affected by the Taliban’s draconian restrictions on their daily lives. The international community continues to struggle to find a balance between providing desperately needed aid while also pressuring the regime in Kabul to moderate its hardline policies. While Afghans need emergency assistance, the country will continue to deal with cycles of crises until its deep-seated economic challenges are addressed.
Mercy Corps’ Dayne Curry, Norwegian Refugee Council’s Becky Roby, CARE USA’s Ellen Bevier and the International Rescue Committee’s Anastasia Moran discuss the humanitarian situation facing the country, how woman and girls have been impacted by the Taliban’s restrictions, and how the United States can help address the crisis.

It’s been two years since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. Can you tell us what you are seeing as far as humanitarian needs are concerned?

Curry: The humanitarian response in Afghanistan simply cannot keep pace with the country’s worsening conditions. More than 29 million remain in need, over half of whom are children, while 15.3 million people are experiencing acute food insecurity. Almost 60% of households face barriers accessing safe water, and cholera and other diseases pose significant threats. Meanwhile, 22.1 million people require protection assistance, and 8.7 million children need education support.

These needs skyrocketed with the collapse of the former government and the subsequent suspension of international aid. Two years later, shocks from recurrent drought and seasonal flooding continue to threaten Afghanistan’s critical agriculture sector and limit access to clean water. Additionally, policies restricting individual freedoms, particularly those of women and girls, impede the humanitarian response, and Afghanistan’s authorities lack the capacity to provide services to their people.

Compounding these challenges is the reality of the international community’s declining commitment to Afghanistan. Support for long-term economic growth all but ended with the suspension of development assistance. Though some humanitarian assistance continues, the U.N.’s request is less than 30% funded, and humanitarian organizations must navigate a complex set of sanctions that complicate aid delivery. While programs in food security and health are better funded than others, the funding shortfall for clean water and irrigation exacerbates the impacts of the drought on agriculture, livelihoods and health. In summary, this combination of political and environmental factors has only served to deepen humanitarian needs over the past two years.

What are the key factors driving the humanitarian need in Afghanistan?

Roby: Today’s humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is primarily a political one. Since the Taliban’s takeover, the regime has enacted a series of egregious edicts and restrictions that have had a devastating impact on the population, particularly for women and girls. These policies have vastly undermined the country’s international relations resulting in political and economic isolation.

As a mark of moral outrage, Western donors and international financial institutions, including the World Bank, have ceased, paused or greatly reduced funding to development programs. Meanwhile, the economic collapse in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover has transitioned into chronic economic paralysis, caused largely by overcompliance to sanctions and banking sector de-risking and exacerbated by the choices of the country’s leadership.

While humanitarian actors provide life-saving assistance, these interventions cannot by themselves improve the situation for affected Afghans, leaving the population trapped in a cycle of repeated, protracted crises. The Afghan people need long-term sustainable solutions, and this requires not only increased humanitarian assistance, but greater economic stability and the resumption of development assistance. None of which will happen if the politics remain paralyzed.

We have seen the Taliban issue several new edicts over the past two years. How have these edicts impacted women and girls in Afghanistan?

Bevier: Since the de facto authorities came to power, they have implemented policies aimed to erase women and girls’ participation in public life, including bans on girls’ education beyond the sixth grade and women’s employment in humanitarian work. Women and girls in Afghanistan already faced increased protection risks and higher levels of humanitarian need before the regime change in Kabul. Studies indicate that 87% of Afghan women had experienced at least one form of physical, sexual or psychological violence, and 62% experienced multiple forms. With more than 17 million people facing acute hunger in 2023, women and girls are disproportionally affected and become more likely to resort to high-risk coping strategies.

The edicts against education and NGO work have deepened the vulnerability of Afghan women and girls by increasing the barriers to access aid. The education ban has also hindered educational outcomes and led to mental health challenges for women and girls who are now uncertain of their futures and isolated from support systems.

The work of national and local NGOs, especially women-led organizations, bears the brunt of these constraints including funding gaps. Despite these challenges, NGOs continue to operate in sectors and locations where the participation of female staff in the response is possible and where aid can be delivered in a principled manner.

As Afghan women and girls experience increased restriction and humanitarian need, the international community must stand beside them. Support to national and international NGOs, including women-led organizations, must continue to ensure that women and girls have a lifeline amid the myriad challenges they face.

Can you describe what you see as some of the biggest challenges for providing aid in Afghanistan?

Moran: Afghanistan is a complicated operating environment — as are many contexts where aid is required. The banking system’s inability to fully function requires workarounds, including U.N. cash shipments to pay staff and run operations. But many local NGOs lack access to either international money transfers or the U.N. cash system.

Humanitarian actors do face bureaucratic constraints, but we respond by negotiating to ensure delivery of aid based on need can continue. Despite these barriers, humanitarian actors are still able to operate at scale and in a principled way today. Amid a multitude of challenges, the biggest threat to our work today is dire underfunding, exacerbated by a high degree of misinformation and politicization of the situation in Afghanistan. While some worry that aid to the Afghan people enables the Taliban, humanitarian assistance does not go through governments or de facto authorities in Afghanistan or anywhere else. It is provided independently through U.N. agencies and NGOs to directly help civilians regardless of whose control they live under. NGOs, U.N. agencies and donors have layers of robust monitoring and reporting measures. In fact, the humanitarian response in Afghanistan is one of the most scrutinized responses globally.

What actions can U.S. policymakers take to address the current crisis?

Moran: Underfunding poses an existential threat. Lifesaving programs are shutting down, over 200 health facilities have stopped services and hard-won progress to bring down food insecurity is in jeopardy. The United States should scale up its own humanitarian aid and galvanize other donors to do the same. Congress should meet the Biden administration’s appeal for additional humanitarian aid as part of its supplemental funding request. Moreover, the United States should direct more funding to local civil society organizations, including women-led ones, who face the highest risk of closure.

But 40 million Afghans also need more than short-term stop gap measures. The World Bank-managed Afghanistan Resilience Trust Fund (ARTF) could be part of a more systematic approach to break the cycle of crisis. It funds basic services, including major health and education programs, as well as livelihood programs to reduce aid dependency — all delivered independently via the U.N. and NGOs. The United States should lead efforts to replenish this dwindling fund, extend it past its 2025 expiration and expand its scope, including support for small-scale infrastructure projects, the rehabilitation of basic systems and climate resilience programs.

Longer term, the crisis will not abate until the underlying economic drivers are addressed. This requires continued engagement with foreign banks to allow financial transactions, a regular process to bring new banknotes into the country and ease the liquidity crisis and technical assistance to help the Central Bank meet international banking standards and create conducive conditions for the eventual return of frozen Afghan assets.

Across these lines of effort, there remains an urgent need to strengthen the collective approach to international engagement, including via the independent assessment underway mandated by U.N. Security Council resolution 2679, to identify clear conditions and strategies to address the complex political, economic, development and humanitarian crises underway.

Dayne Curry is the Afghanistan country director at Mercy Corps.

Becky Roby is an advocacy manager for NRC in Afghanistan at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Ellen Bevier is a senior humanitarian policy advocate at CARE USA.

Anastasia Moran is the associate director for U.S. Advocacy at the International Rescue Committee.

Afghanistan’s Two Years of Humanitarian Crisis Under the Taliban
read more


By Franklin Foer

The Atlantic

October 2023 issue

Joe Biden was determined to get out of Afghanistan—no matter the cost.

August 1

August is the month when oppressive humidity causes the mass evacuation of official Washington. In 2021, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki piled her family into the car for a week at the beach. Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the Hamptons to visit his elderly father. Their boss left for the leafy sanctuary of Camp David.

They knew that when they returned, their attention would shift to a date circled at the end of the month. On August 31, the United States would officially complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan, concluding the longest war in American history.

The State Department didn’t expect to solve Afghanistan’s problems by that date. But if everything went well, there was a chance to wheedle the two warring sides into some sort of agreement that would culminate in the nation’s president, Ashraf Ghani, resigning from office, beginning an orderly transfer of power to a governing coalition that included the Taliban. There was even discussion of Blinken flying out, most likely to Doha, Qatar, to preside over the signing of an accord.

It would be an ending, but not the end. Within the State Department there was a strongly held belief: Even after August 31, the embassy in Kabul would remain open. It wouldn’t be as robustly staffed, but some aid programs would continue; visas would still be issued. The United States—at least not the State Department—wasn’t going to abandon the country.

There were plans for catastrophic scenarios, which had been practiced in tabletop simulations, but no one anticipated that they would be needed. Intelligence assessments asserted that the Afghan military would be able to hold off the Taliban for months, though the number of months kept dwindling as the Taliban conquered terrain more quickly than the analysts had predicted. But as August began, the grim future of Afghanistan seemed to exist in the distance, beyond the end of the month, not on America’s watch.

That grim future arrived disastrously ahead of schedule. What follows is an intimate history of that excruciating month of withdrawal, as narrated by its participants, based on dozens of interviews conducted shortly after the fact, when memories were fresh and emotions raw. At times, as I spoke with these participants, I felt as if I was their confessor. Their failings were so apparent that they had a desperate need to explain themselves, but also an impulse to relive moments of drama and pain more intense than any they had experienced in their career.

During those fraught days, foreign policy, so often debated in the abstract, or conducted from the sanitized remove of the Situation Room, became horrifyingly vivid. President Joe Biden and his aides found themselves staring hard at the consequences of their decisions.

Even in the thick of the crisis, as the details of a mass evacuation swallowed them, the members of Biden’s inner circle could see that the legacy of the month would stalk them into the next election—and perhaps into their obituaries. Though it was a moment when their shortcomings were on obvious display, they also believed it evinced resilience and improvisational skill.

And amid the crisis, a crisis that taxed his character and managerial acumen, the president revealed himself. For a man long caricatured as a political weather vane, Biden exhibited determination, even stubbornness, despite furious criticism from the establishment figures whose approval he usually craved. For a man vaunted for his empathy, he could be detached, even icy, when confronted with the prospect of human suffering.

When it came to foreign policy, Joe Biden possessed a swaggering faith in himself. He liked to knock the diplomats and pundits who would pontificate at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Munich Security Conference. He called them risk-averse, beholden to institutions, lazy in their thinking. Listening to these complaints, a friend once posed the obvious question: If you have such negative things to say about these confabs, then why attend so many of them? Biden replied, “If I don’t go, they’re going to get stale as hell.”

From 12 years as the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—and then eight years as the vice president—Biden had acquired a sense that he could scythe through conventional wisdom. He distrusted mandarins, even those he had hired for his staff. They were always muddying things with theories. One aide recalled that he would say, “You foreign-policy guys, you think this is all pretty complicated. But it’s just like family dynamics.” Foreign affairs was sometimes painful, often futile, but really it was emotional intelligence applied to people with names that were difficult to pronounce. Diplomacy, in Biden’s view, was akin to persuading a pain-in-the-ass uncle to stop drinking so much.

One subject seemed to provoke his contrarian side above all others: the war in Afghanistan. His strong opinions were grounded in experience. Soon after the United States invaded, in late 2001, Biden began visiting the country. He traveled with a sleeping bag; he stood in line alongside Marines, wrapped in a towel, waiting for his turn to shower.

On his first trip, in 2002, Biden met with Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni in his Kabul office, a shell of a building. Qanuni, an old mujahideen fighter, told him: We really appreciate that you have come here. But Americans have a long history of making promises and then breaking them. And if that happens again, the Afghan people are going to be disappointed.

Biden was jet-lagged and irritable. Qanuni’s comments set him off: Let me tell you, if you even think of threatening us … Biden’s aides struggled to calm him down.

In Biden’s moral code, ingratitude is a grievous sin. The United States had evicted the Taliban from power; it had sent young men to die in the nation’s mountains; it would give the new government billions in aid. But throughout the long conflict, Afghan officials kept telling him that the U.S. hadn’t done enough.

The frustration stuck with him, and it clarified his thinking. He began to draw unsentimental conclusions about the war. He could see that the Afghan government was a failed enterprise. He could see that a nation-building campaign of this scale was beyond American capacity.

As vice president, Biden also watched as the military pressured Barack Obama into sending thousands of additional troops to salvage a doomed cause. In his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land, Obama recalled that as he agonized over his Afghan policy, Biden pulled him aside and told him, “Listen to me, boss. Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president.” He drew close and whispered, “Don’t let them jam you.”

Biden developed a theory of how he would succeed where Obama had failed. He wasn’t going to let anyone jam him.

In early february 2021, now-President Biden invited his secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, into the Oval Office. He wanted to acknowledge an emotional truth: “I know you have friends you have lost in this war. I know you feel strongly. I know what you’ve put into this.”

Over the years, Biden had traveled to military bases, frequently accompanied by his fellow senator Chuck Hagel. On those trips, Hagel and Biden dipped in and out of a long-running conversation about war. They traded theories on why the United States would remain mired in unwinnable conflicts. One problem was the psychology of defeat. Generals were terrified of being blamed for a loss, living in history as the one who waved the white flag.

It was this dynamic, in part, that kept the United States entangled in Afghanistan. Politicians who hadn’t served in the military could never summon the will to overrule the generals, and the generals could never admit that they were losing. So the war continued indefinitely, a zombie campaign. Biden believed that he could break this cycle, that he could master the psychology of defeat.

Biden wanted to avoid having his generals feel cornered—even as he guided them to his desired outcome. He wanted them to feel heard, to appreciate his good faith. He told Austin and Milley, “Before I make a decision, you’ll have a chance to look me in the eyes.”

The date set out by the Doha Agreement, which the Trump administration had negotiated with the Taliban, was May 1, 2021. If the Taliban adhered to a set of conditions—engaging in political negotiations with the Afghan government, refraining from attacking U.S. troops, and cutting ties with terrorist groups—then the United States would remove its soldiers from the country by that date. Because of the May deadline, Biden’s first major foreign-policy decision—whether or not to honor the Doha Agreement—would also be the one he seemed to care most about. And it would need to be made in a sprint.

In the spring, after weeks of meetings with generals and foreign-policy advisers, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had the National Security Council generate two documents for the president to read. One outlined the best case for staying in Afghanistan; the other made the best case for leaving.

This reflected Biden’s belief that he faced a binary choice. If he abandoned the Doha Agreement, attacks on U.S. troops would resume. Since the accord had been signed, in February 2020, the Taliban had grown stronger, forging new alliances and sharpening plans. And thanks to the drawdown of troops that had begun under Donald Trump, the United States no longer had a robust-enough force to fight a surging foe.

Biden’s speech contained a hole that few noted at the time. It scarcely mentioned the Afghan people, with not even an expression of best wishes for the nation the U.S. would be leaving behind.

Biden gathered his aides for one last meeting before he formally made his decision. Toward the end of the session, he asked Sullivan, Blinken, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to leave the room. He wanted to talk with Austin and Milley alone.

Instead of revealing his final decision, Biden told them, “This is hard. I want to go to Camp David this weekend and think about it.”

It was always clear where the president would land. Milley knew that his own preferred path for Afghanistan—leaving a small but meaningful contingent of troops in the country—wasn’t shared by the nation he served, or the new commander in chief. Having just survived Trump and a wave of speculation about how the U.S. military might figure in a coup, Milley was eager to demonstrate his fidelity to civilian rule. If Biden wanted to shape the process to get his preferred result, well, that’s how a democracy should work.

On april 14, Biden announced that he would withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. He delivered remarks explaining his decision in the Treaty Room of the White House, the very spot where, in the fall of 2001, George W. Bush had informed the public of the first American strikes against the Taliban.

Biden’s speech contained a hole that few noted at the time. It scarcely mentioned the Afghan people, with not even an expression of best wishes for the nation that the United States would be leaving behind. The Afghans were apparently only incidental to his thinking. (Biden hadn’t spoken with President Ghani until right before the announcement.) Scranton Joe’s deep reserves of compassion were directed at people with whom he felt a connection; his visceral ties were with American soldiers. When he thought about the military’s rank and file, he couldn’t help but project an image of his own late son, Beau. “I’m the first president in 40 years who knows what it means to have a child serving in a war zone,” he said.

Biden also announced a new deadline for the U.S. withdrawal, which would move from May 1 to September 11, the 20th anniversary of the attack that drew the United States into war. The choice of date was polemical. Although he never officially complained about it, Milley didn’t understand the decision. How did it honor the dead to admit defeat in a conflict that had been waged on their behalf? Eventually, the Biden administration pushed the withdrawal deadline forward to August 31, an implicit concession that it had erred.

But the choice of September 11 was telling. Biden took pride in ending an unhappy chapter in American history. Democrats might have once referred to Afghanistan as the “good war,” but it had become a fruitless fight. It had distracted the United States from policies that might preserve the nation’s geostrategic dominance. By leaving Afghanistan, Biden believed he was redirecting the nation’s gaze to the future: “We’ll be much more formidable to our adversaries and competitors over the long term if we fight the battles for the next 20 years, not the last 20.”

August 6–9

in late june, Jake Sullivan began to worry that the Pentagon had pulled American personnel and materiel out of Afghanistan too precipitously. The rapid drawdown had allowed the Taliban to advance and to win a string of victories against the Afghan army that had caught the administration by surprise. Even if Taliban fighters weren’t firing at American troops, they were continuing to battle the Afghan army and take control of the countryside. Now they’d captured a provincial capital in the remote southwest—a victory that was disturbingly effortless.

Sullivan asked one of his top aides, Homeland Security Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, to convene a meeting for Sunday, August 8, with officials overseeing the withdrawal. Contingency plans contained a switch that could be flipped in an emergency. To avoid a reprise of the fall of Saigon, with desperate hands clinging to the last choppers out of Vietnam, the government made plans for a noncombatant-evacuation operation, or NEO. The U.S. embassy would shut down and relocate to Hamid Karzai International Airport (or HKIA, as everyone called it). Troops, pre-positioned near the Persian Gulf and waiting at Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, would descend on Kabul to protect the airport. Military transport planes would haul American citizens and visa holders out of the country.

By the time Sherwood-Randall had a chance to assemble the meeting, the most pessimistic expectations had been exceeded. The Taliban had captured four more provincial capitals. General Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, filed a commander’s estimate warning that Kabul could be surrounded within about 30 days—a far faster collapse than previously predicted.

McKenzie’s dire warning did strangely little to alter plans. Sherwood-Randall’s group unanimously agreed that it was too soon to declare a NEO. The embassy in Kabul was particularly forceful on this point. The acting ambassador, Ross Wilson, wanted to avoid cultivating a sense of panic in Kabul, which would further collapse the army and the state. Even the CIA seconded this line of thinking.

August 12

at 2 a.m., Sullivan’s phone rang. It was Mark Milley. The military had received reports that the Taliban had entered the city of Ghazni, less than 100 miles from Kabul.

The intelligence community assumed that the Taliban wouldn’t storm Kabul until after the United States left, because the Taliban wanted to avoid a block‑by‑block battle for the city. But the proximity of the Taliban to the embassy and HKIA was terrifying. It necessitated the decisive action that the administration had thus far resisted. Milley wanted Sullivan to initiate a NEO. If the State Department wasn’t going to move quickly, the president needed to order it to. Sullivan assured him that he would push harder, but it would be two more days before the president officially declared a NEO.

With the passage of each hour, Sullivan’s anxieties grew. He called Lloyd Austin and told him, “I think you need to send someone with bars on his arm to Doha to talk to the Taliban so that they understand not to mess with an evacuation.” Austin agreed to dispatch General McKenzie to renew negotiations.

August 13

austin convened a videoconference with the top civilian and military officials in Kabul. He wanted updates from them before he headed to the White House to brief the president.

Ross Wilson, the acting ambassador, told him, “I need 72 hours before I can begin destroying sensitive documents.”

“You have to be done in 72 hours,” Austin replied.

The Taliban were now perched outside Kabul. Delaying the evacuation of the embassy posed a danger that Austin couldn’t abide. Thousands of troops were about to arrive to protect the new makeshift facility that would be set up at the airport. The moment had come to move there.

Abandoning an embassy has its own protocols; they are rituals of panic. The diplomats had a weekend, more or less, to purge the place: to fill its shredders, burn bins, and disintegrator with documents and hard drives. Anything with an American flag on it needed destroying so it couldn’t be used by the enemy for propaganda purposes.

Wisps of smoke would soon begin to blow from the compound—a plume of what had been classified cables and personnel files. Even for those Afghans who didn’t have access to the internet, the narrative would be legible in the sky.

August 14

on saturday night, Antony Blinken placed a call to Ashraf Ghani. He wanted to make sure the Afghan president remained committed to the negotiations in Doha. The Taliban delegation there was still prepared to agree to a unity government, which it might eventually run, allocating cabinet slots to ministers from Ghani’s government. That notion had broad support from the Afghan political elite. Everyone, even Ghani, agreed that he would need to resign as part of a deal. Blinken wanted to ensure that he wouldn’t waver from his commitments and try to hold on to power.

Although Ghani said that he would comply, he began musing aloud about what might happen if the Taliban invaded Kabul prior to August 31. He told Blinken, “I’d rather die than surrender.”

August 15

the next day, the presidential palace released a video of Ghani talking with security officials on the phone. As he sat at his imposing wooden desk, which once belonged to King Amanullah, who had bolted from the palace to avoid an Islamist uprising in 1929, Ghani’s aides hoped to project a sense of calm.

During the early hours, a small number of Taliban fighters eased their way to the gates of the city, and then into the capital itself. The Taliban leadership didn’t want to invade Kabul until after the American departure. But their soldiers had conquered territory without even firing a shot. In their path, Afghan soldiers simply walked away from checkpoints. Taliban units kept drifting in the direction of the presidential palace.

Rumors traveled more quickly than the invaders. A crowd formed outside a bank in central Kabul. Nervous customers jostled in a chaotic rush to empty their accounts. Guards fired into the air to disperse the melee. The sound of gunfire reverberated through the nearby palace, which had largely emptied for lunch. Ghani’s closest advisers pressed him to flee. “If you stay,” one told him, according to The Washington Post, “you’ll be killed.”

From the March 2022 issue: George Packer on America’s betrayal of Afghanistan

This was a fear rooted in history. In 1996, when the Taliban first invaded Kabul, they hanged the tortured body of the former president from a traffic light. Ghani hustled onto one of three Mi‑17 helicopters waiting inside his compound, bound for Uzbekistan. The New York Times Magazine later reported that the helicopters were instructed to fly low to the terrain, to evade detection by the U.S. military. From Uzbekistan, he would fly to the United Arab Emirates and an ignominious exile. Without time to pack, he left in plastic sandals, accompanied by his wife. On the tarmac, aides and guards grappled over the choppers’ last remaining seats.

When the rest of Ghani’s staff returned from lunch, they moved through the palace searching for the president, unaware that he had abandoned them, and their country.

At approximately 1:45 p.m., Ambassador Wilson went to the embassy lobby for the ceremonial lowering of the flag. Emotionally drained and worried about his own safety, he prepared to leave the embassy behind, a monument to his nation’s defeat.

Wilson made his way to the helicopter pad so that he could be taken to his new outpost at the airport, where he was told that a trio of choppers had just left the presidential palace. Wilson knew what that likely meant. By the time he relayed his suspicions to Washington, officials already possessed intelligence that confirmed Wilson’s hunch: Ghani had fled.

Jake Sullivan relayed the news to Biden, who exploded in frustration: Give me a break.

Later that afternoon, General McKenzie arrived at the Ritz-Carlton in Doha. Well before Ghani’s departure from power, the wizened Marine had scheduled a meeting with an old adversary of the United States, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar.

Baradar wasn’t just any Taliban leader. He was a co-founder of the group, with Mullah Mohammed Omar. McKenzie had arrived with the intention of delivering a stern warning. He barely had time to tweak his agenda after learning of Ghani’s exit.

McKenzie unfolded a map of Afghanistan translated into Pashto. A circle had been drawn around the center of Kabul—a radius of about 25 kilometers—and he pointed to it. He referred to this area as the “ring of death.” If the Taliban operated within those 25 kilometers, McKenzie said, “we’re going to assume hostile intent, and we’ll strike hard.”

McKenzie tried to bolster his threat with logic. He said he didn’t want to end up in a firefight with the Taliban, and that would be a lot less likely to happen if they weren’t in the city.

Baradar not only understood; he agreed. Known as a daring military tactician, he was also a pragmatist. He wanted to transform his group’s inhospitable image; he hoped that foreign embassies, even the American one, would remain in Kabul. Baradar didn’t want a Taliban government to become a pariah state, starved of foreign assistance that it badly needed.

But the McKenzie plan had an elemental problem: It was too late. Taliban fighters were already operating within the ring of death. Kabul was on the brink of anarchy. Armed criminal gangs were already starting to roam the streets. Baradar asked the general, “Are you going to take responsibility for the security of Kabul?”

McKenzie replied that his orders were to run an evacuation. Whatever happens to the security situation in Kabul, he told Baradar, don’t mess with the evacuation, or there will be hell to pay. It was an evasive answer. The United States didn’t have the troops or the will to secure Kabul. McKenzie had no choice but to implicitly cede that job to the Taliban.

Baradar walked toward a window. Because he didn’t speak English, he wanted his adviser to confirm his understanding. “Is he saying that he won’t attack us if we go in?” His adviser told him that he had heard correctly.

As the meeting wrapped up, McKenzie realized that the United States would need to be in constant communication with the Taliban. They were about to be rubbing shoulders with each other in a dense city. Misunderstandings were inevitable. Both sides agreed that they would designate a representative in Kabul to talk through the many complexities so that the old enemies could muddle together toward a common purpose.

Soon after McKenzie and Baradar ended their meeting, Al Jazeera carried a live feed from the presidential palace, showing the Taliban as they went from room to room, in awe of the building, seemingly bemused by their own accomplishment.

They gathered in Ghani’s old office, where a book of poems remained on his desk, across from a box of Kleenex. A Talib sat in the president’s Herman Miller chair. His comrades stood behind him in a tableau, cloth draped over the shoulders of their tunics, guns resting in the crooks of their arms, as if posing for an official portrait.

August 16

the u.s. embassy, now relocated to the airport, became a magnet for humanity. The extent of Afghan desperation shocked officials back in Washington. Only amid the panicked exodus did top officials at the State Department realize that hundreds of thousands of Afghans had fled their homes as civil war swept through the countryside—and made their way to the capital.

The runway divided the airport into halves. A northern sector served as a military outpost and, after the relocation of the embassy, a consular office—the last remaining vestiges of the United States and its promise of liberation. A commercial airport stared at these barracks from across the strip of asphalt.

The commercial facility had been abandoned by the Afghans who worked there. The night shift of air-traffic controllers simply never arrived. The U.S. troops whom Austin had ordered to support the evacuation were only just arriving. So the terminal was overwhelmed. Afghans began to spill onto the tarmac itself.

The crowds arrived in waves. The previous day, Afghans had flooded the tarmac late in the day, then left when they realized that no flights would depart that evening. But in the morning, the compound still wasn’t secure, and it refilled.

In the chaos, it wasn’t entirely clear to Ambassador Wilson who controlled the compound. The Taliban began freely roaming the facility, wielding bludgeons, trying to secure the mob. Apparently, they were working alongside soldiers from the old Afghan army. Wilson received worrying reports of tensions between the two forces.

The imperative was to begin landing transport planes with equipment and soldiers. A C‑17, a warehouse with wings, full of supplies to support the arriving troops, managed to touch down. The crew lowered a ramp to unload the contents of the jet’s belly, but the plane was rushed by a surge of civilians. The Americans on board were no less anxious than the Afghans who greeted them. Almost as quickly as the plane’s back ramp lowered, the crew reboarded and resealed the jet’s entrances. They received permission to flee the uncontrolled scene.

But they could not escape the crowd, for whom the jet was a last chance to avoid the Taliban and the suffering to come. As the plane began to taxi, about a dozen Afghans climbed onto one side of the jet. Others sought to stow away in the wheel well that housed its bulging landing gear. To clear the runway of human traffic, Humvees began rushing alongside the plane. Two Apache helicopters flew just above the ground, to give the Afghans a good scare and to blast the civilians from the plane with rotor wash.

Only after the plane had lifted into the air did the crew discover its place in history. When the pilot couldn’t fully retract the landing gear, a member of the crew went to investigate, staring out of a small porthole. Through the window, it was possible to see scattered human remains.

Videos taken from the tarmac instantly went viral. They showed a dentist from Kabul plunging to the ground from the elevating jet. The footage evoked the photo of a man falling to his death from an upper story of the World Trade Center—images of plummeting bodies bracketing an era.

Over the weekend, Biden had received briefings about the chaos in Kabul in a secure conference room at Camp David. Photographs distributed to the press showed him alone, talking to screens, isolated in his contrarian faith in the righteousness of his decision. Despite the fiasco at the airport, he returned to the White House, stood in the East Room, and proclaimed: “If anything, the developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.”

August 17

john bass was having a hard time keeping his mind on the task at hand. From 2017 to 2020, he had served as Washington’s ambassador to Afghanistan. During that tour, Bass did his best to immerse himself in the country and meet its people. He’d planted a garden with a group of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and hosted roundtables with journalists. When his term as ambassador ended, he left behind friends, colleagues, and hundreds of acquaintances.

Now Bass kept his eyes on his phone, checking for any word from his old Afghan network. He moved through his day dreading what might come next.

The situation was undeniably bizarre: The success of the American operation now depended largely on the cooperation of the Taliban.

Yet he also had a job that required his attention. The State Department had assigned him to train future ambassadors. In a seminar room in suburban Virginia, he did his best to focus on passing along wisdom to these soon‑to‑be emissaries of the United States.

As class was beginning, his phone lit up. Bass saw the number of the State Department Operations Center. He apologized and stepped out to take the call.

“Are you available to talk to Deputy Secretary Sherman?”

The familiar voice of Wendy Sherman, the No. 2 at the department, came on the line. “I have a mission for you. You must take it, and you need to leave today.” Sherman then told him: “I’m calling to ask you to go back to Kabul to lead the evacuation effort.”

Ambassador Wilson was shattered by the experience of the past week and wasn’t “able to function at the level that was necessary” to complete the job on his own. Sherman needed Bass to help manage the exodus.

Bass hadn’t expected the request. In his flummoxed state, he struggled to pose the questions he thought he might later regret not having asked.

“How much time do we have?”

“Probably about two weeks, a little less than two weeks.”

“I’ve been away from this for 18 months or so.”

“Yep, we know, but we think you’re the right person for this.”

Bass returned to class and scooped up his belongings. “With apologies, I’m going to have to take my leave. I’ve just been asked to go back to Kabul and support the evacuations. So I’ve got to say goodbye and wish you all the best, and you’re all going to be great ambassadors.”

Because he wasn’t living in Washington, Bass didn’t have the necessary gear with him. He drove straight to the nearest REI in search of hiking pants and rugged boots. He needed to pick up a laptop from the IT department in Foggy Bottom. Without knowing much more than what was in the news, Bass rushed to board a plane taking him to the worst crisis in the recent history of American foreign policy.

August 19–25

about 30 hours later—3:30 a.m., Kabul time—Bass touched down at HKIA and immediately began touring the compound. At the American headquarters, he ran into the military heads of the operation, whom he had worked with before. They presented Bass with the state of play. The situation was undeniably bizarre: The success of the American operation now depended largely on the cooperation of the Taliban.

The Americans needed the Taliban to help control the crowds that had formed outside the airport—and to implement systems that would allow passport and visa holders to pass through the throngs. But the Taliban were imperfect allies at best. Their checkpoints were run by warriors from the countryside who didn’t know how to deal with the array of documents being waved in their faces. What was an authentic visa? What about families where the father had a U.S. passport but his wife and children didn’t? Every day, a new set of Taliban soldiers seemed to arrive at checkpoints, unaware of the previous day’s directions. Frustrated with the unruliness, the Taliban would sometimes simply stop letting anyone through.

Abdul Ghani Baradar’s delegation in Doha had passed along the name of a Taliban commander in Kabul—Mawlawi Hamdullah Mukhlis. It had fallen to Major General Chris Donahue, the head of the 82nd Airborne Division, out of Fort Bragg, to coordinate with him. On September 11, 2001, Donahue had been an aide to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Richard Myers, and had been with him on Capitol Hill when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.

Donahue told Pentagon officials that he had to grit his teeth as he dealt with Mukhlis. But the Taliban commander seemed to feel a camaraderie with his fellow soldier. He confided to Donahue his worry that Afghanistan would suffer from brain drain, as the country’s most talented minds evacuated on American airplanes.

In a videoconference with Mark Milley, back at the Pentagon, Donahue recounted Mukhlis’s fears. According to one Defense Department official in the meeting, his description caused Milley to laugh.

“Don’t be going local on me, Donahue,” he said.

“Don’t worry about me, sir,” Donahue responded. “I’m not buying what they are selling.”

After Bass left his meeting with the military men, including Donahue, he toured the gates of the airport, where Afghans had amassed. He was greeted by the smell of feces and urine, by the sound of gunshots and bullhorns blaring instructions in Dari and Pashto. Dust assaulted his eyes and nose. He felt the heat that emanated from human bodies crowded into narrow spaces.

The atmosphere was tense. Marines and consular officers, some of whom had flown into Kabul from other embassies, were trying to pull passport and visa holders from the crowd. But every time they waded into it, they seemed to provoke a furious reaction. To get plucked from the street by the Americans smacked of cosmic unfairness to those left behind. Sometimes the anger swelled beyond control, so the troops shut down entrances to allow frustrations to subside. Bass was staring at despair in its rawest form. As he studied the people surrounding the airport, he wondered if he could ever make any of this a bit less terrible.

Bass cadged a room in barracks belonging to the Turkish army, which had agreed, before the chaos had descended, to operate and protect the airport after the Americans finally departed. His days tended to follow a pattern. They would begin with the Taliban’s grudging assistance. Then, as lunchtime approached, the Talibs would get hot and hungry. Abruptly, they would stop processing evacuees through their checkpoints. Then, just as suddenly, at six or seven, as the sun began to set, they would begin to cooperate again.

Bass was forever hatching fresh schemes to satisfy the Taliban’s fickle requirements. One day, the Taliban would let buses through without question; the next, they would demand to see passenger manifests in advance. Bass’s staff created official-looking placards to place in bus windows. The Taliban waved them through for a short period, then declared the placard system unreliable.

Throughout the day, Bass would stop what he was doing and join videoconferences with Washington. He became a fixture in the Situation Room. Biden would pepper him with ideas for squeezing more evacuees through the gates. The president’s instinct was to throw himself into the intricacies of troubleshooting. Why don’t we have them meet in parking lots? Can’t we leave the airport and pick them up? Bass would kick around Biden’s proposed solutions with colleagues to determine their plausibility, which was usually low. Still, he appreciated Biden applying pressure, making sure that he didn’t overlook the obvious.

At the end of his first day at the airport, Bass went through his email. A State Department spokesperson had announced Bass’s arrival in Kabul. Friends and colleagues had deluged him with requests to save Afghans. Bass began to scrawl the names from his inbox on a whiteboard in his office. By the time he finished, he’d filled the six-foot‑by‑four-foot surface. He knew there was little chance that he could help. The orders from Washington couldn’t have been clearer. The primary objective was to load planes with U.S. citizens, U.S.-visa holders, and passport holders from partner nations, mostly European ones.

In his mind, Bass kept another running list, of Afghans he had come to know personally during his time as ambassador who were beyond his ability to rescue. Their faces and voices were etched in his memory, and he could be sure that, at some point when he wasn’t rushing to fill C‑17s, they would haunt his sleep.

“Someone on the bus is dying.”

Jake Sullivan was unnerved. What to do with such a dire message from a trusted friend? It described a caravan of five blue-and-white buses stuck 100 yards outside the south gate of the airport, one of them carrying a human being struggling for life. If Sullivan forwarded this problem to an aide, would it get resolved in time?

Sullivan sometimes felt as if every member of the American elite was simultaneously asking for his help. When he left secure rooms, he would grab his phone and check his personal email accounts, which overflowed with pleas. This person just had the Taliban threaten them. They will be shot in 15 hours if you don’t get them out. Some of the senders seemed to be trying to shame him into action. If you don’t do something, their death is on your hands.

Throughout late August, the president himself was fielding requests to help stranded Afghans, from friends and members of Congress. Biden became invested in individual cases. Three buses of women at the Kabul Serena Hotel kept running into logistical obstacles. He told Sullivan, “I want to know what happens to them. I want to know when they make it to the airport.” When the president heard these stories, he would become engrossed in solving the practical challenge of getting people to the airport, mapping routes through the city.

From the September 2022 issue: “I smuggled my laptop past the Taliban so I could write this story”

When Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, went to check in with members of a task force working on the evacuation, she found grizzled diplomats in tears. She estimated that a quarter of the State Department’s personnel had served in Afghanistan. They felt a connection with the country, an emotional entanglement. Fielding an overwhelming volume of emails describing hardship cases, they easily imagined the faces of refugees. They felt the shame and anger that come with the inability to help. To deal with the trauma, the State Department procured therapy dogs that might ease the staff’s pain.

The State Department redirected the attention of its sprawling apparatus to Afghanistan. Embassies in Mexico City and New Delhi became call centers. Staff in those distant capitals assumed the role of caseworkers, assigned to stay in touch with the remaining American citizens in Afghanistan, counseling them through the terrifying weeks.

Sherman dispatched her Afghan-born chief of staff, Mustafa Popal, to HKIA to support embassy workers and serve as an interpreter. All day long, Sherman responded to pleas for help: from foreign governments’ representatives, who joined a daily videoconference she hosted; from members of Congress; from the cellist Yo‑Yo Ma, writing on behalf of musicians. Amid the crush, she felt compelled to go down to the first floor, to spend 15 minutes cuddling the therapy dogs.

The biden administration hadn’t intended to conduct a full-blown humanitarian evacuation of Afghanistan. It had imagined an orderly and efficient exodus that would extend past August 31, as visa holders boarded commercial flights from the country. As those plans collapsed, the president felt the same swirl of emotions as everyone else watching the desperation at the airport. Over the decades, he had thought about Afghanistan using the cold logic of realism—it was a strategic distraction, a project whose costs outweighed the benefits. Despite his many visits, the country had become an abstraction in his mind. But the graphic suffering in Kabul awakened in him a compassion that he’d never evinced in the debates about the withdrawal.

After seeing the abject desperation on the HKIA tarmac, the president had told the Situation Room that he wanted all the planes flying thousands of troops into the airport to leave filled with evacuees. Pilots should pile American citizens and Afghans with visas into those planes. But there was a category of evacuees that he now especially wanted to help, what the government called “Afghans at risk.” These were the newspaper reporters, the schoolteachers, the filmmakers, the lawyers, the members of a girls’ robotics team who didn’t necessarily have paperwork but did have every reason to fear for their well-being in a Taliban-controlled country.

This was a different sort of mission. The State Department hadn’t vetted all of the Afghans at risk. It didn’t know if they were genuinely endangered or simply strivers looking for a better life. It didn’t know if they would have qualified for the visas that the administration said it issued to those who worked with the Americans, or if they were petty criminals. But if they were in the right place at the right time, they were herded up the ramp of C‑17s.

In anticipation of an evacuation, the United States had built housing at Camp As Sayliyah, a U.S. Army base in the suburbs of Doha. It could hold 8,000 people, housing them as the Department of Homeland Security collected their biometric data and began to vet them for immigration. But it quickly became clear that the United States would fly far more than 8,000 Afghans to Qatar.

As the numbers swelled, the United States set up tents at Al Udeid Air Base, a bus ride away from As Sayliyah. Nearly 15,000 Afghans took up residence there, but their quarters were poorly planned. There weren’t nearly enough toilets or showers. Procuring lunch meant standing in line for three or four hours. Single men slept in cots opposite married women, a transgression of Afghan traditions.

The Qataris, determined to use the crisis to burnish their reputation, erected a small city of air-conditioned wedding tents and began to cater meals for the refugees. But the Biden administration knew that the number of evacuees would soon exceed Qatar’s capacity. It needed to erect a network of camps. What it created was something like the hub-and-spoke system used by commercial airlines. Refugees would fly into Al Udeid and then be redirected to bases across the Middle East and Europe, what the administration termed “lily pads.”

In September, just as refugees were beginning to arrive at Dulles International Airport, outside Washington, D.C., four Afghan evacuees caught the measles. All the refugees in the Middle East and Europe now needed vaccinations, which would require 21 days for immunity to take hold. To keep disease from flying into the United States, the State Department called around the world, asking if Afghans could stay on bases for three extra weeks.

In the end, the U.S. government housed more than 60,000 Afghans in facilities that hadn’t existed before the fall of Kabul. It flew 387 sorties from HKIA. At the height of the operation, an aircraft took off every 45 minutes. A terrible failure of planning necessitated a mad scramble—a mad scramble that was an impressive display of creative determination.

Even as the administration pulled off this feat of logistics, it was pilloried for the clumsiness of the withdrawal. The New York Times’ David Sanger had written, “After seven months in which his administration seemed to exude much-needed competence—getting more than 70 percent of the country’s adults vaccinated, engineering surging job growth and making progress toward a bipartisan infrastructure bill—everything about America’s last days in Afghanistan shattered the imagery.”

Biden didn’t have time to voraciously consume the news, but he was well aware of the coverage, and it infuriated him. It did little to change his mind, though. In the caricature version of Joe Biden that had persisted for decades, he was highly sensitive to shifts in opinion, especially when they emerged from columnists at the Post or the Times. The criticism of the withdrawal caused him to justify the chaos as the inevitable consequence of a difficult decision, even though he had never publicly, or privately, predicted it. Through the whole last decade of the Afghan War, he had detested the conventional wisdom of the foreign-policy elites. They were willing to stay forever, no matter the cost. After defying their delusional promises of progress for so long, he wasn’t going to back down now. In fact, everything he’d witnessed from his seat in the Situation Room confirmed his belief that exiting a war without hope was the best and only course.

So much of the commentary felt overheated to him. He said to an aide: Either the press is losing its mind, or I am.

August 26

every intelligence official watching Kabul was obsessed with the possibility of an attack by ISIS-Khorasan, or ISIS‑K, the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State, which dreamed of a new caliphate in Central Asia. As the Taliban stormed across Afghanistan, they unlocked a prison at Bagram Air Base, freeing hardened ISIS‑K adherents. ISIS‑K had been founded by veterans of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban who had broken with their groups, on the grounds that they needed to be replaced by an even more militant vanguard. The intelligence community had been sorting through a roaring river of unmistakable warnings about an imminent assault on the airport.

As the national-security team entered the Situation Room for a morning meeting, it consumed an early, sketchy report of an explosion at one of the gates to HKIA, but it was hard to know if there were any U.S. casualties. Everyone wanted to believe that the United States had escaped unscathed, but everyone had too much experience to believe that. General McKenzie appeared via videoconference in the Situation Room with updates that confirmed the room’s suspicions of American deaths. Biden hung his head and quietly absorbed the reports. In the end, the explosion killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghan civilians.

August 29–30

the remains of the dead service members were flown to Dover Air Force Base, in Delaware, for a ritual known as the dignified transfer: Flag-draped caskets are marched down the gangway of a transport plane and driven to the base’s mortuary.

So much about the withdrawal had slipped beyond Biden’s control. But grieving was his expertise. If there was one thing that everyone agreed Biden did more adroitly than any other public official, it was comforting survivors. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole once called him “the Designated Mourner.”

Accompanied by his wife, Jill; Mark Milley; Antony Blinken; and Lloyd Austin, Biden made his way to a private room where grieving families had gathered. He knew he would be standing face to face with unbridled anger. A father had already turned his back on Austin and was angrily shouting at Milley, who held up his hands in the posture of surrender.

When Biden entered, he shook the hand of Mark Schmitz, who had lost his 20-year-old son, Jared. In his sorrow, Schmitz couldn’t decide whether he wanted to sit in the presence of the president. According to a report in The Washington Post, the night before, he had told a military officer that he didn’t want to speak to the man whose incompetence he blamed for his son’s death. In the morning, he changed his mind.

Schmitz told the Post that he couldn’t help but glare in Biden’s direction. When Biden approached, he held out a photo of Jared. “Don’t you ever forget that name. Don’t you ever forget that face. Don’t you ever forget the names of the other 12. And take some time to learn their stories.”

“I do know their stories,” Biden replied.

After the dignified transfer, the families piled onto a bus. A sister of one of the dead screamed in Biden’s direction: “I hope you burn in hell.”

Of all the moments in August, this was the one that caused the president to second-guess himself. He asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki: Did I do something wrong? Maybe I should have handled that differently.

As Biden left, Milley saw the pain on the president’s face. He told him: “You made a decision that had to be made. War is a brutal, vicious undertaking. We’re moving forward to the next step.”

That afternoon, Biden returned to the Situation Room. There was pressure, from the Hill and talking heads, to push back the August 31 deadline. But everyone in the room was terrified by the intelligence assessments about ISIS‑K. If the U.S. stayed, it would be hard to avoid the arrival of more caskets at Dover.

As Biden discussed the evacuation, he received a note, which he passed to Milley. According to a White House official present in the room, the general read it aloud: “If you want to catch the 5:30 Mass, you have to leave now.” He turned to the president. “My mother always said it’s okay to miss Mass if you’re doing something important. And I would argue that this is important.” He paused, realizing that the president might need a moment after his bruising day. “This is probably also a time when we need prayers.”

Biden gathered himself to leave. As he stood from his chair, he told the group, “I will be praying for all of you.”

On the morning of the 30th, John Bass was cleaning out his office. An alarm sounded, and he rushed for cover. A rocket flew over the airport from the west and a second crashed into the compound, without inflicting damage.

Bass, ever the stoic, turned to a colleague. “Well, that’s about the only thing that hasn’t happened so far.” He was worried that the rockets weren’t a parting gift, but a prelude to an attack.

Earlier that morning, though, Bass had implored Major General Donahue to delay the departure. He’d asked his military colleagues to remain at the outer access points, because there were reports of American citizens still making their way to them.

Donahue was willing to give Bass a few extra hours. And around 3 a.m., 60 more American-passport holders arrived at the airport. Then, as if anticipating a final burst of American generosity toward refugees, the Taliban opened their checkpoints. A flood of Afghans rushed toward the airport. Bass sent consular officers to stand at the perimeter of concertina wire, next to the paratroopers, scanning for passports, visas, any official-looking document.

An officer caught a glimpse of an Afghan woman in her 20s waving a printout showing that she had received permission to enter the U.S. “Wow. You won the lottery twice,” he told her. “You’re the visa-lottery winner and you’ve made it here in time.” She was one of the final evacuees hustled into the airport.

Around 7 a.m., the last remaining State Department officials in Kabul, including Bass, posed for a photo and then walked up the ramp of a C-17. As Bass prepared for takeoff, he thought about two numbers. In total, the United States had evacuated about 124,000 people, which the White House touted as the most successful airlift in history. Bass also thought about the unknown number of Afghans he had failed to get out. He thought about the friends he couldn’t extricate. He thought about the last time he’d flown out of Kabul, 18 months earlier, and how he had harbored a sense of optimism for the country then. A hopefulness that now felt as remote as the Hindu Kush.

In a command center in the Pentagon’s basement, Lloyd Austin and Mark Milley followed events at the airport through a video feed provided by a drone, the footage filtered through the hazy shades of a night-vision lens. They watched in silence as Donahue, the last American soldier on the ground in Afghanistan, boarded the last C-17 to depart HKIA.

Five C‑17s sat on the runway—carrying “chalk,” as the military refers to the cargo of troops. An officer in the command center narrated the procession for them. “Chalk 1 loaded … Chalk 2 taxiing.”

As the planes departed, there was no applause, no hand-shaking. A murmur returned to the room. Austin and Milley watched the great military project of their generation—a war that had cost the lives of comrades, that had taken them away from their families—end without remark. They stood without ceremony and returned to their offices.

Across the potomac river, Biden sat with Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken, revising a speech he would deliver the next day. One of Sullivan’s aides passed him a note, which he read to the group: “Chalk 1 in the air.” A few minutes later, the aide returned with an update. All of the planes were safely away.

Some critics had clamored for Biden to fire the advisers who had failed to plan for the chaos at HKIA, to make a sacrificial offering in the spirit of self-abasement. But Biden never deflected blame onto staff. In fact, he privately expressed gratitude to them. And with the last plane in the air, he wanted Blinken and Sullivan to join him in the private dining room next to the Oval Office as he called Austin to thank him. The secretary of defense hadn’t agreed with Biden’s withdrawal plan, but he’d implemented it in the spirit of a good soldier.

America’s longest war was now finally and officially over. Each man looked exhausted. Sullivan hadn’t slept for more than two hours a night over the course of the evacuation. Biden aides sensed that he hadn’t rested much better. Nobody needed to mention how the trauma and political scars might never go away, how the month of August had imperiled a presidency. Before returning to the Oval Office, they spent a moment together, lingering in the melancholy.

This article was adapted from Franklin Foer’s book The Last Politician: Inside Joe Biden’s White House and the Struggle for America’s Future. It appears in the October 2023 print edition with the headline “The Final Days.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

read more

The Daily Hustle: Crossing the Durand Line to visit family in Pakistan

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon • Roxanna Shapour

Afghanistan Analysts Network

The story of Afghan families is often one of loved ones separated by long distances and national borders. Every year, many Afghans who have family living in neighbouring countries make the hours and sometimes days-long journey overland from Afghanistan, braving long bus rides, hours waiting to cross borders and the demands for payment by border guards all to spend some precious time with their families. In the latest instalment of The Daily Hustle, our series of individual accounts about an aspect of daily life in Afghanistan, AAN’s Ali Mohammad Sabawoon spoke to a traveller about his family’s overland journey from Kabul to Quetta to visit his mother and siblings.

Every winter, I travel with my wife and eight children to Quetta in Pakistan to spend a month with other family members who’ve been living there for the past three decades. This is a special time of year when we all gather as an extended family and renew the bonds of kinship. I hadn’t managed to make the journey for two years and my mother, who’s getting on in years, insisted we shouldn’t miss the gathering this year.

Getting from Kabul to Quetta is not an easy feat. You have to take an overnight bus from Kabul to Kandahar (nine hours), then a minibus to Spin Boldak (two hours), then it takes up to seven hours to cross the border and, finally, another six hours from the border to my family’s home, again in a minibus. In other words, it takes a little over 24 hours door-to-door. It’s also expensive. All told, it costs about USD 250 for my family of ten and there are also presents to be bought for my mother, siblings and their children.

By the time we arrived at the Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing, called the Friendship Gate or Da Dosti Darwaza in Pahsto, a large crowd was already waiting. But there were also some pleasant surprises. The crossing has improved significantly since the last time I was there two years ago. The Emirate has built two large modern halls: one for men and another for women. There were chairs to sit on and stalls selling snacks, tea and water to people waiting to cross. The children were tired from the overnight journey and getting restless, so I asked my wife to find a place for them to rest while I completed the formalities.

I’m from Kandahar and our ancestral home in the city is noted as my address on my tazkira (national identity card), so I’m allowed to travel to Pakistan without a visa – that’s the rule. But my uncle and his three sons, who were travelling to Quetta with us, don’t have a local address. They had to hire a laghari (guide)to take them across the border unofficially. Luckily a Taleb we had known for years was there at the crossing. He told us there had been incidents when guides robbed people and abandoned them halfway, in the middle of nowhere. Now, the Taleban had registered the guides in their system. He said he’d help us find a registered guide. After a while, he came back to the hall with another man and waved us over. He said he’d agreed to charge 2,500 Pakistani rupees (around eight US dollars) for each person.

I watched as the guide took my uncle and nephews to a row of people sitting in makeshift ‘offices’; some of the people working there took photographs, while others made laminated colour copies of Kandahari tazkiras, signed and stamped and looking very much like the genuine article. We agreed to meet on the other side of the border at Manda, the dry riverbed where the Quetta-bound vehicles stop to take on passengers.

For us, the formalities on the Afghan side were easily completed and we crossed that side of the border pretty quickly. But getting into Pakistan is another matter. It’s a long and arduous process. You have to pass through seven or eight checkpoints in the no-man’s land between the two countries.

The penultimate stop is the biometric cabin, where they take your picture and fingerprints and check them against their database to make sure you don’t have a record. I waited for about two hours before, finally, it was my turn. At least seven men – regular Pakistan soldiers and uniformed militiamen employed by the Pakistani military – each with his own computer, were sitting at desks inside the cabin. I walked up to one of the desks where a soldier took my ID and looked it over. He noted that I spoke English and Urdu and asked if I was a teacher. I told him I’d once been a teacher but was no longer teaching. He then nodded and gestured with his hand, rubbing his thumb against his fingers, the universal gesture indicating an expectation of money. I told him I didn’t have any money, but he looked dubious and said I should search my pockets. He shook his head and said he wanted 1,000 rupees (around USD 3.50). After I paid him, he took my picture and asked me to put my fingers on the biometric device, but the machine wasn’t working and he wrote on the back of my tazkira “fingerprint not captured.”

I walked out of the cabin and looked around for my family. It was then my wife’s turn to do the same with the children in the women’s section. I poured myself some tea from the thermos we’d brought from home and sat down to wait. An hour later, my wife came out of the cabin with the kids and handed me our documents. I saw that someone had written “travelling with a woman and eight children” on the back of my tazkira.

As we were leaving the biometric area, we were stopped by a militiaman who also checked my tazkira. He claimed I wasn’t registered in the system. He looked up at one of the several CCTV cameras, pointed to two teenage boys standing next to him and instructed me to give them 4,000 Pakistani rupees (around USD 13). It was a show for the cameras, a way to take a bribe and not be seen to take a bribe. I’ve heard they do give some money to the children at the end of the day, but most of the loot they keep for themselves. I had no choice but to pay up. If I were to decline or make a fuss, we’d have been delayed for several hours or, God forbid, could have been turned back altogether.

As one hour gave way to the next, the crowd was getting more and more impatient and truth be told, I was a little afraid a dispute might break out between people in the queue or a firefight between the Afghan and Pakistani soldiers on opposing sides of the border, as sometimes happens. These clashes are not unheard of. There have been several in the past decade in the very place where I was standing. On this day, things were relatively orderly, though, and the Pakistani militiamen were not beating people in the crowd as they’ve sometimes done in the past. A man I was chatting to in the queue told me that last year, an Afghan border guard, who was upset about a video of a Pakistani border guard manhandling an Afghan woman at the Torkham border in Nangrahar province that was making the rounds on social media, had shot and killed a Pakistani militiaman.[1] Now, he said, the Pakistanis were very careful about how they treated people crossing the border.

Finally, the last hurdle. An angry-looking man in civilian clothes asked for my ID. He looked it over and sent me to a nearby cabin where they were vaccinating people for Covid-19. I’d forgotten my vaccination card at home and, even though I’d been immunised several times, I had to get another shot or pay 600 Pakistani rupees (USD 2) to avoid the jab. I’d been planning on getting a booster vaccine when I returned from my trip, so I happily offered my arm to the medic. And with that, I was finally allowed to step out of the crossing point and join my family, also newly vaccinated, in Pakistan.

My uncle and his sons, who’d been smuggled into Pakistan, had arrived at the bus stop several hours before us! They were waiting at Manda and ready to go. They’d already secured a minibus to carry our entire group the rest of the way to my family’s house in Quetta, which took another six hours.

It was already dark by the time we arrived, dusty and road weary, in need of a wash and some sleep. But the fatigue disappeared entirely as soon as we walked up to the gate. The whole family was waiting for our arrival. There were hugs and cheers, as well as some tears. There was tea ready to pour and my mother’s famous sweet bread rolls baked especially for us. In the lively sitting room, the children made shy, tentative gestures to reacquaint themselves with their cousins, but as for me, I was already thinking of the long journey back.

Edited by Roxanna Shapour


1 This is likely the incident the man in the queue was referring to (see AVA news agency here).

Ali Mohammad Sabawoon

More from this author

Roxanna Shapour

More from this author

The Daily Hustle: Crossing the Durand Line to visit family in Pakistan
read more