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Is West winning in Afghanistan? Tide of displaced people suggests not.

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Relief agencies are scrambling to provide help as the dominant narrative of Afghan social and political progress, pushed for years by US and Western governments, fades into memory with the Taliban's territorial gains.

Maghul cries as she describes how Taliban militants killed her farmer husband and burned their house on the western fringe of Kabul, Afghanistan, last year, displacing her and their two grown sons.
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Her body shaking and tears flowing, Maghul is the epitome of what it means to be among the latest crop of war victims in Afghanistan.

Taliban militants came to her town in central Wardak province in mid-2017, and during battle with the Afghan police, burned her home and killed her husband, a farmer who was out “doing his daily routine,” she says.

So Maghul had no choice but to escape with her two grown sons and join the ranks of nearly half a million internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled their homes in 2017 alone. The upheaval adds to an astonishing metric of the scale of on-going war, 16 years after American troops first arrived to oust the Taliban.

One son now begs on the streets of Kabul, coming home long after dark, despite the constant risk of car bombs.

“I tell him, ‘Don’t come late or the Taliban will kill you like they killed your father,’” says Maghul, sobbing on the floor of a threadbare room on a distant, western fringe of the Afghan capital.

“He replies, ‘It’s better that they kill me, rather than live in these conditions,’” the mother recounts, resigned. “He says, ‘Death is better than this life.’”

This shattered family is hardly alone, their experience just one result of a growing multitude of causes for the recent surge of displacement across the country. With more than 1.5 million Afghans – roughly 4 percent of the population – displaced after four decades of conflict, and 448,000 added in 2017 alone, relief agencies are scrambling to provide help as the dominant narrative of Afghan social and political progress, pushed for years by US and Western governments, fades into memory.

“For us it’s a sign that the country is much less secure, people feel a lot less safe and certain,” says William Carter, the program head for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Kabul, one of the largest nongovernmental organizations in the country, which handles emergency shelters, food, and water and reaches 300,000 Afghans a year.

“Regardless of the other metrics, people feel forced to leave their homes, which is a pretty telling indicator of the temperature here,” says Mr. Carter. The latest UN figures indicate that more than 30,000 Afghans have already been displaced this year, one-third of them in “hard to reach areas.”

There are many reasons why, at this stage of Afghanistan’s long-burning war, Afghans are fleeing their homes in such large numbers, analysts and relief experts say.

Three daughters of an Afghan family displaced by war – their father killed and house burned by the Taliban in central Afghanistan last year – sit at a loom while daughter Shukriya, 6, sits on the floor in their spare shelter made by the Norwegian Refugee Council on the western fringe of Kabul, Afghanistan, January 11, 2018.
Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
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One strategic reason is that the Taliban have expanded their territory, to controlling or contesting 44 percent of the country today, since US and NATO withdrew the bulk of their forces in 2014.

Fear of retribution

That has meant more on-the-ground battles, often to seize or defend population centers. And even though the Taliban have adjusted their tactics in some places – behaving in a more acceptable manner to locals, for example, to win their support – in many other places, like Maghul’s village, they have attacked those they saw as supportive of the government.

The UN last year changed its category of Afghanistan from a post-conflict country to a country in conflict. The risks were made plain by a late 2017 decision by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which works fearlessly on front lines around the world, to substantially cut back in Afghanistan after three separate, lethal incidents.

Ironically, some note that the Taliban expansion has also meant relative peace in some areas – a fragile calm that could be disrupted by an influx of several thousand new US troops deployed by President Trump with orders to “fight and win.”

But more often, civilians are fleeing both the violence and in fear that a change in local rule could bring retribution against those who threw in with Kabul.

The surge in IDPs “shows the escalation of the conflict continues, [and] how more winners and losers are emerging” as the Taliban takes more and more territory, says a Western official in Kabul, who asked not to be named.

Many Afghans were “really incentivized and coerced” to align themselves with the government across the country, when US and NATO forces controlled most of it, and asked: Who’s our friend?

“If you put up your hand and said, ‘I’m your friend, I will be your district governor, or I will volunteer my sons to be part of the Afghan local police’ … and then in 2014 you have 100,000 foreign troops leave, all of a sudden those people who put up their hands have to start packing their bags,” says the Western official.

Stepped up US bombing

The sharp rise in US airstrikes that began last year also makes a difference, when Afghans in front-line areas are making a decision whether to stay or go.

“From our point of view, we see that change in the conflict, where the previous unequal balance of power is now more equal and more territory is fought over and more people are being displaced,” says Carter.

At the same time, a surge in the number of bombs falling near your home “is one of the most decisive factors that it’s time to go,” he says.

So while headlines focus on high-profile attacks on Afghan security forces, one crisis largely hidden from view is of populations still being forced to move. The numbers have grown dramatically, reaching 630,000 in 2016 – with 200,000 of those from the temporary fall of the northern provincial capital of Kunduz to the Taliban.

The impact on those displaced is clear and evolves “over time due to exhaustion of coping mechanisms and only basic emergency assistance provided,” notes the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which tracks conflict displacement with an interactive map. “Inadequate shelter, food insecurity, insufficient access to sanitation and health facilities, as well as a lack of protection, often result in precarious living conditions.”

The NRC, for one, has had to change its strategy accordingly, first by reversing a planned downsizing in 2015, which was partly predicated on fewer displaced Afghans. Instead, it has tripled its budget to perhaps $30 million for 2018, largely to accommodate the surge, says Carter.

Eyes on any 2018 trend

Of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, as many as 32 produce IDPs, while some 30 provinces at the same time host IDPs. Roughly half of Afghanistan’s IDPs have, in fact, been displaced twice.

And yet, in some areas “the rate of worsening seems to be slowing,” says the Western official.

“Some people are talking about a flattening trend, and plateauing of the rates of violence … that can be described as a Pax Talibana, as the Taliban seize some areas and they are not contested,” he says.

“So if you are a resident of far-flung northern Helmand, or rural Oruzgan, maybe things are looking up for you, because this year you didn’t see any Americans, your poppy harvest was not slashed and burnt … the Taliban come around and collect their taxes, but only once,” says the official.

“So everyone’s going to be watching 2018 to see if these trends continue,” he adds. “There’s a risk that the arrival of more US forces will push us back into a cycle of escalating violence.”

Pockets of temporary peace where the Taliban are in control is not acceptable for the government, which has struggled to effectively impose its writ across the country and been embarrassed by a series of lethal bombings in the capital and beyond.

“Nothing is going in the right direction in Afghanistan,” laments one aid worker in Kabul, who spoke off the record.

“We’ve got elections coming up; we are bound to see a bit of the political fabric tearing a little, and there is nothing that has slowed down the insurgencies,” he says. “So the only potential is if the peace process does anything, which we always think is a low likelihood.”

Grim survival

And that unlikely prospect was not enough to prevent the exodus of Gulbakht, a mother of six with a black headscarf, who fled a Taliban night attack on her village in March 2017. Her husband, Haider, “just a simple man, a laborer,” she says, stayed behind in a bid to protect their daughter Sakina, who was paralyzed with fear and refused to move.

Haider was killed, his mutilated body recovered days later, and homes burned. Sakina survived, but since then has not said a word. Today the remaining family lives in a small shelter, built and supported by the NRC and warmed by a single wood-burning stove, in western Kabul.

“There is no good among the Taliban. If they were good, they would not kill my husband,” says Gulbakht, who only goes by one name. Most of the 300 families in their village in Ghor, central Afghanistan, fled.

In the room is a timeless scene, punctuated by the tick-tick sound of three daughters working at a rudimentary loom, making slow and tedious progress on a carpet during nine hours of winter daylight.

They rise and sleep according to calls to prayer from nearby mosques. And in several weeks they have woven just six inches, of a carpet that will one day be more than two meters long. If there are no mistakes in it, says Gulbakht, they hope to sell it for the equivalent of $85.

For these displaced Afghan survivors, there is no clock on the wall, and no other means of marking time.

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