The attack Jan. 20 at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, another one Wednesday at the Jalalabad headquarters of Save the Children, and a third Saturday that killed at least 40 have brought Afghanistan back into the spotlight.
The Haqqani network is blamed for the first attack—the most intransigent of the Taliban groups, the hardcore extremists who refuse any compromise and engage in bloody terror attacks. There were 43 dead, although government sources are claiming lower casualty numbers.
The “Province of Khorasan,” the local branch of the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has claimed the attack in Jalalabad, which killed six people: four workers for the humanitarian organization Save the Children, a member of the Afghan security forces and a passer-by. The third attack was claimed by the Taliban and apparently involved a bomb placed inside an ambulance.
The attacks were strongly condemned by all Western governments, which stressed an elementary principle of international law, which all too often ends up abandoned in conflicts: civilians cannot be legitimate targets, and whoever targets them deliberately is committing a war crime. Civilians must be protected, as they keep reminding us.
However, in Afghanistan, those who call for respecting human rights are often the ones who violate them in turn, or do nothing to prevent them being violated. Take, for instance, children. Some days ago, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. government agency that reports to Congress and acts as a watchdog regarding the U.S. presence in the Central Asian country, published its latest report.
It is a report dedicated to the issue of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by members of the Afghan security forces.
There is a U.S. law on the books, the Leahy Law, proposed in 1997 by Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont and in force since 2008, which forces the Department of Defense and the State Department to cut off any form of financial support to foreign military partners involved in serious human rights violations.
It is enough for there to be “credible evidence” of a violation, even by only one member of a certain military unit, and the flow of money intended for that unit must be stopped—as lawyer Erica Gaston explained, in a detailed analysis published on the Afghanistan Analysts Network website. In the case of Afghanistan, the violations are very serious—but the money is still coming.
According to the SIGAR report, which was initially meant to be kept from the public until the year 2042, from 2010 to 2016 there were 5,753 reports received by U.S. military leaders regarding serious human rights abuses committed by the Afghan partners, including the sexual abuse of children. But this was not enough, in the end, to apply the Leahy Law.
The Department of Defense preferred to invoke a legal loophole to continue to fund the Afghan security forces. In the face of numerous complaints, the authorities did as little as possible (and, as The New York Times showed, some American soldiers who denounced the rapes and fought to stop them were dismissed from the army). The abuse continued.
Among Afghan commanders, bacha bazi, the practice of sexually abusing children between 10 and 18 years old, is quite widespread. Taken away from their families, kidnapped from the streets, whether in rural areas, in more remote provinces or in major cities, they end up used as sexual objects (bacha bazi means “playing with boys,” or “boys for playing with”). Kept in conditions of slavery, tied to beds or locked up in barracks, sometimes forced to wear women’s clothes, they work for the commanders and are raped. The U.S. military leaders could have curbed these abuses, but they preferred to look away.
Many European governments are looking away as well. They condemn the bloody attacks in Afghanistan, they call for respecting international law, but then they do not hesitate to repatriate Afghans, whose asylum requests are no longer deemed valid, to their country of origin.
This practice has been going on for some time now, endorsed by the agreement between the European Union and the Kabul government that was signed on the eve of the international summit held in Brussels on Oct. 4 and 5, 2016. It provides for money to be given to Afghanistan for reconstruction in exchange for refugee repatriation, even forced.
What has the result been? A dramatic one, according to the “Escaping War: Where to Next?” report, published on Jan. 24 and sponsored by the Norwegian Refugee Council. According to the research conducted by the think tank Samuel Hall, out of 10 refugees returning to Afghanistan after having lived abroad, at least seven are forced to abandon their homes again because of the conflict. In 2017, the United Nations reclassified the conditions in Afghanistan from “post-conflict” to “active conflict,” while for Afghan migrants the rate of recognition of their refugee status keeps declining.
Repatriations are becoming more frequent, both from neighboring countries—first and foremost Iran and Pakistan, where about three million Afghans are living—and from E.U. countries. Federica Mogherini, the E.U. High Representative for Foreign Policy, was quick to condemn the attack in Jalalabad, but continues to support the framework agreement with Kabul.
It is an agreement that puts the lives of those repatriated at risk, as they are returned to an insecure country. This is clearly shown by the recent attacks, including those that have not made it onto the international media’s radar, and the data from the “Escaping War: Where to Next?” report. In 2017, an average of 1,200 Afghans per day have been forced to leave their homes and become internally displaced persons.
The situation has become so dramatic that even the White House spoke about it this week, urging the parties, through a press release, to find a solution as soon as possible. At stake is the survival of the already fragile national unity government based in Kabul, but whose real authority over the country is limited.
Those contending against it are not only the anti-government movements, which, according to the most conservative estimates, control 40 percent of the territory, but some of the representatives of the very same government—such as Atta Mohammad Noor, who has been governor of the Balkh province, on the border with Uzbekistan, for many years, but who was recently removed by President Ghani.
However, the now ex-governor has no intention of leaving, or giving up the seat to his successor, who has already been named. The ensuing tug of war has been going on for weeks. In Noor’s view, if he goes down, the whole government must go down with him. The government, as we recall, is one that was designed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the summer of 2014, when the two presidential contenders, Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, were accusing each other of fraud. To prevent further conflict, Kerry forced them to join together for a coalition government—but one which ended up paralyzed by their antagonism, and unable—as we see now—to even do as much as install a new governor.