Last week the United States dropped the MOAB (Mass Explosive Air Blast, AKA: “Mother of All Bombs”) — the world’s largest non-nuclear explosive ever used — in Achin district, Nangarhar, a province of Eastern Afghanistan. With all eyes on Syria in recent years, the event brought attention to a widely-forgotten conflict.
The war in Afghanistan has not abated over the last 16 years even if (Western) public interest has. For those of us paying closer attention to Afghanistan — and especially for Afghans at home and overseas as asylum seekers and refugees — the event is the latest reminder that the country’s security is precarious and could easily deteriorate further. It is into this poor security environment that the EU is returning 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers, claiming that it is “safe” to do so.
The MOAB Attack and “Counter-Terrorism”
The 21,500 pound MOAB bomb was dropped on an area of Achin where Daesh (ISIS-Khorasan) militants, mostly from Pakistan, had been living in underground tunnels since 2015. Daesh has emerged in Afghanistan recently, with the group beginning to carry out attacks in Kabul since last year. The MOAB attack allegedly killed 92 Daesh militants, according to Afghan officials. US-President Donald Trump called it a “very successful mission”, but what is he using to measure “success”? How effective will it be at its purported goal — “counter-terrorism”? Will the attack decrease or exacerbate terrorism?
Using one of the world’s largest non-nuclear explosives was obviously going to create a lot of media attention. This is a dangerous move, as it hands the Taliban and media-savvy Daesh a high visibility platform to preach to new recruits. Moreover, an obnoxious display of military aggression in Nangarhar province — where people live under the constant noise and threat of attack from the US-led Coalition’s B52 and F16 planes, helicopters and drones — is likely to cause resentment towards the US Coalition, rather than support. Terror groups capitalise on the misery of civilians, particularly those who are grieving loved ones, have sustained injuries, or have lost economic prosperity (land, animals, vehicles) to the US-led Coalition’s violence. Predictably, the Taliban released a statement within 24 hours condemning the brutality of the MOAB attack. Will Daesh, wanting to save face or prove its resolve, carry out a terror attack in response? This is a group whose propaganda claims it suffered no casualties in the blast. Is Afghanistan any safer after this attack?
Civilian Casualties in Air- and Drone attacks
Many civilians had fled the area of the MOAB explosion when Daesh first moved in and began terrorising the community. The United States also worked closely with the Afghan National Army (ANA) to carry out this attack, and the ANA told tribal elders to evacuate civilians prior to the explosion. In more than its magnitude, then, the MOAB attack is an anomaly: the US-led Coalition frequently disregards Afghan civilians’ lives in its air- and drone attacks. A Coalition airstrike in Helmand killed 9 civilians earlier this month, and a different airstrike in February (also in Helmand) killed 18 civilians. Evacuations are not common (this is the first I have heard of), and communication with the Afghan National Army is often non-existent, ineffective or one-sided. This has led to disastrous targeting by the US-led Coalition, including three attacks on Afghan Police outposts (in Logar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces) and a Medicin San Frontiers hospital in Kunduz in the last two years alone
In the MOAB attack, “reports of civilian casualties are few and unconfirmed”. There is, however, “restricted access to the site”, with US forces even limiting Afghan authorities’ access. It is hard to tell when, if ever, the public will know if civilians were killed in the explosion. Early reports suggest that a teacher and his young son had been killed. Civilians interviewed in the surrounding areas said “it felt like the heavens were falling”, “it was like doomsday” and “it terrorised our people, my relatives thought the end of the world had come”.
Living in fear is commonplace for civilians in Nangarhar, Kunar, Logar, Wardak, Paktika, Paktia, Khost, Helmand and Uruzgan, among other contested provinces: they are afraid of the terrorists and the so-called “counter”-terrorists.
Insecurity in Kabul
80,000 Afghan asylum seekers — many having made gruelling attempts to escape Afghanistan — are being returned to this war-torn country. The EU claims that Kabul and some parts of rural Afghanistan are “safe”.
Even if newly returned asylum seekers stayed in Kabul — difficult when there is a housing shortage, lack of employment opportunities and heightened living costs in the capital — they would still be at risk and would live in fear.
The EU’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin, recently told France 24 that “Kabul is a safe place compared to the kind of safety we can expect around the world”. He went on to compare the level of security in Kabul to that in Paris and Berlin, which is absurd. Terror attacks are so frequent in Kabul that embassies, government buildings, universities and monuments are surrounded by concrete “blast walls”. There have been 41 terror attacks between 2015 and today, 30 of which were either claimed by the Taliban or were signature Taliban (This figure was derived from the author’s own research and security planning ahead of her travel to Afghanistan. If you would like a copy of these reports, please contact the author). Visitors are searched for weapons and explosives going into most supermarkets and restaurants. There are three security checks of your body and bags before you can drive near the airport, and, even then, vehicles and non-travellers cannot get close to the building. The Afghans I spoke to during my stay in Kabul oscillated between fatalism (if I die today, God willed it) and anxiety. Does any of this sound like Paris or Berlin?
Whether living in Kabul or other parts of Afghanistan, returned asylum seekers will be at risk of being war-wounded or killed by terrorist groups and, if they end up in contested provinces, the US-led Coalition as well.
Calling Afghanistan “safe” is the Mother of All Bullshit.
(By Alex Edney-Browne, scholar from the University of Melbourne and an independent volunteer in Greece)
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