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Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The view across the Amu Darya

Refugees Magazine Issue 108 (Afghanistan : the unending crisis) - The view across the Amu Darya
Refugees (108, II - 1997)

1 June 1997
As the conflict in Afghanistan continues, its Central Asian neighbours are casting anxious glances toward Kabul, worried that the turmoil may spread

As the conflict in Afghanistan continues, its Central Asian neighbours are casting anxious glances toward Kabul, worried that the turmoil may spread.

By Pierre-François Pirlot

As rivers go the Amu Darya is not particularly impressive. "The current was less rapid than I expected to have found it, not exceeding two miles an hour," a British veterinary surgeon named William Moorcroft wrote in 1808 during an expedition into Central Asia. "The banks were low, and the soil loose, like those of the Ganges, and the water was similarly discoloured by sand." Few outsiders, even today, have ever seen the Amu Darya, formerly known as the Oxus, which flows westerwards from the Hindu Kush through high, forbidding mountains and burning deserts before emptying into the remote and inland Aral Sea.

Moorcroft's unflattering description notwithstanding, the river for centuries has played a significant role in the history of the region. And today, governments are again casting anxious glances across the muddy waters, worried that continued instability in Afghanistan could unleash political and military turmoil and even a new tidal wave of refugees into surrounding states.

The Amu Darya became the unlikely centre of the political world during the 19th century when the Russian Czars conquered large swathes of Central Asia in their obsessive push to expand their empire southwards and seize the region's warm water ports. That drive brought the Russian Empire crashing headlong into the British Raj in India, and for decades afterwards the two powers played a deadly game of hide and seek on the roof of the world.

The clash of the Titans and expansion of empire uprooted entire peoples, setting the stage for many of today's problems. Much of the region, including northern Afghanistan, originally had been settled by Turkic tribes, with the exception of Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan which were inhabited by the Persian Tajik ethnic group. As imperial Russian troops expanded the Czars' domains, successive waves of Turkmen fled into Iran and north-western Afghanistan. When the Soviets later imposed forced collectivization and disastrous new agricultural policies on their Central Asian satellite states more Turkmen, joined by Tajiks, Kazaks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks crossed the Amu Darya into Afghanistan, to join their ethnic kinsfolk already living there. The scale of the exodus is underscored by the fact that there are now more Tajiks in Afghanistan than in Tajikistan itself.

The 1979 Soviet invasion greatly exacerbated an already unstable situation. Mujahedeen groups took up arms, first against the Soviet troops and later against each other. The West lavishly financed and armed some opposition groups, including those with strong Islamist tendencies and then watched in horror as the forces it had helped unleash could no longer be controlled once the common enemy, Moscow, withdrew.

Internecine civil war followed as the Soviet army pulled back and the country and its institutions collapsed into chaos. Alliances were made and then broken in the traditional Afghan way and the interminable squabbling eventually paved the way for the appearance in 1994 of the Taliban, until then a largely unknown and mysterious Pashtun group. Though most analysts believed the Taliban would be unable to impose themselves on the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek north, within two years they captured the largely Tajik city of Herat, the capital Kabul and three-quarters of the country. For a brief period in May, it seemed as if they were on the verge of conquering the whole of Afghanistan.

The emergence of the Taliban and Afghanistan's continuing instability have sent shivers through the whole of Central Asia. Would the Taliban prove a force for stability or would they abandon Afghanistan's traditionally passive role and lead the spread of a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism? The Taliban's own senior leadership has repeatedly denied any expansionist aims but individual commanders have suggested they want to 'regain' the historic Islamic cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in modern-day Uzbekistan. Neighbouring states, virtually all of them confronted with an Islamic opposition, are not convinced by Taliban assurances and worry that a flashpoint could occur, possibly in a volatile region where Uzbekistan, Tajistan and Kyrgyzstan meet called the Ferghana Valley. This densely populated flat plain containes dozens of different ethnic groups and has already experienced two small but vicious local conflicts.

It is a potential ethnic tinderbox. Central Asian states and their allies in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), including Russia, want to prevent a strong union between the Taliban and fundamentalist supporters in the Ferghana Valley. But they worry that even without any active interference from Afghanistan, the mere presence of such a strong religious movement as the Taliban on the south bank of the Amu Darya, could still have a destabilizing effect.

The depth of this concern was underlined earlier this year when the Taliban linked up with one of the region's northern leaders and briefly occupied Mazar-i-Sharif. The Tajik and Uzbek governments rapidly closed their borders with Afghanistan amid wild rumours that thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of refugees were poised to cross the Amu Darya into their territory. Uzbekistan barricaded the only bridge connnecting the two countries with massive concrete blocks.

Sections of the Amu Darya were already reminiscent of a war zone even before this latest scare. The Soviets had laid thousands of kilometres of barbed and electrified wire to seal off the southern flank of the Soviet empire in much the same way as the Berlin Wall sealed off the western flank, preventing would-be refugees from leaving and foreigners from entering. The fence remains intact today and in the event of another exodus would again make it difficult for refugees to flee. But this time the flow would probably be in the opposite direction, with Afghans streaming from their adopted home toward their ancestral one.

The recent crisis spread beyond the immediate border region. Kyrgyzstan, which does not even share a border with Afghanistan, placed its military on alert and made preparations to receive thousands of Afghan refugees. High Commissioner Sadako Ogata was visiting the region at the time and urged the concerned republics to open their borders to refugees if necessary. They agreed and Mrs. Ogata promised UNHCR assistance should an influx occur.

With the exception of a short-lived influx of about 9,000 Afghan Turkmen from the western province of Badghis into Turkmenistan in June, no major influxes have so far occurred. This is largely because of the extraordinary speed with which Mazar was taken and then lost by the Taliban. However, if they fight their way north a second time, it is probable large numbers of people will attempt to leave. Neighbouring states could ill afford such a major movement of people. Created by the implosion of the Soviet Union, these newly independent countries are still struggling to consolidate their embryonic political structures - to marry democracy, human rights and communist-style leadership - and would be ill-equipped to handle yet another headache.

These states are now facing the harsh reality of nation-building after the initial euphoria of independence. Most countries supported the 1996 Geneva CIS Conference on Refugees and Migrants and its follow-up Plan of Action. Today, however, they are having great difficulties in deciding how to treat Afghan 'migrants' - some of whom are returning to their ancestral lands.

They recognize the migrants' and refugees' ethnic links with their own populations. But because of the fragile nature of their economies, chronic unemployment and the collapse of social systems, the host nations find it difficult to integrate newcomers. These governments have also pledged to remain secular states - Tajikistan went to war over this particular issue - and they fear that sizeable numbers of Afghans might bring with them undesirable fundamentalist religious and other ideas.

Those kind of questions are far from rhetorical for countries struggling to establish themselves. If the gates were opened to new waves of migrants, it might become difficult to regulate their numbers and maintain governments' sometimes strict control over their territories. Because of such uncertainties, some capitals have begun to dither on implementing citizenship laws as well as refugee and other humanitarian legislation.

Turkmenistan, for instance, said soon after independence it would welcome Afghans of Turkmen origin as fully fledged citizens, but it is now less enthusiastic. Kazakstan, which does not have a common border with Afghanistan is pondering whether to continue to accept a quota of Afghans of Kazak origin. Tajikistan has signed and is implementing the 1951 Refugee Convention but is concerned with the growing numbers of people 'returning' to that country and their effect on the government's efforts to consolidate the peace process. In a knock-on effect, Kyrgyzstan worries that Afghan refugees wouldn't stay in Tajikistan, but instead would continue heading north and cause problems for Kyrgyzstan itself.

Countries are positioning themselves for the possibility of further unrest. Uzbekistan has repeatedly warned that the situation in Afghanistan must be stabilized to prevent destabilizing the entire region. Turkmenistan is trying to strengthen its ties with Iran which itself is wary of the Taliban. Russia, which has 25,000 troops in Tajikistan, wants a safe and quiet southern border area for the 'Near Abroad.'

And, however much they fear an influx of refugees, all countries are even more wary of the spread of Taliban ideology. But can the Amu Darya be protected? Ideas and examples, particularly powerful and destabilizing ones, know no boundaries.

Source: Refugees Magazine issue 108 (1997)