canada may have given heroes' welcomes to its returning Princess Patricia Infantry, but how far did our military really go in its mission to stabilize Afghanistan? If you follow the arguments of aid organizations, the answer is not far at all. Observers familiar with conditions on the ground are incensed by recent statements by U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the effect that "the humanitarian crisis has been averted and the Afghan people have been liberated." This is nothing less than a whitewash, they say, and is particularly shocking in the wake of mounting civilian deaths caused by U.S. bombing mishaps and the recent assassination of vice-president Abdul Qadir. U.S. pronouncements, they charge, encourage a return of refugees and are really about preparing an exit strategy for American soldiers in order to avoid a looming humanitarian disaster and a wave of political violence.
Says Catherine Dumait-Harper, the UN delegate for Doctors Without Borders, "The international community and especially the U.S. government want to present a rosy picture of Afghanistan, and we know from experience that is not the case. I think the humanitarian mission is subordinate to the political one."
Roberta Cohen of the Washington-based Brookings Institute agrees. "The whole effort to get the people to go back is to emphasize the normality of the situation in Afghanistan," says Cohen. "The question is what are you sending them back to?"
The answer is ominous. As recently as a few weeks ago, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) announced that it was suspending assisted returns of refugees from Herat to Faryab and Samangan provinces as well as other provinces in the north of Afghanistan because of continued factional fighting and insecurity in the region.
Human Rights Watch reports that conditions inside Afghanistan "are still extremely unstable" and that "continued factional rivalry... has created a security vacuum in northern Afghanistan, leading to a rise in attacks on humanitarian aid agencies and Afghan civilians."
So volatile is the situation in some districts, says Human Rights Watch, that many refugees "are not in fact returning to their homes, but merely becoming internally displaced in urban centres like Kabul and Herat (and) contributing to the existing strain on infrastructure and resources."
Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata told the UN Security Council just last week that the scale of the human return "could overwhelm the absorptive capacity of receiving communities, (which) could have grave implications for the security environment as well as the political stability of Afghanistan."
However, for many Afghans holed up in refugee camps, in Pakistan in particular, there is no choice; they're facing increasing harassment, arbitrary arrests and detention, as well as lack of assistance. Observers say these conditions are forcing refugees to return against their will, a terrible situation for Pashtun refugees in the north, where they continue to be targets of violence.
Even the Canadian government tacitly admits that the much-sought-after stability is elusive. According to Nancy Bergeron, spokesperson at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the government is being careful about encouraging refugees here to make the trek home. "There are legitimate concerns regarding the conditions some returnees may face in Afghanistan, and these must be taken into account in order that such returns can be sustainable."
Bergeron, though, is reluctant to speculate about an ongoing international security presence in Afghanistan. "Ultimately, Afghans will have to provide their own security."
Concern about the impact of U.S. military strategy in the region has been building for months. Now there are reports that the U.S. has taken to arming warlords willing to take on their war- against-terrorism posture.
Meanwhile, reconstruction efforts lag. The 15-nation Afghanistan Support Group in charge of reconstruction and rehabilitation has seen a budgetary shortfall of $777 million. The UNHCR itself requires an additional $70 million to fulfill its obligations and because of cash shortfalls has had to focus its efforts in certain parts of the country.
Peddiq Weera, peace education program director at McMaster University, who just returned from Afghanistan in June, says the country is in the throes of a Catch-22. Without security, the money for reconstruction won't come. Without reconstruction, the Afghan government can neither support nor protect its population.
"The Asian Development Bank was going to give money for reconstruction of the roads, but the international community is worried about security," says Weera. "But if you don't give the money, people will lose trust in the government."
Weera says the lack of coordination between the different international and multilateral agencies is stalling reconstruction initiatives. "You're looking at a place with poor security, no employment, no living quarters, and I even question the health and education for the additional people who go back," says Weera. "In the camps, there is a subjective hope that conditions in Afghanistan will improve, but when I was there, there had not been one major reconstruction initiative at all."
According to UNHCR spokesperson Peter Kessler, more than 1.5 million Afghans have returned home since March, 200,000 of whom repatriated without any assistance. "They have a legitimate government now," says Kessler. "They have a situation that is far more peaceful now than it was a year ago, and people feel that change in the air and want to go home."
Kessler admits there are still security problems in some areas but says that even if the UNHCR wanted to slow down repatriation, it couldn't.
"It's like Kosovo," he says. "We were telling people not to go back, and they were driving by us at a rate of a couple hundred thousand a day. When people feel the urge to go back, they will go back, whether they're being helped or not. People are fed up with exile."
For that reason, the UNHCR changed course this week and is now cautiously urging voluntary repatriation.
Rachel Reilly, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch, remains skeptical. She says encouraging countries hosting refugees to offer incentives and assistance for repatriation is "giving a green light to governments that want to get rid of Afghans." In Australia, for example, asylum seekers are being offered financial incentives to return voluntarily.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, is brushing off concerns that it's encouraging the return of refugees simply to speed its own exit. Afghan refugees are "voting with their feet," says Len Scensny, public affairs adviser for the South Asian bureau.
Others would say they have no choice.