When fleeing Afghans arrived in Pakistan in the early 1980s, the only way in which to be recognized as a refugee was to first sign up with one of the Afghan resistance groups based there, fighting in their country of origin. Almost four decades later, with Afghanistan as the archetypical case of refugee militarization, much has been written about the phenomenon. Yet, the refugee-militancy connection – challenging to a fundamental tenet of international refugee law – is rarely acknowledged.
‘Refugee Warrior Communities’
Visiting Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan in the mid-1980s, Astri Suhrke observed how resistance groups were deeply involved in running the camps. They were not only influencing food distribution, educational curricula and access to services generally, but engaged men living in the camps to fight across the border. A few years later, in 1989, Aristide Zolberg, Astri Suhrke and Sergio Aguayo formulated the concept of ‘refugee warrior communities’, which they defined as:
"highly conscious refugee communities with a political leadership structure and armed sections engaged in warfare for a political objective, be it to recapture the homeland, change the regime, or secure a separate state".
To the three scholars, the root cause of refugee warrior communities is found in a process of globalization where political and economic inequality becomes increasingly evident. Those who express political opposition are driven away by authoritarian and repressive regimes. In exile, they find fertile ground for furthering their opposition by violent means. Forming an integral part of the populations seeking protection, political entrepreneurs put themselves forward as community leaders and as interlocutors with aid agencies, host state officials and representatives of foreign governments. In doing so, they gain influence over who gets access to what, over the justification of refugees’ needs, they can ask loyalty within the refugee population – and ultimately they can ask commitment to the struggle. For some refugees growing up in camps and seeing no chance to ever start a life elsewhere, independent of humanitarian aid, joining the battle might seem like their best option.
While the root cause lies in the injustice brought about by globalization, Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo point to the essential role of other states – host countries and great powers – for refugee militarization to take place. Writing during the Cold War, there were a number of civil conflicts in the Global South where the US and the Soviet Union engaged indirectly, fighting through proxy forces, often in close collaboration with neighboring states hosting refugees. This, argues the scholar trio, is not fundamentally new, but it has become much more prominent after the Second World War for two reasons: The first is the evolution of an "international refugee regime that can sustain large-scale civilian populations in exile for years".
Later analysis of the phenomenon continued to emphasize the effect of two types of enabling factors on refugee mobilization: the support of states (host states and other states, particularly superpowers) and the role of the international refugee regime.
Other research has drawn attention to alternative factors to explain how militant groups gain and exert influence within refugee populations. Sometimes culture may play an important role in refugee militancy. For militant Afghan refugees, the lead narrative is the hijra, the account of how Prophet Mohammad and his followers escaped an ungodly regime in Mecca, seeking safety in Medina, from where they built the capacity to rightfully return and take power.
Existent social networks and traditional forms of authority are also important factors, in that they provide the basis for building an organization in exile. Sometimes there may be well-organized political groups that precede the exile, but perhaps more often the basis for new militant organizations lies in tribal, religious or local networks.
The mobilization of Afghan refugees in Pakistan had a history that predated the December 1979 Soviet intervention, or for that matter, the April 1978 communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan's (PDPA) coup d’etat (Saur Revolution). Already in 1973, soon after Daoud Khan took power in a bloodless coup and established a republic, a smaller group of Afghan Islamists took up residence in Pakistan. At the time, this group had only marginal support in their home country. In Pakistan, they were warmly welcomed by the government, who saw them as a useful instrument for stirring unrest in Afghanistan.
Pakistan saw Afghanistan as a problematic neighbor, in part because it refused to accept the provisional border between the two countries, in part because of a history in which Afghan leaders had called upon Pakistan’s Pashtun minority population to join their ethnic brethren in Afghanistan, where Pashtuns were the largest ethnic group. Even more important though, was the existential threat that Pakistan saw in its archrival India. For this reason, Pakistan sought to maximize its own, and minimize Indian, influence in Afghanistan, under what has generally been referred to as the doctrine of ‘strategic depth’.
By the time of the Soviet intervention there were already some 400,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Within the next two years, estimates increased to almost three million. PDPA’s combination of ambitious reforms and impatient brutality had already sparked local uprisings throughout Afghanistan. The Soviet intervention, designed to install a less heavy-handed Afghan regime, only stirred further unrest, and, most importantly, it internationalized the war. The US, having lost its regional bridgehead due to the Islamic revolution in Iran just a few months earlier, reached out to Pakistan to build a channel of support. The resistance, in these early days of the war, lacked a suprastructure, but was largely led by local notables, many of whom were directly targeted by the PDPA-regime. These leaders were often instrumental in facilitating flight for their followers, intent on continuing warfare from the relative safety of exile. Quite soon, as exile-based parties and their fronts gained organizational strength, they were able to channel money, arms and recruits to confront Soviet and PDPA forces in Afghanistan.
In exile, the embryonic political structure among Afghan refugees transformed quickly. The host government effectively decided on a set of seven groups that would represent the Afghan resistance. Not being a signatory to international refugee conventions, Pakistan had considerable freedom of maneuver. Intent on supporting the Afghan resistance, but without being drawn directly into the war, Pakistan sought to maximize on all sorts of international assistance, and to ensure influence over its distribution. A particularly effective measure was to link refugee aid and politics. Refugee status was made conditional on membership in one of the resistance parties, and not surprisingly, almost all of the refugees joined.
In Pakistan, during the 1980s, the majority of Afghan refugees were settled in camps, and these were often under the control of a specific party. The parties had considerable influence over access to aid in the camps, for example through nominating intermediaries who helped in administering the distribution. Refugee life in general, and in the camps in particular, was heavily politicized. Education, including religious training in madrasas (Islamic religious schools), was organized on a large scale, with resistance parties determining what was taught. Military training was largely organized in distinct facilities. Funding was coming in from the US and other western countries, as well as governmental and private funders in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. The Pakistani Army and its Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) was the key broker for arms and money, gaining major influence over Afghan resistance, while strengthening its role in Pakistani politics.
The question of return was also political. The 1988 Geneva Accords, between Pakistan, Afghanistan, the USA and the Soviet Union, led to the February 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces. The Pakistan-based resistance parties declared that a return to Afghanistan prior to a regime change would be an act of treason, contrary to the principles of the holy war against infidels in which they were engaged. Throughout the 1980s, the parties had proven their ability to back their messages with force, through imprisonment, abduction, and assassination of political opponents. Hence, when reports of roadblocks and harassment of would-be returnees started circulating, it was effective. It would take the abdication of PDPA President Najib in 1992, and the installation of an interim government of Mujahedin parties, to bring about large scale repatriation. That year, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) registered 1,274,000 people who handed in their refugee cards in return for a return support package. Those well placed in the Mujahedin parties were among the first to return to Afghanistan. Soon, the political agreement collapsed, massive fighting broke out in the capital. The disillusionment with the Mujahedin parties goes a long way to explain that so many welcomed the appearance of the Taliban when they entered the scene in fall 1994.
It took quite exactly two years for the Taliban from their emergence in fall 1994 till they took control over Afghanistan's capital Kabul, driving out the Mujahedin government. The bulk of the movement’s leading figures had their background within the Mujahedin of the 1980s, in the main within its more traditionalist branches. These leaders had a dense religious and political network across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, were often linked to madrasas in Pakistan, and many had relatives – at times also parts of, or all of their own households – still in exile. In the crucial years between 1994 and 1996, the lead in the Taliban mobilization was based in Afghanistan. Yet, the bulk of its leaders had their background in the politicized refugee environment of Pakistan of the 1980s. Therefore, the movement drew a large share of its recruits from this environment (and from the madrasas in particular), and they received generous support – including money, military supplies, and strategic advice – from their former host state. Hence, the success of the Taliban’s 1990s mobilization relied heavily on both historic and current elements of refugee militancy.
The US intervention in 2001 demolished the Taliban apparatus, and the absolute bulk of its leaders and supporters withdrew, some to their former lives within Afghanistan, others to exile in Pakistan. For the first couple of years after the intervention, there was no Taliban armed resistance. In the gradual remobilization that followed, safe sanctuaries in the refugee environments of Pakistan were again key. In the first years of remobilization, most armed attacks were staged from Pakistan, by individuals or groups who swiftly returned. The post-2001 Taliban mobilization was firmly rooted in the refugeehood that had characterized the past 20 years. Recruitment among exile Afghans in Pakistan, and in part also among recent returnees, was essential to the organization. As the Taliban gradually managed to establish a foothold in some areas, more of their outreach and attacks were staged from within Afghanistan, yet with the bulk of its leadership based in exile, where they also kept their families.
Equally important, of course, was the support from the Pakistani state, first and foremost to build up military capacity, but also offering safe havens where militants could train, as well as live and keep their families. The nature and the volume of financial and military support – as well as how much may have come in from other donors internationally – is impossible to pin down, yet there is no doubt that this was a critical factor in the Taliban’s ability to rebuild itself. The Taliban, in fact, had learnt their lessons from decades of refugee mobilization, and simply adopted the same repertoire in order to build legitimacy, to draw recruits and sustain its forces, to train its personnel, to maintain a safe harbor for fighters and their families, and to bring in the necessary financial and military resources.
The Way Forward
Militant mobilization in refugee contexts is as prevalent today as it was during the Cold War. Today, regional countries offer support to exile-based groups, just as we saw with Pakistan’s support for the Taliban in the 1990s, or with various groups fighting in Syria from 2011 to the present. One of the most consistent findings in conflict research is that wars where parties enjoy sanctuary in neighboring countries are particularly resistant to resolution. Militant groups exploiting the opportunities that exile gives, at odds with refugees' right to protection, is probably the most common way in which this plays out. Given that the legal right to protection presumes no militant engagement, refugee practitioners and researchers alike have been understandably reluctant to acknowledge – and analyze – the phenomenon of refugee militarization.
This results in a disconnect between efforts aimed at assisting refugees and other measures aimed at limiting conflict or its consequences. Programs to support refugee repatriation and programs to demobilize fighters, for example, are generally planned and executed with no recognition of each other. The refugees returning to Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the 2001 intervention were seen as testimony of the popularity of the intervention, often referred to as ‘voting with their feet’. In large part those who chose to return early were closely connected to the forces who had won the battle against the Taliban. Repatriation in contexts of refugee militancy is a particularly hard problem to address, yet shying away from it is certain not to be a solution.
The Afghan conflict, over almost 40 years, can only be fully understood in the light of refugee militancy. While many of the conflict's initial causes are internal, the intensity of the conflict and the direction it has taken is a reflection of mobilization in exile. This mobilization, of course, must be understood at the level of international politics – not the least the strategic consideration of both host states and more distant supporters of such militancy. Equally important, however, it must also be understood in the context of the Afghan conflict itself, and the ways in which the opportunities represented by enduring exile empower certain actors and certain strategies at the cost of others.
This article is part of the