The Taliban's deadly "refugees"

Taliban guerrillas are moving into refugee camps inside Afghanistan -- safe havens where they can regroup, skim food provided by aid agencies, and recruit new troops.

Published November 22, 2001 8:46PM (EST)

Refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, supported by foreign aid, are havens for fleeing Taliban guerrillas, who use the camps to recruit new fighters, for medical services and as a home base. The movement of Taliban troops into the camps -- possibly assisted, one refugee analyst charges, by Saudi Arabian relief workers -- poses a serious challenge to the American-led war effort in Afghanistan.

Thousands of Afghans are already enclosed in camps at Spin Boldak on the Afghan side of the border between Quetta, Pakistan and Kandahar, Afghanistan -- an area that's the last redoubt of the Taliban regime of Mullah Omar. The camps are controlled by the Taliban; refugees are surrounded by armed Taliban guards, who allow armed Afghans into the camps if they are loyal to the Taliban. Food and tents sent by international humanitarian agencies are being distributed by Saudi relief groups, who may be the only nationality operating there -- the U.N. has no control over the camps and is afraid to distribute food because of threats of violence.

A refugee analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, said today that he is "extremely skeptical" of the Saudi relief effort, noting that previous Saudi aid had been used to build up extremist Islamist groups during the anti-Soviet war. The aid went to guns, shelter, food, mosques and the religious schools known as madrassas where Mullah Omar and his Taliban all studied. Those extremist groups eventually morphed in 1995 into the Taliban -- whose leaders were taught to hate the West in madrassas inside refugee camps in Pakistan.

In Afghanistan today, as in earlier conflicts in Cambodia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, the Middle East and during the 1980-1990 anti-Soviet War in Afghanistan, the humanitarian role of refugee camps is being used as a cover for military activity.

In refugee camps, guerrilla groups recruit new fighters -- often forcing them to take up arms. The camps also serve as a place for guerrillas to keep their families safe and fed while they go to war, and a place for fighters to retreat to when defeated in the field, to rest and recuperate from fighting, to receive medical care and to top up their food supplies.

Reporters in Spin Boldak camps today reported they saw weapons in the refugee enclosures, a sign that under the guise of humanitarian protection the camps are being used to either detain unwilling refugees or to arm and train fighters for continuing warfare. By detaining refugees, the Taliban gains both future recruits and a meal ticket: The presence of thousands of refugees means tons of food that the guerrillas could skim.

The camps are funded by humanitarian funds provided by donors in the United States, Europe and other countries -- but they aren't open to inspection. "There is no international access to the camps, which were set up as part of an agreement between the Taliban and Pakistan," said Joel Charny, vice president of Refugees International. That agreement was reached after U.S. bombing began on Oct. 7 and the refugee outflows began.

Charny, who was recently in Pakistan, voiced concern that many of the thousands directed to the camps on the Afghan side are held against their will -- whether by the Taliban or by the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis and the Taliban have a mutual interest in restricting the refugees to the camps: the Taliban get a safe military base and the Pakistanis get to keep the refugees out, while simultaneously maintaining a Taliban/Pashtun buffer against Northern Alliance domination.

The Pakistanis sought to prevent an influx of Afghans after the Oct. 7 American bombing of Afghanistan began. There were already some 2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan left over from the anti-Soviet war. Mr. Charny said RI has called for the refugees to be allowed to enter Pakistan and to be located in camps away from the border -- both for their safety and to prevent the creation of a Taliban enclave that could fuel a future conflict.

Ironically, the Taliban are simply doing what America did in the 1980s. To refugee camps located in Pakistan along the Afghan border back then, U.S. CIA agents delivered $5 billion worth of guns, ammunition and Stinger antiaircraft missiles that were quickly hauled across the border to fight the Russians. It was payback time for the Soviet aid to North Vietnamese forces, who killed some 55,000 American soldiers in Vietnam.

The technique worked equally effectively in northeastern Thailand, where 330,000 Cambodian refugees -- some of them loyal to and under the control of the genocidal Pol Pot -- ate American relief food and enjoyed U.S.-funded medical care and education services. But after the foreign nongovernmental organization workers were escorted from the camps each evening, the wire fence facing the Cambodian interior was opened for the entry of guerrilla fighters. They would forcibly recruit new troops, stock up on fresh food and supplies and be gone by dawn. Foreign doctors next day discovered new patients in the clinics -- wounded troops left behind to be patched up at U.S. donors' expense.

Both guerrilla wars fought using humanitarian assistance were effective. The Vietnamese, who invaded Cambodia in 1979 after Pol Pot killed a million fellow Cambodians and started invading Vietnam, pulled up stakes in 1988. A senior Vietnamese military commander told me in Phnom Penh that he had lost 50,000 troops to the humanitarian-funded conflict.

And the Russians also abandoned Afghanistan in 1989 after losing 15,000 troops to the guerrillas, many of whom were operating out of large U.S. and Saudi-funded refugee camps in Pakistan. But the Afghan victory turned sour, turning the country into a basket case pillaged by marauding warlords and finally taken over by the repressive Taliban extremists -- trained in the Pakistani refugee camps and financed by conservative, anti-Western Saudis. The refugee analyst speculated that those same Saudi groups, under the guise of humanitarianism, may be continuing to promote their extremist Wahabbi sect of Islam through their aid program. When I covered the anti-Soviet war, Afghan mujahedin fighters told me with disgust that the Saudis forced them to pray in the Saudi way and told them that the Afghan system of Islam was inferior to the Wahabbi system.

Foreign aid from America and other donors was controlled by Pakistan, which had its own agenda. The U.S. was admittedly quite happy to give its arms to just about any warlord going, so long as they were willing to fight the Soviets. But it would have preferred to give a prominent role to the moderate, Western-educated Afghans who had been the elite before the 1979 Soviet invasion. Pakistan, however, excluded them from the resistance movement and gave U.S. weapons and cash to extremist, militant Islamist groups -- especially that of anti-Western warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar, who later shelled Kabul into rubble because he refused to share power, satisfied Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, ISI, by renouncing a traditional Afghan claim to greater Pashtunistan, which included portions of northwestern Pakistan.

The Saudis were equally happy that military and refugee aid went to extremist Islamic groups because it meant they were spreading the good word of Sunni Islam. This was a way to trump revolutionary Iran's spreading Shiite Islam through funding Hezbollah and other groups in the Middle East -- as well as placating radical groups at home and deflecting attention from their own corruption and autocracy.

Today the United States faces a situation where the tables are turned. Taliban and al-Qaida forces, which were recruited or trained in the madrassas of the Afghan refugee regions of Pakistan, are now beginning to retreat to those areas. Some are simply dropping their black turbans and crossing the largely unpatrolled border. But they are not dropping their anti-Western ideology or their fervent Islamicism.

Refugee camps are ideal places to run to because they provide a veneer of victimhood. In the Rwandan genocide, Hutus who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were able to escape justice when they entered refugee camps in the Congo. They used humanitarian food to nourish their fighters, who proceeded to launch fresh attacks into Rwanda -- until the Rwandans crossed the border and chased them out.

Who will clean out the Taliban -- or Osama bin Laden -- if they try to hide in the refugee camps or in the ethnic Pashto tribal areas of Pakistan along the Afghan border?

Pakistani army officers have said they would welcome a joint operation with the United States to ferret out bin Laden and al-Qaida members who try to hide in refugee camps or tribal areas along the Afghan border, according to Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Cohen, a former U.S. official who has written widely on the Pakistani army. Normally only the Pakistan frontier forces are allowed to enter those regions, which are under the control of tribal chiefs.

Despite the promises of Pakistani cooperation, when it comes to the Taliban, Pakistan continues to have its own interests. It could allow them to regroup in Pakistan to pressure the new Afghan rulers, who may be from the Northern Alliance. Pakistan sees the Northern Alliance as its worst nightmare -- an Indian-backed group perched on its western border. Indian officials have confirmed to me that they provided aid to the Northern Alliance for years. In part, this was payback for the Pakistani support for guerrillas operating inside Indian-held portions of Kashmir.

Into this volatile mix of tribes, nationalities, religions -- and historical jockeying to control the routes from the sea into Central Asia, for trade, oil and gas shipments -- U.N. and other refugee and aid groups are working to prevent a massive humanitarian catastrophe -- only to be used as pawns in a new Great Game.

Once the Taliban has a few hundred thousand civilians under its control in refugee camps along the Afghan-Pakistan border, the U.N., Red Cross and other aid agencies -- which have not been providing aid to camps inside Afghanistan because of lack of security -- will be forced to supply them with food, shelter and aid. A large number of civilians will allow the Taliban to hide fighters and skim aid; it also creates a magnet for wandering Afghans, adding manpower to their guerrilla war. That's why the Taliban today brought dozens of Western journalists into the camps at Spin Boldak -- so that pictures of pathetic Afghan children could be flashed like bait across Western television screens to attract foreign aid.

Short of a military intervention into the camps -- which would present nightmarish logistical and tactical problems and could become a bloodbath -- the next step is inevitable. Faced with a massive humanitarian crisis in a teeming refugee camp -- even one being cynically used by guerrillas -- aid groups will have no choice but to step forward. They will thus become unwilling participants in the next round of warfare, as they did in Rwanda, Cambodia and the Palestinian refugee camps since the 1950s. If the Taliban succeed in infiltrating significant numbers of troops into the camps, America's Afghanistan war could face new challenges in the weeks and months ahead.

By Ben Barber

Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book, "Groundtruth: The Third World at Work at Play and at War," is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

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