For 40 years now, Afghanistan has been engulfed in war. The lives of people in this multi-ethnic state located in the Hindu Kush are marked by conflicts, displacement, hunger, and poverty. These reasons alone are enough to make people leave the country. Since 2021, after a 25-year absence, the radical Islamic Taliban have regained power. This overview portrays a nation in perpetual conflict.
Afghanistan does not clearly belong to either Central Asia, South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent. It is situated at a geostrategically significant crossroads, influenced by the cultural spheres of Iran, India, and Central Asia. This unique location is reflected in its population. Approximately 30 million people live in the country at the Hindu Kush. The largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, comprising about 40% of the population in the south, east, and west. Additionally, there are the Tajiks, accounting for 25-30% of the population in the northeast and major cities. Uzbeks, on the other hand, primarily reside in the north, while the Shia Hazaras, located in the geographical center of the country, make up approximately 10% of the population. There are also numerous smaller minority groups.
The geography of the country is as diverse as its population. About three-quarters of the land consists of rugged mountain ranges, and the climate varies from cold mountainous regions to hot and arid, desert(-like) areas.
A turbulent history
The complex demographic and geographical conditions have always made governing Afghanistan challenging. It is no wonder that the country is known as the "graveyard of empires." The region has repeatedly witnessed military interventions and invasions by major powers. However, neither the British in the late 19th century, the Soviets in the 1970s and 80s, nor the Americans after September 11th succeeded in maintaining a lasting presence in the shadow of the Hindu Kush.
After 20 years of occupation and in the aftermath of the withdrawal of American and later (NATO) “coalition forces” troops in 2021, the radical Islamic Taliban swiftly seized control of the country and declared the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." The already difficult humanitarian situation in Afghanistan worsened further following the Taliban's takeover. Not only did Western nations suspend humanitarian aid, but the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also halted their payments.
As a result, more than half of the population was affected by acute food shortages. The situation was described as catastrophic by the World Hunger Aid organization, and without an improvement in the supply situation, an increase in the poverty rate to 97% was predicted.
During their first rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban established a state based on a strict interpretation of Sharia law, characterized by extreme violence and oppression. The new generation is no different. Under their rule, women and girls, in particular, face severe restrictions and are denied basic rights. Their rights have been significantly curtailed, for example, with girls no longer allowed to attend school from the seventh grade onward. Moreover, the human rights violations reach far beyond groups targeted because of their assigned gender, as the Taliban have implemented a system which regularly allows for executions, torture, imprisonment, and media censorship.
The ongoing violence in Afghanistan has led to a significant number of people fleeing. While the number of attacks has decreased since the Taliban took over, violence against women and girls has increased. Additionally, hunger threatens the lives of many Afghans, with around 20 million people relying on food assistance. The situation is further exacerbated by an economic crisis and prolonged drought.
Furthermore, the decades of ongoing conflicts have resulted in massive damage to infrastructure, particularly in urban areas. Access to electricity, water, food, and medication is limited in many places. The persistent drought, as well as natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, further worsen the situation.
Overall, the people of Afghanistan suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, and inadequate infrastructure. Afghanistan has now become one of the poorest countries in the world, and according to the Global Hunger Index, the hunger situation is severe, with nearly one-third of the population suffering from malnutrition.
A land of displacement
The ongoing catastrophic situation in the Hindu Kush has led to a continuous flow of displaced people leaving the country. With approximately 2.1 million refugees living outside the country, Afghanistan has the third-largest refugee population globally, following Syria and Venezuela. After the withdrawal of NATO and US forces and the Taliban's takeover, many people fled out of fear. Estimates from December 2022 indicate that a total of around 3.4 million people were forced to leave their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons.
Most Afghan refugees who leave the country settle in neighboring Pakistan or Iran. However, a significant number also find their way to Europe. In Greece, Afghan refugees have consistently represented one of the largest refugee populations for years.
Despite initial expressions of solidarity after the fall of Kabul, the evacuation of Bundeswehr and NATO mission personnel has been slow. People who helped the foreign forces, for example as translators, now fear death. Meanwhile, there are new efforts in Europe to make access to asylum more difficult despite everything. Greece, for example, sees Turkey as a safe third country for Afghan refugees, and Germany is openly discussing the repatriation of Afghans.