Afghanistan is very rich in pomegranates. Afghans call it by the Persian word for pomegranate, “anar.” We in Turkey chop off the first letter and call it “nar.” The fruit is considered to be the symbol of abundance. As children’s riddle goes: “At the market, I bought one, at home I had a thousand. What is it?” There are actually parts of northern Afghanistan, especially where Turkish is almost enough to get one by on the street.
It is not a good time to be an Afghan though, and we all know why. The country’s civil war is approaching a new turning point. Around 12 percent of the population of Afghanistan live outside their own country, mostly in Pakistan and Iran. Recently, many Afghans are on the move again, and growing numbers of them are coming to Turkey.
Why Turkey? Turkey today cannot be considered a beacon of economic prosperity, with net FDI getting into negative territory for the first time in two decades. Yet, it does not look that bad compared to the economic situation in Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan in particular. The people who cross entire central Asian countries on foot don’t necessarily care about food inflation in your local Migros supermarket.
“In Iran, the economic conditions are very bad…” said Ali Hikmet, co-founder of Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association (@arsa_org) in Turkey. “Pakistan has its own problems. Afghans just want a safe life, away from insecurity, poverty and unemployment. Now that the Taliban has strengthened, we are preparing for a new wave of refugees to arrive in Turkey.”
The number of Afghan arrivals actually declined until recently. In March 2020, the figure was at 15,000 and went down to 8,000 by March 2021, a decline of 48 percent. From March 2021 to July 2021, the numbers have risen from around 8,000 to 29,000 people, an increase of 363 percent.
This is of no surprise. U.S. President Joe Biden announced his troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021. It encouraged the Taliban to press on from their southern strongholds to envelop the big cities, but they haven’t even taken those cities yet.
In 2020, Turkey officially took on 50,000 Afghan refugees. It’s anyone’s guess how many we’ll take in 2021. Certainly, it’s going to be many more than the United States, who I hear, is offering Afghans who worked with them, such as translators, the option to resettle stateside. This is what’s so frustrating about the situation. The United States has waged a war for 20 years in a country that’s not even that close to us and has now decided to cut its losses and retreat, while it’s us who have to pick up the pieces. The United States, as the great “offshore balancer,” to use the international relations term, can watch from its continent, fortified by the great oceans, as the masses of Muslim-majority countries scatter in one direction or the other.
The view from Ankara is very frustrating. We already have more than 5 million Syrian refugees. We are bigots and inhumane if we police our borders, and we risk whatever remains of our social cohesion if we don’t. All we can do is to ask wealthier countries to pay us to take on more people.
The American thinking two decades ago was that if there are two theatres of war, all the “bad guys,” domestic or not, gather in those places, which makes it easy to find them and kill them. Once that was done, you could have the liberal dream of open markets and democratic governments. That at least, is how an official once put it to me. It has been a catastrophic policy, and that is still putting it mildly. No matter how you define “bad guys,” be it radical Salafis or just any other homegrown terrorists, it does not recede when you stick a gun in their faces and say “suck on this,” as Thomas Friedman once infamously said.
That experiment is now over. Now, as the dust settles, it’s not just the Afghans or Iraqis who are angry at the United States and Europe. It’s everyone. And though I understand that China is now the primary concern of the United States, none of this Salafi radicalization is going away either.