KABUL, Afghanistan ― The man sits cross-legged on the floor of his mud house, one of several in a walled compound on the barren outskirts of Kabul, welcoming his visitors with tea, cookies and a wan smile.
There’s nothing out here but a few other mud-brick structures, hidden behind walls ― no stores, no schools, no toys for the wide-eyed children. Behind them dusty emptiness stretches as far as the eye can see.
This environment isn’t what 60-year-old Shadolla envisioned when he decided last year to enroll in the United Nations’ voluntary repatriation program, bringing his 20-member extended family back to his native Afghanistan after two decades living in Pakistan.
And as barren as the family’s new neighborhood appears, it is extremely fertile ground for Taliban insurgents seeking to regain support in areas lost to the NATO-led international forces.
Thus far, Shadolla said, no Afghan government official has visited his area to check in on the new arrivals.
Asked what he would do if the Taliban came by and offered the family more resources, Shadolla shrugged slightly. Would the family support the insurgents over the government? “For us, they both are the same,” he said. “Whoever runs the country, as long as our basic needs are met, we are happy with that.” At the moment, Shadolla explained, he considers the U.N.'s refugee agency his “state” because “[it’s] taking care of me.”
Peter Nicolaus, the Afghanistan country director for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has been trying for years to explain the desperate situation this family represents, but he says even well-meaning officials aren’t listening.
“We need to change the perception of the international community,” Nicolaus said. “The problem in Afghanistan is not only transition and the war against the Taliban. There is another problem which is the integration of a huge number of people — we are talking more than 10 percent of the population who need targeted international assistance ― otherwise they become a risk factor.”
They return, like Shadolla did, hoping for a better future. Shadolla explains that while he had a job in Pakistan in a fruit and vegetable market, his family had no permanent shelter. He said the cost of living was high and Afghans were regularly beaten up on the street and harassed by Pakistani police.
So he loaded his family’s belongings into a brightly painted Pakistani rental van and drove to the U.N.’s reception facility, called an “encashment center,” just outside Afghanistan’s capital. After the family received mine-awareness training and vaccinations for the children, they received supplies to build traditional mud-brick houses on land owned by Shadolla’s forebears, plus a one-time grant of $120 per person.
The U.N. estimates that it has helped some 5.5 million Afghans return since 2002, mostly from Pakistan and Iran. Returnees now comprise more than 20 percent of the country’s total population, more than 30 percent in some areas. An estimated 1.7 million Afghans remain in Pakistan and well over a million in Iran; both governments have intensified efforts to eject all Afghans without legal residence status, which applies to most of them. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have also fled to Europe, where each country has a different policy on sending back illegal Afghan migrants; recent moves by European governments indicate that forced repatriation is likely to become more common.
Shadolla’s family now has a home and subsistence rations from the UNHCR. Beyond that, he lamented, “we have nothing. We are the poorest of the poor … . There are no jobs and no security in some parts.”
Shadolla does not appear to take politics into account when discussing his disappointment so far with life in Afghanistan, but observers worry families like his pose a latent threat to any military gains by international forces.
What some major partners in Afghanistan reconstruction don’t comprehend, said Nicolaus, is that their very efforts to help can be counterproductive. The most irksome example for him is that the European Union will not allow its funds to be used for anything other than building houses.
“I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” he said, “but I think it’s wrong. Europeans have proven very inflexible. I cannot use their money to help the people with other things ― water intervention, income-generating intervention.” In contrast, Nicolaus explained, the U.S. State Department allows his office to direct its funds where UNHCR believes they are most needed.
A European Commission spokesman, asked about Nicolaus' complains, said that "whenever changes on the ground require amendments of these agreements the Commission has the flexibility to adapt them."
"UNHCR has so far not submitted any formal requests to the EU to modify any of the above activities in its current project," the spokesman said. "A new project is under consideration for implementation in 2012 and, further to building shelters, it includes income generation, water supply, and small infrastructure as targeted activities to be implemented by the UNHCR in Afghanistan."
Nicolaus wants the EU to recognize that returnees need what he calls “shelter plus,” not just places to live but ways of life. He says Shadolla is a perfect example. With about $1,200, Nicolaus said, Shadolla could open a shop.
“This problem can be solved,” Nicolaus said. “He has been a vegetable trader for 28 years. Give him capital to start and he will make his way.” But despite what Nicolaus says have been great efforts on UNHCR’s part, Brussels has not agreed to change its policy.
Nor, said Nicolaus, do official delegations who visit Kabul for “fact-finding” purposes ever trek out to the wasteland to see what their money is buying. If they did, Nicolaus said he could show them empty houses just like Shadolla’s whose owners have abandoned them in favor of sleeping on the Kabul streets in an effort to find work.
“I would like to feed my family myself,” said Shadollah, “without relying permanently on food assistance.” He doesn’t want to go back to Pakistan, he said, but he won’t rule it out if there is no hope of a livelihood or if security risks become greater.
Nicolaus has been working in Afghanistan off and on for decades and is clearly pained by prospects of a legacy like this, which he believes is eminently avoidable.
“If we don’t manage to integrate these people,” he said, “we force them to leave the country again in order to survive or we press them into illegality, into criminality ― the drug trade.”
In other words, Nicolaus said, if all the world is willing to give these returnees is a bit of cash and the tools to build mud-brick structures in the middle of nowhere, “we basically build a recruiting base for the Taliban.”
Editor's note: This story was updated to include a comment from the European Commission.