If the US were to withdraw thousands of troops from Afghanistan, it could trigger a new wave of refugees to leave the country, experts warn. Estimates put the potential number of refugees in the hundreds of thousands.
Countries neighboring Afghanistan have started to prepare for a major refugee crisis in case the United States withdraws thousands of troops from the country.
While a White House spokesman said last week that US President Donald Trump did not issue orders to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the administration has not denied reports that they plan to pull out nearly half of the 14,000 troops that are in the Asian nation.
"At this point there is no clarity about the withdrawal, but we have to keep a clear action plan ready," a senior Asian diplomat based in Kabul told Reuters. "The situation can turn from bad to worse very quickly."
The US sent troops to Afghanistan in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. At its peak, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Most of the forces were withdrawn in 2014, but the US keeps the 14,000 troops there as part of a NATO operation to aid Afghan security forces and search for militants.
Graeme Smith, a consultant for the International Crisis Group, was concerned that an abrupt withdrawal of troops could cause a new civil war in the country. The war could send hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring countries.
"All sides recognize that a precipitous pullout could spark a new civil war that destabilizes the region. The neighbors do not enjoy surprises and the uncertain signals from Washington are causing anxiety," said Smith according to Reuters.
Pushing the limits
Afghanistan shares borders with Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says there are nearly 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan around the world, the largest refugee population in Asia and the second largest in the world. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there are 1.4 million undocumented Afghans in Pakistan and about 1.2 million in Iran.
While thousands of undocumented Afghans were forced out of Iran recently, Iranian officials in Kabul said they fear a sudden withdrawal of US forces could change that trend.
"We are working closely with the Afghan government to stop Afghans from entering our country. We don't want to use violence to stop them, but a sudden US pullout will lead to a crisis," an Iranian official told Reuters.
A refugee crisis would test other nearby countries that do not share a border with Afghanistan. Turkish police say they caught 90,000 Afghans who were attempting to enter the country with fake documents or with the help of traffickers in 2018. That is double the number in 2017.
"We have not closed our door but the number of illegal migrants is increasing on a daily basis," Mehmet Ozgur Sak, second secretary at the Turkish embassy in Kabul told Reuters.