04/21/2016 09:30 EDT | Updated 04/22/2017 05:12 EDT

Afghans Are 'Waiting For Death' If Countries Keep Their Doors Shut

mellissa fung Freed Canadian journalist Mellissa Fung, left, is seated next to Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan National Directorate of Security, after being released in Kabul on Nov. 8, 2008. (Photo: Intelligence Service Office handout/Reuters)

Eight years ago, the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan saved my life. The director at the time, Amrullah Saleh, engineered an exchange that bought me my freedom. I was being held hostage by a gang of criminals who were threatening to sell me to the Taliban. Saleh figured out who they were and arrested the ringleader's mother.

I will forever be in his debt, but I was also impressed by the smarts and savvy of this young intelligence chief. If Afghanistan had politicians of his character, I thought, the country's future was in decent hands.

A couple years later, Saleh was fired by former president Hamid Karzai after a rocket attack hit near a loya jirga, or peace council, that Karzai was attending. Last December, Saleh's successor, Rahmatullah Nabil, resigned in a very public fashion, openly disagreeing with President Ashraf Ghani, who had traveled to Pakistan to try to jump start peace talks with the Taliban.

Nabil, like many Afghans, believed that Pakistan is the problem, giving the Taliban support and space to plot their attacks.

Five months later, the director's post is still vacant. President Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah have been unable to agree on a candidate, just as they have been unable to agree on much of anything.

kabul Afghan policemen keep guard at the site of the Taliban attack in front of Afghan intelligence office in Kabul on April 19, 2016. (Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

So when the Taliban launched their spring offensive this week near the NDS headquarters, killing 64 people and wounding more than 300 others, mostly civilians, it underscored what many Afghans have come to believe: their own government is not just unable to protect them, it's barely functioning.

"Government weakness," my friend and Afghan MP Fawzia Koofi says. "The government is not able to demonstrate strong leadership. People do not feel safe."

Little wonder, then, why so many Afghans are desperate to leave. On my last visit in November, I met Gen. Sayed Omar Saboor, the country's passport director. He told me that every day, 1,500 Afghans were applying for their passports, desperate to leave the country.

Roughly 150,000 Afghans left in 2015 alone, many of them paying smugglers to help them navigate the perilous journey to Europe. Those I spoke with at the passport office all echoed the same reasons for leaving: the country wasn't safe, and they couldn't trust their government to protect them from the Taliban.

"Kunduz people are waiting for death and it's just awful."
-- Marzia Rustami, Activist

Recently, the Long Wars Journal estimated that the Taliban control -- or are at least fighting for control -- of nearly a fifth of the country, with Afghan forces stretched to their limits and taking heavy casualties. When Kunduz fell last October, the Taliban went door to door with a hit list of women activists, politicians, and journalists -- an eerie echo of the 1990s when they ruled the country.

In the last few weeks, the Taliban are once again lobbing attacks on the outskirts of Kunduz, its residents are bracing for the worst.

"They are just outside the city," Marzia Rustami told me in a message this week. "Kunduz people are waiting for death and it's just awful."

Rustami would know. She's a women's rights activist whose name was on that hit list in the fall. She managed to escape to a safe house in Kabul. When the Afghan forces wrested control back from the Taliban, she returned, only to find the government's control of the city -- and province -- tenuous.

"It's where my family, my colleagues are," she replies when I ask her why she doesn't leave now. "I have nowhere else to go."

taliban attack A relative weeps over the coffin of a victim killed in a Taliban truck bomb attack on April 19, 2016. (Photo: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

Afghans hoping to escape the violence are finding that there really is nowhere to go. As Europe struggles to settle hundreds of thousands of refugees -- mostly Syrians -- successive governments have deemed Afghanistan -- and the country's capital, Kabul, safe enough to send deportees back to.

Macedonia, Croatia, and Serbia have all hung a "NO AFGHANS" banner at their borders. Germany and Great Britain continue to deport Afghans back to Kabul, even as the United Nations noted that civilian casualties in the country continue to rise.

A record 3,500 Afghans were killed in 2015 and 7,500 injured, surpassing the previous numbers in 2014.

Grim tally

This week's slaughter will add to the grim tally, and the Taliban's spring campaign is only beginning. Fourteen years after the U.S. and its allies invaded the country, no one seems to want to admit that Afghanistan is a flailing state -- which helps explain why no country will accept its refugees.

Peace is unlikely to come to the country anytime soon, and the Taliban have proved their unwillingness to negotiate a settlement that President Ghani seems convinced is the solution; quite the opposite, they now seem poised to declare all-out war. But until there is at least some discernible cessation of violence, Afghans deserve the opportunity to escape the ever-present risk of dying.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as someone who has to move to preserve his or her life or freedom, and who have no protection from his or her own state. That sounds a lot like Afghanistan today.

The UN Refugee Agency goes further: if other countries do not let them in, it says, and do not help them once they are in, "they may be condemning them to death."

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