International consternation over the consequences of the American military withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered recriminations and blame alongside demands for a rapid humanitarian response to help those fleeing. As usual with refugees from conflict, those countries which are most to blame for the crises are those quick to say they are doing their best, while still pandering to a minority racist constituency in their own countries which does not want them. These are the ones talking about numbers, not need.
Thus, the sudden mass exodus of refugees has exposed already existing divisions among the world’s major powers. And thrown the little Balkans country Albania into the spotlight as Albania serves once again as a litmus test for relations among these powers. News emerged that Albanian prime minister Edi Rama has agreed to host Afghan refugees destined for the US as a temporary measure so that their visa applications can be processed. As various western countries scramble to rescue their nationals and vulnerable Afghans who worked with them, this move should not be taken at face value but needs to be looked at in a wider context of America’s presence in the Balkans region. As we are witnessing in Afghanistan, American influence is increasingly recognised as ‘not benign’.
After Albania joined NATO in 2009, American influence was cemented there. Indeed, although Albania has ambitions to join the European Union, it is this American influence which is hampering efforts to meet the obligations required to join. As well as the EU’s interest in absorbing Albania, Russia has, of course, not relinquished its own interest in the country. China, also, is a major trading partner for Albania. Both Turkey and Iran have cultural, religious and social ties to Albania. But importantly, since its emergence from Communist rule in 1991, Albania has almost drowned in elements of corruption, crime and foreign influence that have left the country under the rule of mafia families and the Americans. Of course, America has taken advantage of this situation. These complex layers of influence and rivalry embedded in corrupt systems and governance enable the Americans to out muscle the other foreign players.
In 2014, the Albanian government was persuaded (paid) by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to host nearly 3000 Iranian Mojahedin Khalq who were to be expelled from Iraq as members of Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime. Known as Saddam’s Private Army, the MEK had been designated as a terrorist entity by the US, UK and EU. But in 2012, the Americans delisted the MEK to facilitate its transfer to Albania without dismantling the group. The UNHCR claimed that they were transferred on humanitarian grounds. They weren’t. In Albania, the MEK continued unchecked its advocacy and activism for violent regime change against Iran.
The MEK was allowed to build a closed camp to house its members in the same conditions of modern slavery as they had lived in Iraq. Soon after, there was talk of Albania being used to house widows and orphans from Syria. This was a different proposition to the repatriation of Albanian women who had left to marry ISIS fighters; these were many families of many different ISIS fighters. They were to be housed in the MEK camp alongside the MEK members. The idea was to park this problem somewhere ‘neutral’ until the scandal had died down and they could be dispersed elsewhere. The mystery of who these potentially dangerous people were and what would become of them and whether they would be the vanguard for the reception of actual ISIS fighters received enough publicity for the government (Americans) to back down and the plan did not materialise.
Now the Americans are bringing Afghan refugees to Albania it is worth examining these previous attempts to contain American problems to see what this could mean.
The MEK camp in Albania is home to radicalised, trained fighters. Many members are old and sick, but still able to work in the click farm set up to disseminate lies and misinformation to skew the political analyses and narratives concerning Iran. The members who came to Albania include those who worked directly with Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security services – eavesdropping on Iranian military and even torturing captive soldiers. Some members disappeared after 2003 and emerged later in the USA – supposedly useful assets. More concerning is that a number of active suicide operatives are embedded and hidden among the 2000 remaining members in the camp. Their role is to be ready to be deployed in operations in Iran (and perhaps beyond), such as the assassinations of nuclear scientists or be sent to incite violence at the scenes of ethnic unrest and civil demonstrations.
Afghans arriving in Albania will be brought by the Americans for specific reasons. The loosely applied term ‘interpreter’ could be a convenient cover for ‘infiltrator’ or ‘torturer’. Afghans used to spy on the Afghan government or torture their fellow countrymen will have secrets and skills which the Americans may not want to reveal or lose. (Similarly, there may be Afghans who never make it to Albania or America for similar reasons.) Once in Albania, these refugees will be first de-pressured and de-briefed (as were MEK members) and screened for their potential use or benefit. Some will be taken to America, others remain in Albania, and there will be a cohort who, because they are not of any use or benefit, will, as were extraneous, uncooperative MEK members, be ushered into the EU. MEK members who left the group became an unwanted burden. When possible, they were ‘eased’ over the border with Greece so that they become the EU’s problem.
Although the numbers are small – some hundreds – the principle has been set; refugees unwanted by the Americans are dumped on the EU. There is every likelihood that the same selection process will take place for Afghan refugees. America will select those it wants and allow those it doesn’t want to travel on to EU countries, increasing the burden there. The difference this time is that these refugees will feel the full burden of American betrayal. It’s almost as though the anticipated threat of terrorist reprisals could be imported directly into Europe.
By Anne and Massoud Khodabandeh,