Foreign aid groups in Afghanistan navigate Taliban rule

The United Nations has warned that 18 million people are staring down the barrel of humanitarian disaster, and another 18 million could quickly join them. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KABUL (AFP) - As a humanitarian catastrophe looms, relief organisations are scrambling to maintain their operations in war-ravaged Afghanistan, holding high-stakes talks with the Taliban in a bid to salvage their critical lifeline of aid.

Even before the Taliban's lightning offensive that ousted the Western-backed government on Aug 15, Afghanistan was already heavily aid-dependent - with 40 per cent of the country's gross domestic product drawn from foreign funding.

The United Nations has warned that 18 million people are staring down the barrel of humanitarian disaster, and another 18 million could quickly join them.

Battered by decades of war, the country was also grappling with a prolonged drought. Then in 2020, the coronavirus pandemic added a fresh layer of strain to a barely functioning health system.

The Taliban onslaught sparked a new exodus, both within and beyond the country's borders. According to the UN refugee agency, more than half a million Afghans have become internally displaced this year.

And with Western sanctions against the Taliban threatening to stem the flow of funding, getting desperately needed help into the country could become harder than ever.

Role of women

The Taliban is pledging a softer brand of rule than during its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, but it remains unclear whether aid organisations will be able to operate freely and safely.

Several relief organisations have confirmed that they were in talks with the Taliban to continue their operations, or have already received security guarantees for their existing programmes.

"In all instances, we have been asked to continue our work," Norwegian Refugee Council official Michelle Delaney said.

Given the Taliban's grim record on women's and girls' rights, aid workers and UN officials have both sought assurances that they will be able to carry on with programmes focused on women, and retain female staff.

But it remains unclear how the Taliban's pledges of a more moderate rule will translate into reality.

Earlier this year, more than a dozen humanitarian workers said the group had demanded an end to projects helping women to be more independent, and barred female staff from entering territory it controlled.

"Everyone is wondering what is going to happen," said Ms Marianne O'Grady, the deputy country director for Care Afghanistan, which focuses on women's and girls' rights.

For now, her organisation's work around the country has continued unimpeded.

"We've been asked to continue our programming, of every type and at every level," she told AFP.

Dangerous mandate

Afghanistan has long been one of the world's riskiest places for aid workers.

A US air strike in 2015 killed 42 people, including 14 medical workers, in a bombing that also levelled a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) trauma clinic in northern Kunduz - the single deadliest attack on relief workers in the 20-year war.

Ten others were killed in June by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria extremist group while clearing landmines north of Kabul for The Halo Trust, a British charity.

But the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), along with other organisations accustomed to working in parts of Afghanistan long under Taliban rule, say they have no plans to draw down their presence.

"The changes in Afghanistan have not changed our relationship with (the Taliban), and the current situation doesn't change the way we seek to operate," ICRC spokesman Florian Seriex said.

However, among the 122,000 people airlifted out in a mammoth United States-led evacuation that ended on Monday were foreign aid workers - and with Kabul airport closed for now, flying staff in to replace them remains impossible.

"Organising flights is unsurprisingly quite difficult at the moment," MSF country representative Filipe Ribeiro said.

Looming emergencies

Compounding Afghanistan's troubles, a shortage of medical supplies also looms large, Mr Ribeiro warned, potentially hampering efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic.

Barely 1 per cent of Afghanistan's population were fully vaccinated against the virus last month.

Several aid groups said the cash crunch sparked by Washington's freezing of central bank assets - which has prompted long lines outside banks in recent days - had halted salary payments to staff.

Restoring foreign aid flows remains dependent on the Taliban regime getting recognised, and several relief workers expressed concern that Western sanctions against the new regime could stem the flow of aid money.

"What we're all facing is the question of what the future is for humanitarian aid coming into this country," Care Afghanistan's Ms O'Grady said.

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