Aid Workers Staying in Taliban-Ruled Afghanistan Tread a Tricky Path

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Afghanistan is in dire need of help. Nonprofits want to provide this. But the uncertainty created after the Taliban takeover has led to aid groups being tested like never before.

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Even as US and NATO forces and nearly the entire Western diplomatic corps packed up and fled the Afghan capital last month as the Taliban seized control, a handful of international aid directors decided: they stayed .

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He is now the most visible representative of the decades-long Western Development Mission in Afghanistan, and along with UN humanitarian agencies, he is negotiating with the Taliban over working conditions for thousands of Afghan workers.

Seven of the eight directors who lead their organizations’ aid efforts in Afghanistan are women.

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“There aren’t many of us here,” said one of them. “There’s a lot of uncertainty.” He, like others, asked not to be named, while relations with the Taliban, who have yet to announce a government, are so tentative.

For the past 20 years, military and diplomatic forces from around the world occupied central Kabul, filling a green area next to the presidential palace with embassies, military bases and residences. But long before they came, NGOs were working to help reduce poverty in Afghanistan and develop essential health and educational services.

Most of them were careful to distance themselves from US-led military operations that began in 2001. He already had experience working with the Taliban, when it ruled the country in the late 1990s and gained control of rural districts in recent months. and year.

Now, at a time when Afghanistan’s aid needs are more desperate than ever, aid organizations’ diplomatic skills are being put to the test like never before.

Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, was already in dire need before the Taliban takeover, with 3.5 million people internally displaced and 18 million dependent on humanitarian aid in a country of nearly 38 million. But aid groups worry they are too quick to embrace an organization like the Taliban with a history of brutality.

“We need to get involved, because this is a very important time to be involved and try to influence,” said Filippo Grandi, the head of the UN refugee agency. “But I think we need to reserve our judgment a little bit.”

Some aid groups operating across the country in vital sectors such as health, education and agriculture have up to 1,500 local staff members, with larger organizations saying they never considered packing up or closing. Instead, they were left to watch as thousands of people working in the government or foreign organizations arrived at Kabul airport to catch evacuation flights.

“It’s like going through a phase of misery,” a country director said of the takeover by the Taliban on 15 August. “When they entered Kabul, I neither slept nor ate anything for three days. I was numb. I was in line with everyone, with staff round the clock.”

After her office was captured by some militants, she recalled, she had to manage a tense confrontation as another group sent by the Taliban commissioner for foreign aid withdrew it. Then came the test of evacuating his international staff members through the chaos at the airport.

Some Afghan staff members of the organization also chose to leave, but most have stayed, in large part because there is no way out.

“I think the point at which I admitted that I wasn’t going out was the point where I could sleep again,” said the country’s director of aid. “My employees need me. I think I’ll be fine.”

The most immediate concern has been to prevent looting of their offices and warehouses and to protect local staff members. The Taliban have asked humanitarian organizations to keep working and have assured them they will provide security, even giving a phone number to call if the armed men travel.

Yet Taliban members have taken over the premises of at least one non-profit organization and looted equipment and vehicles from others, several aid directors said. And fighters from the powerful Haqqani network have seized the large campus of the American University of Afghanistan, a proud flagship of US investment in higher education for Afghans.

In addition to the threat of so many armed groups, and the threat of The ISIS-K group, which claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing at the airport, continues to face an increasing problem of hunger. Last week, a top UN humanitarian official in Afghanistan warned that the organization’s food aid supplies were dwindling and would run out by the end of the month.

And buying food has become difficult for many people and impossible for some.

Wages have been halted across the government, including in the health and education sectors, as a result of the fall of President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the decision by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to freeze funding after the Taliban came to power. Central bank assets were also frozen, causing banks to close and limit access to cash. There is no work for daily wage workers.

Outside the capital, the new rulers of Afghanistan have differing perspectives. This has enabled aid organizations to resume their normal activities in only four of the country’s 34 provinces.

In some places, everything from schools and health clinics to public offices and businesses has been suspended. Women are not allowed to resume work in at least six provinces, according to one of the country’s directors tracking the situation nationwide.

In some areas, the Taliban have visited non-profit organizations, demanding a list of staff members and assets, information on the organization’s budget and purchase contracts. They also announced that they are banning recruitment. Those actions are contrary to assurances given by the Taliban leadership, and raise concerns about further tighter controls.

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“They desperately need someone to do something for the Afghan people,” Mr Grandi, the UN refugee chief, said in an interview at his headquarters in Geneva. ”

But he warned that humanitarian aid would not be enough to avert a disaster, and urged Western governments to think swiftly with the Taliban to restart massive development aid funded through the World Bank. How to work and provide health. , education and other basic services such as clean drinking water.

“They have to think very quickly through the development piece, the institutional piece, the World Bank, the IMF piece,” he said. “If you don’t do this, the risk of displacement is huge.”

Already, Mr Grandi said, he has heard “the most extraordinary concern” from European governments over fears of a repeat of 2015, when more than a million Syrian refugees entered Europe.

He said further fighting could lead to some Afghans fleeing their country. So will imposing a radical Taliban regime, he said. But the collapse of services and the economy, he warned, could lead to a mass movement of people out of Afghanistan.

Non-profit organizations that have established ties with Taliban rulers say there should be strict conditions for this.

One country director said restrictions on working women would not only be a violation of their rights, but would also have a huge impact on how aid is given. He said that only women can enter people’s homes and assess needs reliably and without them development assistance would be given unfairly.

“It is very important that NGOs have a united front,” she said.

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