Wars happen in Afghanistan. The foreigners are leaving. Afghans flee. And some NGOs decide to stay. Doctors without borders, is one of them. The organization has been in the country since 1980. The return of the Taliban, in power (again like 20 years ago) since last Sunday, puts the organization once again at a fever pitch. But it is not an unknown situation. They have always had a dialogue with them. “Why don’t we have it now?”
In an extensive account shared with Clarion, Christopher stokes, a Humanitarian Affairs Specialist from MSF, and Jonathan Whittall, Director of the MSF Analysis Department, describe the way the organization has chosen to prevail in a country “which has seen invading forces come and go over the centuries.”
The fall of Kabul
They tell of the chain of events that was unleashed frantically with the arrival of the Taliban on Sunday in Kabul, which fell, they admit, “unopposed”.
The images of vertigo were multiplying, that of the Western embassies packing their suitcases, the Afghans desperately trying to flee, the spectacle of foreigners who they fled en masse and many NGOs that ceased their activities, they list.
“In contrast to these scenes, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and a handful of other humanitarian agencies have maintained their presence and activities at the height of the fighting, providing assistance to save the lives of sick and injured people, “they say.
Doctors Without Borders and a handful of other humanitarian agencies have maintained their presence and activities in the country: Photo: MSF in Kabul
How has this been possible? The organization recognizes that it has had both successes and failures in Afghanistan. But the only way to be able to operate in the country is by having the “explicit agreement” of all parties, including the Taliban.
“Our principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, which can sometimes seem abstract, were put in place by talking to all parties, rejecting funding from governments, clearly identifying ourselves so as not to be confused with other groups that might have other interests, and doing our hospitals weapons-free zones, “they explain.
“Whoever came to a privately funded MSF hospital literally he had to leave his gun at the door. “
“During our work in Kunduz or Lashkar Gah hospitals, we regularly explained to American, Afghan and Taliban soldiers that we would never turn away any patientRegardless of whether it was a wounded government soldier, a victim of a car accident or a wounded Taliban fighter, “they say, regardless of whether it was a terrorist or a soldier, a criminal or a politician.
“We often had to ask American and Afghan soldiers to leave and return without their weapons if they wanted to visit the hospital,” he says.
The United States remained in Afghanistan for 20 years in what was called the “eternal war”. The invasion removed the Taliban from power, and aimed to train and equip Afghan forces to return the country to a democratic system away from the regime of the Taliban, who had ruled under a strict interpretation of sharia.
The departure of the US, hasty for many, opened the doors for the return of the Taliban.
The departure of the US, hasty for many, opened the doors for the return of the Taliban. Photo: MSF in Kabul
The neutrality approach and dialogue with everyone, and accepting everyone did not always work for the organization.
“In 2015, the US special forces they bombed our hospital in Kunduz after the Taliban briefly took control of the province, “they say.
The fact showed them that humanitarian aid when it reaches enemy areas runs the risk of being devastated. It’s what MSF calls gray areas.
“Aid is tolerated and accepted when the legitimacy of the state increases, but it becomes susceptible to destruction when it falls into a territory where entire communities are designated as hostile enemies and when the state is on the defensive. This gray area is cultivated by ambiguities. between national and international law, creating environments conducive to what the US authorities categorized as ‘errors’, “they denounce.
A Doctors Without Borders hospital and a sign that warns “weapons prohibited.” Photo: MSF in Kabul
Following the destruction of the hospital, MSF again engaged with all parties to the conflict to clarify respect for our medical activities.
“Arguably, it was our broad public support and the political cost of the attack on MSF that ultimately served as our best safeguard against future alleged mistakes by US and Afghan forces,” they explain.
But all this to no avail when his maternity hospital was brutally attacked in Dasht-e-Barchi, “most likely by ISIS in Afghanistan”, out of the reach of any dialogue.
MSF differentiates between provincial capitals and rural areas. In these last ones it is not possible to access. And they have considered it a failure.
“This has been one of the failures of MSF’s work during the last years, “they lament.
But when the Taliban advance began in the provincial capitals, which fell one after another in a lightning operation that culminated in the fall of the Kabul government on Sunday, MSF did not have to flee.
“When the Taliban entered the cities, we were able to continue working to care for patients: sick and injured people were able to receive care in facilities that we adapted to cope with the intensity of the fighting. In Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat and Khost, our teams continued to work. Today, our medical facilities are full of patients. “
Therefore, today they consider that it is essential to continue negotiating with all parties.
“It is to allow our teams to provide assistance when it is most needed,” they say, and that happens at times like now when power and control shifts occur.
MSF knows that if they get involved in political processes, their work is at risk of being struck down. And they raise their voices when their facilities and staff they are harmed.
What is the future of Afghanistan?
“The future of Afghanistan It is uncertain and our activities will remain under pressure. The challenges we face will evolve and the safety of our teams and patients continues to be a concern, “they underline.
But to deal with future storms in Afghanistan, humanitarian actors would do well to firmly chart their own course based on existing needs, rather than being led by changing political winds, they advise.
And they conclude: “Afghanistan shows how the construction of a nation led by foreigners can fail and how the contributions of humanitarian actors to such efforts are minimal. It also shows that our work can save the most lives when we are able to be as independent as possible, both when a state is being built and when it collapses. “
Drafting Clarín: source Doctors Without Borders