There is growing concern in Afghanistan over the rapid rise of the Taliban in several areas and the risk of seeing the country fall into a civil war. However, NGOs and humanitarian aid institutions maintain their presence there. Some regret the departure of their Afghan employees.
A little over two months after the announced departure of US troops from Afghanistan, set for September 11, the Taliban are multiplying their offensives on the ground. Today, they are present in almost all the Afghan provinces and surround several large cities, as they did during the 1990s to take over almost the entire country and establish an authoritarian Islamic regime. More than 50 of the 370 districts have already fallen into their hands since Joe Biden’s announcement of the withdrawal of US troops in May, according to the UN. A flamboyant offensive that increases concern among Afghan collaborators of French structures in the country and of certain NGOs.
Especially since a new limit was crossed last week, with the rapid progression of the Taliban in the northeast of the country and with the siege of the strategic city of Kunduz, which has left more than 5,000 displaced people since June 21.
“Most of the districts that were taken surround the provincial capitals, this suggests that the Taliban are positioned to try to take these capitals once the foreign forces are completely withdrawn,” warned the representative of the UN Security Council in Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, the day after the assault on Kunduz and considering “the recent” military advances “worrying” by the Taliban.
“The situation in Afghanistan has become extremely disturbing,” acknowledges Étienne Gille, vice president of the Afrane association, present for more than 40 years in Afghanistan. In a few weeks, this NGO specialized in education lost almost all of its 23 Afghan employees, about to go into exile in France. “The departure of the Afghan personnel from Afrane is imminent,” laments Étienne Gille. In total, around 80 collaborators together with their families will take advantage of a vast operation financed by the Quai d’Orsay, which since May has authorized 600 Afghans who have worked for France and their families to obtain asylum on French territory.
Mass exile of Afghan collaborators
This measure should cause the French embassy in Kabul and its satellites to close most of their services, he revealed. the newspaper Le Monde in mid-May, reporting on “the disturbance of the European collaborators” of France in Afghanistan, among which the German embassy in Kabul, “in the face of a decision considered hasty, not agreed” and “taken behind the backs of the Afghan authorities”.
This impulse from France was also not to the liking of the Coordination of French NGOs in Afghanistan (COFA), of which Afrane is part. The fifteen NGOs were received by the cabinet of the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the beginning of June, after sending an email expressing your concerns.
Mainly, it would have been the fears of seeing the Kabul airport out of service that precipitated the repatriation of the hundreds of Afghan employees. But in the meantime, Washington promised to maintain a residual force of 650 soldiers to protect the airport, with the support of the Turkish army. “France applied the precautionary principle and saw the worst case scenario”, considers Étienne Gille.
Afrane, who worked for a long time with expatriates, has built a significant team of Afghan teachers since 2002. The NGO supports 48 schools, spread over four provinces of the country, to deliver interventions to 96,000 young Afghans. Teachers of mathematics, science and languages (Dari and Pashto) were in the process of becoming trainers themselves. On the ground, the massive exile of these people puts the activity of the association at risk.
“It is an unprecedented situation for us, which reveals the anguish of the population. We understand that our employees wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, presented by France as an offer made ‘now or never’ ”, explains Étienne Gille. But he laments: “They are pacifist and open people that Afghanistan will need.” “Right now, the most educated people are looking to leave, it is a whole part of the intellectual essence of the country that is being emptied and that has the risk of impoverishing Afghanistan.”
Despite these disappointments, Afrane plans to stay in Afghanistan, recruit and train new teachers in order to resume its educational activities among Afghan students as soon as possible. “We are determined to continue our actions as long as the situation allows, because our essence, as humanitarians, is to act when conditions are difficult, and I would even say ‘especially’ when conditions are difficult,” insists the vice president of the NGO.
Permanent reassessment of the situation
For many NGOs and humanitarian aid institutions present in the country, in addition to the coming to power of the Taliban, the current risk is above all to see Afghanistan plunge into civil war again, and that gangsters or groups affiliated with the organization Islamic State take advantage of the unstable situation to kidnap foreigners.
As for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the situation on the ground is “reassessed every day, as has been the case since our 40 years of presence in Afghanistan,” says a communication officer. The NGO paid a somewhat price during these last years. In 2015, the US military bombed his hospital in Kunduz. The attack left 42 dead, of which 14 were members of his staff. Last year, an MSF maternity ward in Kabul, Dasht-e-Barchi, was attacked: at least 16 patients died. The decision was made to withdraw from that project, the last point of presence of the NGO in the Afghan capital. “These tragic events show that the presence of MSF in Afghanistan as a humanitarian medical actor for the populations is never easy”, considers Emmanuel Tronc, who led the missions from 1997 to 2016. “With the departure of the Americans we must expect a very difficult period ”.
For a week, due to the violence of the fighting between the Afghan army and the Taliban at the entrance to the city of Kunduz, MSF had to carry out a reduction of its equipment there. “After the 2015 bombing, a hospital is being built in Kunduz, a whole part has already been rehabilitated and opened to treat patients,” explains Sarah Chateau, the program manager in Afghanistan. But a score of expatriates and their Afghan colleagues were “put into hibernation.” “We were surprised by the intensity of the shelling in Kunduz. We are setting up a team specialized in emergencies, with a surgeon and an anesthesiologist ”. A little everywhere, the medical NGO prepares for emergency care response scenarios, transforming its teams to care for the injured.
Guarantee access to combat zones
“We are concerned about the current situation, about the civilians who are trapped in the fighting, and we are concerned about the safety of humanitarian workers potentially present in those areas,” said Frédéric Joli, spokesman for the International Committee of the Cross. Red (ICRC). “The priority is to guarantee humanitarian access, respect for the humanitarian space by the combatants. It is a fundamental right ”. On the ground, the humanitarian aid institution works with about 500 expatriates and 3,700 Afghan employees. Like MSF, the ICRC continues its activity in Afghanistan, adjusting it according to daily developments, and so far no departure of collaborators has been verified.
However, departures abroad are multiplying, particularly towards the Iranian border, according to Sarah Chateau. “Our MSF colleagues in Iran were summoned by the Iranian authorities, who verified the arrival of between 12,000 and 20,000 Afghans in a few weeks in Iran. They expect an ‘influx’ and speak of 50,000 to 150,000 migrants who could arrive soon “.
This article was translated from its original version in French