Afghanistan: NGOs continue their activities despite a “worrying” security situation

Anguish is mounting in Afghanistan, faced with the lightning advance of the Taliban in several areas and the risk of seeing the country fall into a civil war. However, the NGOs maintain their presence there. Some deplore the departure of their Afghan employees.

Just over two months before the announced departure of American troops from Afghanistan, set for September 11, the Taliban are stepping up their offensives on the ground. They are now present in almost all Afghan provinces and encircle several large cities, as they did in the 1990s to seize almost the entire country and install an authoritarian Islamic regime. More than 50 of the 370 districts have already fallen into their hands since Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of American troops in May, according to the UN. A meteoric offensive that raised anxiety among the Afghan employees of French structures in the country and of certain NGOs.

Especially since a new milestone was crossed last week, with the lightning advance of the Taliban in the northeast of the country and the siege of the strategic city of Kunduz, which has displaced more than 5,000 since June 21 . “Most of the districts that have been taken surround the provincial capitals, which suggests that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try to take these capitals once the foreign forces are completely withdrawn,” the representative of the Security Council of the United States warned. UN in Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, in the aftermath of the assault on Kunduz, deeming “recent” military breakthroughs by the Taliban “worrying”.

“The situation in Afghanistan has become extremely worrying,” admits Étienne Gille, vice-president of the Afrane association, which has been present in Afghanistan for more than 40 years. In a few weeks, this NGO specializing in education lost almost all of its 23 Afghan employees, on the verge of exile for France. “The departure of Afghan staff from Afrane is imminent”, regrets Étienne Gille. In total, some 80 employees, with their families, will benefit from a vast operation financed by the Quai d’Orsay, which since May has allowed 600 Afghans who worked for France and their families to obtain asylum on French soil.

Massive exile of Afghan collaborators

This measure should lead the French embassy in Kabul and its satellites to close most of their services, revealed the daily Le Monde in mid-May, reporting on the “embarrassment of France’s European partners” in Afghanistan, including the German embassy in Kabul, “in the face of a decision deemed to be hasty, not concerted” and “taken without the knowledge of the Afghan authorities “.

This momentum of France is not to the liking of the Coordination of French NGOs in Afghanistan (COFA), of which Afrane is a part. The fifteen NGOs were received by the office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the beginning of June, after sending a letter expressing his concerns.

It is the fears of seeing the Kabul airport out of service, which would have precipitated the repatriation of the hundred or so Afghan employees. But in the meantime, Washington has pledged to maintain a residual force of 650 troops to protect the airport, with the backing of the Turkish military. “France applied the precautionary principle and considered the worst case scenario,” said Étienne Gille.

Afrane, who has worked with expatriates for a long time, had built up a substantial team of Afghan teachers since 2002. The NGO supports 48 schools, for interventions with 96,000 young Afghans, located in four provinces of the country. Teachers in mathematics, science and languages ​​(Dari and Pashto) were in the process of becoming trainers in their turn. On the ground, the massive exile of these people endangers the activity of the association. “This 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 regrets, “these are pacifist and open people who will be missed in Afghanistan”. “Right now, the most educated people are looking to leave, a whole part of the intellectual substance of the country is emptying and this risks impoverishing Afghanistan.”

Despite these setbacks, Afrane intends to stay in Afghanistan, recruit and train new teachers in order to resume educational activities with Afghan students as quickly as possible. “We are determined to continue our actions as long as the situation allows, because it is our very essence, as humanitarians, to act when the conditions are difficult and I would even say ‘especially’ when the conditions are difficult” , insists the vice-president of the NGO.

Permanent reassessment of the situation

For many NGOs present in the country, in addition to the coming to power of the Taliban, the risk today is above all to see Afghanistan plunge back into civil war, and mafia groups or groups affiliated with the Islamic State organization taking advantage of the situation of instability to kidnap foreigners.

On the side of Médecins sans frontières (MSF), the situation there is “reassessed on a daily basis, as has been the case for our 40 years of presence in Afghanistan,” said a communications manager. The NGO has paid a heavy price in recent years. In 2015, the US military bombed his hospital in Kunduz. The attack left 42 dead, including 14 members of its staff. Last year, an MSF maternity hospital in Kabul, Dasht-e-Barchi, was attacked; at least 16 patients are killed. The decision has since been taken to withdraw from this project, the NGO’s last point of presence in the Afghan capital. “These tragic events show that the presence of MSF in Afghanistan as a humanitarian medical actor alongside the populations is never obvious”, judges Emmanuel Tronc, who headed the missions there from 1997 to 2016. “With the departure of the Americans, we must expect a very difficult time. “

For the past week, in view of the violent fighting between the Afghan army and the Taliban at the entrance to the town of Kunduz, MSF has had to reduce its team there. “After the 2015 bombing, a hospital is being rebuilt in Kunduz, a whole part has already been rehabilitated and opened to the care of patients”, explains Sarah Chateau, the program manager in Afghanistan. But around 20 expatriates and their Afghan colleagues have been “placed in hibernation”. “We were surprised by the intensity of the bombardments in Kunduz. We are in the process of setting up a team specializing in emergencies, with a surgeon and an anesthetist.” Almost everywhere, the medical NGO is preparing for emergency care response scenarios by transforming its teams to treat the injured.

Guarantee access to combat zones

“We are concerned about the current situation for civilians who find themselves caught between the fighting, and worried about the safety of humanitarian workers potentially present in these areas,” said Frédéric Joli, public relations officer of the Cross. -Red for Central Asia. “The priority is to guarantee humanitarian access and respect for the humanitarian space by the combatants. It is a fundamental right”. On site, the NGO works with nearly 500 expatriates and 3,700 Afghan employees. Like MSF, the Red Cross maintains its activity in Afghanistan, adjusting it according to daily developments, and so far no departure of Afghan collaborators has been noted.

However, departures abroad are increasing, especially towards the Iranian border, according to Sarah Chateau. “Our MSF colleagues in Iran have been summoned by the Iranian authorities, who have observed the arrival of 12,000 to 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 “.

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