UN-UK donor conference can't mask plight of 'forgotten' Afghans

Ukraine's monopoly of global attention is a grievous error, according to ex-Army interpreter Nazir Ayeen

Aid agencies estimate that more than 24 million Afghans - 60 per cent of the population, including 10 million children - are facing acute food insecurity in the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.  Javed Tanveer/AFP

A UN and UK-led pledging conference opens on Thursday designed to alleviate the Afghanistan humanitarian crisis but a former interpreter for the British army has urged the international community to recognise that the Ukraine conflict is overshadowing the plight of his countrymen.

Nazir Ayeen, who risked his life serving with the Royal Marines and Scots Guards on the front line in Helmand for three years, fears that the victims of the war waged in Afghanistan are being overlooked with Russia’s ongoing invasion dominating news headlines.

Mr Ayeen, 32, told The National that it was time for the West to make amends for its disavowal of Afghanistan that amounted to a “conscious violation of human rights standards”, and not look away to the next crisis.

“The conflict in Ukraine is escalating,” he said. “It’s a reality of the current state of global politics but it doesn’t mean that Afghanistan is not a priority for the world.

“Afghanistan is a nation that stood by the West, by the UK and America for 20 years. For the values of human rights and democracy, they shed their blood — and it was not so the world would forget them and allow them to be ruled by the Taliban.”

The virtual conference on Thursday is designed to bolster a badly flagging relief effort — the UN’s largest ever appeal for a single country — that aims to raise $4.4bn for the 24 million Afghans facing acute food insecurity and a breakdown in social fabric.

Decades of conflict, compounded by last year's chaotic withdrawal of western troops and subsequent Taliban takeover, imminent economic collapse and the worst drought in 30 years have created unprecedented levels of need.

People collect dried plants and woods from their orchards that dried due to drought, in Kandahar, Afghanistan, 27 December 2021. EPA

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said that the UK, which is co-hosting the UN Afghanistan Conference, has pledged a further $365m of emergency aid.

“The UK is rallying countries in support of the Afghan people and helping lead the way in providing life-sustaining food, shelter and medical supplies,” Ms Truss said. “Together with allies and partners, we can do more and will do more to help Afghanistan.”

Mr Ayeen, however, doubted that the level of support offered would be enough, warning that without the right mechanism any funding raised risked not only falling short of the intended recipients but into the wrong hands.

“There is a problem of administration funds that go from the international community to the Taliban,” he said.

Mr Ayeen fled Afghanistan in 2013 after receiving death threats from the Islamic fundamentalist group because of his work with the British Army, including translating during the high-profile VIP visits of Prince Charles and former foreign secretary William Hague.

Afghan interpreter Nazir Ayeen is furious at the West's role in the Afghanistan crisis. Photo: Nazir Ayeen

He believes that the Taliban has used Ukraine war as cover for implementing an increasingly hard-line domestic agenda.

“They are making their policies very strong in Afghanistan. As we can see now, girls are not allowed to go to school under the Taliban regime, as they promised and did not act on it.

“The political problems are still in place in Afghanistan and the Taliban are opportunistic — they will be using the situation to their own benefit. They have not disconnected the relationship with the other terrorist networks and there are even reports that some other terrorist networks are operating in Afghanistan within the hub of Taliban regime.”

Taliban danger lies in unpredictability

A cohering ideology has never been as central to the Taliban as other extremists such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS but, Mr Ayeen said, that means its actions are more unpredictable.

“It doesn't have a certain political mandate for itself; it's just a barbaric terrorist affiliated group.

“So anything is possible within the Taliban regime, especially when it comes to conflict, violence, terrorism and these things.”

As someone who was granted asylum in the UK several years ago, Mr Ayeen has kept a close eye on the thousands of fellow Afghan refugees rescued from the Taliban last year only to find themselves languishing in hotels.

“There hasn't been enough attention on them from the government,” Mr Ayeen said. “From the 16,000 that the government employed in Afghanistan, only 4,000 have arrived to the UK, and they have not been placed in suitable accommodation.

“It's very obvious that Afghans are living in uncertainty in some places of the UK, and some of them have even begun to suffer from psychological and psychiatric problems.”

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Many Afghans fear an unending bureaucratic limbo before they can fully resettle in the UK and build independent lives.

“The Home Office also has cropped the Afghans from its priorities,” he said. “Promises were made to bring another 20,000 people to the UK by the government, but no scheme or package has been announced in relation to that so far.”

Mr Ayeen, who is due to begin a master's course in politics at Birkbeck, University of London, noted that the response to Ukraine refugee crisis has been far bigger in scale than that for the collapse of Afghanistan last summer.

He said the outpouring of western support for the displaced Ukrainians proved three points. “Firstly, it's an image of retaliation against Russia. Secondly, it is support to Nato. And thirdly, it is a display of discrimination against other war-torn countries like Afghanistan in the Middle East.”

His anger at the West over its role in the collapse of Afghanistan is such that he wants a full-scale inquiry to hold global decision-makers to account.

A Taliban Badri fighter stands guard at Kabul airport following the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. AFP

According to a statement released by the foreign office ahead of Thursday’s pledging conference, aid organisations are warning that more than 24 million people — or 60 per cent of the population, including 10 million children — need humanitarian assistance to survive.

It says that needs are 30 per cent higher than last year and acute hunger is a daily reality for half the population. Basic health, education and other services are severely strained, livelihoods have been crushed and households are spending 80 per cent of their meagre income on food.

“As a result of international negligence, the Afghan people are suffering,” Mr Ayeen said. “My plan is to launch an independent inquiry to force institutions and governments to answer for what happened to Afghanistan and why Afghans have to suffer the way they are at the moment.”

Updated: March 31, 2022, 11:29 AM