Aid workers vow to support Afghans and flag Taliban abuses

Humanitarians gear up for tough talks with Afghanistan’s new rulers about working women and schoolgirls

This picture taken on October 8, 2017 shows Afghan school girls looking on as they receive pens and bags from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) at a school in Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. / AFP PHOTO / NOOR MOHAMMAD
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As Taliban hardliners consolidated control over Afghanistan on Wednesday, aid groups vowed to continue helping Afghans and keep tabs on abuses against women, girls and perceived opponents.

The UN, its World Health Organisation, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Save the Children have said they will continue operating in Afghanistan after the Taliban recaptured the capital, Kabul, on Sunday, prompting an evacuation of foreigners and chaotic scenes at the city's main airport.

But the UN and some aid agencies are downsizing their international teams, and are gearing up for ideological clashes with officials from the Taliban, who barred women and girls from workplaces and classrooms the last time they held power, from 1996-2001.

The UN on Wednesday said it was relocating about 100 of its 300 international staffers from Kabul to Almaty, in Kazakhstan.

Aid agencies are understood to be assessing whether the Taliban keeps promises of providing security to foreign aid and diplomatic teams.

“Despite all the unanswered questions that lie ahead, one thing is certain: Unicef is here to stay and deliver,” Herve De Lys, who leads the UN agency for children in Afghanistan, said on Wednesday.

Classrooms reopened in Taliban-controlled Herat and Maruf on Tuesday, with girls making up about a third of pupils, Mr De Lys said.

He was in talks with Taliban leaders about letting all girls stay in school under the soon-to-be-formed government in Kabul.

“We are very clear … about the red lines, and what is non-negotiable for us,” Mr De Lys said.

“The core principle of humanitarian action is really the driving force behind our engagement with the Taliban.”

Caroline Van Buren, the Afghanistan-based head of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, described reports of Taliban militants cracking down on women’s rights in some parts of the country now under their control.

Ms Van Buren expressed “real concern” about Afghan women being barred from working in some areas.

Others were not allowed to leave their homes without a close male relative, making shopping trips and doctors’ visits impossible.

The EU, US and 19 other countries on Wednesday issued a joint statement saying they were “deeply worried about Afghan women and girls” under the Taliban.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body would raise the alarm about human rights abuses against women, children and others in the landlocked South Asian nation.

“We will continue to report on the situation on the ground in Afghanistan,” Mr Dujarric said.

The WHO on Wednesday called for “sustained” international support to a population of 38 million people who were battling Covid-19, diarrhoea, malnutrition and other health woes in a country ravaged by decades of war.

Christopher Nyamandi, country director of Save the Children Afghanistan, said the group would “not abandon our work” and would “stay and deliver”, especially after an extra 75,000 youngsters were forced to flee their homes during the Taliban takeover.

Likewise, the medical charity MSF was “continuing to provide medical care” at field hospitals and clinics in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Kunduz and Lashkar Gah.

Richard Gowan, a UN analyst for the International Crisis Group, a think tank, posted on social media that humanitarians would stay in Afghanistan long after the Taliban’s revival stopped making headlines and dropped down the international agenda.

“Once the diplomats have evacuated and the world's attention wanes … UN agencies like Unicef will be left as the main channel of aid to Afghanistan. And they will need to maintain some very difficult relationships indeed,” Mr Gowan wrote.

Western governments and international aid agencies have been rushing to respond to a Taliban offensive in which Kabul fell before the August 31 deadline set by US President Joe Biden for the last American soldiers to withdraw.

Many aid donor countries remain on guard about the new regime in the country. Germany, Finland and Sweden said on Tuesday that they would stop sending development aid to Afghanistan for now.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have kept quiet so far, but could freeze cashflows to the country.

More than 18 million people in Afghanistan need aid, the UN says, but this year's $1.3 billion funding appeal is still more than $800 million under target.

In Kabul on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid sought to allay international fears that the group’s return to power would lead to “chaos” in Afghanistan and an uncompromising return to draconian religious rule.

“All foreign countries and your representatives, your embassies, your missions, international organisations, aid agencies … your security is assured,” said Mr Mujahid.

Women, he said, would be very "active" in the new Afghanistan "but within the frameworks of Islam".

Updated: August 18, 2021, 9:51 PM