Even as US and NATO forces and almost the entire Western diplomatic corps packed up and fled the Afghan capital last month as the Taliban took control, a handful of international assistant directors made a decision: they stayed put.
They are now the most visible representatives of the decades-long Western development mission in Afghanistan, and along with United Nations humanitarian agencies, they are the people on the ground negotiating with the Taliban about working conditions for thousands of Afghan workers.
Seven of the eight directors who have remained to lead their organizations’ relief efforts in Afghanistan are women.
“We’re not here much,” one of them said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.” She, like others, asked not to be named as relations with the Taliban remain so hesitant.
For the past 20 years, military and diplomatic forces from around the world have taken central Kabul and filled a green zone adjacent to the presidential palace with embassies, military bases and residences. But long before they came, non-governmental development organizations worked to alleviate poverty and help develop essential health and education services in Afghanistan.
Most of them were careful to distance themselves from the US-led military operations after they started in 2001. They already had experience working with the Taliban when they ruled the country in the late 1990s and took control of rural districts in recent months. and years.
Now, at a time when Afghanistan’s aid needs are greater than ever, the diplomatic skills of aid agencies are being tested like never before.
Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, was already in dire need before the Taliban takeover, with 3.5 million displaced and 18 million people dependent on humanitarian aid in a country of about 38 million people. But aid organizations are concerned about embracing an organization like the Taliban with a history of brutality too soon.
“We need to engage because this is a very important moment to engage and try to influence us,” said Filippo Grandi, the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency. “But I think we have to reserve our judgment a little bit.”
With some aid organizations employing as many as 1,500 local staff across the country in critical areas such as health, education and agriculture, the larger organizations say they have never considered packing or closing. Instead, they had to watch as thousands who had worked in government or foreign organizations rushed to Kabul airport to catch evacuation flights.
“It’s like going through the stages of grief,” a country director said of the Taliban takeover on August 15. “When they came into Kabul, I didn’t sleep or eat for three days. I was sedated. I was on the line with everyone, with staff around the clock.”
After some militants occupied her office, she recalled, she had to face a tense confrontation when another group sent by the Taliban commissioner for foreign aid forced it back. Then came the ordeal of evacuating its international staff through the chaos at the airport.
Some of the organization’s Afghan employees also chose to leave, but the vast majority have stayed, largely because there is no way out.
“I think the point where I accepted that I wouldn’t get out was the point where I could go back to sleep,” said the country director. “My staff needs me. I think it will be fine.”
The most immediate concerns were to prevent looting of their offices and warehouses and to protect local employees. The Taliban have asked humanitarian organizations to continue operating, assuring them that they would provide security, even handing out a phone number to call if gunmen visited.
Still, Taliban members have taken over the property of at least one nonprofit and looted equipment and vehicles from others, several assistant directors said. And fighters from the powerful Haqqani Network have taken over the large campus of the American University of Afghanistan, a proud flagship of US investment in higher education for Afghans.
In addition to the danger of so many armed groups and the threat of the ISIS-K group, which claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide bombing at the airport, there is a growing hunger problem. Last week, a top UN humanitarian official in Afghanistan warned that the organization’s food aid was dwindling and would run out by the end of the month.
And buying food has become difficult for many, impossible for some.
Salaries across the government, including in the health and education sectors, have been halted following a decision by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to freeze funding after President Ashraf Ghani’s government collapsed and the Taliban took over . The Central Bank’s assets were also frozen, forcing banks to close access to cash and restrict access to cash. There is no work for day laborers.
Outside the capital, the attitude of Afghanistan’s new rulers differs. As a result, aid agencies can resume their usual activities in just four of the country’s 34 provinces.
In some places everything has been suspended, from schools and health clinics to public offices and businesses. In at least six provinces, women are not allowed to return to work, according to one of the country directors who is monitoring the situation across the country.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
In some areas, the Taliban have visited nonprofit organizations to demand lists of personnel and assets, information about the organization’s budget, and procurement contracts. They also announced restrictions on recruitment. Those actions are at odds with the reassurances offered by the Taliban leadership, and raise concerns about tighter controls on the horizon.
“They urgently need someone to do something for the Afghan people,” Mr Grandi, the UN refugee chief, said in an interview at his headquarters in Geneva, adding: “We can help the people a lot, and we need to this point.”
But he warned that humanitarian aid would not be enough to avert disaster, and urged Western governments to think quickly about how to work with the Taliban to deliver large-scale development aid funded through the World Bank. and provided health care, to restart. , education and other basic services such as clean drinking water.
“They have to think pretty quickly about the development piece, the institutional piece, the World Bank, the IMF piece,” he said. “If you don’t, the risk of displacement is high.”
Grandi said he has heard the “most extraordinary concern” from European governments fearing a repeat of 2015, when more than a million Syrian refugees entered Europe.
Further fighting could lead to some Afghans fleeing their country, he said. So is the imposition of a radical Taliban regime, he added. But a collapse in services and the economy, he warned, could trigger a massive displacement of people from Afghanistan.
Nonprofits that enter into a relationship with the new Taliban rulers say there must be tough conditions.
Restrictions on women’s work would not only infringe on their rights, but would also have widespread effects on how aid is delivered, a country director said. Only women can enter people’s homes and estimate needs reliably, and without them development aid would be unfairly administered, she said.
“It is very important that non-governmental organizations have a united front,” she said.