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Afghanistan: who is to blame?

"If you look at the past year or so, you could blame the Taliban, but you must look to the roots of the crisis"
Anuradha Mittall, Institute for Food and Development Policy, based in Washington.

A consolidated UN appeal, launched by Secretary General Kofi Annan on September 27th requested US$584 million. Contingency planning figures were forecast at an additional one and a half million refugees that would cross the borders into, mainly, Pakistan and Iran. In response the international community has been decisive, quick and generous, the US has promised US$320 million, UK $25 million, Italy $7.5 million, Canada $5 million, the EU an additional $4 million, Ireland $2.5 million, New Zealand $400,000, even actress Angelina Jolie contributed a million dollars.

Exactly one month later, there were less than 100,000 'new' refugees. There is a wide range of factors for this unexpectedly low number and only the near future will tell if the worst-case scenario will be reached.

Who is to blame?

The present nutritional, economic and health crises in Afghanistan (see also page 22) have a very recent historic source and are not caused by the limited bombing of Afghanistan or the Taliban government. As stated by Joel Charny, vice president for policy for Refugees International, in an interview with Reuters news agency on September 26th "Are the Taliban responsible for the current crisis? I could say quite honestly very minimally." According to the Secretary General's office, the increases in obstructions to humanitarian programmes are linked to the UN sanctions imposed in 2000. "These repeated assaults on humanitarian action became more frequent after the imposition of resolution 13331 (2000)." It goes on to say that internal politics in the Taliban and conflicting interpretations of the principles of humanitarian principles and agencies "must rank alongside the UN sanctions as contributory causes to the problems faced by the humanitarian agencies".

The reality

As can be seen from the graphs, Afghanistan and its neighbours have suffered from the effects of war, drought and famine for over 20 years. Only as recently as 1992 there was an estimated 6,000,000 Afghan refugees residing in neighbouring countries. Through a combination of Pakistani and Iranian assistance polices, donor support and work undertaken by NGOs the refugees were cared for. Apart from the current Pakistani policy of closing its borders and given the generous response by donors and the public and the significant numbers of established and newly arrived NGOs there is no reason to believe that we will not be able to care for any new influx of refugees. With the approaching winter, the possible escalation of the conflict and the uncertainty of access, the population most at risk are the 1.1 million IDPs in the country. That said, WFP did manage to deliver over 14,000 tons of food to its beneficiaries in Afghanistan in October. Their target was 52,000 tons and they hope to maximise distribution by contracting more NGOs as implementing partners for secondary distributions. The cynical PR exercise of limited airdrops that were carried out early in the bombing is certainly not the answer to overcome the problems of access on the ground.

The NGO response

In the few days following the attacks in North Eastern USA, and when it became apparent that the US were going to carry out military action on Afghan territory the NGOs launched appeals whilst simultaneously pleading for restraint from the US and its 'allies'. Both Interaction, which represents a coalition of American NGOs and its European counterpart ICVA released statements urging caution and a plea for vulnerable Afghans. All of the larger humanitarian agencies and hundreds of others from around the World have deployed or strengthened their resources and have now based themselves around Afghanistan with some fully operational in the Northern non-Taliban controlled area.

Agencies targeted?

Human Rights Watch published a report on October 18th outlining the increase in attacks on aid agencies by the Taliban since the bombing began eleven days previously. UNHCR, WFP, OCHA, IOM, MSF, SCA, Islamic Relief and numerous unnamed demining agencies have been looted, staff beaten and vehicles stolen. In addition agencies have become part of the so-called 'collateral damage' through wayward bombing by the US/UK military. On October 8th the UN funded Afghan Technical Consultants agencies Kabul HQ was hit by a missile killing four staff, October the 15th saw a WFP employee wounded by shrapnel whilst unloading grain at the WFP warehouse, the following day two clearly marked ICRC warehouses were destroyed during daytime air assault and the 26th October saw another three ICRC warehouses in Kabul hit.

As we go to press, the United Front (Northern Alliance) had taken control of some 70% of the country. WFP and Unicef had convoys of supplies arriving, IDPs were returning home but security was tenuous. The challenge for the humanitarian community is to mobilise quickly to ensure essential food, shelter and health supplies are moved before the full onset of winter. Given the monetary resources made available and the long lead-in time for implementation, surely this challenge can be met.


Chronology of events in Afghanistan

1978 Communist government introduced a deeply unpopular and massive agricultural reform programme. Some displacement to the cities.

1979 Soviet army, at the invitation of the communist government moves in to Afghanistan and installs a 'puppet government'.

1981 Due to the conflict between Afghan militia and the Soviet army some 1.5 million refugees had fled to Pakistan.

1986 Almost 5 million refugees now scattered in camps all around Afghanistan's neighbouring countries

1989 The Soviets complete withdrawal of troops leaving behind a pro-Moscow communist regime.

1992 The Mujahideen defeat the government, more than a million refugees return home within the next eighteen months. Factional fighting fragments the Mujahideen and Afghanistan slips into anarchy.

1994 The emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

1996 Taliban takes Kabul sending the government into flight. Most of the world do not recognise new rulers.

1998 UN sponsored talks aim to reach consensus and peace in Afghanistan between the different factions.

2000 For the first time in 10 years an increase is reported in refugee numbers from Afghanistan. Afghans were leaving the country due to drought and conflict.

2001 (pre-September 11th) - Refugee and IDP numbers rise sharply, WFP launches appeal to assist more then 3.5 million drought and conflict-affected persons.

Now - 100,000 refugees cross into Pakistan, WFP relaunches appeal to target 7.5 million Afghans (resident Afghans, IDPs, and refugees)

Show footnotes

1The UN General Assembly Resolution authorising sanctions against Afghanistan due to Taliban's refusal to extradite Osama bin Laden in connection with the American embassy bombings in Africa in 1998

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Afghanistan: who is to blame?. Field Exchange 14, November 2001. p10.



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