In Focus

Humanitarian Aid Can Offer Respite from Afghanistan’s Winter Challenge

With the onset of winters, Afghanistan is in dire need of humanitarian aid to provide proper care to its people. The international community needs to place millions of Afghans at priority on humanitarian grounds.


Winter has served as a breather to the Taliban for decades as traditionally they ease down on weapons during the few snowy months, however, for the militants the harsh season had never been free of the winter offensive occasionally launched by the successive Kabul governments and the Allied Forces against them. 
In the shadow of the looming catastrophic human security crisis, the decisive gains of ‘Hojom 1400’, or summer offensive this year, the Taliban pocketed significant territorial gains accomplished during summer 2021 before taking over the country in August. Although this might dampen with the approaching new winter offensive as this time they have locked horns with nature and drying economic resources. 
With the foreign forces abandoning the war-torn Afghanistan to the bemused ruling Taliban, fulfilling their prime demand and desire, they left behind a thorny trail to Kabul. Can the Taliban tackle it with the cataclysm of the summer-offensive versus the winter-offensive syndrome? Probably yes, but certainly not on their own as economic bottlenecks would remain a difficult riddle to solve by the nascent government in Kabul. 
The aftermath of two decades of U.S. presence in Afghanistan that cost $830 billion in futile attempts to establish a functioning state, the arithmetic on the prevailing situation in the country not only presents an apparent bleak scenario but is equally disturbing for humanity across the world. Almost half of the 40 million Afghans require humanitarian assistance and almost 9 million would need consistent long-term assistance. There are 4 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan. Afghans constitute the second largest refugee population in the world with over 2 million residing mostly in Pakistan while some are in Iran and other neighboring countries of Afghanistan. Since the beginning of the Afghan conflict in 1978, Pakistan has been hosting most of the displaced Afghans on its soil, the largest population of refugees in one place. 
With the takeover of government in Kabul by the Taliban in August 2021, the deepening economic collapse has escalated the mounting famine. Almost 23 million Afghans would face acute food shortage including 3.2 million children under the age of five. The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has warned that the growing crisis in the healthcare system would escalate the malnutrition issues. Amid the setting winter, Alice Akunga, UNICEF’s Acting Representative in Afghanistan, warned that “The current humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is dire, especially for children.” She said, “As families struggle to put nutritious food on the table and health systems are further strained, millions of Afghan children are at risk of starvation and death. Others struggle to access water and sanitation, are cut off from their schools and at heightened risk of violence.”
According to the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University, the outbreak of six major diseases is casting dark shadows over the already grim situation, including measles, polio, cholera, dengue fever and malaria, in addition to the Coronavirus pandemic – the response to which is almost at a dead end. The basic healthcare facilities have run out of essentials such as hygiene products, drugs, colostomy bags and others, whereas hospitals dealing with infectious diseases in Kabul have reduced to almost nothing.
The UN’s Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) has underlined that EUR 1.3 billion in humanitarian aid was needed in 2021 alone. The Taliban’s access to Afghan assets worth $10 billion being frozen in the U.S. Federal Reserve under sanctions by the West has further led to the complexities of the new government in Kabul multiplying several folds. 
Imposing of sanctions had essentially been triggered by the curbs on human rights in Afghanistan. The country “is spinning out of control”, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres warned in August. “Deeply disturbed by early indications that the Taliban are imposing severe restrictions on human rights in the areas under their control, particularly targeting women and journalists”, he said while adding, “It is particularly horrifying and heartbreaking to see reports of the hard-won rights of Afghan girls and women being ripped away from them.” 
Some analysts argued that had the composition of the predominantly Pashtun government maintained an inclusive composure than the exclusive one with different ethnic groups represented in the power sharing; If everyone, including women, had continued working as they were, the attitude of the international community towards Afghanistan would have been quite different. However, in a situation where 30 of the 33 government leaders happen to be ethnic Pashtun, marginalizing other ethnic communities and the plight of women and children attracts sympathy and rage over the ruling government where sanctions are the most likely outcome. 
Whereas Dr. Paul Spiegel, former Chief of Public Health at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees believes the West should find another tactic to impose sanctions on the Taliban, “There needs to be a much more nuanced way of implementing sanctions than using such a blunt instrument [as they are currently configured].” The knock-on effect of the IMF’s warning of a 30 per cent shrink would squeeze the vulnerable as the decades of war-ravaged country further plunges into poverty. “Without additional funding, UNICEF and partners will be unable to reach the children and families that need us the most,” Akunga warned. 
Besides the mammoth financial constrains, the more serious issue is between how to get the Taliban’s self-esteem that gears at governing the war-ravaged country their way despite the financial and technical capacity constraints and allowing the international community to conduct the humanitarian relief activities. International organizations observed that the ruling Taliban still needed to break through the aura of an insurgent movement and psychologically assume the new role as the government and act like one. 
The most needed programs on humanitarian essentials that require resumption by the NGOs and international organizations are on hold since the Taliban’s seizure of power in August and with the approaching harsh winter, the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan would not be far from bad to worse. Spiegel warned, “While understanding concerns about the Taliban… the reality is that a lot of people will die because of them.” In a meeting with a delegation of senior U.S. Congressional Representatives comprising U.S. Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Gregory Meeks, and Foreign Affairs Asia Sub-Committee Chairman, Ami Bera, in November, Prime Minister Khan reiterated the dire need to engage with the Taliban government in Afghanistan to forestall a potential humanitarian disaster.
Fulfilling their responsibility to the brotherly neighboring state of Afghanistan, as Pakistan always does in the time of need, whether by supplying humanitarian aid or hosting several millions of refugees from across the border during the past four decades of continuing conflict in Afghanistan, Pakistan always remains forthcoming and at the forefront. 
Prime Minister Imran Khan urged the international community to step forward and fulfill its “collective responsibility” and help Afghanistan repel the looming humanitarian crisis. In continuation of Pakistan’s consistent humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan, the Prime Minister, in November, approved a $28 million humanitarian aid package for Afghanistan which will comprise “food commodities including 50,000 [metric tonnes] of wheat, emergency medical supplies, winter shelters and other supplies.”
The Government of Pakistan will also reduce tariffs and sales tax on certain Afghan exports to Pakistan. Not only that, Pakistan will also facilitate the return of Afghan patients who sought medical treatment in India and were stranded since August due to the change of government in Kabul. Prime Minister Imran Khan also authorized to facilitate 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat offered by India as humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan “to go through Pakistan as soon as modalities are finalized with the Indian side”, according to an official statement.
The United Nations General Assembly had adopted four resolutions to overcome barriers in the backdrop of COVID-19 restrictions amid threats of famine and economic hardships. In his opening remarks, Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), former President of the General Assembly in December 2020, cited the Global Humanitarian Overview 2021 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic saying: 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021 and called for strengthened coordination and efforts to those in need.
The documents A/75/L.11 and A/75/L.44, particularly address the humanitarian aid and assistance. By adopting the resolution, international cooperation on humanitarian assistance in the field of natural disasters, from relief to development (document A/75/L.11), the Assembly reaffirmed the importance of implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. The Assembly also urged the United Nations and all relevant stakeholders to strengthen the resilience of member states, including through capacity building for communities and the application of new technology. While adopting the resolution, strengthening of the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance of the United Nations (document A/75/L.44), the Assembly requested the Emergency Relief Coordinator to continue his efforts in strengthening the coordination of emergency humanitarian assistance. It urged member states, the United Nations, and others, to reinforce preparedness and response capabilities to deal with outbreaks of infectious diseases. The Assembly also urged member states, the United Nations and others to urgently respond to, prevent and prepare for rising food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
Besides humanity’s obligation to the vulnerable masses and the significance of dire need for generous provision of international humanitarian assistance, the most important implication would be on regional peace and the possible fallout of foreseen catastrophic crisis in Afghanistan that would impact the regional peace and stability. Human rights violations or not, humanity at large requires responding to the crisis regardless of political or strategic considerations. The examples of Iraq, Syria and many other countries under international sanctions including those in a rogue situation like Libya are before us, where nothing deterred the provision of humanitarian assistance to the needy and vulnerable. 
Witnessing millions perish in the absence of required humanitarian aid in the name of upholding the name of punishing the violators of human rights would create the violation of human rights – basic human needs and security specified in the United Nations Charter of Human Rights. If a specific government is reported to have been violating human rights, should the needed help be restricted to punish the violator? In fact, it would directly lash at the already crushed and cornered masses.
80 per cent of humanitarian funding is contributed by top 10 aid donors (from the developed world, of course). A political solution of conflicts would ease humanity at large rather than allowing the catastrophic situations to escalate beyond repair. 
The case for immediate extension of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan is ripe and the world is immediately required to step forward before the looming catastrophic situation in Afghanistan starts taking toll on millions of innocent vulnerable Afghans cornered by the strategic and political compulsions of a few.


The writer is a senior journalist and adjunct faculty at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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