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Humanitarian organisations hold firm in Afghanistan as Taliban take over

Afghan police conduct their duties after Taliban take over Kandahar, 15 August 2021. Many international organisations are continuing operations in Afghanistan as the Taliban takes control. (Keystone/EPA/STRINGER)

The Taliban’s capture of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, is nearly complete since beginning their offensive on Sunday. The group’s successful assault on the capital follows two weeks of relentless fighting, which saw the fall of other major Afghan cities in the west, north, and south.

The Taliban’s rapid advance follows the withdrawal of US troops from the country after 20 years by the Biden administration. The US embassy in Kabul has been evacuated, President Ashraf Ghani has fled  the country, and Afghan civilians are rushing to the international airport in Kabul in hope of reaching safety.

As the Taliban’s control solidifies across the country, international humanitarian organisations face the decision of whether to withdraw or restrict their operations in the area. But several are choosing to stay.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) told Geneva Solutions it remains operational in the country, where it currently has 1,800 international and national staff. A spokesperson said ICRC-supported health facilities have treated more than 4,000 patients wounded by fighting since 1 August. “There are no plans to stop our work in the region.”

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is also continuing operations. “As we see how the situation in Kabul develops, MSF this morning advised its Afghan staff to go home and is temporarily reducing the number of international staff in its coordination office,” a spokesperson said. “We continue to run our medical activities in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Kunduz and Lashkar Gah.” Each of these cities have fallen to the Taliban.

A representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which has 11 offices in Afghanistan and around 80 staff on the ground, said the organisation continues to have a presence in every region of the country.

The spokesperson said that in the 65 years that UNICEF has been working in the country it has “nurtured community networks and built trust with everyone we need to get the job done,” including  “a range of partners that support us in delivering life-saving supplies to the most disadvantaged”.

They emphasised their work supporting women and children of Afghanistan, who have been particularly hard hit by the conflict. According to UNICEF, more than 552 children have been killed and over 1,400 have been injured since the start of the year.

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The United Nations’ Refugee agency (UNHCR) said it also plans to continue operations as long as it can. “UNHCR currently has some 200 staff in Afghanistan, in addition to some 13 national NGO partners on the ground providing critical assistance,” Catherine Stubberfield, spokesperson for UNHCR’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, told Geneva Solutions.

“UNHCR and partners remain operational in nearly three quarters of districts in Afghanistan, though UNHCR’s access to internally displaced persons and communities in some areas of the country has been constrained in recent weeks, owing to the deteriorating security situation and conflict,” she said.

“We will stay and deliver for the Afghan people for as long as we have access to populations in need and safety for our colleagues and partners.”

The UN secretary general addressed the Security Council on the situation in Afghanistan on Monday, urging all sides to respect the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people calling on the international community “to stand together, to work together and act together.”

“Much lies in the balance”, he said. “The dreams of a generation of young Afghan women and girls, boys and men.”