People in Afghanistan are being killed in record numbers. Not military (though they are dying too) but civilians. More women and children have been killed in the first six months of 2021 than in any first half year since 2009 – and that’s when the UN started recording these deaths.This content was published on July 27, 2021 - 10:45
When President Joe Biden announced the US pull out of America’s ‘forever war’ earlier this year, there was immediate, and uneasy, reaction from the humanitarian agencies in Geneva.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said "There are no shortcuts to achieving lasting peace in Afghanistan. Ensuring protection of those affected by the conflict…is an essential precursor to peace, prosperity and self-reliance. The consequences of conflict reverberate long after the fighting ends.”
Pointedly, the organisation added “we have been in Afghanistan more than three decades and will continue to help those in need."
Meanwhile Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned that “after 40 years of conflict, Afghanistan faces yet another period of instability in 2021…The humanitarian crisis is worsening throughout the country.”
You can almost hear the sighs of frustration. No humanitarian organisation would argue that troops should stay indefinitely, but the consequences of the sudden pull out, when peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban appear stalled, are proving to be grim.
There’s no doubt that stealthy US middle of the night departure, leaving Bagram airfield a ghost town, has been swiftly followed by a rise in violence and instability. There have been more attacks, including a particularly horrific one on a girls’ school in Kabul.
So what does the future look like? That’s what we are discussing on this week’s Inside Geneva podcast, and these were some of the first comments:
“There’s definitely fear the situation is going to become dramatically worse, going back into a civil war.”
“We hope that the international community don’t leave us in such a way that we lose everything.”
“If political support, if humanitarian support fall away, then we’re going to go back to a complete failed state.”
I can hear you readers sighing now too; it’s understandable. The conflict in Afghanistan has been going on so long, we tend to turn away, we think there’s no way to fix it, nothing we can do, and so, as the US seems to have concluded, why stay?
Can women save Afghanistan?
In fact, the three guests on the podcast, despite the fears reflected in their quotes above, are full of hope and determination. They are all women, all working in Afghanistan, and committed to staying there. Inside Geneva takes a look at the often unreported work they do.
Forozan Rasooli is deputy director of the non-governmental organization Equality for Peace and Democracy. It works in local towns and villages across the country, talking to community leaders, scholars, tribal elders, and militia groups, including the Taliban. ‘We go door to door’, she told me, with a message to fathers that girls attending school is not against the Koran, or to mothers encouraging them to try to stop their sons being sucked into the fighting.
Firouzeh Mitchell is acting head of mission in Afghanistan for the Geneva based organization Geneva Call. It seeks out direct discussion with those fighting, (and there are many different groups in Afghanistan) to remind them of their responsibilities to protect civilians.
And Vicki Aken is Afghanistan’s country director for the International Rescue Committee, an organization working there since 1988, focusing on humanitarian needs, health and education – a particular effort this year has been supporting communities affected by the devastating drought.
All these women are worried by the US and NATO pull out, not, as Forozan points out, because of the fact of leaving itself, ‘we all knew they would go sometime’, but because of the timing, and the possible knock on effect on wider international support, including from diplomatic missions, and foreign investors, some of whom are already beginning to depart as well.
You’ll have to listen to the podcast to find out more, and be prepared to have your preconceptions about Afghanistan, and particularly about Afghan women, challenged. They are not the powerless victims so much of the western media tend to portray them as.
“There’s female activists, female journalists, there’s female politicians, female police officers,” points out Firouzeh Mitchell. These women are doing their jobs in Afghanistan, day after day, despite the upsurge in violence.
“I’m just astounded every day by the bravery of Afghan women,” says Vicki Aken. And Forozan Rasooli adds, women have been vocal all through the long decades of conflict. “They have never stopped their struggle, they have never stopped to raise their voices.”
And they’re certainly not going to stop now. These women have a positive vision for Afghanistan’s future, even as the fighting rages, as government troops lose control of more provinces, and a curfew is imposed to try to curb the Taliban’s advance.
Maybe the foreign troops are leaving, but these remarkable women are staying, which is why our support – financial, moral, diplomatic – surely needs to stay too.