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Slow Views

Away from Kabul Airport, a deeper crisis looms

Wednesday 1 September 2021

As well as the incomplete evacuation, Afghanistan faces a horrendous series of humanitarian challenges: conflict, Covid and drought. This is no time for the international community to avert its gaze

And now for the next act in Afghanistan. With western troops and diplomats gone and the harrowing, chaotic scenes at the airport over, it will quite quickly disappear from TV screens. Political attention will soon move on. But we have to do better than that. The military withdrawal must not be followed by a humanitarian retreat.

The landmine clearance charity, The HALO Trust, has been working in Afghanistan for 33 years, and I saw for myself in 2018 the tough, dangerous and very important work it does there. Now, alongside organisations like Save the Children and International Rescue Committee, HALO needs the UK Government and the rest of the G7 to urgently address Afghanistan’s growing humanitarian needs and ensure that their diplomatic actions prioritise allowing humanitarian access. 

In recent weeks few reporters were documenting the plight of civilians away from the airport, in a country that is suffering from a perfect storm of conflict, climate change-driven drought and a devastating third wave of Covid-19. 

Afghanistan already had the second-highest rate of food insecurity in the world. Half of all children under five are forecast to suffer from acute malnutrition this year. The World Food Programme has warned that core food supplies could run out by October. 

In recent weeks, a large number of Afghans, including approximately 75,000 children, fled the fighting to big cities, particularly Kabul. Thousands of children are now living outside in the open without food or medical care. Towns and cities are littered with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and other explosives that need to be cleared as people try to return home. The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly.

It’s vital that the international community steps up to provide the emergency humanitarian funding required. Yet the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for Afghanistan is currently less than 40 per cent funded. The Foreign Secretary’s announcement that the UK will double its humanitarian and development aid to Afghanistan is welcome. This support must be made available urgently.

We need to focus on opening up wider humanitarian space and supporting the exit of any Afghans seeking to flee the country. This is precisely the kind of emergency the new Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office was created to manage – allowing the UK’s diplomatic and humanitarian tools to work together. 

It is a good sign that the UK is already talking to Afghanistan’s neighbours. But it is not enough just to push for safe passage for those leaving. There also needs to be pressure to allow the entry of food aid and other essential equipment to avert a disaster. 

The G7 met to discuss Afghanistan last week: that group of nations needs to ensure it doesn’t take any steps that risk exacerbating conditions for those millions that remain behind, not least when determining next steps on currency reserves and the future of the banking system. Put bluntly, we can’t deliver aid if we can’t buy fuel. 

HALO, Save the Children and International Rescue Committee have worked in Afghanistan for decades. We are committed to standing with the Afghan people and we are calling on the UK Government to do the same. 

Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links is a Trustee of The HALO Trust.

Photograph by Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times