Afghanistan is heading towards catastrophic humanitarian disaster – to turn our backs now would be shameful
As we enter the new year, the Afghan people face an unprecedented humanitarian situation.
It’s by no means an exaggeration to say Afghanistan is heading full speed towards a catastrophic humanitarian disaster borne from a chaotic withdrawal of NATO troops, coupled with devastating cuts to foreign aid.
The facts are truly devastating. Around 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s hospitals and clinics are without the resources they need to open and 97 per cent of the population will soon be living below the poverty line. Public services are on their knees with teachers, doctors and nurses going unpaid for months, and communities being left without electricity.
Yet the situation could get even worse. As the country heads into winter, with temperatures plummeting well below zero, the World Food Programme estimates that up to 98 per cent of the country – up to 23 million people – will be left without the food they need to survive. By any measure, this is no “normal” humanitarian crisis.
The government should have foreseen that an economy so dependant on overseas aid would begin to unravel with such savage cuts
Nonetheless, in the wake of the chaotic withdrawal of troops from the country – with Afghans and Brits left stranded alike – and after last year’s sudden withdrawal of life-saving overseas aid, this is a humanitarian crisis the international community could have predicted. The government should have foreseen that an economy so dependant on overseas aid would begin to unravel with such savage cuts.
So, what can we do? Firstly, the government needs to heed the wise advice of Gordon Brown and convene an UN-backed pledging conference to press the international community to meet the current enormous need. With public services decimated, it is imperative that cash can flow into the country to allow vital public services to function.
Second, the government must ensure that immediate emergency and humanitarian relief is available to our trusted partners and INGOs on the ground. Given the enormous scale of the crisis we see in Afghanistan, it’s nothing short of a scandal that, as of late October, the government has distributed less than 30 per cent of what it promised to Afghanistan in this financial year.
Thirdly, the government must recognise the need to negotiate a new term of engagement with the Taliban. Whether we like it or not, we must accept the reality of what took place following the withdrawal of NATO troops. Failure to engage on any level with the Taliban will result in more lives being needlessly lost.
That is why weeks of intensive international talks in Doha, at the UN Security Council and between the ‘Troika Plus’ are so important and offer a route - with strict parameters for engagement - towards dialogue and the possible emergence of an Afghan government that has greater respect for human rights.
Saving millions of lives and preventing famine in Afghanistan - yet alone further political collapse and the refugee crisis that would spark - depend on these negotiations succeeding.
Finally, the government should heed the advice of the new Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, and ensure safe routes are available for refugees and those fleeing persecution to travel to safety.
It’s deeply shameful it took the government five months since the fall of Kabul to open the Afghanistan Citizens Resettlement Scheme and still today British nationals, British Council staff and others are still in hiding. Like with its humanitarian response, the government has offered too little, too late.
The humanitarian disaster taking place in Afghanistan is unprecedented in both its scale, and human suffering. As a proud, outward-looking country, we simply cannot turn our backs on ordinary Afghans at their time of greatest need. We owe Afghans a moral duty to act, and act now. As Gordon Brown rightly says, failure to do so would be a badge of shame that the free world would carry forever.
Preet Kaur Gill is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and Shadow International Development Secretary.
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