Afghanistan on the Brink: Time for a Broader Humanitarian Intervention

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Two participants in the Afghan Trauma Mentorship Program observe an operation at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Feb. 14, 2013. The program invites Afghan doctors and nurses to learn about the latest medical techniques and equipment. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. David Dobrydney)

In a breathtaking battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, compounded with a full-fledged war with the Taliban with no certain prospect for peace, and a long-standing political impasse in Kabul following the October 2019 Presidential Elections, the Afghan government is struggling more than any other affected country in the world to contain a global pandemic that has brought some of the world’s wealthiest and powerful nations to their knees. Inadequate infrastructure further restrained by ineffective coordination and communication made things more difficult for Kabul to respond. A humanitarian catastrophe is going to unfold in Afghanistan unless proper measures are taken immediately.

In an exclusive 1TV interview after taking oath as First Vice-President, Amrullah Saleh made a confident statement, claiming the government has put a set of firm measures and precautions in place — while sharing no details on how they work — to reduce the infection rate of the pandemic before it reaches its peak. A week after his interview, the realities on the ground speak otherwise. Test kits are in short supply in Balkh, Herat, and Faryab while some regional centers like Bamyan, Badakhshan, and South East region have yet to receive their testing kits. Kabul city’s test centers are overwhelmed with referrals increasing on a daily basis while infection rates of hospital staff across the country continue to increase, including three doctors dying only in Kabul.

Saleh also said that this time and unprecedentedly, as the government battles with COVID-19, it will not hide behind non-state actors like the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) and other similar aid agencies. He argued aid agencies had been undermining the authority of nation states throughout the years and that will not happen again.

As the country’s best-equipped testing center for COVID -19, the Afghan-Japan Communicable Disease Hospital in Kabul was the sole center responding to hundreds of referrals per day. Scores of suspected referrals sent to this hospital were either rejected or sent home for self-isolation without testing. In some instances, it has taken the patients in Kabul city more than 10 to 12 days to get the result of their tests.

In Herat, during the first chaotic weeks, it took almost three weeks for the tightly centralized National Procurement Authority to facilitate a limited funds release to Afghanistan’s first pandemic-hit province. When a doctor in Herat Provincial Hospital complained about the shortage of medical supplies in the hospital he worked in, he was immediately fired. In the same vain, media reports suggest that doctors and health workers in Kabul and the provinces complained about limited supplies and equipment despite the efforts made by Kabul to open new test centers. Unconfirmed reports also suggest that a number of medical personnel in Herat have quit their jobs in fear of getting infected by the virus. This will add more burden on the already insufficient health services in the provinces.

Following a mounting public outrage to the response to the pandemic, Ashraf Ghani, on April 16, fired all 3 deputy ministers to the Minister of Health in a single decree, while announcing revised measures to fight the spread of the pandemic across the country. A week earlier, his strategic communication adviser who ran the show on COVID-19 public messaging, stepped back amid widespread public criticism on the fashion he had handled public messaging funds.

In their first “COVID-19 Access Impediment” report, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), revealed excessive constraints to access linked to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Kabul and in the provinces on NGO workers. The report also reflected on the complaints of aid agencies with regards to temporary stoppage of visa issuance by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to the report, there has been a dramatic shrink in the international humanitarian footprint in the country, down from approximately 1,300 expat employees to 250 currently remaining in country.

The bare fact is that Afghanistan’s institutions are still aid-dependent and too logistically weak to handle implementation of large aid allocations under normal and emergency situations. Kabul is strangled by a deep political crisis while facing a formidable Taliban insurgency across the country leaving the vulnerable population in greater danger of food insecurity and access to health services. Thus, a country-wide relief operation aimed at countering COVID-19 needs a broader coordination and implementation mechanism which is beyond the capacity of the government.

Given the centralized system of governance in Kabul, provincial governors are struggling with limited authority and resources at their disposal to initiate their own prompt response.

That said, it is vital to the integrity of the state and International Community’s presence in Afghanistan to call for a modification of the mandate of United Nation’s Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) with a main focus on humanitarian assistance. Parallel to that, the Afghan Government should display a political will to redefine the current state of play with emergency coordination mechanism across the country by restructuring the COVID-19 task force to allow more administrative independence and resources at the local level. The task force should look at practically sharing resources and sequencing activities on the ground.

This task force should be jointly led by Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) and UNAMA. Both parties should be backed by the relevant government line ministries and the UN agencies, EU, and INGOs.

The task force should break down the country into 8 geographical zones once used by UNAMA’s model of civil affairs coordination of operations. Each zone should be empowered with emergency coordination and response infrastructure in order to address similar situations, even in the future after COVID-19.

It is also crucial that the UN Security Council, in addition to the Secretary General’s call for global ceasefire, reiterate its Resolution 2417 (2018) to the Taliban and other fighting groups that calls for “condemning the starving of civilians as a method of warfare — as well as the unlawful denial of humanitarian access to civilian populations.”


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Arif Ammar
Mr. Ammar is a political and media communication professional. He worked as the U.S. Embassy’s Country Media Adviser for four years in Kabul, working closely with the mission’s leadership, engaging in media management advising, organizing and liaising media outreach with an extended array of Afghan and International media outlets. Among his previous employments in the last decade, Mr. Ammar has worked as Political Adviser for the Delegation of the European Union, Office of Special Representative (EUSR) in Kabul for four years. Prior to that, he has worked as Research Associate for the International Crisis Group (ICG) field office in Kabul for four years, assisting in research policy papers and policy briefings papers on thematic issues in Afghanistan. Prior to that, Mr. Ammar has worked for four years for the Aga Khan Development Network (ADKN) in development and humanitarian assistance portfolio in Afghanistan. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Kateb University and a Master’s degree in International Relations from Ibni-Sina University, Kabul.