From Kabul to Kentucky: Afghans put down roots in refugee haven

By Amira Karaoud and Mary Milliken

BOWLING GREEN, Ky. (Reuters) – After exhausting journeys that took them from Kabul to Qatar to European cities to U.S. military bases, Afghan families fleeing the Taliban alighted in Kentucky, in a small city well versed in receiving refugees.

Bowling Green has welcomed waves of refugees over four decades, beginning with the Cambodians in the 1980’s and then Bosnians in the 1990’s, plus Iraqis, Burmese, Rwandese and Congolese and others, who have helped make the city of 72,000 a diverse and economically thriving place.

Wazir Khan Zadran was a tribal leader who fought 20 years ago against the Haqqani network, a powerful faction within the Taliban. Although he more recently worked with a non-governmental organization, he knew the Taliban would come for him.

Zadran said the Americans saved him and his family by picking them up in a Chinook helicopter in August and taking them to the Kabul airport. After a spell at a New Mexico military base, they were sent to Bowling Green and quickly realized they had lucked out in their new American lives.

“We are so happy in Bowling Green,” said the 41-year-old father, who has secured a comfortable house and sent his children to school with the assistance of the local resettlement agency, the International Center, founded in 1981.

“Also, the local community is helping us and introducing the culture to us,” Zadran added.

His six children are learning songs in English, sending “Dear Santa” letters off, going to the library and lapping up ice cream at Baskin-Robbins.

In the aftermath of rising anti-immigrant and refugee sentiment during the Trump administration, the United States government is now handling its biggest refugee evacuation since Vietnam. Of the nearly 75,000 expected to settle in America, Bowling Green will receive 350 Afghans in fiscal year 2022.

There are plenty of jobs for new residents of Bowling Green, an agricultural and manufacturing hub, perhaps best known for the assembly plant that makes the coveted Corvette sports car. The Bosnians, who now number around 10,000 and own several companies, attest to the good job prospects when the Afghans’ expedited work permits arrive in coming months.

“In 2000 when I came here, I arrived with a couple of suitcases and two infant children and my wife,” said Tahir Zukic, a Bosnian from Srebrenica who owns Taz Trucking, employing 100 people and 140 trucks.

“It’s absolutely an amazing place to be, with a lot of opportunity and you can just do what you like to do.”

For those who did not work with the Americans in Afghanistan, learning the language could be the toughest part of adapting to their new home, Zukic said. But they also must learn how America works, how to drive, how to get a credit card. And what to do when tornadoes approach.

The twisters that tore through Kentucky this month jolted the Afghans’ sense of security. They were confounded by the 1 a.m. sirens that reminded them of Kabul and shocked by the uprooted trees, roofs ripped off houses and deaths in one neighborhood home to many immigrants.

“We never saw a storm like this before in our life in Afghanistan, so we felt maybe we were going to another war,” Zadran said. “But God saved us.”

‘THIS IS MY PLACE’

Firas Majeed arrived in Bowling Green from Baghdad via Brooklyn, New York, in 2016. The Iraqi refugee came to visit a friend and decided “this is my place.” He now co-owns a grocery store stocked with Middle Eastern and European foods after working as a welder.

“The quality of life is higher than in the big cities,” said Majeed, who appreciates the big skies and verdant farms around Bowling Green, strong job market, low rents and medical care.

Majeed said the Afghans will get a lot of support because everyone saw the images of the chaotic evacuation from Kabul. The Iraqis can teach them things, like how to get a driver’s license.

Bowling Green is also a place that allows refugees to hold onto their identities while becoming Americans – offering a socially conservative environment to raise families and practice religions.

At the Forest Park Baptist Church, Congolese refugees have breathed new life into the community. Worship services and Bible study are translated into Swahili and sometimes held in that language.

“We love their gospel singing,” said church leader Mike Givens, and the church translates their songs so everyone hears the message.

“Our community has changed, so if we do not seek or go after the immigrant population, our church will not survive,” added Givens.

Back at the Zadran house, the children make quick progress with their new culture. The eldest, Zuleikha, teaches her siblings a song in English with the lyrics “What are you thankful for?”

As they applaud their own performance, Zuleikha declares “Finished!” and flashes a wide grin.

(Reporting by Amira Karaoud and Mary Milliken; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Exclusive-World Bank works to redirect frozen funds to Afghanistan for humanitarian aid only: sources

By Jonathan Landay and Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The World Bank is finalizing a proposal to deliver up to $500 million from a frozen Afghanistan aid fund to humanitarian agencies, people familiar with the plans told Reuters, but it leaves out tens of thousands of public sector workers and remains complicated by U.S. sanctions.

Board members will meet informally on Tuesday to discuss the proposal, hammered out in recent weeks with U.S. and U.N. officials, to redirect the funds from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which has a total of $1.5 billion.

Afghanistan’s 39 million people face a cratering economy, a winter of food shortages and growing poverty three months after the Taliban seized power as the last U.S. troops withdrew from 20 years of war.

Afghan experts said the aid will help, but big gaps remain, including how to get the funds into Afghanistan without exposing the financial institutions involved to U.S. sanctions, and the lack of focus on state workers, the sources said.

The money will go mainly to addressing urgent health care needs in Afghanistan, where less than 7% of the population has been vaccinated against the coronavirus, they said.

For now, it will not cover salaries for teachers and other government workers, a policy that the experts say could hasten the collapse of Afghanistan’s public education, healthcare and social services systems. They warn that hundreds of thousands of workers, who have been unpaid for months, could stop showing up for their jobs and join a massive exodus from the country.

The World Bank will have no oversight of the funds once transferred into Afghanistan, said one of the sources familiar with the plans.

“The proposal calls for the World Bank to transfer the money to the U.N. and other humanitarian agencies, without any oversight or reporting, but it says nothing about the financial sector, or how the money will get into the country,” the source said, calling U.S. sanctions a major constraint.

‘NOT A SILVER BULLET’

While the U.S. Treasury has provided “comfort letters” assuring banks that they can process humanitarian transactions, concern about sanctions continues to prevent passage of even basic supplies, including food and medicine, the source added.

“It’s a scorched earth approach. We’re driving the country into the dust,” said the source. Crippling sanctions and failure to take care of public sector workers will “create more refugees, more desperation and more extremism.”

Any decision to redirect ARTF money requires the approval of all its donors, of which the United States has been the largest.

A State Department spokesperson confirmed that Washington is working with the World Bank and other donors on how to use the funds, including potentially paying those who work in “critical positions such as healthcare workers and teachers.”

The spokesperson said the U.S. government remains committed to meeting the  critical needs of the  Afghan people, “especially across health, nutrition, education, and food security sectors … but international aid is not a silver bullet.”

BYPASSING TALIBAN

Established in 2002 and administered by the World Bank, the ARTF was the largest financing source for Afghanistan’s civilian budget, which was more than 70% funded by foreign aid.

The World Bank suspended disbursements after the Taliban takeover. At the same time, Washington stopping supplying U.S. dollars to the country and joined in freezing some $9 billion in Afghan central bank assets and halting financial assistance.

A World Bank spokesperson confirmed that staff and executive board members are exploring redirecting ARTF funds to U.N. agencies “to support humanitarian efforts,” but gave no further details. The United Nations declined to comment.

Initial work has also been done on a potential swap of U.S. dollars for Afghanis to deliver the funds into the country, but those plans are “basically just a few PowerPoint slides at this point,” one of the sources said. That approach would deposit ARTF funds in the international accounts of Afghan private institutions, who would disburse Afghanis from their Afghan bank accounts to humanitarian groups in Afghanistan, two sources said.

This would bypass the Taliban, thereby avoiding entanglement with the U.S. and U.N. sanctions, but the plan is complex and untested, and could take time to implement.

One major problem is the lack of a mechanism to monitor disbursements of funds in Afghanistan to ensure Taliban leaders and fighters do not access them, a third source said.

Two former U.S. officials familiar with internal administration deliberations said that some U.S. officials contend that U.S. and U.N. sanctions on Taliban leaders bar financial aid to anyone affiliated with their government.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Andrea Shalal; Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed and Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Taliban to purge ‘people of bad character’ from ranks

By Jibran Ahmad

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – The Taliban have formed a commission to purge “people of bad character” from their ranks to protect Afghanistan’s reputation, the group said on Tuesday, in the latest sign it is trying to change from an insurgency into a regular government.

The Taliban operated as insurgent fighters for two decades before toppling a Western-backed government in August. Their membership has grown over the last two years, particularly after it became apparent that they would return to power in some form.

In an audio recording, Taliban deputy chief and Afghan interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani said: “We are learning that people of bad character had entered (Taliban) ranks and had been causing a bad name to the Islamic Emirate (Afghanistan) and serving their vested interests.”

“It is our humble wish that there should be a small number of people but they should be pure and sincere so that this movement should not get damaged,” he said in the audio, whose authenticity was confirmed to Reuters by Taliban officials.

Reports on social media have alleged that people identifying themselves as Taliban members have carried out a number of attacks on civilians and former members of the security forces of the ousted government since August, despite the Taliban leadership announcing a general amnesty. Taliban officials have repeatedly denied sanctioning these acts.

Haqqani, a shadowy figure who has never been pictured in public, is also the head of the Haqqani Network that carried out some of the most brutal attacks of the 20-year insurgency.

The commission – called the commission for the purification of the ranks – has been formed under the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by Mullah Yaqoob, the son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar.

Haqqani said the commission’s formation was urgently needed.

“I would like to ask our brothers to cooperate with the commission and don’t protect or support any individual of bad character on the basis of personal friendship,” Haqqani said.

The message was the latest indication of efforts the Taliban have been forced to make to adapt the movement from a guerrilla insurgency to a full civilian administration since August.

Taliban forces held a military parade in Kabul on Nov. 14 using captured U.S.-made armored vehicles and Russian helicopters in a display that showed their continuing transformation from an insurgent force to a regular standing army.

(Reporting by Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar and Gibran Peshimam in Kabul, Editing by William Maclean)

Exclusive-Qatar to act as U.S. diplomatic representative in Afghanistan – official

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States and Qatar have agreed that Qatar will represent the diplomatic interests of the United States in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official told Reuters, an important signal of potential direct engagement between Washington and Kabul in the future after two decades of war.

Qatar will sign an arrangement with the United States on Friday to assume the role of “protecting power” for U.S. interests to help facilitate any formal communication between Washington and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, which the United States does not recognize.

The move comes at a time when the United States and other Western countries are grappling with how to engage with the Taliban after the hardline group took over Afghanistan in a lightning advance in August as U.S.-led forces were withdrawing after two decades of war.

Many countries including the United States and European states are reluctant to formally recognize the Taliban as critics say they are backtracking on pledges of political and ethnic inclusivity and not to sideline women and minorities.

But with winter approaching, many countries realize they need to engage more to prevent the deeply impoverished country from plunging into a humanitarian catastrophe.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will announce the deal with his Qatari counterpart Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani at a news conference after their meeting on Friday.

According to the arrangement, which will come into effect on Dec. 31, Qatar will dedicate certain staff from its embassy in Afghanistan to a U.S. Interests Section and will coordinate closely with U.S. State Department and with U.S. mission in Doha.

The U.S. official said the United States would also continue its engagement with the Taliban through the Qatari capital, Doha, where the Taliban have maintained a political office for years.

“As our protecting power, Qatar will assist the United States in providing limited consular services to our citizens and in protecting U.S. interests in Afghanistan,” said the senior State Department official, who spoke about the sensitive matter on the condition of anonymity.

Consular assistance may include accepting passport applications, offering notarial services for documentation, providing information, and helping in emergencies, the U.S. official said.

The U.S. Interests Section will operate out of certain facilities on the compound in Kabul used by the U.S. Embassy prior to the suspension of operations, the State Department official said, adding that Qatar would monitor the properties on the compound and conduct security patrols.

Millions of Afghans face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fueled by a hard cash shortage, sanctions on Taliban leaders and the suspension of much financial aid.

The Taliban victory in August saw the billions of dollars in foreign aid that had kept the economy afloat abruptly switched off, with more than $9 billion in central bank reserves frozen outside the country.

In a separate agreement, Qatar will continue to temporarily host up to 8,000 at-risk Afghans who have applied for special immigrant visas (SIV) and their eligible family members, the U.S. official said.

“SIV applicants will be housed at Camp As Sayliyah and al-Udeid Air Base,” the official said.

The two decades-long U.S. occupation of Afghanistan culminated in a hastily organized airlift in August in which more than 124,000 civilians, including Americans, Afghans and others, were evacuated as the Taliban took over. But thousands of U.S.-allied Afghans at risk of Taliban persecution were left behind.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Editing by Robert Birsel)

U.S. says worried about increase in attacks by ISIS-K in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States is worried about an uptick in attacks by Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan and remains deeply concerned about al Qaeda’s ongoing presence there, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday.

He spoke to reporters by telephone from Brussels, where he briefed NATO allies on U.S. talks with the Taliban and held consultations on stabilizing Afghanistan following the Islamist militants’ takeover in August and the U.S. troop withdrawal.

West, who is due to travel on to Pakistan, India and Russia for more consultations, said the United States is preparing for the next round of talks with the Taliban in Doha, but he did not give a date.

With winter approaching, impoverished Afghanistan has emerged from all-out war into a humanitarian crisis as millions face growing hunger amid soaring food prices, a drought and an economy in freefall, fueled by a shortage of hard cash.

The Taliban also are confronting increasing attacks by its ideological foe, Islamic State-Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, the regional Islamic State affiliate.

West said Washington is “worried about the uptick in ISIS-K attacks, and we want the Taliban to be successful against them. When it comes to other (militant) groups, look, al Qaeda continues to have a presence there that we’re very concerned about.”

Al Qaeda’s presence “is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban,” he continued.

U.S. officials believe that ISIS-K could develop the ability to stage attacks outside of Afghanistan within six to 12 months and that al Qaeda could do the same within one to two years.

On other issues, West said that Washington is not seriously considering reopening its Kabul embassy for now, and wants to see the Taliban “establish a record of responsible conduct” before assessing that option.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Landay; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Islamic State in Afghanistan could be able to attack U.S. in 6 months-Pentagon official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Islamic State in Afghanistan could have the capability to attack the United States in as little as six months, and has the intention to do so, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.

The remarks by Colin Kahl, under secretary of defense for policy, are the latest reminder that Afghanistan could still pose serious national security concerns for the United States even after it ended its two-decade-old war in defeat in August.

The Taliban, which won the war, are enemies of Islamic State and have seen its attempts to impose law and order after the U.S. pullout thwarted by suicide bombings and other attacks claimed by Islamic State.

They include bombings targeting the minority Shi’ite sect and even an Islamic State beheading of a member of a Taliban militia force in the eastern city of Jalalabad.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kahl said it was still unclear whether the Taliban has the ability to fight Islamic State effectively following the U.S. withdrawal in August. The United States fought the Taliban as well as striking groups like Islamic State and al Qaeda.

“It is our assessment that the Taliban and ISIS-K are mortal enemies. So the Taliban is highly motivated to go after ISIS-K. Their ability to do so, I think, is to be determined,” Kahl said, using an acronym for Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Kahl estimated Islamic State had a “cadre of a few thousand” fighters. Acting Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi of the new Taliban government has said the threat from Islamic State militants will be addressed. He also said Afghanistan would not become a base for attacks on other countries.

Kahl suggested al Qaeda in Afghanistan posed a more complex problem, given its ties to the Taliban. It was those ties that triggered the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 following al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. The Taliban had harbored al Qaeda leaders.

Kahl said it could take al Qaeda “a year or two” to regenerate the capability to carry out attacks outside of Afghanistan against the United States.

Democratic President Joe Biden, whose supervision of the chaotic end to the war last summer has damaged his approval ratings, has said the United States will continue to be vigilant against threats emanating from Afghanistan by carrying out intelligence-gathering operations in the country that would identify threats from groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State.

Kahl said the goal was to disrupt those groups so that Islamic State and al Qaeda don’t become capable of striking the United States.

“We need to be vigilant in disrupting that,” he said.

Still, U.S. officials privately warn that identifying and disrupting groups like al Qaeda and Islamic State is extremely difficult without any troops in the country. Drones capable of striking Islamic State and al Qaeda targets are being flown in from the Gulf.

Kahl said the United States did not yet have any agreement with countries neighboring Afghanistan to host troops for counterterrorism efforts.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

In Kabul children’s hospital, medics struggle with staff shortages

By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam

KABUL (Reuters) – In Kabul’s main children’s hospital, the crumbling of Afghanistan’s health system is reflected in the eyes of exhausted staff as they eke out fast-diminishing stocks of medicines.

As crowds of mothers and sick children fill waiting rooms in the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, medical staff are squeezing three babies into a single incubator and doubling them up in cot-like infant warmer beds.

Nurses who once took care of three or four babies each are now having to look after 20 or more to make up for the absence of staff who fled the country when the Taliban seized power in August.

“We tell each other that we have do this work, if we don’t do it, these problems will become big, it’s a loss for ourselves, our society and for our country,” said Dr. Saifullah Abassin as he moved from bed to bed in the crowded intensive care unit.

Although the number of blast victims and war wounded have fallen since the fighting ended, Afghanistan’s hospitals are grappling with the fallout of a rapidly spreading economic crisis that has threatened millions with hunger.

U.N. agencies say as much as 95% of the population does not regularly have enough to eat and last month, the head of the World Health Organization warned the health system was on the brink of collapse as international aid has dried up.

Lack of support for the $600 million Sehatmandi health service project administered by World Bank, has left thousands of facilities unable to buy supplies and pay salaries, threatening health services at all levels from village clinics to hospitals offering caesarian sections.

STAFF NOT PAID IN MONTHS

For the medical team, it is the acute staff shortage that is causing the heaviest strain. They have not been paid in months and often struggle even to pay their car fare to work.

“We only ask from the government firstly that, they should increase our staff,” says Marwa, the nursing supervisor in the nursery ward. “Because of the changes, most of our colleagues left the country.”

Nurses who would normally be taking care of three or four babies for each nurse are now handling 23. “It is a lot of load on us,” she said.

Mohammad Latif Baher, assistant director of the Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital, said officials from the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF have given some help but more is needed quickly to fill the shortage of medicines and supplies to treat malnourished children.

“They (international organizations) have promised more aid. And we hope that they will keep their promises,” Baher says.

The hospital, built during the Soviet era in 1985 and financed by Indian aid money, has 360 beds but is operating well over capacity because of the lack of functioning clinics in the provinces around Kabul.

With a heavy flow of families coming in, the hospital has admitted 450 children and turned others away, he said.

Arzoo, who brought her eight-month-old daughter Sofia in for treatment, already lost one of her five children to malnourishment-related illness and is desperate not to lose another.

“We had a water tank at home – we sold that and used that for treatment,” she said, even though the cost means Sofia’s four siblings at home do not have much to eat.

“Their father came in the morning and told me the kids don’t have anything. When they (hospital) provide some food, I portion it out and send some home to the kids.”

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam, Editing by William Maclean)

Poland’s push-back policy leaves migrants facing an uncertain future as winter looms

By Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel

Near SIEMIANOWKA, Poland (Reuters) – Somali migrant Abdi Fitah’s bid to cross into Poland from Belarus ended with him barefoot and freezing after he lost his shoes in a river and wandered for days in the woods along the border.

The 23-year-old is one of thousands of people, including children, from the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan who have tried to enter Poland from Belarus in recent weeks, with charities saying they face harrowing conditions on the border.

Jakub Sieczko, a medical doctor and coordinator of the Medycy na Granicy (Medics on the Border) aid group, said he feared there would be more deaths as temperatures drop.

“There are more and more people who are hungry and dehydrated…The conditions are getting worse,” Sieczko told Reuters, adding that many migrants are from warm countries and unprepared for the cold.

Ibrahim, who said he left Somalia 15 days ago, thought he was having a heart attack while walking through the woods with a group of fellow migrants, before receiving medical help for hypothermia at the border.

“The conditions are very cold, (we’re) not wearing shoes,” he said, explaining how he lost his shoes in the river. “The leg is a big problem. I’m not wearing (enough) clothes…(or) shoes.”

He crossed the border with six other Somalis. Three of them ended up in an ambulance due to their health problems, which included a sprained ankle and symptoms of hypothermia.

Four were driven off in a border guard truck. It’s unclear if they went to a detention center or were pushed back to the border.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said Poland is in breach of international law in its efforts to force migrants back into Belarus instead of offering them asylum.

Poland says it is respecting its international obligations while trying to stem the flow of migrants who, it says, often do not want asylum in Poland but rather in western Europe.

The European Union accuses Belarus of orchestrating the flow to put pressure on the bloc in retaliation for sanctions slapped on Minsk over human rights abuses.

MORE AND MORE MIGRANTS

Polish authorities say more than 15,000 attempts to cross the border have been made since early August, mostly by Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian nationals. The attempts have become more frequent and now exceed 500 a day.

Under EU rules, migrants should in principle apply for asylum in the first country they enter, but the bloc is planning reforms to ensure asylum obligations are more evenly spread.

Franek Sterczewski, a Polish parliamentary deputy with leading opposition group Civic Coalition, said more migrants were being turned back by border guards into the woods.

“(The Somali migrants) were sent back to the border seven times,” he said. “They’ve been wandering the forest for weeks, the temperature at night is around zero degrees, it’s raining and it’s very cold. Pushing them back will put their health and life at risk.”

(Reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Kacper Pempel; Writing by Michael Kahn; Editing by Mike Harrison)

Thousands stranded as Afghan-Pakistan border crossing stays closed

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Hundreds of trucks and other vehicles waited at one of the main crossings between Pakistan and Afghanistan on Monday as the border closed again after a brief opening the day before, despite promises that it would reopen, traders said.

The Chaman border crossing, the second-largest commercial border point between the two countries after Torkham in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, links with Spin Boldak in the Afghan province of Kandahar, and is regularly used by thousands of laborers and traders from both countries.

The crossing, a vital source of customs revenue for the cash-strapped government in Afghanistan, has been closed for about three weeks, despite repeated protests by truckers and others stuck waiting at the border.

“We also have a life. We have children and we need money,” said truck driver Turyalai.

As Afghanistan sinks deeper into economic crisis, neighboring countries have been increasingly worried about a mass movement of refugees.

But the closure of Chaman and interruptions to traffic at Torkham as well as the suspension of Pakistan Airlines flights from Kabul have left Afghanistan largely cut off.

Originally closed by Pakistani authorities due to security threats, disputes over issues ranging from COVID-19 to the validity of Afghan travel documents have prevented the re-opening of the Chaman crossing, despite severe hardship to truckers and local farmers.

The border was briefly opened on Sunday to let people with urgent medical needs into Pakistan, which has a much more developed health system than Afghanistan. But it was quickly closed again, leaving many stranded.

“Many people, some of them sick, were left here,” said Mohammad Younus, from the southern Afghan province of Helmand, who was trying to return home from Quetta in Pakistan when the border was sealed.

He said security forces had dispersed waiting crowds with baton charges and it was unclear when the border would re-open.

“Some people are saying the border will open (again), others are saying it will not,” he said.

(Reporting by Gul Yousafzai; writing by James Mackenzie; editing by Nick Macfie)

Red Cross warns aid groups not enough to stave off Afghan humanitarian crisis

By Alexander Cornwell

DUBAI (Reuters) – The Red Cross on Friday urged the international community to engage with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, saying that aid groups on their own would be unable to stave off a humanitarian crisis.

Afghanistan has been plunged into crisis by the abrupt end of billions of dollars in foreign assistance following the collapse of the Western-backed government and return to power by the Taliban in August.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has since increased its efforts in the country while other organizations were also stepping up, Director General Robert Mardini said.

But he told Reuters that support from the international community, who had so far taken a cautious approach in engaging with the Taliban, was critical to providing basic services.

“Humanitarian organizations joining forces can only do so much. They can come up with temporary solutions.”

The United Nations on Thursday announced it had set up a fund to provide cash directly to Afghans, which Mardini said would solve the problem for three months.

“Afghanistan is a compounded crisis that is deteriorating by the day,” he said, citing decades of conflict compounded by the effects of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mardini said 30% of Afghanistan’s 39 million population were facing severe malnutrition and that 18 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance or protection.

The Taliban expelled many foreign aid groups when it was last in power from 1996-2001 but this time has said it welcomes foreign donors and will protect the rights of their staff.

But the hardline Islamists, facing criticism it has failed to protect rights, including access to education for girls, have also said aid should not be tied to conditions.

“No humanitarian organization can compensate or replace the economy of a country,” Mardini said.

(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Angus MacSwan)