Humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is preventable if we have the will

Nearly 22.8 million Afghans face acute food insecurity

By Shah Mahmood Qureshi

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People sit with their belongings in the Pakistan side of the border after the authorities of Pakistan and Afghanistan close the movement of people across the border, in Chaman on September 30, 2021.-AFP FILE
People sit with their belongings in the Pakistan side of the border after the authorities of Pakistan and Afghanistan close the movement of people across the border, in Chaman on September 30, 2021.-AFP FILE

Published: Wed 15 Dec 2021, 10:00 PM

The people of Afghanistan need urgent attention. The humanitarian calamity afflicting Afghanistan is perhaps the worst in the world today. The UN system, which has decades of experience in analysing and managing humanitarian emergencies, has sounded alarm bells.

UN Secretary-General António Gutteres has called for a “lifeline” to millions of vulnerable Afghans “who face perhaps their most perilous hour”, after decades of war and insecurity. Despite the grim prospects, this calamity is preventable.

Thanks to the generosity of many donors, the United Nations system, international organisations and humanitarian agencies have helped mobilise and supply critical food, medicines and other life-saving supplies.

Despite modest resources and financial constraints, Pakistan is providing humanitarian support of over $30 million; provided air and land bridge for humanitarian supplies; and facilitated transit trade and cross border movement of Afghans in need.

And yet much more in humanitarian and other assistance is needed.

The UN estimates that over half-a-million Afghans are internally displaced. Nearly 22.8 million Afghans face acute food insecurity. According to the World Food Programme, “this winter, millions of Afghans will have to choose between starvation or migration”. Media reports indicate that Afghans, in their thousands, are trying to leave. It is a race against time!

The cumulative effects of a protracted conflict, prolonged drought in rural areas, disruption in economic activity in urban areas and the compounding socio- economic impacts of Covid-19 have resulted in serious hardships for the people of Afghanistan.

Humanitarian supplies in Afghanistan face logistical challenges due to harsh winter and remoteness. A fragile governance structure, severe liquidity shortage and financial sanctions present a clear and present danger of an economic meltdown in Afghanistan. The resultant human suffering, while likely, can and should be avoided.

Sanctions and assets freeze have crippled the banking system of Afghanistan, impeding transfer of funds for humanitarian purposes and hampering payment of salaries of workers in critical sectors such as public services, education and health.

A review and reconsideration of sanctions is essential to save lives, enable basic services and maintain a modicum of public governance. Delays may result in unintended risks of the financial system falling into unregulated money exchanges. Such a scenario may undermine our shared objectives of countering terrorism and trafficking.

Now is not the time to abandon the people of Afghanistan. Giving in to the temptation to ‘move on’ from Afghanistan would be catastrophic. It would lead to exactly what the international community wants to avoid, an exodus, further instability and conflict, and the specter of terrorism emanating from the country.

The international community has legitimate anxiety over the state of human rights and the nature of power sharing in Afghanistan. These concerns should be addressed in all their dimensions; civil, political, social, economic and cultural.

Helping Afghans inside the country is also a cost effective and a durable solution. That requires us to not just think of few but all.

Ordinary Afghans are neither responsible for the failures of their former rulers nor should they be penalized for the recent turn of events in the country.

Amidst this crisis lies an opportunity to chart a path for Afghanistan that advances peace, security, development and human rights in mutually reinforcing ways.

Such a pathway requires prudent sequencing and prioritisation of actions. The pace of political and diplomatic engagement needs to be enhanced, in tandem with humanitarian and economic assistance.

That is why Pakistan is hosting an Extraordinary Session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad on December 19, 2021, to show solidarity with the Afghan people, and to help establish an effective channel for coordinated provision of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan.

As the second largest intergovernmental organisation after the United Nations, the OIC is well-positioned to lead the way in helping the Afghan people. Pakistan hopes that the OIC member states and the international community will extend all possible support to the Afghan people in this hour of dire need.

We face a proverbial stitch in time saves nine situations in Afghanistan. We cannot afford to wait. The world must act, and act now.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi is the Foreign Minister of Pakistan

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