Aid Groups Wonder Whether To Stay Or Go As The Taliban Take Over Afghanistan
Sahar Education, a small, U.S.-based nonprofit that works in Afghanistan, was in the process of building a new boarding school for girls in the northern part of the country – until the Taliban regained control of the capital on Aug. 15.
That's when Sahar decided to pause all operations. It stopped construction of the school and removed anything from its website that might reveal the identities of its students and staff.
Sahar worried it could be targeted for educating Afghan girls, an activity the Taliban banned when ruling the country in the 1990s — as well as for its partnership with the previous government. Sahar was helping to build and repair schools.
"All our staff went home because they felt scared for their lives," says Malahat, Sahar's executive director. Malahat, who is from Afghanistan, asked us not to publish her last name for her safety.
Sahar is one of the many groups suspending operations in Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban takeover and ensuing violence. Meanwhile, other aid and development organizations are still operating. Whatever their current status, they all recognize that a new reality is unfolding — and that their future in the country depends on whether the Taliban government of 2021 echoes the previous repressive Taliban regime or lives up to promises of a more progressive outlook.
Afghanistan has changed for the better. The Taliban say they've changed, too
Life has improved significantly in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. For instance, between 2003 and 2015, mortality for kids under age 5 in Afghanistan fell by 29% (from 127.8 to 91 deaths per thousand live births), according to a 2016 study in The Lancet Global Health. And school enrollment grew from 900,000 male students in 2001 to more than 9.5 million children in 2020, nearly 40% of which were girls, according to data from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Nongovernmental organizations have supported many of these advances. These groups play a "critical role" in providing vital services such as health care and education – "and provide the momentum for Afghanistan's development," according to a 2020 report from the Overseas Development Institute, a global development think tank.
The Taliban say they have changed, too. "There is a huge difference between us now and 20 years ago," spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at an Aug. 17 press conference in Kabul. "Nobody will be harmed in Afghanistan."
But it's not just physical danger that's the issue. In addition to the mass executions and brutality that marked the Taliban regime, the group also enforced a notoriously severe interpretation of Islamic law. Girls were barred from school. Many women couldn't go to work.
This time around, Mujahid said the Taliban promise peace, amnesty for enemies, media freedom (as long as journalists don't write anything against Islamic values) and respect for women's rights "but within the framework of Islam."
Despite these assurances, observers in the international development community are deeply skeptical.
Some aid groups are pulling back, while others are holding their ground
So far, no students or teachers from Sahar have been directly attacked by the Taliban. But Malahat is nervous for the group's safety and ability to work with the new government.
"We do not see the environment to be amicable to NGOs," she says.
On the other hand, Deepmala Mahla, vice president of humanitarian affairs at CARE, a U.S.-based international aid organization, says her team is "cautiously optimistic" about continuing its work in Afghanistan. The group provides emergency relief and runs programs on issues such as women's empowerment and education in the country.
"We are humanitarians. We don't know any other way," Mahla says, invoking the profession's idealism.
But it's not always been a smooth path. Since CARE began working in Afghanistan in 1961, it has had to start and stop operations several times due to security concerns. When the Soviets invaded in 1979, the group withdrew from the country for 10 years. When it finally resumed its activities in Afghanistan, it was from a new base across the border in Pakistan. It wasn't until 2002 that the organization moved its main office back to Kabul.
Even with its positive outlook, CARE has suspended operations in Afghanistan until its staffers can reassess how they can safely operate in the country.
Mahla says CARE hopes to resume services soon and even scale up its work.
Not every aid group has pulled back from the unfolding violence. Doctors Without Borders (also known as MSF, an abbreviation for the group's French name, Médecins Sans Frontières) has continued to operate in Afghanistan amid the turmoil, even converting its offices in the northern city of Kunduz into a trauma unit during a period of intense fighting this month.
MSF is able to work in many conflict zones around the world because it doesn't take political sides, says Jonathan Whittall, director of its research and analysis department. For decades, MSF has been able to secure its safety with the Afghan government, U.S. coalition forces and the Taliban.
But regardless of past arrangements, MSF recognizes that things are now dramatically different. "The context is extremely volatile in Afghanistan," Whittall says. "We would be remiss to think that anything we've done in the past is going to solidly guarantee us in the future. We can't take anything for granted."
Still, Whittall says he thinks negotiating with the Taliban will be easier for MSF as an independent medical organization than it will be for other groups – especially those associated with Western governments or those working on issues such as girls' education, which historically go against the Taliban's beliefs.
There's one potential threat that would make nonprofit groups leave the country
But even groups determined to stay recognize there might come a time when there's no choice but to depart. MSF and CARE say that if they are no longer able to secure the safety of their workers, they would pull out of the country.
"Aid work, by definition, depends on aid workers," CARE's Mahla says. "No aid worker, no aid work."
Additionally, MSF noted that if the Taliban forced it to do anything that might jeopardize its impartiality — for example, prioritize patients based on gender, political affiliation or ethnic group – it would consider a full withdrawal.
But nonprofit groups want to hold on as long as they can.
That includes Sahar Education. "We have committed 20 years already," Malahat says. "We are willing to commit 20 more – or however long it takes to improve Afghanistan."
She says the group will look at the situation again in mid-September. If the Taliban have established a ministry of education by then, Sahar will try to work with the new government to resume its programming.
But if the Taliban don't allow it to operate, or if students or teachers don't feel safe enough to attend school, then Sahar might have to consider more creative options. It might mean setting up secret schools, which were established in homes in defiance of Taliban orders the last time the group was in power.
"Of course, we wouldn't market it," Malahat says with a laugh. "But if secret schools are the ultimate solution, then why not?"
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in The Guardian and on Humanosphere, Global Washington and War Is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu.
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