Anxiety is mounting in Afghanistan ahead of the September 11, 2021, withdrawal of US troops and as a fresh Taliban offensive makes sweeping territorial gains. A French foreign ministry initiative to grant asylum to Afghans who worked for French governmental and non-governmental organisations has sparked an exodus – as well as criticisms for sending the wrong signal at a critical time.
The French NGO Afrane was founded shortly after the 1979 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan and, for more than 40 years, the organisation has worked on the ground, providing Afghans access to education.
But today, officials and volunteers at Afrane (Amitié franco-afghane, or Franco-Afghan friendship) are anxious about their operations in Afghanistan.
"The situation in Afghanistan has become extremely worrying," said the NGO's vice-president, Étienne Gille. "The departure of Afrane’s Afghan staff is imminent."
In a matter of a few weeks, the NGO lost almost all of its 23 Afghan employees, who are about to leave the country under a French foreign ministry operation that enables Afghans who have worked for France and their families to obtain asylum.
The vast operation, launched in early May, concerns around 600 Afghans. Afrane’s employees and their families account for around 80 of the overall figure.
The Islamist movement is now present in almost every province and is encircling several major cities in what looks like a repeat of their 1990s takeover and the establishment of a draconian Islamist regime. More than 50 of the country’s 370 districts have fallen into Taliban hands since Biden announced the withdrawal of US troops in May, according to the UN.
The Taliban’s recent blistering assault on the strategic northern city of Kunduz and the fall of districts surrounding the city, effectively laying siege to the provincial capital, has underscored Afghanistan’s grave security concerns.
“Most districts that have been taken surround provincial capitals, suggesting that the Taliban are positioning themselves to try and take these capitals once foreign forces are fully withdrawn,” UN special envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons told the Security Council last week.
Operations shut, European allies displeased
The Taliban’s lightning offensive is causing anguish among Afghans who have worked with French NGOs on projects across the country. The foreign ministry’s offer for Afghans who have worked for France to obtain asylum has sparked an exodus.
If the project is completed by mid-July, only French staff will remain at the embassy in Kabul and its satellites across the country will be virtually closed as they will not be able to function, according to a report in the French daily Le Monde.
While the operation displays France’s commitment to Afghans who have worked on French governmental and non-governmental projects, it also risks being perceived by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government as a sign that Paris has concluded the government in Kabul will not be able to face the pressure of the Taliban and that the Islamists' eventual victory is certain, noted Le Monde.
Some of France’s European partners have also expressed their embarrassment over a decision they consider “precipitous and uncoordinated”, Le Monde noted. The German embassy in Kabul, for instance, considers itself bound by cooperation agreements that France has also signed. Berlin intends to continue its activities on the ground, a German diplomat who declined to be named told the newspaper, noting, "We do not cooperate with a regime, but with a country.”
‘Unilateral decision’ contrary to ‘Afghanistan’s interests’
The French initiative has also drawn criticism from NGOs on the ground.
In early June, an umbrella group of French NGOs, COFA (Collective of French NGOs in Afghanistan) – of which Afrane is a member – wrote a letter to French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian denouncing a “unilateral decision that is contrary to Afghanistan’s interests”.
Gille is among the NGO officials who believe the massive exodus of Afghans who have worked with the French plays into the Taliban’s narrative and amounts to abandoning the country.
Afrane has built a substantial network of Afghan teachers since the 2001 US-led mission in Afghanistan, supporting 48 schools with 96,000 students spread over four provinces. A number of maths, science and local language teachers were enrolled in a teachers’ training programme, and the mass exodus jeopardises the organisation’s activities.
"This is an unprecedented situation for us, which reveals the population’s anguish. We understand that our employees want to take advantage of this opportunity, presented by France as a 'now or never' offer," explained Gille.
But he also mourned the country’s loss of skilled human capital: "Afghanistan will lose peaceful and open-minded people. At the moment, the most educated are looking to leave, the intellectual core of the country is being drained and this risks impoverishing Afghanistan."
Despite these setbacks, Afrane plans to stay in Afghanistan and to recruit and train new teachers in order to resume its educational activities with Afghan students as soon as possible.
"We are determined to continue our projects as long as the situation allows it, because it is our very essence, as humanitarians, to act when conditions are difficult – and I would even say especially when conditions are difficult," Gille insisted.
‘Expect a very difficult period’
The Taliban’s resurgence risks plunging Afghanistan into a brutal civil war, one which criminal gangs and Islamic State (IS) group affiliates could exploit to kidnap foreigners.
At Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the situation on the ground is "reassessed on a daily basis, as it has been for the past 40 years of our presence in Afghanistan", said a press officer.
The NGO has paid a heavy human price for its Afghan operations in recent years. In 2015, a US air strike hit an MSF hospital in Kunduz, killing 42 people including 14 staffers. Last year, an attack on an MSF maternity hospital in Kabul’s Shiite-dominated Dasht-e-Barchi district killed at least 16 patients. Following the attack, MSF withdrew from Dasht-e-Barchi, the NGO's last operation in the Afghan capital.
"These tragic events show that MSF's presence in Afghanistan as a humanitarian medical actor with the population cannot be taken for granted,” noted Emmanuel Tronc, who led MSF missions in Afghanistan from 1997 to 2016.
"With the departure of the Americans, we must expect a very difficult period."
The recent fighting in Kunduz province has forced MSF to reduce its team in the provincial capital. "After the 2015 bombing, the hospital is being rebuilt in Kunduz, a whole part of it has already been opened for patients,” explained Sarah Chateau, MSF’s Afghanistan programme manager.
But about 20 expatriate staff and their Afghan colleagues have been "placed in hibernation" due to the security situation. "We were surprised by the intensity of the bombing in Kunduz. We are in the process of setting up a team specialised in emergencies, with a surgeon and an anesthetist,” said Chateau.
MSF is currently preparing for emergency care response scenarios, readying its medical teams to treat the wounded.
Meanwhile, the number of Afghans fleeing their country is increasing, particularly towards the Iranian border, according to Chateau. "Our MSF colleagues in Iran have been summoned by the Iranian authorities, who have noted the arrival of 12,000 to 20,000 Afghans in a few weeks in Iran. They are expecting an influx and are talking about 50,000 to 150,000 migrants who could arrive soon."
This article has been translated from the original in French.