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Afghan civilians caught between sides need independent, impartial aid

International troops are withdrawing, local armed actors are multiplicating, security is deteriorating. As has been the case for decades, Afghan civilians are paying the price. Jacques de Maio, Head of Operations for South Asia, writes that the vulnerabilities of local populations, not diplomatic and political narratives, must dictate the humanitarian response. A point of view heard only too rarely these days.

Insecurity and uncertainty have become permanent features of the Afghan landscape. Based on what we observe in the field and on discussions I held during a recent visit, the deterioration of today's security situation is directly related to a sharp increase in the number of weapon carriers active across the country. The withdrawal of international troops and the rise in local armed actors have serious implications for the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations, notably in terms of access and staff security. However, what is at stake at this critical juncture is the long-term security and dignity of the Afghan people.

Years of war have taught Afghans how to interact with armed actors but they now must deal with increasing numbers of pro-government local defence forces and anti-government armed groups. This has direct humanitarian consequences. On a day-to-day basis, the average person does not know what is going to happen to her or his family. There may be a knock on the door during the night and family members may be taken away. There can also be demands from different parties for cooperation and allegiance. The women and men I recently met knew they had hardly any choice but give in to those demands, and understand very well that from the moment that they choose to go down that line, they face retaliatory measures. In Afghanistan today, civilians are caught between sides and forced to flee. In many parts of the country, displacement is on the rise. 

To navigate this particularly opaque environment, the ICRC relies on a strictly humanitarian compass that is independent of diplomatic and political narratives. Sticking to our principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality provides us with a clear sense of direction. As the handover gets underway and humanitarian operations become increasingly difficult and dangerous, this compass indicates that the new realities of the conflict and the ever-growing needs of the Afghan population require a meaningful humanitarian response, one that is based on facts and vulnerabilities on the ground and separate from any strategy to "win hearts and minds" through aid.

A major concern I heard repeated in Kabul, but also Jallalabad, Kandahar and elsewhere was that the military handover would result in a diminished commitment to Afghanistan by the international community, with fewer resources available to support its people.

After thirty years of presence, the ICRC remains committed to Afghanistan, which remains our largest operation worldwide. Today, we monitor how the different forces - be they Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, Afghan local police or wider local defence forces - carry out their operations and follow up on their humanitarian impact by assisting victims. We also discuss with these actors concrete ways to improve the protection of civilians. Importantly, we continue engage with international forces to ensure they take necessary measures to oversee the behaviour and conduct of the Afghan defence forces. Proper oversight and accountability, particularly with regards to the conduct of hostilities and detention, are significant parts of our dialogue today in Kabul and elsewhere in the country. We also hold talks with the armed opposition with the understanding that they are accountable to humanitarian standards: the use of IEDs and resulting civilian casualties are part of the issues we tackle during bilateral discussions.

Despite the significant challenges ahead, I heard from all sides that the ICRC's neutral and independent action, backed by confidential dialogue, continues to generate a level of trust that enables us to intervene credibly, precisely because we are guided by our strictly humanitarian compass, never compromise our independence and neutrality and do not advocate for any given model of society or governance.

In the complex terrain that is Afghanistan today, the humanitarian imperative to protect and assist the victims of a continuing, full-fledged, and multi-faceted armed conflict, be they civilians in the line of fire, families displaced with nothing left, pregnant women who cannot access healthcare, or health workers harassed while providing care to a desperate population clearly remains the priority.

Guest post by Jacques de Maio, Geneva-based ICRC Head of Operations for South Asia. Jacques recently returned from a three-week visit to Afghanistan, a context he has covered for close to four years. Thanks Jacques!