Facing a Tuesday, Aug. 31 deadline to exit Afghanistan, Americans and Europeans are racing to complete their evacuation of thousands of their citizens, along with Afghans who worked alongside them, amid the rising threat of violence from the ruling Taliban, and other political factions such as ISIS-K, the Afghan affiliate of Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for two deadly blasts near the Kabul airport Thursday.
The pullout could have catastrophic consequences, fear those who’ve worked with the many international humanitarian aid organizations, including the United Nations, that have operated in Afghanistan for decades. They anticipate that Afghans who worked for any U.S. and European humanitarian aid efforts will face retribution from the Taliban, despite leaders of the group insisting that will not be the case. And with most foreign aid workers gone, it’s unclear if Afghans will continue to receive badly-needed financial assistance, food, and medical care.
Michael VanRooyen is the Lavine Family Professor of Humanitarian Studies at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health , the J. Stephen Bohan Professor of Emergency Medicine at Harvard Medical School, and director of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, a University-wide academic and research center for humanitarian crises and leadership that supports scholars and non-governmental aid organizations working around the world. VanRooyen, who has worked as an emergency physician with relief groups in over 30 countries affected by war and disaster, explains what the Taliban takeover could mean for Afghanistan. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: What’s happening with the international aid organizations that have long operated in Afghanistan?
VanROOYEN: Most foreign nationals have been evacuated or are in the process of being evacuated, although some leading organizations are still there. There was a call to evacuate staff as of May, so it’s been some months already where there has been a significant drawdown of expatriate presence, and leading up to this there was an additional call to try to get everybody out. I haven’t sensed that there are people who wanted to get out who couldn’t get out, at least from the international staff. (I honestly don’t know the numbers.)
Afghan professionals who have worked with U.S. and other non-governmental organizations to provide aid over the many years here are being actively targeted and hunted. And so, one big issue is the safety of people who have really depended on the U.S. and on the European and Western NGOs to be their operational partner and now they’re going to be left, which is really distressing. Many of the Afghan people who are seeking shelter are not going to be able to get it because most don’t have U.S. or other passports.
GAZETTE: Who are some of the bigger players and have they had to pack up and leave?
VanROOYEN: I know that [the United Nations] World Food Programme is very active there because of food insecurity. Many Afghans are dependent on food aid. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees is very active there. Other organizations, like the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, are there, as well; the operational NGOs, the ones that do a lot of the implementing, like International Rescue Committee; I know Doctors Without Borders has presence there. I am assuming that International Medical Corps, which has had a deep history of work in Afghanistan, is still there, as well.