The military presence of NATO allies in Afghanistan has come to an end. For twenty years, foreign troops have been keeping a fragile balance in the volatile and highly flammable Afghan reality. Humanitarian organisations are witnessing the withdrawal with great concern. Jaap van Hierden, director of the Cordaid office in Kabul, answers a few of the most pressing questions about the consequences of this geopolitical chess move.
While the NATO troops are leaving Afghanistan, reports about the Taliban making territorial gains are on the rise. How do you view these developments?
“We see a new offensive by the Taliban to conquer territories and they are testing the morale of the Afghan army. But that’s nothing new. We see this every year. With minimal military resources, it’s easier to conquer a territory than to hold and protect it. We do see that the current offensive is stronger than usual and that the Taliban is trying to capture districts near the major cities.
I don’t think the Taliban will achieve a military victory. They could, however, plunge Afghanistan into a civil war, which will be difficult for the country to get out of. Ultimately, I think the Taliban intends to come back to the table for negotiations, to maintain their recently acquired legitimacy on the international stage.”
What does the departure of NATO troops mean for the morale of the Afghan people?
“The Afghans are demoralised, feeling abandoned by the international community once again. We see educated Afghans, who have played an important role in developing the country, thinking about leaving.
People fear that the international community will stop caring about them and will cease funding development projects as well. That is why we need to draw the attention of governments, and other major donors, to the fact that the job is far from done and that the positive results we have achieved are not irreversible. We cannot leave the country to fend for itself.”
“The interesting thing is that when you talk to Afghans, despite everything, they still see the positive elements.”
And what about the youth, the true future of Afghanistan?
“Young people make me optimistic. They grew up after 2001 and went to normal schools where they weren’t taught how to maintain and shoot a gun. This is a generation that is active on social media and wants to live a normal life.
We must allow youth to take over the government, while the next generation goes to school. This way we can ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t fall apart again.”
Can you explain how Cordaid continues to work in Afghanistan, under these difficult circumstances?
“We’re used to uncertainty and struggle. We’re already working in areas where there is fighting and we’re dealing with both government agencies and the Taliban. For example, a few days ago in Kunduz, we provided emergency aid to 485 families who had fled the violence. We will continue our work, addressing the needs, assisting in stabilisation, peace and development.
We have the advantage of knowing the sensitivities in this conflict and that we don’t depend on foreign staff. Our team is made up of Afghans and we work with local organisations with access to the disputed areas.”
“I hope the geopolitical forces will come to their senses and give the Afghans a chance to get their country back on its feet.”
Can you also give some examples of the progress that has been made over the past twenty years?
“The interesting thing is that when you talk to Afghans, despite everything, they still see the positive elements. They certainly don’t want to go back to what it was like twenty years ago. Objectively speaking, the country has made socio-economic progress. Afghanistan is in better shape than it was in 2001. But this could all quickly go to waste if the international community turns its back on the country.
Healthcare has improved tremendously, much more children attend school and many women now fulfil important roles in society as politicians, entrepreneurs, academics or human rights activists. Young people no longer want to fight and envision a good future for themselves. They are active on the internet and progressive children of former warlords are actively seeking peace.
Perhaps most important, however, is the anchoring of human and socio-economic rights in the constitution and other laws. Hence our emphasis on nurturing these achievements. They are the best guarantee to face the future with confidence.
I hope the geopolitical forces will come to their senses and give the Afghans a chance to get their country back on its feet. That is not a certainty. But an ungoverned and chaotic Afghanistan is in nobody’s interest.”