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Red Cross Official: Sanctions, Freeze in Donations Add to Afghan Humanitarian Crisis

Four-month-old Mohammed who is malnourished lays on a hospital bed in the Indira Gandhi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 8, 2021.

A senior Red Cross official has voiced anger at the continuation of sanctions and freezes in international aid to Afghanistan, preventing basic services from being delivered to the population.

Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement Monday that he is “livid” after a six-day day visit to field hospitals, where he said he witnessed first-hand suffering of Afghans.

“When you’re standing in the pediatric ward in Kandahar’s largest hospital, looking into the empty eyes of hungry children and the anguished faces of desperate parents, the situation is absolutely infuriating,” Stillhartsaid.

Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that more than half of Afghanistan’s estimated 40 million population is likely to go hungry this winter unless more funds are forthcoming from donors. The World Food Program said that fuel costs are up, food prices are soaring, fertilizer is more expensive, and all of this feeds into the unfolding Afghan crisis.

Stillhart said the situation is angering, given that civilians’ suffering is “man-made” and the result of the international community’s choice to impose sanctions on the Taliban regime, which assumed power in Afghanistan in August.

The return to power of the Islamist Taliban after the withdrawal of U.S.-led foreign troops has plunged the country into an economic crisis and increased Afghan humanitarian needs to unprecedented levels, which stem from years of war and a prolonged widespread drought.

Displaced Afghans distribute food donations at an internally displaced persons camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 13, 2021.
Displaced Afghans distribute food donations at an internally displaced persons camp in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 13, 2021.

The international community has refused to grant diplomatic recognition to the Taliban government mainly over human rights concerns, especially those of women and girls, under the Islamist movement’s rule. The Taliban have banned women from most employment opportunities and restricted education for most women and girls.

The absence of legitimacy led to suspension of several billions of dollars in annual foreign assistance to Kabul and blocked the Taliban’s access to about $10 billion in Afghan assets, mostly held in the U.S. Federal Reserve. The sanctions have made it extremely difficult for the Taliban to pay salaries or import essential goods.

Stillhart said that recent resolutions from the U.N. and general economic sanctions are causing donors to rethink, and pause, their contributions to humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, which can deny live-saving assistance to civilians.

In order to prevent the collapse of Afghanistan’s public health system, the ICRC on Monday began supporting 18 regional and provincial medical facilities, including running costs and medical supplies. The ICRC is planning to support the facilities for six months.

Women line up to receive cash at a money distribution point organized by the World Food Program, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 20, 2021.
Women line up to receive cash at a money distribution point organized by the World Food Program, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 20, 2021.

The agency also began paying employees’ salaries on Monday, Reuters reported.

In his statement, Stillhart said cases of malnutrition, pneumonia and dehydration at the Mirwais Regional Hospital in Kandahar have doubled from mid-August to September.

Stillhart said the future of medical care and education in Afghanistan are dependent upon international support.

“States must engage with Afghanistan. This is the only way to prevent a total collapse of essential services like health care and education. Political considerations should not interfere with humanitarian action,” Stillhart said.

Analysts say Washington and other Western governments have few good options in Afghanistan: They can either try to work with the Taliban, and in effect collude with human rights violations, or watch the worsening crisis from afar and see 20 years of development work reversed.

Stillhart pushed donors to find “creative solutions” to save the lives of millions of Afghans.

He warned that the economic sanctions "meant to punish those in power in Kabul are instead freezing millions of people across Afghanistan out of the basics they need to survive,” according to an Agence France-Presse report.

He told AFP that "sanctions on banking services are sending the economy into free-fall and holding up bilateral aid."

In October, the heads of government and foreign ministers from the world’s 20 leading economies — the G-20 — agreed at a video summit to examine how to inject more aid into Afghanistan, while preventing funds being controlled by the Taliban and used for political purposes rather than humanitarian.

The European Union announced during the summit a $1.15 billion aid package for Afghanistan “to avert a major humanitarian and socio-economic collapse.”

However, earlier this month, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the humanitarian organization Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said, “The international response to the suffering, immense suffering in Afghanistan and for Afghans and neighboring countries is really pitiful.

“There must be an immediate scale up of aid both inside Afghanistan and in neighboring countries like Iran, before the deadly winter cold,” he said.

(Ayaz Gul and Jamie Dettmer contributed to this report. Some material for this report came from Reuters and Agence France-Presse.)