With the clock ticking down to Afghanistan's transition in 2014, including the withdrawal of most foreign military forces, humanitarians have said it is time to consider post-transition scenarios and how that will impact aid delivery and operations.
“We are reviewing our activities and going through a lot of assessments right now, both from a reduction in funds perspective but also in a potential deterioration of security,” said an aid worker who preferred anonymity.
The transition will see the Afghan military take control of the country's security from the International Security Assistance Force. But according to a statement by a group of NGOs, it is taking place in a context of rising violence against civilians, growing internal displacement, and increasing protection concerns.
“Potentially we see a civil war, a lot of political trouble, with riots, demonstrations and attacks,” said a Western analyst who preferred anonymity. Observers agree some places, like Mazar-e-Sharif in the north, will maintain some continuity, but what could unfold in other areas across the country is “anybody’s guess”.
Some organizations say they are already experiencing large cuts in foreign aid - and are anticipating and planning for more - and are relying more heavily on strategies such as community based approaches and subsistence planning. The former aims to ensure continued work in insecure areas in case international staff leave and the latter to make sure communities are focusing on basic foods for subsistence and not dependent on imported goods.
“It’s quite hard to know where that might happen, because that internal conflict can break out in many places, so doing contingency planning on that basis is quite difficult,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos said during a recent visit to Kabul.
|Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN - not only to them but also their families|
“As for the longer term political process in terms of the drawdown of forces, everyone right now is focusing on how we can make sure that happens as efficiently and effectively as possible," she added. "There is a process with ongoing conferences, and countries in the region are talking about how to offer support. The more you are able to have stability and security, the more the other elements of human development and livelihood support [the transition].”
Observers say a number of scenarios could play out ahead of the transition. The most desired, yet least expected, is to have all political parties sitting together at the negotiating table. However, increasing political and ethnic fragmentation in cities across the country, declining property markets, an imposed cash cap on money leaving Kabul airport, and re-armament in the north, are indicators of a possible breakdown in security and continued fighting.
“Usually plan A does not work here, so we plan B, C, D, all the way down to Z,” said one Western observer, who was commenting on ongoing contingency planning. The challenge, from an operational perspective, was how to keep up with the changes and continue operations on the ground when the situation is constantly shifting.
Challenges highlighted by aid workers include the negative effect on aid operations caused by the decline in aid money, the departure from the country of qualified Afghans, and a growing number of internally displaced people, especially those returning from Iran and Pakistan.
“It is about the reality of transition, that you have international forces that have brought with them development resources and aid into different parts of the country," Amos said. "So if you have a wind-down of that development, the potential exists for greater humanitarian needs because people are dropping over the edge into greater vulnerability."
Many observers are not convinced that less military presence will change anything in Afghans’ lives, though one of the main challenges for the international community is how to pay the civil service and maintain the level of effort put in by police, army and civil servants, especially if security continues to deteriorate.
“For the people in need and all the people on the cusp that are getting by, their situation can only get worse,” said a Western analyst. “These organizations can’t deal with the load they have now because they constantly have to re-look at strategies with constant emergencies coming along.”
International humanitarian workers say working atmospheres are tense and staff morale is down due to staff cuts. One of their biggest concerns, as part of a larger humanitarian crisis, is their Afghan counterparts desire to leave the country.
Afghan staff are also increasingly concerned about the growing insecurity and the risks involved in working for the UN - not only to them but also their families. Should international staff be forced to leave the country or relocate, many fear there will be fewer national aid workers on the ground, which means less access to local communities and people in need, making it harder to ensure key services and basic needs continue to be met.
Amos, who visited an informal settlement and met some 80 families in Parwan e Se, just outside central Kabul, said that while figures demonstrate that the overall security situation in the country has improved, over the past year there were some places where internal displacement had increased because of ongoing conflict.
The UN estimates there are half a million internally displaced people across the country. Amnesty International says displacement is on the rise: In the first half of 2011, 91,000 people fled their homes due to internal conflict - up by 46 percent on the first half of 2010.
Political tensions with Iran and Pakistan over Kabul’s strategic partnership with Washington have also resulted in threats to expel Afghan refugees residing in the two countries.
“The proposed plan to rapidly increase the [Afghan national forces] to 350,000 by the end of 2014 only to cut it to 250,000 within two or three years is greatly concerning,” the NGO consortium statement said.
“Such a push is not only a waste of resources that otherwise could have been focused on training and equipping a smaller [Afghan force], but also may contribute to the proliferation of arms and armed groups, thus increasing the risks to civilians.”