The United Nations has evacuated staff from areas of northern Afghanistan where a suspected American airstrike hit a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières, forcing it to leave Kunduz Province – the latest in a growing number of humanitarian agencies withdrawing from the north as violence increases.
At least 22 people died in the attack on the MSF hospital in the provincial capital of Kunduz early Saturday morning. The United States is investigating whether its aircraft carried out the bombing, but a NATO statement has already acknowledged that the US launched an airstrike “in the vicinity” of the MSF facility at the same time it was hit.
MSF has called for an investigation into whether the attack violates international humanitarian law, and it has closed the hospital and evacuated some staff from Kunduz Province, a spokesperson for the medical charity told IRIN.
MSF is only the latest group to suspend operations in northern Afghanistan, where Afghan and US forces are battling the resurgent Taliban. Violence has intensified during the past week as the two sides vied for control of the city of Kunduz. On 28 September, it became the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since it was ousted from power in 2001.
The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) closed its offices in Kunduz city last week because it could not guarantee the safety of staff. Other organisations, including the World Food Programme, relocated staff from Kunduz as fighting for control of the city raged.
Over the past week, UNAMA has also evacuated staff from Baghlan Province, which borders Kunduz to the south, and has withdrawn some staff from the northeastern province of Badakhshan, according to spokesperson Dominic Medley.
“We are doing this as a cautionary measure,” he told IRIN.
The Taliban maintains a significant presence in parts of Baghlan. Insurgents have ambushed Afghan security forces on their way to reinforce troops in Kunduz and laid mines along the main road, according to media reports that were confirmed by a Kabul-based security analyst on condition of anonymity.
With intensified conflict in northern Afghanistan this year, there has been a steady erosion of humanitarian activities, leaving residents in some areas without access to food and medical care, along with other services.
A woman registers her name in order to pick up her aid package in Afghanistan's Kunduz city in April
Food shipments halted
Last month, WFP suspended food delivery operations in Badakhshan after five of its trucks and staff disappeared overnight on their way back from making a delivery. While the staff members were released, the trucks were never recovered.
Spokesman Wahidullah Amani told IRIN that the WFP resumed limited food deliveries last week but said that poor security was continuing to undermine operations.
“Some districts there have more than 80 percent food insecurity, but they are in very remote areas and access to them is low,” said Amani.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has repeatedly halted its work this year due to concerns about the safety of staff. The group evacuated 31 workers from Kunduz city, where its offices were looted during fighting over the past week, according to country director Qurat Sadozai.
While rising violence has hampered aid efforts, it has also increased the need for humanitarian services.
Sadozai said the fighting in Kunduz had driven civilians out of the city and that many families had fled to neighbouring Takhar Province.
“NRC will be sending an emergency team there in the coming days to assess how many families are in need, and to provide emergency assistance,” she told IRIN.
Other organisations have also reportedly wound down or ceased operations in northern Afghanistan due to violence and abductions, but are reluctant to comment publicly because of security risks.
Planning for disruptions
Afghanistan is the most dangerous country for aid workers, with 57 killed last year, according to UNAMA. The death toll for this year was high before the bombing of the MSF clinic. ACBAR, a coordinating body for NGOs, said in June that 26 aid workers had already been killed in Afghanistan in 2015.
When designing projects, aid organisations take into account disruptions from security incidents and other factors, said Alexander Pforte, deputy country manager for Caritas Germany.
He said Caritas has repeatedly had to stop work on its water and sanitation projects in the northwestern province of Faryab, and every time work is disrupted the organisation has to reassess whether it can continue to operate. That reassessment depends largely on who is in control of an area.
“We can work with a sovereign government just as easily as with a rebel government. The thing that matters to us is that the territory is clearly in control of one group,” he told IRIN. “What is dangerous for us is when it is not clear who is in charge.”
“That’s the problem we’re seeing now in places like Kunduz – it’s just unclear who is in charge,” said Pforte.
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