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Taliban's grip imperils aid for Afghan civilians

Humanitarian aid agencies and U.N. leaders scrambled to protect civilians in Afghanistan while calling on the Taliban to end fighting and provide assurances.

U.S. infantry soldiers deployed to Afghanistan returning to New York's Fort Drum last week
U.S. infantry soldiers deployed to Afghanistan returning to New York's Fort Drum last week (AN/Kay Edwards)

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — A day after Taliban forces seized control of Afghanistan's government and its capital, Kabul, the U.N. Security Council called for an end to fighting and assurances of humanitarian aid and civilian protections, particularly for women and girls.

The 15-nation council held an emergency meeting on Monday to assess the rapid developments as the Taliban swept the country amid the United States' military withdrawal. Council members agreed by consensus that Afghanistan must honor its international obligations and keep from again becoming a haven for terrorists plotting global attacks.

The country is now effectively controlled by Taliban forces as U.S. President Joe Biden calls an end to America's nearly 20-year war there.

"The members of the Security Council called for an immediate cessation of all hostilities and the establishment, through inclusive negotiations, of a new government that is united, inclusive and representative — including with the full, equal and meaningful participation of women," India’s U.N. ambassador, T.S. Tirumurti, who holds this month's revolving council presidency, said in a press statement.

"They underlined that institutional continuity and adherence to Afghanistan’s international obligations, as well as the safety and security of all Afghan and international citizens, must be ensured," he said on behalf of the council. "They underscored that a sustainable end to the conflict in Afghanistan can only be achieved through an inclusive, just, durable and realistic political settlement that upholds human rights, including for women, children and minorities."

The council met as Afghans fled for their lives trying to reach safety at the Kabul airport. News organizations captured the chaotic scenes of people flocking to the runways and attemping to board the U.S. military planes that have been airlifting Americans and Afghans who helped the U.S. war effort.

U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, saying the Taliban’s takeover was the result of a lack of will by the Afghan army to fight the militant group. He noted that when he took office on January 20, he "inherited a deal" that former President Donald Trump negotiated with the Taliban for U.S. forces to withdraw by the start of May, and Trump had already ordered the roughly 15,500 American forces there to be reduced to just 2,500 remaining troops.

"We went to Afghanistan almost 20 years ago with clear goals: get those who attacked us on September 11th, 2001, and make sure al Qaeda could not use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack us again," Biden said. "Our only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on American homeland."

He said the collapse of Afghanistan's Western-backed government and military over the past week "reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves."

Council members, including its five permanent veto-wielding members Britain, France, China, Russia and the U.S., called for “an immediate end to the violence in Afghanistan, the restoration of security, civil and constitutional order, and urgent talks to resolve the current crisis of authority in the country and to arrive at a peaceful settlement through an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of national reconciliation.”

Overcrowded camps, hungry children

International humanitarian aid leaders warned that 18 million people, or half the country's population, urgently need basic services. UNICEF warned that one in three Afghan children is expected to be severely malnourished this year.

“We are bracing ourselves for a major humanitarian crisis," said Tracey Van Heerden, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s acting country director in Afghanistan. "Terrified families have been fleeing into Kabul in the past days. Camps are overcrowded and children are sleeping out in the open. Families are fighting over food. We fear this situation is being replicated across the country at an unprecedented pace."

NRC also expressed concern about the number of reported serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses there, and called on all parties to provide aid organizations with immediate, safe and unhindered humanitarian access. Afghanistan should not be used to threaten or attack any country, it said, and neither the Taliban nor any other Afghan group or individual should support "terrorists operating on the territory of any other country."

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the Taliban must protect people and not hinder humanitarian efforts. "The world is following events in Afghanistan with a heavy heart and deep disquiet about what lies ahead. All of us have seen the images in real time. Chaos. Unrest. Uncertainty. And fear," he said.

"Much lies in the balance. The progress. The hope. The dreams of a generation of young Afghan women and girls, boys and men," said Guterres. "At this grave hour, I urge all parties, especially the Taliban, to exercise utmost restraint to protect lives and to ensure that humanitarian needs can be met."

Afghanistan's U.N. Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai called on the Security Council to establish a humanitarian corridor to evacuate people and urged other nations to accommodate fleeing Afghans terrified by the Taliban fighters. "We have witnessed time and again how Taliban have broken their promises and commitments in the past. We have seen gruesome images of Taliban’s mass executions of military personnel and target killings of civilians in Kandahar and other big cities," said Isaczai.

"We cannot allow this to happen in Kabul, which has been the last refuge for many people escaping violence and Taliban’s revenge attacks," he said. "Kabul residents are reporting that Taliban have already started house to house searches in some neighborhoods registering names and looking for people in their target list. There are already reports of target killings and looting in the city. Kabul residents are living in absolute fear right now."

Some 25 U.N. human rights experts jointly called on the U.N.'s 193 member nations to take immediate action to protect civilian lives and prevent destruction of Afghanistan's infrastructure.

"The work undertaken in partnership over the last 20 years by the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the international community with Afghan human rights defenders, women's groups, other civil society organisations and the Afghan people is under grave threat," said the U.N. special rapporteurs, who are each appointed by the Human Rights Council to independently work on specific countries or themes.

"The Taliban's military offensive has been marked by a relentless campaign of direct targeting of civilians, civil society and journalists, summary executions, assassination of human rights defenders, arbitrary detention, mass executions of civilians, and unlawful restrictions on the human rights of women and girls," they said. "It is unacceptable for states to stand on the sidelines when the Taliban, first designated as a terrorist organization in 1999 by the United Nations Security Council, and which continues to have many of its associated entities and individuals listed, overruns the territory of Afghanistan and engages in acts that may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity."