U.S. Leaves Afghanistan Aid Workers to Defend 20 Years of Progress Against Taliban

While the U.S. military scrambles to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul's chaotic airport, Taliban fighters are entrenching their control of the capital and reviving the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

Those Kabulites not desperately trying to find a way out are either sheltering at home or trying to go about their daily lives, navigating heavily armed Taliban checkpoints and reported house-to-house searches for suspected collaborators.

Among those facing an uncertain future are employees of international aid organizations, who have spent two decades working to improve the health and opportunities of Afghans so long choked by authoritarian rule and devastating wars.

Aid agencies that spoke with Newsweek said workers remain committed to their mission, though unsure whether the Taliban will allow them to continue operations.

"We of all people have not got any rose-tinted glasses about these guys," Mark Malloch‐Brown, the president of the Open Society Foundations, told Newsweek, though he said the group would have to subdue a more resilient Afghanistan than before.

"The progress is dramatic. It's not just that we're the defenders of it, it's a very different country to defend.

"It is much more urbanized, much more middle class, women obviously in a much more prominent public role than in the past and not confined to the homes anymore. There is a much wider set of societal barriers and firebreaks to a reversion to the 1990s."

A sign of the international presence in Afghanistan, aid agencies and their workers have repeatedly been attacked by Taliban and Islamic State Khorasan Province fighters, and even by U.S. forces.

It remains to be seen if the Taliban will revert to the brutal authoritarianism it practiced before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. Taliban spokesmen have said that Afghans have nothing to fear, issuing an amnesty and even encouraging women to join the new government.

Observers have suggested that the group may present a softer public image in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Kabul, wary of undermining nascent ties with powerful potential allies in Russia, China, and across the Middle East.

But recent years give little indication that the Taliban has changed. In the areas under Taliban control before the recent offensive that overwhelmed Kabul, there have been reports of executions, attacks on civilians, forced marriages, and sexual assault.

Malloch‐Brown said the Open Society Foundations was working to help evacuate a "vast network" of human rights activists, democracy advocates, and women's leaders.

"Those are people with targets painted on them," Malloch-Brown said, the number of which rose into the hundreds.

Local women's rights groups and human rights organizations are most at risk: "These are groups which are already having Taliban visits to their offices. Although from all we can tell, just at this moment, to gather names and information, not yet with any attempt in general to arrest people."

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) told Newsweek its staff have been operating across Afghanistan during the recent offensive, engaging in talks with all warring parties including the Taliban to ensure the safety of its facilities.

During the rapid Taliban advance last week, Filipe Ribeiro—MSF's country representative in Afghanistan—said intense fighting reached several MSF facilities in cities including Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, and Herat.

"We are using all possible channels to take our concerns to the parties to the conflict and make sure that the medical mission of MSF is respected," Ribero said.

The Norwegian Refugee Council told Newsweek its staff in Kabul had gone into hibernation since Taliban fighters took the city. Still, the organization hopes to continue its work protecting displaced people and providing other humanitarian aid.

NRC Afghanistan advocacy manager Eileen McCarthy said the group had been renegotiating with local authorities to continue operations as control changed from government to Taliban hands.

"States and other actors that control territory have the responsibility to meet the basic needs of their people. If they are unable or unwilling, they should give access to humanitarian actors instead," McCarthy said.

"For the past two decades, Afghanistan has remained one of the most dangerous places for humanitarian workers. Local Afghan humanitarian employees have been the hardest hit, but expatriate aid workers have also been frequently targeted.

"As the security situation deteriorates across the country, the safety and wellbeing of our staff is our number one priority."

Half of NRC's expatriate staff are working remotely, though before the Taliban offensive they were still rotating in and out of the country frequently.

"NRC Afghanistan is committed to staying and delivering assistance to millions of people in need," McCarthy said.

"While Afghanistan remains one of the world's most dangerous countries for us to operate in, it is more important than ever that aid agencies can reach communities.

"We also need parties to conflict to ensure that our teams and humanitarian assets such as our aid offices and vehicles are respected. We also require assurances that humanitarian aid operations are permitted to continue as needs soar across the country."

Save the Children Afghanistan's director of communications, Athena Rayburn, told Newsweek that operations are currently on pause "as we assess the situation."

"We plan to resume the full spectrum of our services as soon as it is safe to do so. We have been working in Afghanistan since 1976 and have had provincial offices in locations that have been under Taliban control for the duration of that time," Rayburn said.

"Last year we directly reached just under 1.7 million Afghan's across the country with lifesaving health, education, child protection and nutrition services, including 600,000 children.

"Our commitment to staying and delivering for the people of Afghanistan remains unchanged, the children of Afghanistan must not be abandoned by the international community.

"What is needed now is for the international community to step up and ensure continued funding for humanitarian services in Afghanistan and protect Afghanistan, and Afghan children from further conflict and violence."

Malloch-Brown said that the remaining humanitarian organizations could be key in pressuring the Taliban not to return to the worst abuses of their previous rule.

The United Nations, too, must step in to fill the void, he added: "The actually pretty moribund, useless UN Security Council of recent years is a platform to replace the US-NATO platform in terms of international engagement, to get some purchase on the direction of political events going forward in the country."

The historic Taliban press conference in Kabul on Tuesday was carefully choreographed for the international community.

Spokesmen assured observers that women would be safe—if they adhered to the Taliban interpretation of Sharia law—and that those previously loyal to the Afghan government would not be punished.

"It seems really an opportune time to get together and try and condition a new Afghan government to respect human rights...to engage with the international community. The risk is that if we don't it will just be Taliban mark 2," Malloch-Brown said.

Taliban fighter at Kabul checkpoint with flag
A Taliban fighter patrols along a street in Kabul on August 17, 2021, as the Taliban moved quickly to restart the Afghan capital following their stunning takeover of Kabul and told government staff to return to work. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images