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The who’s who in the Afghan conflict

Nathanael Chouraqui
Nathanael Chouraqui | April 11, 2017

Many people remain unaware that there is a war in Afghanistan impacting the lives of millions of people.

Whilst the conflict is complex and involves multiple actors, four of them are pivotal.

U.S. and British Army Soldiers take a tactical pause during a combat patrol in the Sangin District area of Helmand Province, Afghanistan (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Daniel Love)

THE TALIBAN

The Taliban, a hardline Islamist political and religious faction, emerged in the mid-1990s in northern Pakistan following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In power in Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they are now estimated to control about 30% of the country.

The Taliban were the original targets of US-led intervention in 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, the US sought to overthrow an organisation that had provided sanctuary for Osama Bin-Laden’s Al-Qaeda organisation.

After being toppled by the coalition, the Taliban have mainly reverted to guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The group routinely and deliberately targets the civilian population and, in 2016 alone, the U.N. attributed an estimated 5,000 deaths and injuries to their activities.

While traditionally operating in rural environments, the ultra-conservative Islamist organisation have expanded into urban centres in the past 12 months and alarmingly increased their territory. They have reduced the area under Afghan government influence to less than two-thirds of the country.

Criminal activities have become a cornerstone of their funding, including illegal mining, heroin laboratories and kidnapping. Recently their operations have expanded into the illegal harvesting and selling of pistachios, reportedly earning the Taliban $15million per year.

Peace talks involving the Taliban have been sporadically held since 2012, without any political solution. Internal divisions and rival factions plague the Taliban movement and peace efforts, something the assertive rule of new leader Hibatullah Akhundzada (since May 2016) has so far failed to suppress.

ISLAMIC STATE (IS)

Capitalising on the regional destabilisation of the Middle-East, the so-called Islamic State (IS) has reportedly been operating in Afghanistan since 2014, in addition to their established territorial presence in Iraq and Syria. The number of IS fighters in Afghanistan is estimated to be between 1,000 and 5,000.

The bulk of the force is made of Taliban defectors and foreign fighters with little connection to the Syrian and Iraqi branches of IS.

In January 2015, IS announced the establishment of the self-styled caliphate in the “Khorasan province”, the ancient name for a region encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other nearby areas. And, in September 2015 the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) launched its first offensive against Afghan forces. The group initially grew quickly, and extended control over sizeable portions of territory in northern Afghanistan.

In 2016, about 900 deaths and injuries were attributed to ISKP. More recently, on 8th March 2017, ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Kabul, where militants dressed as medics killed at least 49 people.

ISKP has struggled in its efforts to build local support. They are often seen as a brutal and foreign force, and have alienated the Afghan population.

After suffering numerous losses at the hands of both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban, their territory has now considerably decreased. As a result, IS’s strength in Afghanistan is widely believed to be in decline.

US-LED INTERNATIONAL COALITION

Although the NATO coalition formally ended its 13-year combat mission in 2014, handing control over to Afghan forces, international troops are still present on the ground. About 13,300 troops remain there for training and counterterrorism operations, including 8,400 from the US.

There has been some uncertainty in the international community recently over the future of US presence in the country under President Trump’s administration. As the Taliban insurgency is gaining momentum, top U.S. generals and senators have argued in favour of an increased U.S. presence in the country.

Trump has emphasized the continuing importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership and his support for President Ghani’s government. But there has been no indication as yet as to whether the US will increase their deployment.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT

In Afghanistan, a government of national unity has been in place since September 2014 and is headed by President Ashraf Ghani.  Hampered by fierce political infighting and widespread corruption, the government and its 350,000-strong forces have appeared increasingly incapable of maintaining territory in the face of Taliban insurgency.

The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), comprised of both soldiers and police officers, is plagued by management issues. For instance, it has been reported that the ANSF counts thousands of “ghost” soldiers, who are either dead men or fake names but receive full salary.

Governmental forces are assisted by pro-government militias and US-funded “local police” forces. Although established with the purpose of mobilizing the rural Afghan population against the Taliban, these groups have been accused of abuses against civilians, such as theft, extortion, and assault.

In 2016, reports have noted an increase in the number of members of the security forces defecting to the Taliban.

The government has recently announced it would double the number of special elite forces, currently at 17,000, in a bid to tackle the growing Taliban threat and reverse the conflict’s dynamic.

Beyond these four key actors, numerous other players are bearing on the balance of power of the conflict. These include both smaller insurgent groups -such as the Haqqani network or Al-Qaeda- and big international stakeholders  -in particular regional powers, Iran, Pakistan, China and India.

After Matthew: is Haiti on its feet?

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | March 13, 2017

On October 16th 2016, Haiti was hit by Hurricane Matthew, resulting in more than 900 dead and widespread devastation and displacement in the South. Haiti was already suffering from a humanitarian and political crisis following the 2010 earthquake as well as a cholera outbreak and a prolonged drought. So where are we now?

Haiti on Election Day

Photo: OAS, Flickr

What’s working

The election of Jovenel Moise in November 2016 ended a long cycle of political turmoil. First held in October 2015, the presidential elections were postponed several times and the original results annulled due to widespread violence and accusations of mass fraud. As a result, President Moise’s inauguration in February 2017 marked a turning point. Political stability is an essential condition for Haiti to meet its development goals and address its economic, social and humanitarian challenges.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH, has noted improvements in the security situation over the past months. The UN Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping operations announced on February 9th 2017 that the withdrawal of MINUSTAH’s military component was likely in the near future. After 13 years, its disengagement would allow Haiti to take over the control of its own public security. This would be a great step towards sustainable recovery and development.

The tenure of the Port-au-Prince International Jazz Festival is another sign of Haiti’s recovery. The 4th edition was cancelled in 2010 due to the earthquake. Yet, four months after Hurricane Matthew, artists from around the world will gather to celebrate Jazz music in Haiti.

Photo: Logan Abassi , UN Photo, Flickr

The challenges

Despite these notable improvements, Haiti remains in a fragile state. While the country was still recovering from the 2010 quake, Hurricane Matthew wiped out much of the progress made in the South where there had been a decrease in extreme poverty. In the areas most affected by Matthew, villages and farms were completely destroyed and almost all crops were lost.

Matthew impacted over 2 million people and left a further 1.4 million in need of lifesaving assistance. Today, more than 1 million Haitians face hunger. The health situation is dire and the international community fears a surge in the cholera epidemic. Over 8,000 new cases were reported in just one month in November 2016. Diphtheria is also on the rise.

In addition, numerous women are at risk of forced labour and human trafficking. In February, the police saved 33 girls, some as young as 13, from being sold by traffickers. Children are also exposed to exploitation and abuse. Low income families and unaccompanied children are often sent to wealthier families to be fed and educated in exchange for light chores. Yet, it is a common fate for these children to be used as domestic slaves.

Haiti is also facing a crisis with returnees from the Dominican Republic. Between June 2015 and January 2017, almost 170,000 people arrived in Haiti from the Dominican Republic. Haiti lacks the capacity and infrastructure to handle massive arrivals. Consequently, many returnees live in makeshift camps in miserable conditions, and are at risk of statelessness.

Photo: PresidenciaRD, Flickr

Photo: PresidenciaRD, Flickr

Ways forward

To tackle the acute crisis, the Humanitarian Community requested almost US$ 300 million (Humanitarian Response Plan).

While Haiti relies on NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to provide basic services to its population, the Humanitarian Response Plan was designed to deliver both immediate lifesaving assistance and rapid recovery measures. These measures, such as the rehabilitation of homes or the promotion of small rural businesses, aim at strengthening Haiti’s resilience. This would pave the way for long-term development and strengthen Haiti’s capacities to cope with future humanitarian challenges.

So far, the Plan is less than 10% funded. Haiti needs strong commitments from international donors to ensure stability and exit the cycle of humanitarian dependency.  

Four months after Hurricane Matthew, Haiti is slowly recovering. Despite notable progress, Haiti still needs international attention and continued support. With the help of the Humanitarian Response Plan, Haiti will be able to make some strides towards sustainable recovery and development by strengthening its resilience.

5 key challenges extraordinary aid workers face in the Central African Republic

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | March 8, 2017

Photo: BORIS HEGER, ICRC

One of the most dangerous places on the African continent, the Central African Republic remains in a fragile state today. Despite often hostile working conditions, relief workers continue to provide lifesaving assistance to many Central Africans. Aid workers in CAR face five major challenges:

Challenge 1. Security

While significant improvements were made to pave the way for lasting peace, including successful elections, the Central African Republic is plagued by instability. Although violence varies by region, the security situation deteriorated again in the second half of 2016 with armed groups striking throughout the country. Today, around 14 armed groups operate nationwide and fight over the control of resources.

Despite their humanitarian nature, NGOs have not been spared by armed groups’ and have been targeted since the beginning of the conflict. In 2016, more than 330 attacks were carried out against relief organisations, resulting in the death of 5 aid workers.

Twenty-four humanitarian workers have been killed since 2013.

Although direct threats are posed to their lives, and their facilities looted, relief workers continue to pursue their activities nationwide. More than 50 international NGOs and 65 national NGOs are currently present in CAR, conducting operations in some of the country’s most dangerous places to ensure the millions of Central Africans in need are not abandoned.

 

Challenge 2. Scale of humanitarian need

The entire population has been affected by the conflict. Today, 2.2 million people, roughly half of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs.

The health system is almost non-existent, drinking water is scarce, 2 million people face hunger, 2 million people need protection from armed groups’ violence and living conditions in refugees or displaced persons camps are deplorable.

Malaria, which is treatable, is currently the leading cause of death.

Sexual and gender-based violence is widespread affecting thousands of women and girls.

The government, already weak prior to the conflict, does not have the capacity to respond to the humanitarian crisis. Three years after the beginning of the conflict, Central Africans rely on NGOs to access basic services, leaving aid organisations with a colossal job to do. In 2016, more than 60 humanitarian organizations were focused on protection, 60 plus on food security and 37 on health.

Yet, due to ongoing violence, vulnerable people cannot always benefit from lifesaving assistance.

 

Photographer : ELENA ARANZ ARANZ, ICRC

Challenge 3. Lack of infrastructure

Another obstacle humanitarian workers face is the lack of infrastructure. Outside Bangui, many parts of the country are very difficult to access and isolated. With a territory slightly bigger than France and nearly 5 million inhabitants, CAR’s population density is low and concentrated in the west and south of the country.

Transportation infrastructure is poorly-maintained. Most roads are not paved, many bridges are unusable and networks between cities are underdeveloped. The country has no railroads, internal flights are rare and depend on the security situation. Traveling from one city to another is time-consuming. The rainy season, from April to October, further renders traveling difficult, if not impossible in some areas.

Also, due to the presence of armed groups and road bandits, humanitarian workers have to travel in convoys.

This situation affects both the operation of NGOs’ deployment throughout the country and responsiveness when new hotspots emerge.

 

Challenge 4. Lack of finance

In January, the government and the humanitarian community launched a two year plan, requesting almost US$400 million to finance humanitarian actions for the year 2017.

Making a substantial difference to the situation in CAR requires long-term commitments and the attention and support of the global public. With other humanitarian crises erupting throughout the world, the Central African Republic is at risk of fading from the international agenda, as so often before. This would impact the funding of humanitarian organizations and have disastrous consequences for the population.

In 2016, only 37% of the funding requirements to meet humanitarian need was met. One of the consequences of this shortfall was shortages in humanitarian supplies. For instance, the World Food Program, instead of targeting 1 million people, was able to help only 400,000 people and had to cut its food rations by half.

 

Challenge 5. Lack of information

Last but not least, gathering real-time information is extremely difficult. Outside Bangui and other large city centres, cell-phone and internet networks are almost non-existent.

In 2015, only 30% of the population had a subscription to a mobile phone and 4% of the population was using internet. As a result, knowing exactly what is happening in one village takes time which can delay the potential humanitarian response in case of crisis.

Unknown to most people, despite often extreme and hostile conditions, the humanitarian actors in CAR help hold this country together. The long-suffering people of CAR and the incredible community who support them need more of us to take notice and take action.

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Key sources (in French)

MSF suspends its activities in PK5 (Bangui) for 7 days

Surge in violence: the UN calls on armed groups not to obstruct humanitarian access

Without urgent funding, the World Food Program would have to suspend its help to thousands displaced people

Bringing stability to CAR: using emergency public service and infrastructure projects to promote post-crisis recovery



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