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Welcome to the conversation, where we discuss global news and share our views, insights and expertise.

Deadly Kabul explosions felt for thousands of miles

Rahila Muhibi
Rahila Muhibi | June 2, 2017

iguacu’s Lead Researcher for Afghanistan Rahila Muhibi penned a personal note following Wednesday’s deadly explosions in Kabul in which, she has since learned, 11 members of her extended family and the families of her friends were killed.

Like so many Afghans living abroad, we stay connected with Afghanistan; for some that special bond is out of love of country, nostalgia, family members, or a combination of all three. Luckily I am in a profession that allows me to remain connected to home by daily monitoring of the situation in Afghanistan. As I woke up in London on Wednesday, 3500 miles from Kabul, and was getting ready to go to work, I saw a flood of social media alerts. So many family members, relatives and close friends were posting about the deadly explosion at the city centre of Kabul, killing 90 and injuring some 400.

At once, a very familiar feeling ran through me, a feeling I know so well now. When Taliban attacked an army base in Mazar-e Sharif in April, where I knew many people working there at the time, I felt the same rush of fear, worry and hope, and a wall of questions of what, who, where and why, all at once. As well as when the so-called Islamic State targeted peaceful protestors and all the other recent major attacks.

It was clear at the first instant this Kabul blast was not the usual daily explosion. As many times before, I first called family members I knew were working near the area. I was both desperate to know whether they were safe, and at the same time felt a dreadful reluctance to call, fearing their loss. I found my sister was safe, my nephew was unreachable but later found safe, my brother was devastated from the sound of it but reassured me he was alright. He was at the emergency site when I called, helping friends. My brother-in-law was also helping at the scene. Out of panic, I pleaded with them all to next time, please avoid all the major routes where attacks happen. I used to keep track of this information and now have lost track of it. Deep down, at the same time I said those words, I knew they could not avoid danger in such an extremely unsafe environment.

As the day unfolded, I found out at least eleven people from my close circle, including extended family and the families of friends, were killed, and so many other friends were directly affected. With an extreme helplessness, I turned to social media and other news outlets to find out more. I found the shock of the attack was felt everywhere in Kabul and everyone was affected. It felt as though the young professionals, the breadwinners and the core of Kabul were all targeted.

The images surfacing on social media were some of the most heart-wrenching, with some people feeling grateful they were alive, and others in despair with reactions of: “we live in a place where to live is accidental and to die is normal”. Then, I stumbled upon the feeling of joy when family members found each other safe, of people giving blood, and of civilians carrying the wounded on their backs. I found humanity again in the midst of a barbaric and inhumane act. This hope, this humanity, will help me eventually to move on, once again. It will help the people of Kabul to move on, and it will help us all to move on.

No matter what happens, we will remain humane.

South Sudan: when it rains, it pours

Blandine Sixdenier
Blandine Sixdenier | April 26, 2017

South Sudan is in the midst of the first famine declared in the world since 2011. Brought on as a result of conflict and drought, more than 100,000 people face starvation and a further one million are at risk. While the rainy season should provide the opportunity for farmers to plant crops for the coming year, in South Sudan it brings a host of humanitarian challenges for both aid workers and the population.

Hospital vehicle pulled from the mud. Albert Gonzalez Farran / ICRC

No more access

The rainy season is expected to start in May and last until October. While more than 7 million South Sudanese require lifesaving assistance, including 40% of the population who are in need of urgent food, the rainy season will make it harder for aid workers to provide help and for the population to reach aid centres.

With only a couple of kilometres of paved roads, travelling in South Sudan is extremely challenging and time-consuming. Even in the dry season, a 500 km trip takes around a week to complete.

Heavy rainfalls render most roads and airstrips impassable, leaving two thirds of the country unreachable. As a result, access to vulnerable people will be impeded and entire communities will be cut off of the rest of the country, including those most affected by the food crisis. Humanitarian organizations are currently racing to stockpile food in these communities before the rainy season begins.

Not only will humanitarian workers struggle to reach the population, many South Sudanese themselves will have to walk for hours in the mud before finding aid facilities.

Pawel Krzysiek / ICRC

Waterborne disease – the perfect storm

The rainy season also provides a fertile ground for the spread of waterborne diseases such as cholera and diarrhoea.

Clean water as well as good sanitation are essential to prevent the outbreak of diseases. Nearly 5 million South Sudanese do not have access to clean water. Sanitation facilities are almost non existent forcing 74% of the population to defecate in the open. A cholera outbreak was declared earlier this year, for the third time in a row.

The lack of sanitation and health facilities, coupled with the flooding, has proven to be deadly for many South Sudanese in previous rainy seasons, especially in overcrowded displaced persons’ camps and urban centres. Flooding indeed further increases the risk of contamination of water sources and consequently diseases, while overcrowded areas facilitate their transmission.

Daniel Littlejohn / ICRC

How the ICRC is responding

Although the outlook in South Sudan is bleak, support for the people of South Sudan does exist. iguacu’s recommended charity the ICRC has been present in South Sudan since 1986 and is well-prepared to continue providing critical help during the rainy season.

The ICRC has a great capacity to reach out to the population. During the dry season, the ICRC relies on airdrops to distribute help in remote areas.  In March, the ICRC distributed food to over 20,000 people in Jonglei state. With the rainy season rending airstrips unusable, the ICRC will dispatch its helicopters and hence pursue their vital relief work nationwide.

In addition to their emergency response to the food crisis, the ICRC focuses on longer-term strategies to eradicate hunger in South Sudan. Ahead of the rainy season, the ICRC distributed seeds and tools to some 200,000 South Sudanese throughout the country, allowing them to grow and plant their crops for the new season.

The ICRC also works all year long to improve access to safe-drinking water and healthcare. In 2016, the ICRC restored 19 water facilities and conducted more than 140,000 outpatient consultations.

With the acute food crisis and the cholera epidemic, the rainy season will certainly be deadlier than in years before. As soon as July this year, more than 5 million South Sudanese are expected to be suffering from food insecurity.

On a positive note, violence should decrease as the rainy season makes it harder for armed groups to move. In the meantime, the ICRC will continue in all conditions to support those in great need.

 

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.



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