Interview: Return to Afghanistan is essential

Dr Marc Biot has been working with MSF since 1989. After two missions in Afghanistan, he was in charge of programs there between 1994 and 1997. Stefan Vanfleteren Photo: Stefan Vanfleteren
"The current situation is extremely frustrating for our teams. We cannot be with the people inside Taleban-held Afghanistan, yet we should be alongside them. The Taleban have told us several times how much they'd welcome our presence and assistance, but they've also warned us of the huge anti-Western sentiment among part of the population. "Extremist elements are portraying the conflict as a war of the West against Islam. I saw a cartoon in a Pakistani newspaper; it showed American soldiers at a fork in a road. Left was a sign pointing towards 'terrorism', right one saying 'Islam'. The soldiers were turning right. Such extremist views also trickle through in the more general Islamic media. It's a very dangerous development. It means, for instance, that we have no idea what kind of a welcome we'd receive if we'd enter the country again with international staff. "For years, we have been working with the Taleban. True, we have serious difficulties with many of their policies. But we are respected and even now, the Governor of Mazar-I-Sharif has ordered that our compound be protected against further looting and says that he hopes for our relief materials to be distributed as soon as possible among the populations who need them urgently. Stefan Vanfleteren Photo: Stefan Vanfleteren
"I think the main asset we have in the country is our Afghan staff. Only in the northeast, in provinces under control of the Northern Alliance, are we today able to work with international teams. But throughout the country, our fabulous Afghan colleagues have managed to keep assistance to their people going. There are hardly any MSF programs that have been suspended since September 11. It pays off that we have invested much in our Afghan staff. Overall, the country has suffered a brain drain, but we have retained some very skilled people who otherwise would have fled the country as well. And we have consistently invested in training. "Our staff have supplies left for another two or three months. But we need to be back with international aid workers as quickly as possible, for a variety of reasons. First, we can only show that we are not a party in the armed and ideological conflict by being there with them. Secondly, we need to assess the current situation, see what the most pressing needs are today, see what gaps have occurred in assistance to the people, and initiate new projects or adapt existing ones accordingly. And thirdly, people rightly expect MSF to have an independent voice. But as long as we are not on the ground and see the situation with our own eyes, it will be difficult for us to really comment on the humanitarian situation and the priorities that should be set in delivering aid. "Several other aid organisations now see that their projects are coming to a standstill, for lack of supplies. That means that the gaps in meeting the needs of the population are growing. This is all the more worrying, as the crucial window for bringing in relief before winter is closing rapidly. As people need more food, less comes in. That is what I see as the real 'collateral damage' of the current conflict. "This would normally be the time of year when we 'winterise' our projects. In the harsh Afghan climate, it is crucial to prepare displaced camps and clinics for winter, as well as adjust nutritional aid and increase our surveys of malnourishment. For the moment we cannot do this. We know that in certain areas - Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, Faryab and Maimana in the north - some 80% of the population already had hardly any food left. If we cannot get to them soon, their future looks very bleak indeed."