Six days surrounding MSF's decision to withdraw from Afghanistan
This article first appeared in The Independent
At a press conference in Kabul, Kenny Gluck, MSF Director of Operations and Marine Buissonniere, Secretary General of MSF announced MSF's closure of all programs in Afghanistan.
I travelled back from our Herat project. I was there to inform the national staff, as well as the ministries, of Medecins Sans Frontieres' decision to leave Afghanistan. Five colleagues were killed in a deliberate attack on an MSF vehicle on June 2 in north-west Afghanistan. The staff and others knew we could not rule out total withdrawal following the attack, the scale of which is unprecedented in MSF's history.
We did not decide to withdraw immediately, deciding to follow the official investigation closely. We hoped that would be credible and thorough but unfortunately this is not the case. The staff understand the decision but are naturally worried as to their future. Where to find a new job? We will help, but it can only be limited. Tuesday We want to talk to (authorities in Kabul) about why, when they have presented us with credible evidence that local commanders were responsible for the attack, they have neither detained nor publicly called for their arrest. Organising meetings with the authorities in Kabul. We want to talk to them about why, when they have presented us with credible evidence that local commanders were responsible for the attack, they have neither detained nor publicly called for their arrest.
We feel this demonstrates a lack of commitment to the safety of aid workers, giving the attacks a status of impunity. We prepare for the press conference on Thursday where we will officially announce our decision to withdraw. More meetings with our counterparts in the humanitarian community. Strong discussions but overall the message is understood. Wednesday Another important element in our decision is that the Taliban, whilse claiming responsibility for the assassinations, falsely accused us several times of working for American interests. The story broke early and the news is already circulating. The mobile drives me nuts. We quickly move the press conference forward.
Our Director of Operations and International Secretary, visiting Kabul for the meetings and press conference, express MSF's bitterness that after 24 years of providing healthcare to the Afghan people, we are now forced to leave. Another important element in our decision is that the Taliban, whilse claiming responsibility for the assassinations, falsely accused us several times of working for American interests. Ironic given that MSF has worked extremely hard to maintain its independence and distance from the coalition forces and has been repeatedly critical of their attempts to link military objectives with the provision of 'humanitarian' assistance.
Through these accusations, we are vulnerable to further attack. I know that MSF cannot expose international volunteers and national staff to this threat. Many of the national staff have worked for MSF for far longer than I have. Writing their notice letters, I see contracts that go back to 1995. Ouch. Thursday Our main counterpart, the Ministry of Health, very supportive in the aftermath of the attack, is extremely sad about our decision and want us to stay but understands our need to leave. With the press conference over and the media scrum subsiding, I can concentrate on the handover of our projects to the Ministry of Health and other NGOs. Practical issues such as logistics, payments and contractscall for attention. There is confusion about what exactly our rights and duties are as an NGO in Afghan law.
Our main counterpart, the Ministry of Health, very supportive in the aftermath of the attack, is extremely sad about our decision and want us to stay but understands our need to leave. The most complicated arrangements are for the tuberculosis patients. Their complex treatment needs consistency, otherwise patients risk developing resistance. The negotiations are successful. One headache less. Friday Once again, I am amazed by the commitment of the national staff who continue to give 100 percent effort in their work, despite their uncertain future. The day of rest in Afghanistan. Not today. With our imminent withdrawal a day off is impossible. Once again, I am amazed by the commitment of the national staff who continue to give 100 percent effort in their work, despite their uncertain future. Saturday Looking closely at these unmarked landcruisers ... you see Western soldiers inside. I rest my case. Frantic preparations to get administrative and financial issues ready for Monday. We will finalise all outstanding issues with the national staff.
I also plan to visit our project in the south where the needs are still enormous. Infant and maternal mortality rates are still some of the highest in the world. Our activities there include working in the obstetrics ward of a hospital. A successful intervention, with increasing number of women attending for deliveries. The Ministry of Health will take over but the quality of care will be compromised. Some colleagues leave. On the way to the airport we pass unmarked white landcruisers, the trademark of aid agencies. For the last 24 years in Afghanistan MSF has been using these vehicles: they enable the population to identify us. Looking closely at these unmarked landcruisers, though, you see Western soldiers inside. I rest my case.