As parents across the globe weigh the risks of sending their children to school amid a surge of COVID-19, those in Afghanistan must also consider a second threat: deadly militant attacks.
Saturday’s rocket attacks in Kabul, for which the Islamic State reportedly claimed responsibility, follows a November 2 attack at Kabul University by armed gunmen of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. In the University attack, gunman killed at least 32 people and wounded 50 more. In its aftermath, the phone of a student was found with 142 missed calls from their father. As the frantic father’s calls went unanswered, he texted his child in Dari, “Where are you, father’s beloved?” The intimate, ubiquitous phrase struck a chord among Afghans at home and abroad. The unanswered question has since become a Twitter hashtag, creating a virtual space for collective mourning and anger—as well as for hope and determination.
Afghans hope that while government and Taliban leaders negotiate in Doha for an elusive peace, international donors will renew their commitments by pledging urgently needed humanitarian and development funds at the 2020 Afghanistan Conference in Geneva this week. The conference will bring major donors together to commit the next––and final––four-year cycle of financial support to address the country’s vast needs, including those of almost 3 millioninternally displaced Afghans.
Re-committing to Afghanistan through funding pledges will help signal to Afghans that they have not been abandoned. Meeting basic food and healthcare needs as peace negotiations progress will help instill hope and enable youth to continue their lives, including their educational pursuits.
With an estimated 90 percent of Afghans living in extreme poverty, we cannot cut humanitarian assistance now. Surges in both violent attacks and COVID-19 infection rates across the country reveal just how dire the situation has become.
First and foremost, the violence must end. And that requires a political solution, which is by no means certain. But failure by donors to commit to adequate funding would only make a fragile situation worse. instead, a generous donor response would send a valuable signal of international engagement and would help to meet basic needs.
To be sure, Afghan leaders will have to demonstrate a commitment to make responsible use of aid provided. The twelve major donors have laid out key elements for sustained international support—including those related to transparency, anti-corruption efforts, and accountability—all of which are crucial steps for respecting the rule of law and ensuring the protection of the most vulnerable Afghans.
But without adequate international support, Afghanistan’s struggling humanitarian and healthcare infrastructures will face severe blows, if not complete evisceration. As the pandemic rages globally, long-standing donors have indicated that they may reduce funding pledges at this month’s conference. With an estimated 35 million Afghans in need of a social safety net, this is no time for austerity. The level of support that donors pledge in Geneva will determine whether urgent humanitarian and development needs can be met in a country facing challenges on so many fronts.
After a first spike of COVID-19 cases in June, the UN estimated that at least 14 million Afghans were in need of urgent humanitarian aid, including basic food assistance. Now, Afghanistan is coping with a second wave of infections that is expected to be even deadlier. This second wave will certainly require even further aid to meet the growing needs.
Such critical humanitarian aid also funds invaluable vaccination efforts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these efforts were paused in March 2020, leaving approximately 50 million children in Afghanistan and Pakistan without protection from polio. Areas that were considered polio-free have now seen a resurgence, leaving those affected to cope with a lifetime of paralysis in a country with severe accessibility concerns. This is just one of many examples of how severe the untold costs of abandoning Afghanistan will be.
Without humanitarian and development aid, Afghan youth will suffer. They will face ever more impediments to their educational pursuits. Financial pressures on families will result in negative coping mechanisms such as pushing children into the informal labor market and pressuring girls into early marriages. A rising generation of educated Afghans is essential for Afghanistan to rebuild.
After the November 2 tragedy, #KabulUniversityAttack is eliciting shared expressions of outrage—and empowerment. In memory of those who lost their lives, Afghans are using it to share their personal aspirations, as well as their hopes for peace: hope for an Afghanistan where going to school is no longer a life or death decision.
Donors must likewise demonstrate determination by meeting all humanitarian and development funding needs at this year’s 2020 Afghanistan Conference. For the Afghan parent who lost their child and for the countless others who suffered similarly over four decades of protracted conflict, donors must act decisively and show solidarity.
Mariam Banahi is a program manager and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at Refugees International. She holds a PhD in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University. Her family is from Afghanistan. Devon Cone is the senior advocate for women and girls at Refugees International. She previously worked for UNHCR and worked with Afghan asylum seekers while setting up a legal aid program in Greece.