As US forces withdraw from Afghanistan, putting an end to the longest war in US history, a new era has begun for a country that has seen invading forces come and go for centuries.
The news has been dominated by the Taliban forces swiftly taking control of the provincial capitals and seizing Kabul unopposed, as well as the sight of western embassies packing up, Afghans desperately trying to leave, and many NGOs ceasing to operate. In contrast to these scenes, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and a handful of other humanitarian agencies have maintained their presence and activities at the height of the fighting, providing lifesaving assistance to the sick and wounded.
How has this been possible? MSF has had successes and failures in Afghanistan, but the core of our approach has remained the same: we would only work if we had the explicit agreement of all parties to the conflict. That included the Taliban, the US forces, the Afghan National Army and in some cases local militia groups.
Our principles of neutrality, independence and impartiality, which can at times seem abstract, were operationalised by talking to all sides, refusing funding from governments, clearly identifying ourselves so as not to be confused with other groups that may have other interests and making our hospitals weapon-free zones. Whoever came to a privately funded MSF hospital had to literally leave their gun at the door.
When working in Kunduz or Lashkar Gah hospitals, we regularly explained to US, Afghan and Taliban soldiers that we would never turn away any patient, be they a wounded government soldier, a car crash victim or a wounded Taliban fighter. Our hospitals triaged based on needs alone. We worked according to medical ethics, not according to who was deemed a criminal, a “terrorist”, a soldier or a politician. We often had to ask US and Afghan soldiers to leave and return without their weapons if they wished to visit the hospital.
Our approach was often in contrast to the way in which the aid system – including humanitarian agencies – was being pushed by donors to build the Afghan state, to create stability in areas taken by Afghan forces and contribute to the legitimacy of a fledgeling, US-backed government. Aid was the “soft power” to win over the population to the Afghan government’s side, a key component of the “winning hearts and minds” strategy bolstering the “hard power” of military deployment.
Tellingly, when we met a Western humanitarian donor in Kabul, they were unable to tell us where the humanitarian needs were the greatest, but instead referred to a map of areas under control of coalition forces (in green), under Taliban control (in red) and contested areas (in purple). They were sending aid to green and purple areas to help boost the military effort.
International NGOs taking government funding from Western states involved in the fighting were shocked to see counterinsurgency language such as “clear and hold” creep into their funding grants. As one of the biggest government donors explained to us in Kabul: “The Taliban are making gains in this province, we told the aid agency to cover the province in wheat and they did.”
But our approach did not always protect us. It was in 2015 that US special forces bombed our hospital in Kunduz after the province had been briefly taken over by the Taliban. It demonstrated to us the grey zones that exist in such conflicts: aid is tolerated and accepted when it boosts the legitimacy of the state, but it becomes susceptible to being destroyed when it falls into a territory where entire communities are designated as hostile enemies and when the state is on the back foot. This grey zone is cultivated by legal ambiguities between international and national law, creating environments conducive to what US authorities categorised as “mistakes”.
Following the destruction of our hospital, MSF engaged again with all parties to the conflict to clarify the respect for our medical activities. It was arguably our widespread public support and the political cost of the attack on MSF that ultimately served as our best safeguard against future so-called “mistakes” by US and Afghan forces. However, this form of deterrence through engagement and public pressure was of no use when our maternity hospital was brutally attacked in Dasht-e-Barchi, most likely by the Islamic State in Afghanistan who have remained out of reach for our dialogue efforts.
While MSF has been able to operate in provincial capitals, we have been unable to go into rural areas to address needs there. This has been one of the failures of MSF’s work over the past years. However, two weeks ago, when the Taliban entered the cities, we were able to continue working to treat patients: the sick and the wounded were able to receive care in facilities that we adapted to cope with the intensity of the fighting. In Helmand, Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat and Khost, our teams continued to work. Our health facilities are today full of patients.
This is why, as MSF, we seek to negotiate with all parties to a conflict. It is to enable our teams to deliver assistance when it is needed the most. Often these moments are in the midst of changes in power and control. It is also the reason we resist efforts to incorporate our activities into the political processes of state-building. It is why we speak out loudly when our facilities and staff are harmed.
The future of Afghanistan is uncertain, and our activities will remain under pressure. The challenges we face will evolve and the security of our teams and patients remains a concern. But to weather future storms in Afghanistan humanitarian actors would do well to firmly plot their own course based on the needs that exist, rather than being steered by the changing political winds.
Afghanistan shows how foreign-led nation-building can fail and how humanitarian actors’ contributions to such efforts are minimal. It also shows that our work can save the most lives when we are able to be as independent as possible, both when a state is being built and when it collapses.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.