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Impact of Afghan conflict on children

Iqbal Khan

HYBRID facade of Afghan conflict is impacting the children horribly and quite severely. Uncontrollable spread of polio virus beyond conflict zone and deaths through aerial bombing by occupation forces inside conflict zone are alarming. While the peace process may take its own course, protection of children need to be taken care of by the belligerents. In a recent telephonic interview with Reuters, Bill Gates was optimistic about the global plan to eradicate the paralysing viral disease—polio, but said Afghanistan’s conflict and power struggle hamper progress. Local Afghan Taliban leaders are hindering global efforts to end polio, but Afghanistan and Pakistan must continue their fight. Bill Gates’ multi-billion dollar philanthropic “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” is one of the biggest funders of the polio eradication campaign.
The “only potential negative” in the region is instability in Afghanistan, Gates said, where Taliban leaders appear to have no single policy but “decide what they will and what they won’t allow” regarding polio vaccinations. “That’s what we don’t have predictability or control over,” he said. “Sometimes they stop the campaigns from taking place. But the ideal is when they allow house-to-house (vaccine) delivery.” Polio is a virus that spreads in areas with poor sanitation. It attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under five are the most vulnerable, but polio can be prevented with vaccination. Success in reducing case numbers worldwide has been largely due to intense national and regional immunisation campaigns in babies and children.
Leading up to the early 2000s, Pakistani vaccination workers were making notable progress in eliminating the polio virus in the highly infected areas. In 2011, the CIA employed an American INGO “Save the Children” with a Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi, and local health officials to stage a fake vaccination campaign in an attempt to confirm Osama Bin Laden’s location through DNA samples of Osama’s children from blood left on the needles used to deliver the Hepatitis vaccination. Ever since, this fake vaccination campaign has had a severe effect on the north-west corner of Pakistan. Since 2012, at least 70 polio workers have been killed in Pakistan. Many of the attacks have been claimed by Taliban, who argue that the vaccination campaigns are a facade for intelligence gathering. Many citizens of both the US and various other nations have criticized the CIA’s vaccination campaign for the effects that it has had on Pakistan’s public health.
People doubt the motivations behind all vaccination campaigns, leading to a spike in poliomyelitis cases from 198 in 2011 to 306 cases in 2014. In fact these vaccines are primarily produced in Western countries, militant groups propagandize that they are made out of pig fat or contain alcohol, the two things that are forbidden in Islam. Some clerics have also issued religious decrees against the vaccines. There is also a myth prevalent in many of the areas with low literacy rate that the immunization sterilizes local population.
Gates said the global polio program is making progress in Pakistan and has a good relationship with Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has prioritised the polio fight. PM has pledged that “all measures will be taken to make Pakistan polio-free”. “We’ve got to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to zero,” Gates said. “We need government donors to stay committed.” The “only potential negative” in the region is instability in Afghanistan, Gates said, where Taliban leaders appear to have no single policy but “decide what they will and what they won’t allow” regarding polio vaccinations. “That’s what we don’t have predictability or control over,” he said. “Sometimes they stop the campaigns from taking place. But the ideal is when they allow house-to-house (vaccine) delivery.”
Latest Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) figures show that worldwide, there were 33 cases of polio in 2018 and six so far in 2019 — 16 of them in Pakistan and 23 in Afghanistan. These two, plus Nigeria, are the last remaining countries where the disease is endemic. The GPEI, which includes the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Gates Foundation, the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and others, began its push to wipe out polio in 1988, when the disease was endemic in 125 countries and was paralysing almost 1,000 children a day worldwide. Since then, there has been at least a 99 per cent reduction in cases. But eradicating the disease — something that has only ever been achieved with one other human disease, smallpox — is proving a long and challenging task.
Aerial bombing by US-led occupation forces is causing civilian causalities at a phenomenal rate. Recently thirteen civilians were killed, mostly children, in an air strike by “international forces” near the northern Afghan city of Kunduz, according to preliminary findings of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). “The Mission expresses serious concern that initial fact-finding indicates that 10 of those killed were children, part of the same extended family…displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country,” UNAMA said in a statement on March 25. A spokeswoman for the NATO-led Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan, Sergeant Debra Richardson, said that US forces had carried out an air strike in the area, she said that Taliban militants intentionally hide among civilians. The Afghan peace process can only be successful if there is a neutral interim government, which can hold free and transparent elections to be participated by all the stakeholders. One can’t be sure how much time it will take to set up an interim government and hold free elections. Till then the peace negotiators in Doha need to agree to a code of conduct to mitigate the suffering of children.
—The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.