The extraordinary session of 57-member OIC Foreign Ministers held in Islamabad last week was a well thought out initiative by Pakistan to focus world attention on the severe humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan.
As pointed out by UN Relief Chief Martin Griffiths, who delivered a speech on behalf of the global body’s secretary general, gave a startling presentation about the nightmare scenario in Afghanistan. Around 23 million people are facing hunger. Health facilities are overflowing with malnourished children, while 70 percent of teachers are not getting paid and millions of children are out of school. According to the UN Development Programme, 97% of the Afghan population could slip below the poverty line by June next year if urgent steps are not taken to mitigate their sufferings.
The Foreign Office led by Foreign Minister Qureshi worked hard to ensure strong participation not just from the member states but also from the P5 countries and other relevant multilateral organisations. Pakistan has made special efforts to organise Afghanistan’s neighbours and other regional countries to stay engaged in a bid to stabilise the situation so that Afghanistan does not plunge back into chaos and violence. The conference also provided Pakistan a platform to highlight its own efforts in Afghanistan and the proactive diplomacy that it has been pursuing since the Doha talks and later after the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug 15.
Twenty foreign ministers, including those from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait and Bangladesh, 10 deputy foreign ministers and 70 delegates attended the Islamabad conclave. The permanent members of the UN Security Council, European Union and international financial institutions also participated in the meeting, making it the biggest international gathering on Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in Kabul. The Afghan acting foreign minister was also in attendance.
In his keynote address at the extraordinary session of the OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, Prime Minister Imran Khan called for devising an immediate medium and long term strategy to address the dire humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, warning that any turmoil there could engulf the whole region. To quote him, “Any government when it cannot pay salaries to public servants, doctors and nurses, any government is going to collapse. But chaos suits no one. It certainly does not suit the United States. Owing to a dearth of resources, if the Afghan government remained unable to counter terrorism, other countries may also face its spillover impact”.
Mentioning the presence of ISIL in Afghanistan, and terror attacks inside Pakistan from across the Afghan border, the prime minister said the only way to handle the terror outfit was a stable Afghanistan. He said ISIL was also capable of carrying out attacks worldwide. He emphasized that the OIC had a moral responsibility to support the suffering Afghan brethren. Imran Khan also used the occasion to advise the Taliban that they should understand that the formation of an inclusive government, respect for human rights, particularly rights of women, and disallowing the use of Afghan soil for terrorism in other countries would pave the way for international aid to Afghanistan.
The prime minister rightly warned that social and economic collapse in Afghanistan would lead to mass exodus of refugees which would be unbearable for Pakistan and other countries in the region. He also called for OIC’s unified response on the issues of Kashmir and Palestine where people were struggling for their democratic rights also guaranteed by the United Nations.
Foreign Minister Qureshi in his opening address at the session proposed a six-point strategy to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, including food security and economic revival, besides institutional capacity building to counter the threat of terrorism. The Foreign Minister also called for increased investment in the education and vocational sectors of Afghanistan, either bilaterally or through the OIC platform. He also proposed the establishment of an expert group of the OIC and UN officials to revive the banking sector in Afghanistan that collapsed after the Taliban took over Kabul.
At the conclusion of the conference, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and the OIC secretary general Hissein Brahim Taha announced that the body had agreed to establish a Humanitarian Trust Fund and a Food Security Programme to deal with the crisis in Afghanistan. The Fund will be managed by the Islamic Development Bank and will be made operational by March of next year. The humanitarian fund would channel financial assistance to be provided by member states to Afghanistan. Currently, because of the sanctions imposed by the US and other Western countries, there are no formal banking channels or financial system operating in Afghanistan.
In the absence of formal banking channels, the countries interested in helping the people of Afghanistan are finding it difficult to do so.
The OIC meeting also appointed a senior official as a special envoy to Afghanistan who will coordinate with Afghan and international stakeholders to avert the looming disaster in the war-torn country. The special envoy will make sure that the decisions made at the Islamabad conference were fully implemented.
All in all, the Islamabad conference marked a good beginning towards leveraging the power of the Muslim world to push for greater international engagement with Afghanistan and persuade other important countries to rise above partisan political considerations and help the people of Afghanistan in distress.
Needless to say, if the Afghan humanitarian crisis has to be averted, the endeavours of Muslim countries alone would not be enough. Other multilateral organisations like the UN and influential countries, especially the United States, will need to play their role. Without further delay the US should release $9.5 billion assets of the Afghan central bank it froze after the Taliban takeover in Kabul. In a nutshell, the Islamabad conference on the worsening Afghan crisis was a wake-up call to world conscience which must respond before it is too late. Afghanistan could potentially become the biggest man made crisis in modern history if the international community does not act immediately.