The troubled nation of Afghanistan, set in unforgiving deserts and the foothills of the Hindu Kush, is once again sagging under the yoke of a medieval-minded regime that enforces draconian punishments and gender rules that echo those of 16th or 17th century Europe. According to international experts trying to come up with a viable plan to help oppressed and underfed Afghans, the truth of Afghanistan in 2021 is significantly stranger than an imaginary dystopia. Certainly, it should be taken more seriously than the Hollywood thrillers likely to be spun off from its current and ongoing tragedy.
Humanitarian assistance experts desperately want to help, but their options are limited and could well, as some of them said in interviews for this story, end up strengthening a government made up of leading men often wanted for terrorism and crimes against humanity, persons U.S. military brass often referred to curtly as “the bad guys.”
Several key issues complicate Afghanistan’s current humanitarian assistance scenario.
First, some of the largest humanitarian and aid organizations concerned with helping now are also responsible for the massive failure to help create a viable and stable nation over the last two decades. In many cases, these organizations, led by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), blatantly ignored warnings (including my own on occasion) and sent project funding through corrupt Afghan warlords who were already known to the U.S. government and others as bad actors. These men did not skim a small percentage off the top; rather, they loaded suitcases full of cash and flew the money to financial safe havens abroad.
Second, the United Nations, which finds itself in a de facto position today as the “chief humanitarian fundraiser” for Afghanistan, also provided unspoken support for the U.S. military intervention in 2001 with its mandate to assist a new U.S.-chosen government lined with corrupt cronies. After the past two decades of focusing its political and monitoring efforts mostly on human rights rather than on a faltering peace process, which the U.S. government insisted on keeping control of itself, the U.N. must now grapple with how to help direct new humanitarian assistance through a Taliban government that has shown it has little stomach for gender equality or free speech, major pillars of the “universal human rights” that the U.N. claims to represent. U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres humbly conceded to Reuters news agency last week that any suggestion the world body can solve Afghanistan’s problems is “a fantasy” and that the U.N.’s capacity to mediate the creation of a more inclusive Taliban government is limited.
The broader humanitarian community bent on helping today also knows all too well that the lion’s share of the “aid” for Afghanistan, which was provided by Washington-based humanitarian contractors from 2001 to this year, came attached to the strategic goal of countering terrorism. After all, this was the original raison d’etre for a U.S.-led military intervention. While many international assistance providers, including those based in Europe, the United States, and Asia, never subscribed to U.S. goals, they are nevertheless caught in the uneasy circumstances of having supported them in ancillary ways over the past two decades.
If all these ironies and failures make for a merciless conundrum, there are still Afghans and global economic experts alike who believe that trying to help the Afghan public in its current dire circumstances is the only way forward – if only to avert a dreaded all-out civil war, which could cause even more human suffering, bring on more global terror, and spark a greater exodus of Afghans from their homeland. Many humanitarians believe that helping Afghans stuck in Afghanistan is also simply a matter of “doing the right thing,” considering that the population has suffered more war, disease, and malnutrition than any nation should have to bear. Without help, they say, Afghanistan may break apart, even Balkanize into clashing ethnic and regional factions, finally descending into a wider conflict that could well destabilize Central and South Asia.
Even then, humanitarian assistance is no panacea, nor will it necessarily prevent a civil war, said William Byrd, the senior expert on Afghanistan at the United States Institute of Peace.
“No one can predict the future, but the really urgent need now, or opportunity if you want to call it that, is for assistance to Afghanistan to at least modestly ameliorate the very large economic and humanitarian shock resulting from the Taliban takeover and subsequent loss of aid, which previously had been on the order of several billion dollars per year,” said Byrd, a Harvard-educated development economist who also managed the World Bank’s efforts in Afghanistan.
He added, “In any country, there is a risk that large amounts of aid could entrench an authoritarian government, but particularly given that humanitarian assistance would be delivered directly and not through the Afghan government, this doesn’t look like an immediate risk.”
Direct assistance to the Afghan people, if it can be managed and properly delivered, would not provide the international community with much leverage over the Taliban, agree most experts. But like others, Byrd insisted aid distribution should be nuanced. He cited as an example “the need to employ women in aid delivering entities in order to ensure that the humanitarian aid reaches women and girls.”
The limited aid being distributed in Afghanistan today is going mainly through established channels and is focused on medical and basic food assistance, often with the assistance of the World Health Organization and the World Food Program. However, several smaller aid groups like Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the International Rescue Committee (IRC), and the International Red Cross are operating as they did before the mid-August takeover by the Taliban. Some of the smaller groups, including U.N. entities, had already established working relationships with the Taliban. On behalf of one such group, Elinor Raikes, the IRC’s vice president and head of program delivery, insisted recently that without adequate help, more Afghan women and girls will suffer, and that violence against them by men can be expected to increase proportionally.
Others, who insist that most humanitarian assistance is still political in essence, say that like it or not, aid could well help solidify the regime in power. “Now, it seems we’re condemned to helping some of the world’s most infamous terrorists – whose credentials include providing shelter and logistical support for the al-Qaida network, which launched the 9/11 attacks – and has now established itself as the government,” said Jonathan Terra, a conflict analyst and former U.S. State Department official in Afghanistan.
“Remember the U.S. wields significant influence over the international financial system and is able to prevent funds from moving around,” Terra said. “Yet, at the same time, the U.S. and its allies” – as well as the United Nations – “are in the process of putting together massive international aid packages for a government comprised of a ruthless terrorist network. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Afghans in international development interviewed for this story, said, however that humanitarian aid for their fellow Afghans was and is essential. Farhad Javid, who works for Grand Challenges Canada and is a guest lecturer at the University of Toronto, suggested the need for an assistance plan that creates a direct international support fund for non-governmental organizations, insists on the establishment of a “Directorate of Women Affairs,” and “supports women and girls education and private businesses for women.” Such an approach would need “buy in” from the Taliban, he acknowledged.
Another Afghan, who wanted to be identified only by his first name, Mustafa, and who worked in the Afghan government until recently, also insisted on the need to help his fellow Afghans, but only after the broader international community agrees on a strategy with contingency plans to do so.
“I see it through a pure cold and calculated gaming theory perspective,” said Mustafa, who moved to a neighboring Central Asian country last year after witnessing years of the former Ghani government’s incompetence. “The world can help the Afghan people through U.N. and World Bank platforms and associated distributions chains already established in the country, but this effort needs to contain a mechanism to minimize the Taliban’s benefit and maximize the public’s benefit. It must also predict the Taliban’s expected efforts to benefit from it in advance and prepare ways to counter this. The mechanism can and should be revised based on the reality on the ground.”
In the past, the Taliban have agreed in theory to remain above the fray of assistance while imposing a significant zakat or tax on humanitarian aid in its zones of control. Economic development experts do not agree on how best to distribute aid, but they almost all agree that it hasn’t been done well in the past and that it remains in the current Afghan government’s interest to facilitate assistance – if for no other reason than to guarantee its continued existence.
Rory Stewart, the U.K.’s former head of international development, told a forum at the London Frontline Club that countries and organizations interested in Afghanistan should “stop pandering to the past and think about the rather horrifying future and real prospect of a collapse and an ensuing civil war.”
At the same forum, however, former Canadian Ambassador to Afghanistan Chris Alexander said that the world needs to recognize that the Taliban are largely a proxy army for Pakistan’s government, which helped employ loyal Afghan fighters to conquer the country for its own political interests. The United Nations has already set up assistance hubs in Pakistan that are funneling humanitarian aid into Afghanistan, setting up a scenario that could well benefit Pakistan’s generals in the long run, as did an international effort in the 1980s during the U.S.-backed proxy war against Russia on Afghan soil.
Despite such concerns, USIP’s Byrd and others insisted that trying to deliver humanitarian assistance directly without an overland route was next to impossible. “There is no way to avoid much in-kind aid going through Pakistan, Iran, or Central Asian countries on the way to Afghanistan,” he said.
Politics aside, there remains the question of what is in the interest of the Afghan public. Most Afghans interviewed for this story – many of whom preferred to remain anonymous because they or their family members still live in Afghanistan – insisted that the world is obligated to help. International sources with pristine humanitarian motivations agree.
“I believe well-fed and educated people are more likely to be a part of positive change than hungry and angry people,” said Dr. Lisa Myles, a Swedish intensive care doctor, who has worked overseas with MSF.
Earlier this week, after the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) visited health facilities in Kabul, WHO officials warned, “Afghanistan’s health system is on the brink of collapse.”
They added, “Unless urgent action is taken, the country faces an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.”