Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Since President Joe Biden announced the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021, he has repeatedly made public commitments to support the Afghan people with diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid. Afghanistan requires this assistance, as needs are growing rapidly. From food to clean water to health care, Afghans across the country have the right to access these basic goods and services. Now is the time for the Biden administration to make good on its promise to stand by the Afghan people by seizing the opportunity to support Afghans and centering them in all U.S. policy towards the country.
Even before the spring 2021 escalation in conflict, the situation in Afghanistan was one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises. By the beginning of 2021, conflict, COVID-19, and drought left nearly half of the population in need of humanitarian aid, and an estimated one in three Afghans food insecure. Approximately six million Afghans have fled their homes and remain displaced, either internally or abroad, including more than half a million people who have been newly displaced within the country to date this year. Despite these staggering statistics, the humanitarian response is hampered by near-record underfunding; donors have committed only 38 percent of the required funds, preventing humanitarians from providing the aid so urgently needed.
Understandably, international attention is currently focused on evacuating Afghans from Kabul, but the vast majority of Afghans who require life-saving aid and protection will remain inside the country and require a sustained U.S. and international humanitarian commitment long after the last evacuation flight departs. U.S. policy and practice should prepare for and reflect this reality.
The recent power shift and the complexity of and deterioration in the humanitarian situation, however, could test the international community’s commitment to continue supporting the Afghan people. Humanitarian donors may be hesitant to commit additional funding absent explicit assurances from the Taliban, at all levels, that they will allow safe, principled humanitarian access and not interfere with response efforts in the country.
Moreover, as recently discussed in these pages, the United States has yet to adapt its own counterterrorism regulations to the fact that the Taliban, a “specially designated global terrorist” (SDGT) organization, now controls state functions and formal governance institutions. Without safeguards in place to shield humanitarian organizations – or to mitigate against the wider chilling effects that the Taliban’s designation might have on key industries that support humanitarian action, such as financial institutions – aid operations to Afghanistan could be jeopardized.
While it continues to support evacuations, the United States has a window of opportunity in which to shape the trajectory of the Afghanistan humanitarian response. With the needs of Afghan civilians firmly centered, the United States should urgently work to ensure that humanitarians have the funding, access, and legal protections to stay and deliver.
First, the United States should promote safe and unfettered humanitarian access to populations in need. It is critical that Afghans are able to reach the humanitarian services and resources essential to their survival. One concrete step the United States can take is to support the U.N. in its efforts to immediately set up a humanitarian air bridge at the Kabul airport. Given its current control of the airport, the United States can play a unique role in facilitating U.N. access and helping humanitarians continue to bring aid, such as food and medicine, into the country – which is particularly critical before winter conditions impact road travel and access. Regardless of presence, the United States should maintain support for humanitarian flights with funding. Additionally, the United States should press for unequivocal Taliban commitments at all levels on aid worker safety and female aid workers’ ability to continue working on all aspects of the response. Without female staff, many women and girls – a population that has been uniquely and disproportionately affected by this crisis – will be unable to access humanitarian commodities or services. The United States should also step up its diplomatic engagement with other States in the region to ensure that Afghans are able to seek safety and services and remain there without risk of forcible deportation, according to their obligations under international law. The United States should also provide humanitarian funding to support Afghan refugees in host countries.
Second, the United States should immediately commit additional humanitarian funding and rally other donors to do the same. The United States has consistently been the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan in recent years, a role that it should continue and augment with sustained advocacy to encourage other donors to provide more humanitarian support. This funding should be as flexible as possible, so that partners can adapt their programming to the fast-changing operational environment, adjusting activities and locations as needed. Moreover, more of this funding should go directly to NGOs which, to date in 2021, have received less than 20 percent of reported humanitarian funding. The majority of international funding has been directed to U.N. agencies, who then subcontract with NGOs, a process that leads to administrative delays and expenses. In addition, many NGOs have long-established presences in Afghanistan, giving them an understanding of needs on the ground and the trust of local communities, and are therefore able to scale-up and adapt quickly.
Finally, as noted above, the United States should provide clear humanitarian exemptions to its counterterrorism measures and any future sanctions or counterterrorism regulations in Afghanistan, as should all States and international entities. The United States labeled the Taliban – and businesses associated with it – as an SDGT in 2002, following initial sanctions on the Taliban in 1999. With the Taliban now in control of national institutions and most of the country, the United States should urgently ensure that this designation does not impede the humanitarian response. An immediate and comprehensive OFAC general license would enable humanitarians to operate with less legal risk. Without this license, there is a very real possibility of a chilling effect; some humanitarians may restrict even their permissible activities to avoid any chance of noncompliance, while financial institutions are likely to engage in bank de-risking that undermines aid operations. At a time when humanitarians need to move faster and at a larger scale, there is no room for uncertainty.
Every day, humanitarian organizations operating in some of the world’s most challenging environments deliver aid in a principled way, in accordance with stringent accountability and monitoring mechanisms imposed by both the humanitarian community and donors. They can do the same in Afghanistan. Indeed, humanitarians have specifically reaffirmed their commitment to principled responses in the Afghanistan context by adopting the Afghanistan Joint Operating Principles. These principles are based on universal humanitarian standards; they have and will continue to regulate humanitarian activities and preclude humanitarians from accepting undue control. Humanitarians respond to needs wherever they are found, regardless of which entity is in control, as long as these principles are upheld. Aid organizations have operated in areas under Taliban control, including in the years leading up to 2001. But to continue this principled work, humanitarians need assurances from the Taliban, United States and international community that humanitarian access and funding will continue.
The coming weeks and months will see a range of conflicting opinions and recommendations on the wider U.S. approach towards Afghanistan. While humanitarian assistance is not the only solution to the challenges facing Afghans, it is an integral piece. Humanitarian assistance saves and improves the quality of lives. In a country where no less than half the population requires this aid, we urge the United States to ensure that Afghans and their humanitarian needs are at the center of U.S. policy.
Note: This piece is written in the authors’ personal capacities, and not on behalf of any institutions with which they may be affiliated.