Afghanistan: Continued Assistance Flows Are Vital as U.S. Troops Leave

President Biden and his team have said the United States will continue to support the Kabul government following his April decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The decision produced a crisis of confidence in Kabul and more widely among the Afghan people. Managing this fast-evolving situation represents a serious test for U.S. diplomacy.

As the NATO mission in Afghanistan ends, the United States and its international partners must address a series of urgent issues. These include: (1) advancing a stalled intra-Afghan peace process while maintaining support for Afghan security forces; (2) restructuring civilian assistance programs that provide vital resources to the Kabul government and Afghan civilians; (3) maintaining effective counterterrorism surveillance in the region and a coherent plan for a continued U.S. and international diplomatic presence in Kabul; (4) determining the best means of supporting human rights, in particular those of women and children; and (5) fulfilling U.S. commitments to Afghans who supported or worked for the United States, perhaps by offering them entry into the United States. Creating a comprehensive framework that addresses these issues is essential for maintaining support for the Kabul government.

During the last two decades, successive U.S. administrations led a coalition in offering extraordinary support to the Kabul government and Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). This enabled the Afghan people to progress in a variety of developmental areas. As this withdrawal decision has made clear, the NATO alliance at the core of the broader coalition is “in together and out together.” It is critical that the Biden administration and Congress work creatively to meet this moment and move with urgency to preserve, to the extent possible, that broader coalition of support for the Kabul government.

There is no doubt that the Kabul government and the ANDSF will continue to rely on international financial support. The withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan will alter the nature of those international assistance flows. On the military side, the U.S. Department of Defense pledged to maintain financing for the ANDSF—but without boots on the ground, advisers embedded in the Afghan command structure, or U.S. contractors maintaining key equipment, a shift in the modalities and levels of assistance is underway, notably in the provision of technical support. Development and humanitarian assistance flows are also likely to be transformed quickly.

In the final months of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the United States and its donor partners can bolster the Kabul government and continue effective support for the Afghan people by taking the following five steps:

Step One: Congress should develop and enact, on a bipartisan basis, a resolution pledging to maintain effective security and development assistance flows to the Kabul government.

Recent Congressional hearings indicate there is a bipartisan basis for continuing to provide financial support for Kabul following the withdrawal. During fiscal year 2020, unclassified federal contract spending for Afghanistan totaled $3.6 billion. A large portion of this funding was allocated to support the efforts of U.S. federal agencies, including the Department of Defense ($2.8 billion), the Department of State ($524.3 million), and the U.S. Agency for International Development ($174.4 million). The United States has appropriated around $143.27 billion in support for government initiatives, humanitarian aid, and agency operations in Afghanistan since FY 2002, but a majority of this funding ($88.32 billion) has been allocated to strengthen security measures. While continuing to fund the ANDSF remains pivotal to protecting citizens from the Taliban and other extremist groups like the Islamic State, this alone will not be enough to allow essential government ministries to function effectively. To assure sufficient and effective U.S. assistance for the years ahead, Congress will need to, in the short term, authorize a substantial reprogramming of the assistance pipeline to allow aid to be efficiently delivered and in future budget cycles continue to appropriate new funding for Afghanistan.

Step Two: The United States and its partners need to make clear their expectations about the need to safeguard human rights in Afghanistan going forward, especially for women and girls. This could be folded into a new United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the new and enhanced role of the United Nations’ envoy for the intra-Afghan peace process.

The Afghan people have achieved meaningful social and political progress over the last 20 years with the support of the international community. However, there is still progress to be made. Specifically, women and girls in Afghanistan still face one of the most significant gender gaps in terms of access to education and economic opportunities in the entire world. As the May 8 atrocity committed at the Sayed Ul-Shuhada girls high school in Kabul reminded the world, the democratic and development achievements made by the Afghan people over the last two decades are highly fragile.

Congress remains concerned for the future of the human rights situation in Afghanistan, having held hearings in the Senate and House over the last month on Afghanistan. A new bipartisan bill written by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Jodi Ernst (R-NE) is indicative of congressional interest in this area. The desire is not just to maintain pressure on the Taliban regarding their treatment of women and girls, but also to condition U.S. support for the Kabul government on the preservation of human rights for all Afghans. The United States should work with its international partners to define a set of broad principles around the preservation of human rights to guide international support for Afghanistan going forward and to design costly and effective sanctions that can be rapidly applied against those who violate human rights.

Step Three: The United States and its partners should convene an international donors conference, in partnership with the World Bank and the United Nations, to maintain the broad coalition of financial backers of the Kabul government. The focus should be on assuring continued aid flows and identifying priority programs for funding in this challenging period.

The United States should work with the international donor community to reinforce the financial framework of support for the Kabul government. Despite the claims by some analysts that current levels of support must be maintained, the reality is that international assistance has declined steadily over the last decade. This can be seen in the results from the last three quadrennial donors’ conferences on Afghanistan. In 2012, the international community pledged $16 billion. In 2016, this amount decreased to $15 billion. By 2020, it declined to $12 billion. Actual assistance levels in each of these periods never reached the top-line pledges.

International donor support for the Kabul government will decline significantly following the withdrawal. Large multilateral donors such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are likely to step back and proceed with caution as they consider pledging funds to an unpredictable security environment. Similarly, the departure of traditional development implementers will likely coincide with the withdrawal of NATO troops and pause much of the development work that occurred in recent years. Some humanitarian and relief organizations will likely remain and continue limited efforts, but much development work will be curtailed or terminated.

The United States and its partners need to quickly adjust their plans to reflect the new operating environment. The realistic trajectory will likely involve a significant reduction in the level of civilian support alongside a fundamental shift in the delivery modalities utilized to support the Kabul government and the Afghan people. Three key principles should guide donor considerations of future financial support.

First, donors should align behind the World Bank’s Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which provides the bulk of conditional on-budget support for the Kabul government. Kabul’s access to domestic revenue streams, especially from customs fees, is already precipitously deteriorating. According to recent estimates, the Taliban controls 19 percent of Afghanistan’s districts and the government controls 33 percent, with the rest of the country’s territories being disputed by both parties. The reality on the ground seems to be shifting in recent weeks. If the Kabul government does not control a territory, they may not be able to collect customs taxes, limiting an essential source of revenue necessary to sustain the government.

Second, donors and the Kabul government need to work together to move aid programs away from large development assistance activities and toward smaller, flexible, and more relief-based delivery frameworks. Such planning by donors is already underway; however, it will be useful to have public agreement and presentation of plans. Monitoring aid delivery and mitigating corruptions will be more difficult following the withdrawal, but the humanitarian needs are also likely to grow. Working with Congress to allow for a reduction in assistance levels alongside a shift to more flexible relief-based delivery frameworks is the best course available.

Third, the new donor consensus needs to be open to providing relief to all Afghans, not just those who fall under the political control of Kabul. This will be difficult from many perspectives. Even so, prioritizing women, children, and others in need remains of the utmost importance regardless of where they live. Providing access to vaccines, including those for Covid-19 and polio, is one instance where aid programs must navigate how to best cross conflict lines.

Step Four: The United States should work with key partners to develop a series of economic incentives for Afghanistan’s neighbors. This would be intended to promote support for a political resolution to the conflict and to prepare for likely refugee flows from Afghanistan after the international withdrawal. Such steps could be important parts of broader regional diplomacy to enhance the chances for a sustainable and peaceful way forward.

In attempts to achieve a sustainable outcome in Afghanistan, the United States and its partners are working to provide the region’s governments with additional incentives to support a political settlement to the conflict. Economic opportunities can help here. One option would be to expand assistance programs to bolster customs and border management capacity on each of Afghanistan’s borders. On the commercial side, promoting private investment in active conflict zones is a tenuous enterprise, but one option could be creating a trade preference program that grants relief to goods manufactured directly in Afghanistan or in neighboring countries that include substantial inputs sourced from Afghanistan.

Step Five: The United States and others should convene a public gathering, perhaps hosted by NATO, to identify and agree on ways to continue vital funding and support for Afghan security forces.

It is critical that the United States and partners invested in Afghanistan quickly come to a consensus on a way to sustain financial flows and technical assistance to the Afghan security forces. Afghans continue to engage in most of the perilous combat. As such, they remain very reliant on financial flows and technical support to maintain equipment and carry out their most effective ripostes against the Taliban. This effort must include conversations with regional parties whose role will be vital in maintaining means to provide the continuing support to Afghan security forces.

As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has key issues it must address. A responsible plan, developed with partners, would accept the reality that aid flows will decline post-withdrawal, while factoring in the Kabul government’s need for ongoing funding. The forward-looking plan should shift the modalities and conditionalities associated with the programs to ensure that the Afghan people receive vital relief amid an intensifying conflict.

Whether or not the steps described above are adopted, a modest decline in international aid need not pose an existential threat to Kabul. A full cutoff, however, would be extremely disruptive and likely catastrophic for Afghans trying to withstand Taliban assaults.

The situation in Afghanistan demands a strong international message that defines broad principles to guide ongoing support and renews the commitment to press for a sustainable, negotiated peace process. The message should emphasize that international support and recognition for any future government in Afghanistan depends on the maintenance of constitutional protections around fundamental human rights—especially the rights of women, children, and minorities. Those who violate these practices should be subject to international sanction. Ideally, this message will also be embodied in a United Nations Security Council resolution that signals deep support for continued peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government, with the United Nations playing a lead role as mediator between the parties.

Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. James Schwemlein is a senior director at Albright Stonebridge Group. Hannah Davin is a research intern with PPD at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Earl Anthony Wayne
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development

James Schwemlein

Senior Director, Albright Stonebridge Group

Hannah Davin

Research Intern, Project on Prosperity and Development