Cloudy Forecast: Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Future

As the Trump administration considers a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, it should reinforce the importance of access for humanitarian assistance in ongoing deliberations. Reinforcing humanitarian access is a moral imperative and is strategically beneficial and politically feasible because it:

  • is consistent with established U.S. policy and duties under international humanitarian law (IHL);
  • advances the administration’s objectives by buttressing the United States’ long-standing investment in the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan’s (GIRoA) governance;
  • aligns with the political agendas of both the GIRoA and Taliban; and
  • will incur negligible financial cost.

An Uncertain Agreement

The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in late February is designed to create conditions for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Following months of delay, the power-sharing settlement between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah promises the convening of intra-Afghan talks between the GIRoA and the Taliban—a critical step for initiating withdrawal.

This development coincided with the gruesome attack on a hospital maternity ward run by Médecins Sans Frontières in Kabul on May 12. The contrast between ongoing violence and political progress evidences the need for political attention on humanitarian protection. Current talks between the United States and Afghan parties address central governance and security concerns but neglect to account for the continued safe access of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan’s civilian population, which has been a consistent component of U.S. engagement for the nearly 20 years of armed conflict.

Since 2002, the United States has played a central role in funding bilateral and multilateral humanitarian response efforts, providing over $3.9 billion in bilateral humanitarian aid to affected civilians in areas controlled by the GIRoA, Taliban, and in contested territories. In addition to being in line with long-standing U.S. priorities, facilitating the impartial delivery of aid remains a legal responsibility for the United States under IHL, which states that parties to an armed conflict are obliged to minimize the effect of hostilities on civilians, including through the requirements to facilitate unimpeded humanitarian assistance.

In addition, the United States has provided nearly $35 billion in development funding. Jointly, U.S. development and humanitarian funding have had meaningful impacts. By 2012, child mortality rates fell over 25 percent, the United States provided schooling for over 3 million girls and women, and 5.5 million displaced refugees returned to Afghanistan. In addition to being consistent with the United States’ long-standing commitment to humanitarian assistance, the assistance has been rooted in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, designed to generate positive perceptions of U.S. forces with local populations while reducing the likelihood of civilian radicalization.

Despite nearly $40 billion in U.S. development and humanitarian funding, the outlook has turned bleak. Humanitarian conditions in Afghanistan have deteriorated since 2016, with widespread insecurity and violence leading to protracted displacement and loss of livelihoods, notably concurrent with the U.S. troop drawdown and its negative economic impacts. In 2019 alone, over 10,000 civilians were killed or injured in Afghanistan. Today one-quarter (9.4 million) of Afghan citizens need humanitarian assistance. Between 2016 and 2020, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Afghanistan appeal nearly doubled from $380 to $730 million.

In areas under its control, the Taliban imposes steep operational challenges on humanitarian organizations, including overt assaults on humanitarian operations, exploitative taxation schemes, and the outright denial of humanitarian access, including bans on the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and World Health Organization. Nonetheless, in 2019, humanitarian organizations still managed to access affected people in 93 percent of the country’s districts. This ability to deliver aid is grounded in combatant perceptions of the impartiality of humanitarian organizations’ and upon the predictability of Afghanistan’s political status quo and armed-conflict dynamics. Both elements are impacted by U.S. military presence and concomitant political influence over GIRoA-Taliban relations.

The administration’s recent policy decisions have cast a cloud of uncertainty over the future of humanitarian operations. February’s agreement prioritizes military withdrawal. Details of a complex political settlement and the prospect for securing comprehensive peace for the Afghan people are purposefully untouched. The agreement does not include standards for future governance arrangements and is opaque on U.S. contingency plans should the Taliban re-engage in terrorism or allow the planning and carrying out of terrorist activities by other groups. As a result, humanitarian organizations face uncertainty about future political stability and, as a result, are inhibited from developing strategies for accessing affected populations.

Compounding this matter is the administration’s mixed messaging on a threat to cut $1 billion in U.S. assistance to Afghanistan this year and an additional cut in FY 2021. If followed through, most of this reduction would affect GIRoA’s security architecture, which, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), comprises 97 percent of FY 2020 bilateral funding. It remains unclear whether FY 2020’s $24.8 million in humanitarian assistance—already a drastic departure from the past decade’s average annual funding of $196 million—would be affected. Notwithstanding implementation, the threat of aid reductions jeopardizes the precarious humanitarian situation by prompting GIRoA political factions to seek alliances with regional actors such as Iran or Russia, whose commitment to humanitarian action is ambiguous at best.

Security Scenarios and Humanitarian Implications

During congressional testimony in March, two former senior State Department officials envisioned three distinct security scenarios as potentially arising; each carries different humanitarian implications.

Scenario One: U.S.-Taliban agreement is upheld.

The Taliban and GIRoA share governance, bifurcating urban centers from rural Pashtun territories. The security arrangement contains residual Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) terror threats, and humanitarian actors can negotiate directly with Taliban and GIRoA authorities. Increased access to uncharted territories necessitates reliance on the Afghan National and Defense Security Forces (ANDSF) and Taliban for security guarantees. Developmental assistance from India and China shifts the GIRoA’s focus to self-reliant provision of public goods.

Scenario Two: Intra-Afghan negotiations collapse after U.S. withdrawal.

Faction leaders splinter off from the Taliban and ISK and assert authority over local governate areas. ANDSF’s control is incrementally curtailed to Kabul. Inter-faction conflict allows insurgent forces and terror threats to fester. The United States leverages technical intelligence and military access in neighboring countries, the Gulf, and the Indian Ocean to conduct surgical counterterror strikes but leaves emerging state instability unaddressed. Humanitarian actors are caught between the incapable, potentially delegitimized GIRoA and provincial powerbrokers. Absence of a reliable security guarantor prompts humanitarians to negotiate access on a case-by-case basis with individual faction leaders. Repeated diversion of aid forces international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to reconsider operations in Taliban territories.

Scenario Three: Insurgency re-emerges during the 14-month withdrawal window.

The United States maintains limited military presence around GIRoA urban centers and responds to the Taliban’s breach of contract by campaigning to reduce, if not totally cut, international humanitarian aid to Taliban controlled territories. Independent organizations negotiate access to Taliban territories on a case-by-case basis, but decreased monitoring capacity jeopardizes international funding.

Humanitarian Action Advances Diplomatic Interests

Stipulating standards for humanitarian access is within the scope of the administration’s political approach favoring negotiated settlement as opposed to nationwide political transition. It also contributes to the policy aim of a negotiated and orderly withdrawal, which entails protecting the U.S. investment in civilian stability and Kabul’s governance, diplomatic and counterterrorism cooperation, and financial feasibility.

Although U.S. security assistance allows the GIRoA to maintain relative territorial control through the ANDSF, humanitarian aid also contributes to the baseline stability that underpins the GIRoA’s governing legitimacy. In 2019 and 2020, U.S. assistance included monthly food supplies for 1.4 million persons, disaster assistance for nearly 100,000 persons, and vaccinations for millions of children. Absent this assistance, the GIRoA would face increased social pressures that potentially undermine U.S. interests in a negotiated and orderly withdrawal. A stable GIRoA is requisite for intra-Afghan negotiations that deliver guardrails against transnational terror threats. The administration benefits from ensuring the GIRoA enters intra-Afghan negotiations free of destabilizing humanitarian crises and positioned to negotiate a settlement that preserves its governing authority and entrenches the ANSF’s security posture.

Emphasizing humanitarian access standards could also promote diplomatic cooperation. February’s agreement shifted governance dynamics by legitimizing the Taliban as a political stakeholder and party to negotiations. This stature renders the Taliban particularly dependent on international aid because its authority is partially derived from coopting humanitarian goods and services. The Taliban, despite a history of access denial, has recently demonstrated vested interest in cooperating with aid organizations by allowing the ICRC to mediate and facilitate prisoner exchange and granting some access to aid workers who conduct Covid-19-related operations across territories. Stipulating access standards could formalize existent humanitarian channels and, as a point of negotiation, create opportunity to cooperate over mutually held political interests.

Committing to humanitarian and development funding after withdrawal is financially feasible. U.S. humanitarian assistance comprised less than 4 percent of FY 2015-2019 expenditures in Afghanistan and generated a benefit disproportionate to its cost; it built the capacity of 6,500 health care workers to address gender-based violence, provided freshwater infrastructure for towns with expanding displaced populations, and removed over 100,000 unexploded ordinances and landmines. In the context of a comprehensive withdrawal of U.S. forces, continued humanitarian and development funding does not detract from the administration’s agenda of reducing large financial obligations abroad.

Additionally, the administration’s legitimate political interest in military withdrawal does not obviate the U.S. of its responsibility under IHL to address the needs of civilian populations that will continue to be affected by ongoing hostilities. Since 2016, the GIRoA has retained governing responsibility for 64 percent of Afghanistan’s population despite suffering a 17 percent reduction in territory control to the Taliban. Although the departure of military forces would nullify the United States’ combatant status, it will likely remain a financing partner of ANDSF forces, with a role and responsibility as a security partner to ensure continued humanitarian access. Steps should be taken now to strengthen training and advising programs for the ANDSF that underscore the importance of civilian protection and enabling humanitarian access to civilian populations. Demonstrating humanitarian issues are a priority now will reinforce messages that are delivered in the future.

To date, the United States has invested $137 billion dollars to establish levels of civilian stability and governance that guard against future threats to U.S. national security. Forfeiting these gains in exchange for an immediate withdrawal would squander this investment made over the past two decades. Diplomatic emphasis on maintaining humanitarian access offers the administration the opportunity to buttress its substantial investment while accounting for the United States’ enduring responsibilities under IHL.


The administration should emphasize humanitarian access during the ongoing deliberations by taking the following steps:

  • First, organize humanitarian consultative forums in parallel to intra-Afghan negotiations. This aligns with the administration’s preference for bilateral negotiation while allowing INGO representatives to voice access concerns to both parties. Although the efficacy of this model is contingent on agreement over modalities for transferring consultation recommendations to official negotiations, it allows humanitarian organizations foresight into political developments.
  • Second, make safe humanitarian access for aid organizations an essential component of any final agreement between the GIRoA and the Taliban. Codifying access standards into a withdrawal agreement provides humanitarian actors with recourse for defending the legitimacy of operations and confers political currency for negotiating access to contested territories which, in the course of events, may fall under Taliban control.
  • Third, reinforce civilian protection and humanitarian principles in ANDSF training and advising to strengthen the GIRoA’s ability to facilitate access for humanitarian actors as the United States draws down its military presence.
  • Fourth, deliver a public assurance that humanitarian and development funding will not be targeted in future cuts to bilateral assistance. For access stipulations to carry weight, the United States should affirm the importance of humanitarian engagement in Afghanistan. This would include a partial reversal of the 90 percent funding decline from 2019 to 2020.

Jacob Kurtzer is interim director and senior fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. Amith Mandavilli is a research intern with the Humanitarian Agenda.

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).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Amith Mandavilli