Pathways Forward for Humanitarian Assistance in Afghanistan

With the recent withdrawal of the U.S. military, the U.S.-backed Afghan state has collapsed, leaving a power vacuum for the Taliban to fill. Now, Afghanistan and its people are caught in a tragic crisis. Tens of thousands of Afghans who believed—and worked and fought for—the promise of a modern nation are now in mortal peril and desperate for a way out of their country. Kabul’s airport, currently controlled by U.S. and British forces, has become a de facto camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). Earlier this week, the Taliban announced that they will no longer allow Afghans access to the Kabul airport, effectively closing this escape route for those who fear retribution for allying themselves with the international community. Taliban forces surrounded the Kabul airport and imposed heavy restrictions on Afghans attempting to enter, beating and shooting the crowds of waiting civilians.

With the country adrift without a functioning government, transportation routes closed, food systems disrupted by drought and conflict, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced, Afghanistan is teetering on the verge of a massive humanitarian crisis. Recent reports of a decline in women’s rights and freedoms threaten to erode important gains made in the last 20 years. What is clear amid the chaos of national collapse is that without a major humanitarian response, hundreds of thousands of innocent people, especially women and children, will perish, and that Afghanistan will sit as a destabilizing force at the crossroads of central Asia.

Critical Elements of a Humanitarian Response in Afghanistan

The important work of the humanitarian aid and international donor community must continue for the foreseeable future to prevent a widespread humanitarian catastrophe. Some ongoing issues require continued and unobstructed humanitarian aid, including food insecurity, drought conditions, the growing number of IDPs, and the mounting impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. The United States, in tandem with like-minded allies and partners, should ensure that humanitarian assistance is maintained and goes undisrupted, as well as evaluate the willingness of the Taliban to allow these efforts to continue in accordance with long-standing humanitarian principles.

The tragic events playing out on the evening news send a clear signal that a well-organized, comprehensive humanitarian response should be organized now. There are four critical elements that the U.S. government, at the helm of the international donor community, should take to avert a humanitarian catastrophe.

First, a political entente with the Taliban and with neighboring countries—especially Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—will be required to allow humanitarian aid and aid organizations to operate. The Taliban have stated that they welcome assistance, and foreign organizations may continue to operate so long as they respect Islamic practices. The international community should accept and hold the Taliban to their supposed commitment to abide by humanitarian principles. While nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with operations in Afghanistan have worked in the past in areas controlled and dominated by the Taliban, recent actions (and history) show that the Taliban often renege on their assurances. If the violent activities of the last week are any indication of future behavior, humanitarian aid could be in jeopardy when the Afghan people need it most.

In addition to a “writ to operate” from the Taliban, including allowing Afghan staff of foreign humanitarian organizations to continue their work without violating U.S. law, the United States should create a humanitarian waiver to Executive Order 13224, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 to disrupt terrorist financing by authorizing U.S. government agencies to designate and block assets of suspected individuals and entities. It could be beneficial for the Biden administration to ease up on certain Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) restrictions—especially considering the Taliban’s effective control of the country and likely recognition by rival countries such as Russia and China. This will not require the United States to accord formal recognition to the Taliban, but it will require the United States to work with them on humanitarian grounds. Recent reports, however, suggest that the Treasury Department has privately given humanitarian organizations the “green light” to continue their operations without fear of antiterrorism sanctions. This assurance from the U.S. government will likely encourage humanitarian organizations to continue or resume their on-the-ground operations and should be maintained going forward.

Second, food, fuel, medicines, shelter, and other basic requirements need to be staged for delivery before the winter sets in. The logistics of assembling and managing a large-scale relief operation is a time- and labor-intensive effort. It would require cooperation among neighboring countries, an inchoate Afghan authority, and relief organizations. In three months, the ability to move supplies around the country may be hampered by the winter closing of roads and mountain passes, and displaced and isolated people could start to freeze.

Third, under the auspices of the United Nations, there will need to be adequate financing committed and disbursed to maintain the humanitarian aid “spigot.” Distrust of the Taliban, disgust at the collapse of a 20-year nation-building project, and donor fatigue will make this a hard sell. The United States, however, is in a unique position to persuade the international donor community to provide the necessary humanitarian aid to meet the scale of the disaster facing the Afghan people. The recent announcement from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is an encouraging sign that increasing humanitarian aid will be a key priority for donor countries to Afghanistan. The United States should follow suit and provide emergency financing of humanitarian food security and market-based supply chain organizations that should remain independent of any Taliban interference.

Critical to financing a relief operation is finding a way to salvage the Afghan banking sector, which underpins legal economic activities, as well as potential relief operations (both in the short and long term). The State and Treasury Departments should continue their important work to prevent the Afghan banking sector from imminent collapse. The latter would allow the Afghan central bank’s activities to occur alongside the commercial banking sector. Furthermore, ensuring the regular flow of imports will be paramount given Afghanistan’s dependence on outside resources.

Fourth, support for Covid-19 vaccination and testing efforts should continue and increase. Currently, only 2.4 percent of the Afghan population has been fully vaccinated for Covid-19, while the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that testing dropped by 77 percent in the past week. It will be difficult to monitor the number of cases and infection levels, but providing vaccinations to Afghan citizens should be a top priority to mitigate a third wave of Covid-19 infections. To that end, the United Nations, alongside COVAX, should lead a vaccination program to mitigate infection levels and the spread of Covid-19 throughout the country.

The Prospects for Long-Term Assistance

Longer-term development assistance from the U.S. government or NGOs will be dependent on future talks regarding the recognition of the Taliban as the de facto leadership of Afghanistan. The United States could structure their bilateral engagement with the Taliban after the August 31 withdrawal on a conditions-based approach that articulates in simple terms what the Taliban will be required to do. This could include provisions such as guaranteeing non-interference with tax or humanitarian aid; allowing private sector supply chains to operate unfettered and without transportation taxation; allowing private sector trade and investment to be secure, protected, and accepted under internationally accepted standards; and activating the Afghan National Procurement Authority (NPA) to help the Taliban to manage procurements without corruption and operate more efficiently. Additionally, the Biden administration should continue to engage the international community—particularly the G7 and regional partners such as Pakistan—on decisions going forward regarding recognition and the potential for longer-term economic aid for Afghanistan beyond immediate humanitarian aid.

The short-term flow of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan is necessary for the country’s stability and to mitigate the effects of famine and Covid-19. Any disruptions could seriously threaten the country’s future and erode important humanitarian gains over the last 20 years. Actions speak louder than words and several key steps from the Taliban will likely need to be made, especially on human and women’s rights, freedom of movement, and security conditions, for conversations on U.S. recognition and future long-term foreign aid to take place.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Shannon McKeown is a research assistant with the CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development.

The authors would like to thank the group of 30 experienced aid professionals and former diplomats who were consulted and contributed to the commentary, in particular Mark Ward.

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).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Shannon McKeown