Taliban Takeover: Humanitarian Implications and Recommendations for the United States

As many in Washington remain focused on the emergency evacuations of U.S. citizens and uniquely vulnerable Afghans in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, considerable attention should also be directed toward effectively meeting the ongoing urgent humanitarian needs of the rest of the Afghan population.

Multiple Humanitarian Crises

Prior to the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan was already mired in multiple overlapping humanitarian crises. Widespread forced displacement, together with refugee returns from Iran and Pakistan, means millions of Afghans have been disconnected from their communities and require assistance from local and international humanitarian organizations. Drought conditions threaten agricultural production. Food security indicators are alarming, with concerns over rising malnutrition rates, and a third wave of Covid-19 is spreading, in a country with limited health infrastructure to provide the necessary care. The United Nations’ 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) for Afghanistan called for $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid, but the appeal remains 40 percent funded, despite renewed attention to Afghanistan that emerged during the 2020 peace negotiations with the Taliban and ongoing troop withdrawals.

Increased Violence  

Although some experts argued that a form of “truce” had been reached between U.S. forces and Taliban fighters, by the end of 2020 Afghanistan was experiencing sustained armed violence that has persisted throughout 2021. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) showed a substantial increase in violent confrontations and armed attacks throughout the country, with violent confrontations in 29 of 34 provinces, especially in rural areas. The impact on the civilian population was substantial. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reports that civilian casualties between January and June 2021 increased by 50 percent from the same time in 2020. In fact, humanitarian and civilian protection advocates had raised the alarm about the rise in violent confrontations, pointing out that Taliban forces had been prepositioned outside many of Afghanistan’s major cities, displacing civilians. The operational environment for humanitarian organizations prior to last week was also highly complex. While Afghanistan has always been among the more dangerous places for aid workers, recent attacks on Halo Trust and Action Contre le Faim (ACF), concurrent with the increase in violence, highlighted the dangers faced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and underscored the complexity of navigating Afghanistan’s security environment.

And that was all before the Taliban marched into Kabul.

What Comes Next

Experts are concerned that the humanitarian picture will deteriorate over the coming weeks and months, although detailed assessments will take time and require substantially increased humanitarian access. In addition to the negative consequences Taliban control will have for the rights of women and minorities, the lack of meaningful capacity to govern means that responsibilities previously carried out—even poorly—by the now deposed Afghan government will be lost, placing a higher burden on external actors. The loss of access to financial reserves, technical staff, and international support in key ministries means a higher financial burden will fall on international organizations, and meaningful working partnerships between international aid providers and government counterparts will be lost.

Banks are now closed, and food and basic commodity prices are increasing. The reduction in internet access and online connectivity has limited access to information, while the uncertainty around security has impacted service delivery to those relying on international assistance. Supply chains are disrupted and movements are restricted, adding to delays and a need to reassess warehousing and logistics options.  Based on the experience in areas already under their control, predation and corruption by Taliban fighters and leadership may impede or threaten humanitarian assistance operations.

Humanitarian organizations, international and domestic alike, now face a new set of complications, yet many have pledged to “stay and deliver.” Some, like Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), have continued to provide services and carry out operations during the tumultuous past weeks. Others have been forced to suspend operations as they seek to determine the operational environment and capacity needed to carry out their activities.

All these organizations, however, must navigate the complexity of engaging in direct communication and negotiation with the Taliban authorities. Humanitarians have a long and established capacity to engage with non-state armed groups and other similar actors to ensure safe passage and humanitarian access. This includes the Taliban, both prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and in areas under Taliban control over the last 20 years. Some aid organizations have now received direct assurances they can continue operations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), for example, received a stamped letter from the Taliban encouraging them to continue their work.

To do so, however, aid agencies need funding, political support, and legal and diplomatic assurances for their essential work. By providing legal and policy assurances, the U.S. government can play a critical role in helping to protect and assist Afghan civilians in Afghanistan in the near and medium term.

By providing legal and policy assurances, the U.S. government can play a critical role in helping to protect and assist Afghan civilians in Afghanistan in the near and medium term.

Key Recommendations for the United States

1. Humanitarian Funding Should Not Become Another Political Football

International aid organizations are launching emergency appeals for an anticipated increased workload. While Afghanistan’s HRP is underfunded and requires increased support, Afghan-led organizations will carry a greater load in the near term. The United States should immediately commit to increasing its funding for Afghan-led organizations and work with partners in Europe, the Gulf, and elsewhere to fully fund the humanitarian response. This level of commitment requires bureaucratic will to overcome structural hurdles that inhibit directly funding local organizations. The United States should identify the frameworks and possibilities to discreetly support Afghan civil society organizations, many of whom have lengthy experience as sub-grantees and partners to U.S.-based organizations. This can be through pooled funding or other established mechanisms that can ensure the safety and operational continuity of community-led organizations while allowing for oversight and accountability over spending.

While pausing bilateral assistance and economic support to Afghan ministries is necessary at the outset of Taliban control, humanitarian assistance should be based on humanitarian principles and treated separately. The needs in Afghanistan will be great, and the United States should ensure that its trusted international partners have the capacity to make principled operational decisions about where and how to work in Afghanistan in line with the Joint Operating Principles endorsed by the Humanitarian Country Team.

2. Create Humanitarian Carve Outs

Among the challenges aid organizations face is navigating an Afghan leadership that includes individuals and organizations designated as specially designated global terrorists (SDGTs) and foreign terrorist organizations (FTOs). Since 2002 the Afghan Taliban has been listed as an SDGT under the International Economic Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA), which prohibits certain economic transactions and does not include humanitarian exemptions. The Taliban is also sanctioned by the United Nations, which complicates UN agency and member state direct engagement. The Afghan Taliban is not specifically designated as an FTO, which carries with it additional prohibitions on engagement and transactions. However, the known presence of designated individuals, including from the FTO-designated Haqqani network, in Taliban leadership creates a substantial legal obstacle for humanitarian providers. The United States should immediately develop carve outs for humanitarian action, ensuring that sanctions and other restrictive measures do not inadvertently undermine the goals of humanitarian action—to save lives and alleviate suffering. This should include issuing a general license for aid agencies to operate in Afghanistan, an extension of licenses already granted to allow the purchase of Iranian-made goods, and the sharing of “comfort letters” to indicate that actions necessary to the provision of basic services will not be considered in violation of U.S. law. The United States should also strenuously avoid pressure to designate the Taliban as an FTO, as this would have a devastating impact for humanitarian organizations, including in their ability to access financial and logistical services to continue their operations. The Biden administration demonstrated political courage earlier this year by revoking the FTO designation on the Houthis in Yemen, preventing an additional humanitarian catastrophe. Building off that example, the administration should ensure the legal and regulatory obstacles are removed for operations in Afghanistan and work with the United Nations and other key donors to ensure they do the same. Members of Congress who encouraged the revocation of the FTO designation in Yemen should speak out now to provide the administration with political allies and support to keep humanitarian aid free of obstructions.

Humanitarian aid is not a panacea, nor can it be a substitute for an emphasis on the achievement of fundamental rights. It also, however, shouldn’t be a bargaining chip. The United States should continue to seek all possible means to ensure the rights and safety of vulnerable Afghans, in particular women and girls. In the intervening period, humanitarian assistance can play a meaningful part in helping vulnerable Afghans meet their basic needs.

It is clear from the politicization of last week’s events that there are individuals who will seek to weaponize assistance to Afghanistan. The administration should work with those members of Congress who have expressed deep concern over the plight of Afghan civilians to find common ground and avoid compounding the crisis by letting humanitarian assistance become a partisan issue. 

3. Engage in Robust Bilateral and Multilateral Diplomacy

Diplomatically, the United States can take the initiative and open lines of engagement with Iran and Pakistan regarding Afghan refugees in their countries. Simply acknowledging the long-term logistical and financial impacts that hosting large populations of refugees for a protracted period has on neighboring countries is a critical step. The United States should engage multilaterally to provide financial support to ensure the needs of refugees in those countries are met with dignity and to try to improve the legal and economic status for these refugees. It may be a bitter pill for some to swallow, but the reality is that Iran and Pakistan will carry much of the immediate load in supporting Afghan refugees, making international acknowledgement and support vital. Additionally, the G7 will meet virtually on August 24, giving President Biden the opportunity to emphasize U.S. support for providing asylum to refugees and encouraging increasingly weary European partners to do the same.

4. Build on New Capacities

Despite a chaotic start, the United States has now evacuated nearly 40,000 people in a week from Afghanistan. Time will tell how many of those are citizens, partners, or individual Afghans with unique vulnerabilities. What this experience has shown is the unique and outstanding capacity that the United States can mobilize at a moment’s notice to help individuals in distress. Public-private partnerships are a tool and an opportunity to draw on U.S. strength. Secretary of Defense Austin recently activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to use private air carriers to help transport refugees and evacuees from the Middle East to Europe and the United States. It’s the third time in U.S. history that it’s been used since the Berlin Airlift. With the impending withdrawal of all forces soon complete, there is also the opportunity to explore the use of these same military and civilian assets to assist in humanitarian operations.

The last week also demonstrated substantial resolve within the U.S. public to assist in the evacuation efforts. Community, social, and professional networks mobilized on a moment’s notice to support the identification of vulnerable Afghans and work with government partners to assist in their relocation. This outpouring of concern and effort can be harnessed to ensure the same focus of effort is placed on meeting the needs of those Afghans who need assistance and could not leave or chose to stay.

5. Learn the Lessonsof This Past Week and Beyond

The events of the past week reinforce the need for the United States to reckon with the true costs of its military actions overseas and with the impact of withdrawal. The two-decade-long conflict in Afghanistan carried a substantial human cost, the brunt of which was borne by Afghan civilians. The ongoing discussion around U.S. responsibilities reinforces the extent to which tactical, strategic, and overarching policy decisions have neglected to effectively factor in humanitarian consequences, including on the protection of civilians. As the United States concludes its military operations in Afghanistan, it is critical that the Department of Defense carries out an honest and accurate accounting of the civilian casualties resulting from U.S. and partner forces and carries out meaningful efforts toward redress.

There will also be a need for an accounting and accountability on how the planning for the post-withdrawal emergency evacuations went awry. That accounting should include an honest interrogation as to how much time was spent at senior levels on the issue of evacuations—and of the humanitarian impacts of the U.S. withdrawal writ large. However, focusing after-action accountability solely on the withdrawal and not on the totality of the humanitarian impacts of 20 years of war would be a mistake. A culminating lesson from this experience must include a real acknowledgement by U.S. leaders that humanitarian considerations cannot be an afterthought; they should be baked into plans and strategies, with planning for the impacts—and how they will be responded to—considered from the onset. If that lesson is learned and applied, and if the United States demonstrates a lasting commitment to all of Afghanistan’s civilians, it will go a long way toward helping the United States reestablish its humanitarian identity.
Jacob Kurtzer is the director and senior fellow of the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

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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Jacob Kurtzer
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Humanitarian Agenda