Rise to Peace blog

On the Brink of Collapse: Afghanistan’s Humanitarian Crisis

“A full blown humanitarian catastrophe looms,” said Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ emergency aid coordinator, describing the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan following the collapse of the country’s Western-backed government in August, 2021. “My message is urgent: Don’t shut the door on the people of Afghanistan.”

Five months after the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan is accelerating toward a full-scale humanitarian disaster, as famine, poverty, drought, civil unrest, and the impact of decades-long war, plunge the country into crisis.

In response to the looming calamity, the United Nations has launched its largest ever appeal for a single country, urging international donors to contribute more than $5 billion dollars in aid. However, many western governments, including the United States, share concerns that financial support would legitimize a violent Islamist-led government. Indeed, according to P. Michael McKinley, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, “any expanded assistance to Afghanistan risks the charge that it is consolidating the Taliban in power and weakening leverage to influence their behavior.”

As the Taliban tightens its hold on Afghanistan, enacting a reign of terror involving public executions, threats against journalists, and increasing restrictions on women’s freedoms, Western governments face a difficult choice. The escalating humanitarian crisis demands a response, but the United States remains undecided in its approach. All the while, the Afghan people continue to suffer, their country sliding ever closer to the brink of collapse.

Afghanistan on the Brink

When U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan, the country lost three quarters of its government budget and 40% of its GDP. The U.S. and its allies responded to the Taliban takeover with various economic sanctions, freezing $9 billion dollars in Afghan state assets overseas and cutting off the country’s access to the global financial system.

As the economic crisis deepens, three-quarters of Afghanistan’s 40 million people have been plunged into poverty and, according to the United Nations Development Programme, poverty could be near universal by mid-2022. The withdrawal of financial support has crippled the country’s ability to provide essential services, starving its cash-based economy of liquid funds and leaving public sector workers without wages.

Meanwhile, devastating droughts have destroyed crops across the country, exacerbating the country’s hunger crisis. Today, just 2% of Afghans have enough food, according to the World Food Program, and 8.7 million are on the brink of starvation. Indeed, without emergency support, Afghanistan faces the very real possibility of slipping into famine within the coming months.

Outbreaks of diarrhea, COVID-19, malaria, measles, and polio are pushing the country’s underfunded healthcare services to their breaking point. Medical staff, many of whom have gone unpaid for months, are experiencing major supply shortages, and Kabul’s COVID-19 treatment center, the only facility for the city’s four million inhabitants, has run short of the diesel fuel needed to produce oxygen for its patients. Further, according to a recent report by the International Rescue Committee, up to 90% of the country’s health centers could be shut down by the end of the year.

Engaging with the Crisis

After the collapse of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government, and the conclusion of the United States’ two-decades long mission to bring security and democracy to the country, it is not surprising that Washington is reluctant to engage with the crisis. Over $2 trillion dollars was spent on combating the Taliban insurgency, a military effort that cost the lives of over 2,000 American servicemen and women, and the U.S. is perturbed by the possibility that humanitarian support funds could strengthen the Taliban’s stature, or fall into the hands of the country’s new Islamist rulers.

However, even before the fall of Kabul, the United States consistently overrated it’s leverage over Afghan authorities. The Western-backed government, despite its complete dependence on U.S. aid, consistently snubbed Washington-led efforts to have the country adopt particular security, diplomatic, and anti-corruption strategies. Moreover, a failed Afghan state would be in no one’s interest, including the United States. Such a situation would cost millions of lives, inflame refugee flows, and transform the country into a state of civil strife and terrorist activity.

Already, the United States has made some attempts to expand the humanitarian exemptions from its sanctions, and has led efforts within the Security Council to relax U.N.-imposed economic restrictions. Nonetheless, mitigating the country’s looming humanitarian catastrophe requires broader international support.

Over the coming year, the United States and its partners must ensure that the country does not collapse. Emergency efforts must be undertaken to prevent famine and to keep essential services afloat. The entire Afghan population is imperiled by the country’s humanitarian crisis, including up to one million children threatened by famine. The child death toll alone could reach up to four times that sustained by the Afghan people during the entire U.S. occupation. The United States must act, in coordination with its partners, the United Nations, and key international stakeholders, to support on-the-ground humanitarian efforts to alleviate the crisis.

Indeed, these efforts will also serve U.S. interests, ending the upsurge in narcotics productions fueled by the country’s economic crisis, and encouraging Taliban cooperation, albeit likely tentative, in combatting the terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State’s Afghan offshoot.

Moreover, whilst concerns that Western relief funds could land in the Taliban’s pockets are founded, the United Nations has emphasized its “direct delivery” approach to assisting humanitarian operations, and recent moves by the U.N. Security Council exempting humanitarian support from sanctions has improved aid delivery. Nonetheless, the United States must remain steadfast in ensuring that all humanitarian support reaches the Afghan people.

Beyond 2022

Forecasting beyond the coming year, any attempt at building long-term stability in Afghanistan will require far-reaching efforts involving much deeper collaboration with the Taliban. Whilst relief measures will help mitigate humanitarian catastrophe, they also further entrench the country’s dependence on foreign aid and dissuade efforts to rebuild its institutions of government.

If Afghanistan is to be set on a path toward self-support, away from its reliance on overseas aid, then sanctions will have to be eased, and foreign support funds will need to be directed at restoring essential government functions, such as development, energy, and agriculture. Moreover, its foreign reserves will have to be released and the economy reconnected to the global financial system.

A broadscale effort to rebuild the Afghan state may well stretch beyond the will of the United States, with Washington’s reluctance to provide this level of support for a Taliban-led government inclining the U.S. toward inaction and forcing the responsibility of supporting the country’s development onto the shoulders of other international actors. Indeed, Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, Pakistan, China, India, alongside key regional powers, such as Turkey and Qatar, can play an important role in stabilizing the country.

Nonetheless, Afghanistan’s escalating humanitarian crisis demands immediate action, and the United States must provide the emergency support needed to avoid catastrophic loss of life. However, the U.S. should also consider the consequences of its long-term approach for Afghan citizens, particularly given the promise made to them over twenty years ago.

Indeed, whilst many in the West are deeply troubled by any suggestion of supporting a Taliban-led Afghanistan, the consequences of failing to do so could be equally disturbing. Ultimately, a choice must be made; we can only hope it is the right one.


Oliver Alexander Crisp, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

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