Looking at Afghanistan Through a Humanitarian Lens, the Future is Unclear

IRVINE – After President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the removal was quickly accelerated to mid-July, with the White House announcing that nearly 90% of all troops had already been removed from the war-torn country. As the final troops exit the country over the next few months, it is critical to reflect on the effects of American withdrawal, focusing on humanitarian efforts and human security in the region. 

Before one can assess success, however, it is necessary to understand the conflict’s origins and how it eventually became a chiefly humanitarian crisis. 

The initial intervention was, by and large, not motivated by any humanitarian reasoning. Instead, it was a military reaction to the 9/11 attacks, ordered as a means of “self-defense” by then-President George W. Bush. This marked the beginning of the infamous and lengthy War on Terror in Afghanistan. 

Considering the initially shallow and less than altruistic motivations, the sheer length of the conflict meant there needed to be some other reasoning to continue having a U.S. presence in Afghanistan. This became more obvious as another attack like 9/11 failed to occur and the self-defense argument grew weaker. 

As the United States continued to push against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda with varying levels of success throughout the early 2000s, the Bush administration began to more heavily promote a humanitarian rationale for the continued fight. The conflict evolved, extending from the counterterrorism efforts to promoting democratization, nation-building, and women’s rights. 

To further justify the ever-lengthening invasion to the American public, Bush invoked humanitarian rhetoric to garner popular support. He rallied the media toward the narrative that Afghan women were being oppressed and needed to be liberated by the West. The State Department pushed out reports on the Taliban’s abusive treatment of women, which were then reported on en-masse by news outlets nationwide. 

The shift in the portrayal of the invasion led many Americans to believe U.S. soldiers were in Afghanistan to protect, or save, women, on top of defending the United States from terrorism, rather than simply the latter. This revamp can be marked by Bush’s speech on April 17, 2002, in which he stated that the United States would assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. 

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” he said, outlining those aspirations as developing a stable government, training an army, educating children, and improving infrastructure, all in the name of recovering from the rule of the Taliban. 

Throughout this speech, and much of his rhetoric regarding the War on Terror, Bush referred to the Marshall Plan, the U.S. policy of providing economic and humanitarian aid to European countries post-WWII, citing it as proof that the United States goes beyond winning wars, and that the country is dedicated to providing assistance. However, the humanitarian effort in Afghanistan during the War on Terror should not be compared to the Marshall Plan. 

Where the Marshall Plan was a carefully planned, extremely strategic method of aid dissemination that helped rebuild Europe after it was devastated by war, humanitarian aid in Afghanistan and the greater region during the War on Terror was more haphazard. This was due to the prolonged nature of a conflict that was not expected to last as long as it has. What was thought to be a quick counter to the 9/11 attacks was nowhere near quick, and, according to the Red Cross, the humanitarian ramifications of prolonged war are much more prominent than they would be after a short conflict. 

So, the U.S. humanitarian effort in Afghanistan was not part of the initial plan. Even so, there was an effort. The reconstruction endeavor in Afghanistan was backed by Congress sending $38 billion toward humanitarian aid in the country from 2001 to 2009, and by 2021 the total amount of humanitarian aid funding has reached about $57 billion (around 40% of the total $143 sent to the country). After the news of the troop withdrawal, a further $300 million is slotted for disbursement to Afghanistan in an attempt to prevent the government from collapsing. 

The need for this boost in aid in response to the withdrawal after the twenty-year conflict is somewhat concerning. It brings into question just how dependent Afghanistan is on U.S. humanitarian aid. If ending the occupation causes the Afghan government to fall apart and humanitarian concerns to skyrocket, has the United States actually succeeded in building a strong government and combating humanitarian issues? 

If not, what has the United States been doing all these years if there is so much concern for the state of Afghanistan when the occupation ends?

There is the obvious answer, the United States has been fighting terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Islamic State, and Al-Qaeda. However, when so much of the rhetoric surrounding the War on Terror does relate to humanitarian concerns, especially human rights violations by the terrorist groups themselves, then it is worth considering if the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan actually improved humanitarian conditions. 

While the United States has provided aid to the Afghan government, hoping to help legitimize it and weaken the Taliban, military operations have had negative humanitarian costs. U.S. airstrikes in the country have caused thousands of civilian deaths. In 2019, the number of civilian deaths caused by U.S. and Afghan military activity was, for the first time, greater than the number caused by the Taliban, largely due to an increase in airstrikes. In total, as many as 43,000 Afghan civilians have died throughout the war from a multitude of causes, including military operations and humanitarian issues such as lack of healthcare access. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW), all of the groups involved in the conflict in Afghanistan, including the United States, are guilty of laws-of-war violations. 

Some feel as though the human costs of the war in Afghanistan, and others like it, are much too high. The Watson Institute at Brown University, which has produced many studies on the conflicts in the Middle East and surrounding region involving the United States, argues that the initial response to 9/11 and the effort to hold those responsible accountable should have been non-military. The Institute rationalizes this by stating also that prolonged involvement in Iraq only led to the further proliferation of Jihadi groups in the area. These are not unpopular stances, as the war in Afghanistan has continued to take both American and Afghan lives throughout its twenty-year history. 

As U.S. troops begin to leave Afghanistan, it is crucial to consider steps that would prevent the humanitarian situation from devolving. The HRW recently stated that legal reform in Afghanistan has been largely dependent on U.S. support, and this reform has led to an expansion in rights for women and girls in the country. The organization further urged that, following the removal of troops, the United States commits to supporting human rights efforts in Afghanistan. This will be absolutely vital if the United States hopes to leave Afghanistan with a chance at attaining stability without the ever-present assistance of U.S. troops. 

While the United States’ human rights record is murky in Afghanistan, an end to the conflict may be the best choice for the citizens of Afghanistan. If the United States ensures it maintains support for Afghanistan, even if not directly with boots on the ground, there are positives for the humanitarian concerns regarding the conflict. In general, an end to the twenty-year occupation will also put an end to civilian casualties caused by U.S. military operations. This is a positive. However, there is still the concern that, by leaving, the United States may be opening Afghanistan up for the Taliban to take over once more.

The worst-case scenario would be if the United States pulls the troops out of Afghanistan and immediately proceeds to leave the country to fend for itself in fighting the Taliban and dealing with ongoing critical humanitarian concerns. Currently, the United States sends more aid to Afghanistan than almost any other country. According to Forbes, Afghanistan is incredibly dependent on foreign aid for basic government function and services, with 75% of its spending in 2019 coming from grants from the United States and other countries. In 2019, the World Bank estimated that the country would require anywhere between $6 billion and $8 billion in international grants per year from 2020 to 2024 in order to provide these services and deal with the Taliban. 

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan is concerning even ignoring the violence, and the question of aid only adds more worry. According to ReliefWeb, the humanitarian information site for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the percentage of Afghans experiencing food insecurity doubled between September 2015 and November 2020, increasing from 37% to 76%. In the same period of time, the percentage of those experiencing emergency food insecurity increased from 8% to 42%. This is in addition to the human rights violations committed by various terrorist cells in the country, and the discrimination against women and ethnic minority groups, such as attacks against the Hazaras. Thousands of Hazara have been killed or injured in different attacks since 2015, but the group has faced persecution since the late 1800s. This history of slavery, ethnic cleansing, land confiscation, and other forms of discrimination was thought to have finally ended with the fall of the Taliban in 2001. However, the Hazaras are still targeted by many terrorist cells in Afghanistan with little to no protection from the government, driving many from the small population, the poorest of Afghanistan’s many different ethnic groups, to leave the country if they have the means to, take up arms against their persecutors, or live in fear. 

As the withdrawal approaches it’s conclusion, well ahead of the original September 11 deadline and set to meet a new deadline of August 31, we are starting to see the results of taking soldiers out of a country that has been dependent upon them for nearing two decades. These results do not bode well for the future of Afghanistan. Biden addressed those who questioned whether the Afghans who assisted the United States and are awaiting their visa approval would be able to come to the country, “Our message to those men and women is clear: There is a home for you in the United States, if you so choose and we will stand with you, as you stood with us.” 

The administration did not offer a number for how many people would be allowed, only that the relocation would be complete by the end of the withdrawal. However, this does not address the millions of Afghan citizens still suffering in horrible humanitarian conditions or ending up as civilian casualties of war. Biden’s response to criticism of the withdrawal was to all-together deny any humanitarian intentions for the invasion. 

The President stated that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, and it’s the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.” 

This is not only contradictory to what Bush, the man who started the war, pushed during his time in office, it is a complete dismissal of what U.S. policy about the war has been for years. Although many may agree with the sentiments of self-determination Biden invoked, here it is simply being used to avoid taking responsibility for what has started to happen in Afghanistan due to the power vacuum caused by the absence of the United States. 

So what has happened in the past few months? In early July, the Taliban displayed containers of weapons seized from the Afghan military while U.S. troops were withdrawing. Since May 1, the terrorist group has taken over 100 districts in Afghanistan, essentially doubling the previous number of districts they controlled. There has been an increase in violence, particularly against women, journalists, and the educated. The United Nations raised the alarm about the high level of violence, particularly against women, and called for a reduction in violence to save lives. 

As the direct connection between the United States and Afghanistan is severed, the United States must commit to providing aid to the Afghan government. Otherwise, the situation will continue to devolve and any previous humanitarian or military efforts in the country will be reversed.

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Mia Prange

Mia Prange is a freshman studying International Relations with a minor in Art History. Raised in a politically passionate family, Mia has always had a passion for politics and global affairs. She is interested in reporting on issues such as women’s rights, LGBTQ+ movements, and the climate crisis, and on areas including Latin America and the Middle East. At USC, Mia is also involved with the renowned Model UN team, the pre-law fraternity Phi Alpha Delta, and USC’s branch of the feminist organization Women and Youth Supporting Each Other (WYSE).

Email: mprange@usc.edu