Afghanistan War Commission should focus on humanitarian impact of the war
In December 2021, Congress established the Afghanistan War Commission, a nonpartisan, independent body tasked with examining the United States’ engagement in Afghanistan over the course of the war. The 16 congressionally appointed commission members will have four years to undertake a comprehensive and unprecedented investigation of all military, intelligence, diplomatic, and development activities of the U.S., its allies, and partners, from June 2001–August 2021.
The commission will be a critical inflection point in the United States’ relationship with Afghanistan as well as a model for U.S. conduct, diplomacy, and assistance in future theaters. The goal of the initiative is to produce actionable recommendations and spur the United States to implement reforms so that avoidable harm caused in Afghanistan are never repeated. Engagement in Afghanistan has indeed had staggering human and monetary costs for the United States, but it is critical that the commission look beyond how the U.S. was affected and consider how the war and the military withdrawal affected Afghan civilians and Afghan institutions.
Afghans have endured the bulk of the consequences from the decades-long conflict. 47,245 civilians—including 444 aid workers and 72 journalists—have been killed. Many of these deaths are directly attributable to the U.S. conduct of hostilities, particularly the Pentagon’s 2017 decision to loosen the rules of engagement for airstrikes, which resulted in a 330% increase in the number of Afghans killed by US-led airstrikes. Yet the end of active fighting has not meant an end to fear; unexploded ordnance and landmines — the brutal legacy of this war and previous armed conflict, continue to maim and kill civilians and will likely remain a threat to communities for decades, in spite of ongoing clearance efforts.
In addition to those whose lives were cut short, millions more were upended by displacement as families were forced to flee their homes. Afghans have also weathered recurrent humanitarian crises and watched their country’s vital institutions and economy pushed to the brink of collapse. Today, humanitarian needs in Afghanistan are at a peak, with 24.4 million people — more than half of the population, in need of urgent assistance. The United States’ post-withdrawal policy posture has exacerbated this exponential leap in human suffering. Following the change of power in August 2021, the U.S. and other international donors paused development assistance and froze Afghan Central Bank assets. Coupled with the chilling effect the U.S. sanctions on the Taliban have had on the commercial and financial sectors and aid organizations, these policy choices fueled the economic crisis and contributed to a devastating liquidity shortage that is threatening to unravel decades of development gains.
U.S. engagement in Afghanistan has not all been negative. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the World Bank, and the congressionally established Afghanistan Study Group, among others, have documented the real progress that the U.S. and the international community have supported, particularly for women and children. For example, school enrollment figures surged from 1 million to 10 million students—40 percent of whom were girls—from 2001-2018 and the female literacy rate doubled from 2011-2018. Maternal mortality rates decreased by more than half, falling from 1,450 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 638 deaths per 100,000 live births by 2017. Yet this progress was always fragile, threatened by weak governance and dependency upon continued international support. Now, those concerns have become a reality.
In order to sufficiently examine the impact of U.S. engagement on Afghans, the commissioners should ensure their scope of study prioritizes humanitarian and civilian protection considerations in their review of U.S. and partners’ conduct of hostilities, diplomacy, and foreign assistance posture over the course of the war. This includes reviewing how well the U.S. coordinated amongst its own institutions — particularly across the Department of Defense, State Department, and U.S. Agency for International Development. It also includes examining the number of civilian casualties, as well as how those deaths affected families and communities, and the extent and effect of damage to civilian infrastructure. The best way to truly comprehend the effects of U.S. actions on Afghans is by engaging with civil society actors and Afghan communities—particularly women and youth; the commission should make these consultations central to their investigation.
The commissioners should also extend the period of study to Aug. 30, 2022, to review the reverberating effects of the withdrawal. Studying this additional year would allow the commission to understand the civilian casualty impacts of the U.S. shift to an over-the-horizon counterterror campaign; the humanitarian, economic, and liquidity crises exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy choices; any immediate losses in development gains; the humanitarian impacts of U.S. sanctions and the efficacy of humanitarian safeguards; resulting local and international security challenges; and the outcomes of ongoing U.S. diplomacy with the Taliban.
The U.S. remains engaged militarily and diplomatically in numerous conflict zones throughout the world, including Yemen, Syria, and Ethiopia. In every context, civilians are caught in the middle; casualties of war and of foreign policy. As another major conflict and humanitarian crisis unfolds in Ukraine, it heralds a stark reality: identifying lessons and reforms from the Afghanistan war is not only necessary but increasingly relevant. Centering the commission’s analysis on humans, and the humanitarian impact of U.S. actions, is the best way to ensure more lives are saved and less people suffer.
Mamoon Khawar is a PhD student in Politics at the Department of Politics of the University of York, UK. His research focuses on the role of elites in the state-building process. Before joining the University of York, Mamoon spent three years with CARE in Afghanistan as Chief of Party for a USAID project. Sarah Fuhrman is a lawyer by training and serves as CARE USA’s Senior Manager for Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy, where she focuses on issues including adherence to international law, civil-military engagement, the protection of civilians in conflict, and safeguarding the humanitarian space. Before joining CARE, Sarah spent nearly four years with USAID/OFDA, supporting responses in DRC, Iraq, Kenya, Mexico, South Sudan, and Yemen. Dhabie Brown is CARE USA’s Senior Humanitarian Policy Advocate where she leads engagement with U.S. government policymakers on priority humanitarian contexts including Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Prior to CARE, she was the Humanitarian Advocacy Advisor for the International Rescue Committee in Iraq, and worked for several NGOs in U.S. based and global positions. She holds a MPH in International Health.