As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, we are forced to confront difficult questions about the future of those left behind. Many have taken solace in knowing that select humanitarian organizations have been allowed to continue operations in the country. However, even if the Taliban is to be believed, there are important reasons to think that these organizations may not be as effective as they once were.
For many humanitarian organizations, the principles of impartiality and neutrality guide their operations. However, after a decades-long “hearts and minds” campaign, in which coalition International Security Assistance Forces deployed teams to provide humanitarian and development assistance, many policymakers and aid practitioners claim that there has been an erosion of the “humanitarian space”. Whereas aid workers were once relatively free to provide relief to victims unmolested, humanitarian organizations now face increasing political and violent opposition due to perceived affiliation with the West.
Consider that Afghanistan is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for aid workers. In recent research, we show that 691 violent attacks against aid workers took place in the middle of active combat operations in Afghanistan from just 2008 to 2012, affecting nearly 1,000 victims. Even though the Geneva Conventions provide explicit protections for humanitarian organizations operating during wartime, the Taliban and other combatants in Afghanistan have regularly violated prohibitions on targeting aid workers since the U.S.-led war effort began.
This is particularly concerning in Afghanistan, where humanitarian assistance has long been critical to the survival of Afghan civilians. In the decade following the start of the war in Afghanistan, the country received more than $36 billion in humanitarian and development assistance. Today, 75 percent of all social services in Afghanistan are provided through contracts with international aid organizations.
Although many aid organizations try to distance themselves from the government’s counterinsurgency operations, maintaining this separation has been difficult for a number of reasons. First, because the Afghan government was administratively weak, aid organizations were forced to fill gaps in government services, which effectively helped the government remain in power.
Second, many of the aid organizations in Afghanistan, such as Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, have origins in countries contributing troops to coalition forces, making it difficult to appear neutral. As a Taliban spokesman noted in 2008, “The U.N. was established to ensure the rights of nations, but now this organization supports one side in Afghanistan and wants to eliminate the other side.”
Third, the U.S. government was heavily involved in the provision of aid to Afghanistan, forming an apparent association between the government coalition and aid organizations. Indeed, Colin PowellColin Luther PowellCivil rights museum to honor Michelle Obama, Poor People's Campaign In Afghanistan, lines between aid and government agendas are blurred The Powell Doctrine could have helped us avoid the Afghanistan debacle MORE stated that “the NGOs are such a force multiplier for us, such an important part of our combat team.”
For these reasons, the Taliban have long perceived aid organizations as supporting the Afghan government. A senior Afghan official described this logic plainly: “Aid agencies are being targeted because they deliver services for the government.” In interviews with Taliban members conducted by the Humanitarian Policy Group, a commander explained, “When we became convinced that our support for [aid agencies] resulted in benefits for the current government and Americans, we started opposing them.” Another Taliban commander offered a similar explanation, saying, “When our leaders recognized that those [aid] activities were aimed to benefit the government and the foreigners, they issued orders to ban them so we blocked their activities with a single call.”
If previous state-sponsorship of humanitarian organizations has led the Taliban to associate them with the U.S. and the West, what can be done to reestablish a “humanitarian space” for delivering life-saving resources?
In the near term, there may be very little. However, this does not mean that the Taliban will completely block relief provisions. Instead, the consequences will manifest in the diminished bargaining leverage of humanitarian organizations. In all likelihood, humanitarian organizations will be forced to accept greater conditions on the type of aid and its recipients in exchange for access.
For example, the Taliban is likely to request aid organizations decouple some development work in education and health from the provision of basic resources, and they may initially focus access to areas where they draw support. They may also demand greater profits from visas, import duties, and other administrative fees, similar to how the Liberian leader Charles Taylor demanded 15 percent of aid entering his territory to be paid as an import tax.
In the longer term, the U.S. and the West will need to confront the deeper dilemma that arises from utilizing aid and aid organizations as force multipliers in stability operations. As the Afghan example cautions, countries must carefully balance the private incentive to politically co opt humanitarian operations against centuries of collective work to establish a “humanitarian space” for relief efforts.
Neil Narang is director of research and professor at the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) and affiliated faculty at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.