When the Afghan, American and Coalition governments went wheels-up in Kabul, they left behind an unfinished evacuation and lethal military assets. They also left a humanitarian disaster — and no plan in place to stop it.
“Out in the street right now, you should see the children’s uncovered heads in the hot sun. They cry and cry. There is no food. There is no water. There is no medicine. There is nothing,” an Afghan woman civil society leader on a Zoom call with me said Monday. Her weary face squeezed into a tight black face covering, she dabbed her eyes. “Thousands of women and children displaced right now in Kabul. And all our brightest people gone, the ones who were supposed to build our country.”
What Afghans need now is planes that land, planes filled with food and lifesaving aid. And that puts humanitarian and human rights proponents, including women’s and religious freedom advocates, on the horns of a dilemma. Humanitarian financing needs a functioning, if not legitimate, government to work well. But if governments tacitly lend credibility to the Taliban before it has taken any steps to recognize and protect the rights of vulnerable people, capitals would be giving away their most powerful instrument, and chief leverage, for protecting those groups for the foreseeable future.
When the Ghani government fled and the central bank closed, they left no plan to keep 39 million Afghans in currency. Last week, local banks were told to dispense just $200 per week in withdrawals, because the Taliban is leery of creating a run on the banks. But access to money has been sporadic.
International organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meet behind closed doors to pick their way toward getting the Taliban liquidity. It is unclear whether the urgency of their deliberations will outweigh their caution. That would result in premature de facto recognition of the terrorist organization.
While the aid establishment sorts out financing, Afghans need food and aid now. The lachrymose woman in the Zoom meeting has a broad network of people who could help, but prices are inflating daily while supplies dwindle. She could not find a trustworthy hawala, an informal Islamic system of lending, she said, or a reliable e-currency operation such as those used in Africa and India.
Assuming the Taliban would give planes permission to land, aid could reach regional airfields in Kabul, Herat and elsewhere. As the world watched what was happening in Kabul, rural communities were facing the same crisis. Ground access could come through India, a nation active in humanitarian action in Afghanistan and with a stake in stemming overwhelming human flow. Delhi already has opened borders to refugees.
Whatever the next steps, they must put the safety of women and girls front and center, especially those from religious minorities and vulnerable groups.
Each deliberation, whether finance, food or aid, must integrate protection from the beginning and not tack it on — or worse, ignore it. When the U.S. negotiated with the Afghan government in 2019, it left guarantees for women off the table. Then, in 2021, Washington pursued withdrawal before the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban were completed. This, despite pleas from civil society and the urging of the four Afghan women negotiators.
The oversight, or dismissal, of women’s interests led to a feminine brain drain this week as civil society groups worked around the clock to get as many of their Afghan sisters in leadership through the gates of Hamid Karzai International Airport. Many of them already had received death threats. Many more remain in hiding. The head of one U.S. civil society group told me she had not slept more than two hours in the past two weeks. “I fear our dear friends will just be ‘disappeared,’” she said. “I mean, who will notice when they just stop texting?”
Shortly after the last U.S. military plane left Kabul, I got another text from someone “receiving too many frantic calls” from women who just didn’t make it through the airport gates in time. “I am scared they will harm themselves in their fear,” it said. Atrocity prevention and protection must not go missing in the next phase of international intervention into Afghanistan.
No doubt, some in civil society will look to the United Nations Security Council and the agencies to lead the next phase: ferrying food to airfields, creating humanitarian corridors, and monitoring human rights for women and religious minorities. They should press world leaders, who are scheduled to meet in New York in four weeks for the opening of the 76th U.N. General Assembly. But nimble, creative and dedicated civil society groups must not cede too much authority to sclerotic bureaucratic agencies and political organizations. Their limitations were fully manifest in the Afghanistan exit, the global pandemic, and much else.
These past few weeks, I watched women and men from politically diverse groups — women activists, retired military and faith-based organizations — connect and collaborate around the clock with abandon to save one family or one life. Financial institutions and national capitals must solve the dilemma between stemming the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in Afghanistan and protecting human rights. To do that, they must cede seats at the table to a broad group of civil society, whose wisdom and selfless dedication we all need a lot more of in the future.
Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., is a former U.S. Navy helicopter combat logistics pilot. She is founder and president of the American Council on Women Peace and Security. Follow her on Twitter @Susan_Yoshihara.