Afghanistan’s imminent humanitarian crisis is our unfinished business

AP Photo/Mstyslav Chernov

At the White House, I led the National Security Council team working on counterterrorism, hostage response and coordinating counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan. During a devastating humanitarian crisis over three decades ago, I served in Turkey and Iraq during Operation Provide Comfort. Those experiences inform the below considerations for mitigating an imminent humanitarian catastrophe and reclaiming leadership for Afghanistan’s most immediate crisis.  

It’s not too late for the Biden administration to mitigate an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan by working with key foreign partners and non-state actors. As the Biden administration spelled out in its Interim National Security Guidance (INSG), humanitarian crises and terrorism must be met with collective action. The INSG explicitly leaves the door open for special operations forces to sensibly respond to such emergencies. So, I remain guardedly optimistic that the United States can see to this unfinished business — because our mission in Afghanistan has not been fully accomplished.  

The United States has endured the unintended humanitarian consequences of ending wars decades before the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War, President George H.W Bush hoped to trigger an uprising against Saddam Hussein and his despotic regime. Over-optimism with a lightning-fast coalition victory against the Iraqi army fueled hopes for greater freedom in the Kurdish north. For oppressed Kurds in northern Iraq, organized Kurdish resistance against Iraqi forces began hopefully but was soon crushed by Saddam’s Republican Guards. To avert genocide, millions of Kurds flooded into Turkey seeking a safe haven which set in motion Operation Provide Comfort, a herculean humanitarian intervention.   

The humanitarian crisis that played out in 1991 was an unintended consequence of the United States’ own making, but it was soon reversed deftly by United States Army Special Forces, a committed international coalition, safe havens for Kurdish civilians, an established no-fly-zone — backed by coalition aircraft — and steely U.S. resolve. That humanitarian operation was not without its risks: feuding armed groups, terrorists, Iraqi regime henchmen and other predators dangerously operated in the same space.  And still, Iraqi Kurds soon confidently returned to their homes in northern Iraq, and the U.S. Special Forces forged deep-rooted bonds that laid the groundwork for later military partnerships with ethnic Kurds for countering Saddam’s regime in 2003 — and by responding to ISIS terrorism and systematic murder of civilians in northern Syria and Iraq, decades later.  

With the United States understandably exhausted by foreign wars, the Biden administration still has options in Afghanistan to get ahead of three overlapping crises there: humanitarian, American hostages and terrorism.  Collective action to stanch disaster in Afghanistan need not be on the scale of Operation Provide Comfort. But an appropriately scaled, international coalition to provide humanitarian support and security to Afghans by establishing local safe havens for dispensing the flow of humanitarian support is still possible.  

The United States has options and it could work as follows:

First, like Kurds resisting Saddam in 1991, there are pockets of former mujahedeen fighters from the National Resistance Front (NRF) in Afghanistan that oppose the Taliban. Those fighters led by Ahmad Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshiri leader assassinated in 2001, can organize on-the-ground humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan, not armed resistance — at least for the time being. 

The National Resistance Front is mostly made up of the remnants of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), especially the commandos and special forces that were trained by the United States. Many of the NRF commanders were officers in the commando and special forces units. Their fathers and grandfathers were the ones who fought the Soviets in the 1980s and against the Taliban and al Qaeda in the 1990s. I’ve talked to Panjshiris that are acutely aware — and sanguine — about the potential humanitarian relief of an Operation Provide Comfort-like effort in Afghanistan. The United States along with partner Special Operations Forces can nurture discrete and limited on-the-ground alliances to support near-term humanitarian operations. This work is essential now and may prove even more important to Afghanistan over the long haul. An inevitable byproduct of any such humanitarian efforts will likely include better intelligence on U.S. hostages and a greater understanding of the evolving threats from terrorists such as ISIS-K and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.    

Second, the United States can diplomatically knit together the security arrangements for humanitarian operations by leveraging its crucially important partnership with Qatar. For their part, the Qataris have assiduously navigated the politically fraught diplomatic relationship between the Taliban and the United States. Qatar’s sensitive diplomatic entreaties with the Taliban included advancing the peace process in Afghanistan and helping with the release of Western hostages. Australian Timothy Weeks and U.S. citizen Kevin King were freed in exchange for the release of three insurgent commanders of the Haqqani terrorist network, a group closely allied with the Taliban. Now that Sirajuddin Haqqani, son of the network’s founder, is the Taliban Interior Minister, with control of the nation’s security apparatus, Qatar will remain indispensable as a go-between for American hostages and future humanitarian crisis response.  

Finally, although the Taliban have so far shown some restraint from systematic ethnic cleansing and political violence across Afghanistan, those behaviors will likely break down as a humanitarian tragedy unfolds. The United States can still exert leadership and set the terms for easing the suffering of Afghans, keeping in mind the lessons of Operation Provide Comfort three decades ago. But like northern Iraq in 1991, feuding armed groups, terrorists and predators are in Afghanistan, too. This time the threat will be from marauding Taliban, rather than Iraqi Ba’athist intelligence agents. In short, variegated malign actors of all stripes will try to prevent relief from getting to the Afghan people directly. But with diplomatic partners such as the Qataris, committed indigenous Afghans, and U.S. steadfastness, America can reclaim its leadership by getting critical short-term humanitarian relief to all Afghans. The United States owes this commitment to the people of Afghanistan.  

Christopher P. Costa, the executive director of the International Spy Museum and a former career intelligence officer, was special assistant to the president and senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council from 2017 to 2018. 

Tags Afghanistan–United States relations Ahmad Massoud Ahmad Shah Massoud Al-Qaeda In Afghanistan Taliban offensive War in Afghanistan

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