Afghanistan: A failed humanitarian effort in wake of protracted militarism


Group of Afghan people with woman in the center pointing to the camera. Al-Jazeera News.

By Alison Cedarbaum

In January of this past year, Massachusetts Peace Action posted an article by Jean Athey, Vice Chair of the Board of Maryland Peace Action, detailing the destruction that has overcome Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover. Athey discussed the economic war waged by the western world in response to the oppressive rule of the new regime and the ways in which it has led to extensive poverty. Since January, this humanitarian crisis has only deepened. As advocates for peace and justice, it is vital that we understand why this devastation has occurred, the role of United States foreign policy as a catalyst of violence and poverty, and the failures of humanitarian efforts thus far. Only through this knowledge can we begin to determine how — if at all —  peace can be restored in this war-torn country.

War of Two Forms

The United States was engaged in warfare in Afghanistan from 2001 through 2021, and arguably has continued to be so since, following the physical withdrawal of troops under the Biden administration in the summer of last year. The military stage of this war, framed by the United States Department of Defense as a “necessary war of self-defense,” commenced with a US invasion shortly after the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th, 2001. In reality, this quintessential facet of the so-called “War on Terror” continued on for twenty years, draining the United States of its tax dollars and resources. Even more critically, this war and the United States’ intervention in restructuring Afghanistan has had detrimental effects on the Afghan people themselves. The Watson Institute at Brown University cites the “war-induced breakdown of the economy, public health, security, and infrastructure” as a cause of protracted poverty, malnutrition, and lack of access to basic medical care and education. Further, the military war led to upwards of 70,000 civilian killings by US airstrikes, CIA-armed militia groups, and poorly managed explosives. This was only compounded by militaristic human rights abuses and widespread mental health impacts from the war. In the name of peace, security, and promoting rights-based democracy abroad, the war saddled Afghanistan with violence.

But the harm endured by Afghanistan did not end with the military operation. The economic strategy employed by the United States — both during and after the declared war — has also proven explosive. Twenty years of US intervention did not just come with violence, but an attempt to entirely rebuild the Afghan government. The effort yielded a relatively low degree of success in reaching political stability and the failure of the economic system was undoubtedly rife. According to the Center for Strategy and International Studies (CSIS), “it is clear that the main source of income for the modern sector of the economy was dependent on the flow of aid for some 75% of government funds and possibly accounted for over 40% of the GDP when measured in monetary terms. It is equally clear that the U.S. alone has taken measures that have crippled Afghan institutions like the Afghan central bank.” Thus, it was wholly detrimental when the western world pursued economic war in response to the Taliban takeover. Human Rights Watch reports that “donor governments, led by the US, instructed the World Bank to cut off about $2 billion in outside international assistance” that was used to fund salaries of essential workers and for food security mechanisms to alleviate large-scale poverty. The Afghan Central Bank’s credentials were also revoked, cutting the nation off from the international banking system. The Afghan economy, strategically designed to keep the country under the yoke of its donor governments, was utterly destroyed.

Humanitarian Failure

This twofold war has left Afghanistan in a dire situation. The International Rescue Committee, a leading humanitarian organization focused on stemming and responding to global refugee crises, has noted Afghanistan as the crisis most at-risk of deteriorating in the world in 2022. Estimates made in January that up to 97% of the population was at risk of sinking into poverty have proven correct: 89% of the population is presently suffering from insufficient food consumption. The crisis only worsened  when earthquakes, flooding, and landslides hit the country throughout the summer. The desperation of the situation in Afghanistan is ultimately inexplicable and incalculable, as displacement and human rights abuses have become rife, hospitals are shut down, and innocent civilians of all ages die and suffer. 

A humanitarian crisis of this proportion naturally seems to call for a humanitarian response. Indeed, 25 million people have partnered in the humanitarian effort. Over $8 billion has been contributed by donor governments and international institutions, including the United States and United Nations. And yet, the crisis still not only rages on, but worsens. There are many reasons for this unambiguous humanitarian failure. In short, humanitarians and governments are providing a band-aid solution to systemic issues that, in part, they themselves caused. The CSIS reports:

The U.S. government and other sources stopped issuing public reporting on the progress in the improvement of governance and development by District around some point in 2014. The UN also stopped public reporting on what areas were safe for aid workers. Both the Afghan government and aid donors never developed effective systems for controlling the flow of aid money, countering waste and corruption, and reporting on the overall effectiveness of aid and development projects in many areas…Most such estimates also grossly oversimplify the problem of estimating and actually allocating such aid.

In essence, humanitarian aid has not recently been effective because of the missteps of past and present humanitarians themselves. Aid systems are misguided and inefficient. The US-driven nation building process lent itself to a weak economy, political instability, and poor infrastructure. Flourishing local political systems were left disempowered by a culturally insensitive, top-down, ineffective approach at democratization. As well-intended as current aid efforts may be, they cannot provide a sustainable, functional solution to the devastating issues at hand.

This criticism, of course, only applies to those still attempting to provide aid at all. Many western institutions are taking an alternative, even more disastrous, strategy: pressuring the Taliban to compromise on its extremist, violent leadership by cutting off previously established aid. Such was the promise of the Biden and Trump administrations alike, and the philosophy motivating the 2021 policies economically isolating Taliban-led Afghanistan. Woefully — and perhaps predictably — this strategy has produced counter-intuitive results. It has proven impossible to push the Taliban towards moderacy; after all, threats of isolation from the international community mean little to a group that views itself as perpetually under siege by the outside world. 

Desperate to demonstrate its strength against radical Islamism, the western world — with the United State at the helm —  instead persecutes its most vulnerable victims. With crimes against humanity raging in Yemen, powerful popular protests emerging against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the situation in Afghanistan still unabated, it is evident that peacebuilding work is far from over in the predominately Muslim Middle East and Central Asia. Now more than ever, the United States, its allies, and the humanitarian community must interrogate their own assumptions about their aid and its recipients. To make progress towards global peace and justice, human security and human rights must become the utmost goal — regardless of political appearances. Only through a profound shift in these priorities, alongside evidence-based and effective applications, can the humanitarian community bring about the change to which it strives.

Alison Cedarbaum is a legislative intern at MAPA.