This op-ed was originally published in Just Security.
New reports suggest that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is already halfway complete. Afghans who have worked with the U.S. military will increasingly be the targets of Taliban retribution. Efforts are ramping up to get many of them out the country. This is the right thing to do, but it will not protect most Afghan civilians from the violence to come. The hard truth is that the U.S. withdrawal will likely exacerbate Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, and little has been done to prepare for this eventuality. Next week’s high-level summits in Europe, which President Joe Biden is attending, provide important opportunities for the international community to start planning.
Debate has been fierce between proponents and critics of Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan. However, most close observers agree that greater instability is now inevitable. The congressionally mandated Afghanistan Study Group warned that a “Taliban ascendance” would follow a calculated military withdrawal. In recent months, the insurgent group has taken territory in practically every corner of the country. There is a reasonable chance that Afghanistan may now face a new round of protracted civil war.
Such assessments have led to urgent calls for the United States to expand the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program, which offers refuge to Afghans in danger because of their work with U.S. troops. This must be a top priority. However, such initiatives offer little protection to the country’s wider civilian population who will bear the brunt of future violence. The humanitarian consequences will be severe. Conditions have been deteriorating for some time due to violence, natural disaster, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Already, half the population—some 18.4 million Afghans—need aid. Almost 17 million people are experiencing serious food insecurity.
Relief workers will struggle to respond amidst rising instability. The Biden administration says diplomats and aid officials will help America stay engaged. But the U.S. embassy in Kabul is already evacuating staff in anticipation of greater insecurity, and Australia has just announced that it will close its embassy. In a positive step, the administration has promised an additional $300 million in civilian assistance – but this year’s United Nations humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan remains only 13 percent funded.
Under-resourced United Nations and non-governmental relief agencies will be left to staunch the bleeding. Their staff face tremendous risks in Afghanistan but can still reach most districts, including those under Taliban control. If their efforts are to succeed, donors must fund relief and recovery efforts wherever they are needed. They must also cut red tape to get the money to local aid groups who will remain on the frontlines long after U.S. troops are gone.
It is also likely that the humanitarian crisis will spill over into neighboring countries. The more than 2.5 million Afghan refugees worldwide remain one of the largest and longest-running displaced populations. Iran and Pakistan host the vast majority. Millions of Afghan refugees have returned home since 2001, including almost 860,000 last year as the pandemic ravaged communities and economies in their host countries. But those flows could soon be moving in the opposite direction. Over 100,000 civilians have been displaced internally already this year. If civil war comes, many will have no choice but to flee the country.
It’s possible Afghanistan will avoid a return to the chaos and brutality of the 1990s, but the memory of that time will drive many Afghans with means to leave home. If past is prologue, the withdrawal of Western troops will be followed by a reduction in the foreign aid upon which the government and economy are existentially dependent. A combination of brain-drain, economic implosion, and collapse of public services will drive many more into grinding poverty and across borders in search of a better future.
The bottom line is that the region is facing the prospect of another major displacement crisis. Donors will need to surge support to neighboring countries that host Afghan refugees. In return, donors should seek better treatment and conditions for refugees by regional host countries. Compact experiments like the one in Jordan build resilience by creating jobs and education for refugees and host communities alike. They offer an important model for the way forward.
European countries also have a responsibility to act. NATO is pulling out of Afghanistan in parallel to the U.S. withdrawal. As fighting spreads, Afghans will seek refuge in Europe, where they already make up the second-largest group of asylum seekers. Yet tens of thousands of Afghans have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan from Europe and Turkey in recent years, and the number granted protection in EU countries is rapidly decreasing. Europe will need to change course, suspend deportations, and open its doors to Afghan asylum seekers. A first step would be for European leaders to acknowledge what their troops already know: Afghanistan is not safe for return – not any part of it.
To really make a difference, the Biden administration should prepare to lead what could be a major international humanitarian and refugee response. Afghanistan’s other international partners will also need to step up. Biden should use his upcoming participation in the NATO and EU summits to mobilize European support. A good place to start would be pledges for this year’s UN humanitarian appeal for Afghanistan, which remains dangerously underfunded.
As Western countries head for the door this summer, the least they can do is help Afghans prepare for the coming storm. That effort should begin next week in Brussels and the United States should lead it.
PHOTO CAPTION: A man receives a sack of wheat donated by the government emergency committee during a government-imposed lockdown on the capital city as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Kabul on April 21, 2020. (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)