The South Asia Channel

Don’t Turn Away From Afghanistan

It is easy to imagine why millions of Americans never want to hear the word Afghanistan again. The country harbored those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  Since then, the sacrifice in life and cost in money has been immense. And there has recently been more bad news than good – more violence, more attacks on ...

Author Photo/ IRC
Author Photo/ IRC

It is easy to imagine why millions of Americans never want to hear the word Afghanistan again. The country harbored those responsible for the 9/11 attacks.  Since then, the sacrifice in life and cost in money has been immense. And there has recently been more bad news than good – more violence, more attacks on aid workers, more questioning of the motives of foreign governments, more delay in signing a Security Agreement with the U.S. But the surest way for Afghanistan to be back in the headlines for the wrong reasons is to think that the drawdown of military forces this year should be the occasion to cut off the aid pipeline that feeds and supports the people.

2014 is a pivotal year for Afghanistan. The April 5 presidential elections should mark the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in the country’s history. International military forces, which have been in the country since 2001, are planning to withdraw by the end of the year, handing over all security to national forces. So it is make it or break it time for Afghans if they want to put thirty years of conflict behind them.

The country still has huge economic and social needs. Afghanistan’s economic growth is declining – tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Afghan jobs will be lost as a result of military withdrawal. Meanwhile the United States, by far Afghanistan’s biggest aid donor, reduced its assistance budget from $4 billion to $2 billion in the 2011 fiscal year. And Congress has cut the budget nearly in half again this year, to $1.1 billion.

There is a dangerous impression here – that western countries can wash their hands of Afghanistan. It is dangerous for millions of Afghans displaced and impoverished by war, and dangerous for the region, because poverty and instability in Afghanistan spread across South Asia.

The moment of military drawdown is the time to reinforce our civilian assistance. The United States. has been spending upwards of $10 billion a month on the military effort in Afghanistan – and lost over 2,300 lives in the process. A fraction of that, spent the right way, would be a wise investment in the Afghan people. The United States and other western countries owe it to ourselves as well as to the Afghans to help them through this time of transition.  The alternative is a vicious cycle in which poverty and conflict feed off each other.

According to the United Nations, five million Afghans need lifesaving support, such as food and emergency medical care. Yet, the 2014 U.N.-led humanitarian appeal to address these needs, totaling some $406 million, is only 22 percent funded. A further four million Afghans have chronic longer terms needs, including shelter from conflict and access to health care. In addition, 650,000 Afghans are displaced within the country and more than 2.4 million are living as refugees in neighboring countries, unable to return home. Afghans need assistance not only to survive, but to help them go home, rebuild their communities, and strengthen their ability to withstand any future natural disasters or conflict. 

Despite the challenges of the last decade, there have been some important improvements in Afghan people’s lives. Throughout periods of uncertainty and insecurity, Afghans have made gains in education, health, and livelihoods, to name a few. Organizations like the International Rescue Committee (IRC) have learned from over 25 years of working with Afghans that lifesaving humanitarian assistance is not enough; people need life building support at the community level so they can go home and rebuild their lives.

Our Afghan staff, whom we consulted for an IRC report published this week, believe that these gains can be built upon and that work at the community level can continue and grow, regardless of the outcome of the elections or the drawdown of international forces. Their number one concern remains security. However, as international security forces draw down, access for aid agencies in some areas of Afghanistan may actually increase, as local Afghan staff will find it easier to explain to communities that they are acting independently of any political or military agenda.


After decades of working in more than 4,000 Afghan communities, the IRC has learned how to be effective and responsive to the needs of Afghans, even in such a challenging, complex environment. The key is a community-led, long-term approach to building credibility, trust and local capacity. Programs need to be flexible enough to combine urgent, lifesaving assistance with longer-term development work. They need to work through informal structures, as well as local government, to meet local need.

So our call is not just for aid to continue; it is for aid to be delivered in ways that work. Local efforts led by local people — not imposed from the outside. Working alongside government where appropriate but with community leaders too to make communities safe for return by displaced people. Medium to long term solutions–not just quick fixes – are needed.

For just 0.025 per cent of the amount the U.S. military spent in Afghanistan over 12 years, the international community could provide the lifesaving assistance for 5 million people that the U.N. says they need. Beyond lifesaving assistance, the international community and the newly elected government need to focus on the realities facing the Afghan people. International aid that links humanitarian and development assistance is vital to that effort.

Afghans need the United States’ partnership to protect and build on the fragile gains we have made together. It would be a shocking and unacceptable waste of what has been achieved, and what it has cost, not to stand by the Afghan people now. 

David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and was British Foreign Secretary 2007-2010.

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