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How to Avoid Humanitarian Catastrophe in Afghanistan

The Biden administration should maximize diplomacy and prioritize support for front-line organizations.

By , the chief executive officer of Mercy Corps.
Children sleep in a makeshift camp.
Children sleep on the ground of a makeshift camp at Shahr-e-Naw park in Kabul on Aug. 14. MARCUS YAM/LOS ANGELES TIMES

Leaving Afghanistan

Five years ago, Ahmad Mohammad completed a skills training program that enabled him to start his own business and begin planning his own picture of success: a happy family. Mohammad, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is just one of more than 2.5 million Afghans that Mercy Corps—the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organization I lead—has supported since it began operating in Afghanistan in 1986. He and his compatriots now face a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Afghanistan’s current predicament is as perilous as at any time in the past four decades. Half of all Afghans are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Some 390,000 people have been forced from their homes since January, bringing the total number of displaced Afghans to nearly 3.8 million. The price of some staple foods has spiked as much as 30 percent due to conflict, drought, and the coronavirus pandemic. Afghanistan’s youth, who make up the majority of the population, have made enormous educational strides against the backdrop of a 20-year war. But like Mohammad, their future is now uncertain as the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan grows more dire.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s latest assurances of continued assistance—speaking out for the rights of women and girls and deploying diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian aid—are urgently needed. But how should the U.S. government prioritize these humanitarian efforts?

Five years ago, Ahmad Mohammad completed a skills training program that enabled him to start his own business and begin planning his own picture of success: a happy family. Mohammad, whose name has been changed to protect his identity, is just one of more than 2.5 million Afghans that Mercy Corps—the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organization I lead—has supported since it began operating in Afghanistan in 1986. He and his compatriots now face a potential humanitarian catastrophe.

Afghanistan’s current predicament is as perilous as at any time in the past four decades. Half of all Afghans are now in need of humanitarian assistance. Some 390,000 people have been forced from their homes since January, bringing the total number of displaced Afghans to nearly 3.8 million. The price of some staple foods has spiked as much as 30 percent due to conflict, drought, and the coronavirus pandemic. Afghanistan’s youth, who make up the majority of the population, have made enormous educational strides against the backdrop of a 20-year war. But like Mohammad, their future is now uncertain as the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan grows more dire.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s latest assurances of continued assistance—speaking out for the rights of women and girls and deploying diplomatic, economic, and humanitarian aid—are urgently needed. But how should the U.S. government prioritize these humanitarian efforts?

First, the Biden administration should maximize its diplomatic efforts, working with multilateral and bilateral partners to seek guarantees from the Taliban that they will adhere to international humanitarian law. The Taliban’s press conference this week shows they are concerned about their international image, presenting a window of opportunity for the international community to redouble its efforts for the protection of Afghan civilians. The number of civilians killed or wounded in Afghanistan has risen by 47 percent this year, its highest level since 2009. Women and children constitute 80 percent of the roughly 250,000 Afghans displaced since May; these civilians must be protected while on the move. Furthermore, hospitals and schools must not be targeted to continue functioning.

Next, the U.S. government and its allies must expand and robustly fund humanitarian assistance to meet growing needs. This assistance should prioritize support to front-line nongovernmental organizations with strong community links and a deep understanding of the local context. International donors, including the U.S. government, should allow flexibility for their partners on the ground to continue delivering programs, even as the political situation remains tenuous. The most urgent needs now are medical care for the sick and injured as well as shelter, food, clean water, and sanitation for the displaced, including dignity kits, which provide women and girls with essentials for proper hygiene.

Finally, the U.S. government and its allies must also unequivocally support and enable United Nations agencies and international NGOs to remain in Afghanistan to deliver assistance. Politicizing humanitarian access and assistance would jeopardize life-saving programs. To effectively serve the Afghan people, international aid agencies—including local and female staff—need the support and protection to move freely across the country. These humanitarian actors must be able to safely access communities in both urban and rural areas, operating based on core principles of humanity, independence, and impartiality.

The military withdrawal from Afghanistan will require introspection, but the United States and the broader international community must not abandon the Afghan people, who need support now more than ever. Meeting humanitarian needs is a strategic and moral imperative. In his first major speech earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “at our best, the United States is a country with integrity and a heart.” Through leadership, commitment, and generosity, the Biden administration must now prove that remains the case.

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna is the chief executive officer of Mercy Corps, which operates in more than 40 countries around the world. Twitter: @Tjada

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