The Way Forward in Afghanistan

For aid agencies and their partners, alleviating the suffering means taking a more neutral stance to the warring factions

As foreign troops continue to pull out of Afghanistan, international aid agencies should prepare for the worst—continuing conflict—and will find it difficult to be successful in addressing urgent humanitarian needs in the beleaguered nation unless they are perceived as more neutral to the Taliban and other armed opposition groups than they have been in the past, according to a report by Tufts researchers.

“Among aid workers and Afghans there is a deep sense of concern about the situation and how it’s going to evolve,” says Antonio Donini, a senior researcher at Tufts’ Feinstein International Center and co-author of the report Afghanistan: Humanitarianism in Uncertain Times.

Embroiled in war and civil strife for more than 30 years, Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking at or near the bottom of measures on health, food security and education, the report notes. For much of the past decade, humanitarian agencies have made some small gains, but those are now in jeopardy as the U.S. and other NATO forces withdraw troops and curtail relief funding.

Adding to the urgency of the situation is the agreement in January between Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan: They’re now scheduled to leave in 2014. Donini notes that during 1989–90, when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan after a protracted war, most analysts felt that if only the Afghans were left alone, they would sort out their problems. Instead, the country descended into a free-for-all, with warlords and the Taliban vying for control.

Donini and his colleagues recommend the NGOs and the UN plan for the worst: a deteriorating political situation and a continuing humanitarian crisis.

“In many ways, we have a similar situation today,” he says. “With the withdrawal of foreign troops, the central government will control the main cities and some of the main roads, but a lot of the country will revert to either warlord control or Taliban control.”

Donini and report co-author Norah Niland, a former U.N. official now based in Switzerland, traveled to Afghanistan last June to meet with government, aid agency and other nongovernmental organization (NGO) officials. Another co-author, Prisca Benelli, a Ph.D. student at the Fletcher School, worked on data collection and analysis to document the state of health care and education in Afghanistan.

Those data are not reassuring. The health statistics alone make for depressing reading. By one standard measure, almost one in three Afghan children is malnourished, especially in the southern part of the country, which has been most affected by the conflict. The under-five mortality rate—how many children die before reaching their fifth birthday—is the worst for all of Asia and rivals that of other strife-ridden countries, including Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Afghanistan also has the second highest maternal mortality rates in the world—it’s the only country in the world where men live longer than women, says Donini. Access to medical care is likewise extremely poor,  because of continuing conflict and insecurity, which affect the functioning and re-supply of rural health-care facilities.

Donini says he spoke to many aid agency workers and Afghans who were not optimistic about the country’s future, fearing that the conflict would intensify as foreign troops pull out. That being the case, Donini and his colleagues recommend the NGOs and the UN plan for the worst: a deteriorating political situation and a continuing humanitarian crisis. Only by acknowledging this outcome can they be prepared to help the Afghans, bringing more resources to the country, especially to rural areas that are now off-limits to many aid agencies.

Part of the problem is that most aid organizations have been allied so strongly with the central government and the coalition forces that it is difficult for them to work safely in most parts of the country. “It’s going to take time to restore the credibility of an aid system that is quite biased,” says Donini. All the Western donors except Switzerland are involved as parties to the conflict, and it’s unlikely that this would be ignored by the Taliban.

“But I think there is an opportunity for the aid system to mend its ways in terms of becoming more impartial and independent, if not neutral,” Donini says. He notes that the International Committee of the Red Cross understood long before many agencies that the victory over the Taliban in late 2001 and early 2002 wasn’t holding, and so took a more neutral stance toward the Islamic fundamental political movement. Now the Red Cross is one of the few agencies that can work outside of the main cities, which are controlled by the central government.

Because most other aid organizations are still so clearly allied with the central government and coalition forces, they have been unable to maintain strong contacts with the communities that they had been serving. Instead, they manage their relief programs remotely from Kabul, the capital. “I think this lack of proximity between the aid agencies and the communities where they want to work is the main area where progress has to be made,” Donini says.

“It’s absolutely urgent to find ways of working in areas that are contested, and the best way of doing this is trying to maintain an independence from the warring parties, to advocate on the basis of humanitarian principles to convince whoever is on the ground of what the intentions and the opportunities are,” he says.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at

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