Afghanistan and the Challenge of Humanitarian Action in Time of War

Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

June 1, 2002

In Afghanistan, unlike in most other humanitarian emergencies, the international community’s focus, in the wake of the events of 11 September, was on those at risk inside the country.

This was a welcome change, sharply contrasting with the international response in Kosovo or Rwanda where the lion’s share of international aid and attention went to those fleeing the country, while those left inside basically remained unaided and unprotected until the war was over.

Three major reasons accounted for this shift. To begin with, there was an enormous humanitarian crisis looming inside the country that could not be overlooked – up to 6 million people were at risk of starvation. Although the threat of famine predated 11 September, the departure of international humanitarian staff prior to the US bombing made the situation more urgent. Second, the massive refugee flows that had been predicted in response to the US bombing campaign did not materialise. With the sealing of the Pakistani and Iranian borders, and Taliban restrictions on departure, no more than 200,000 people were able to flee the country from 7 October until the end of the year. This closing of the refugee steam valve had the effect of shifting attention to the people inside. Third and most decisive, the US and its Western allies made humanitarian aid to those inside the country a substantial component of their military-political strategy, in an effort to demonstrate that the war on terrorism was not a war against Islam or against the people of Afghanistan.