Humanitarian Crisis in Afghanistan and Neighboring Countries

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

October 10, 2001

Roberta Cohen, Brookings Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Brookings-CUNY Graduate Center Project on Internal Displacement, answers your questions about the deterioration of an already tragic humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. What was the impact of the September 11 events on the humanitarian situation, in particular on the numbers and plight of persons displaced within Afghanistan (the internally displaced) and on refugees in neighboring countries? Should borders be opened to allow more people to escape or will this increase security concerns? How feasible are air drops and cross border operations to bring food and supplies to persons inside Afghanistan? How can the U.S. protect the civilian population while conducting military operations?

Question (Q): Regarding the thousands of Afghani refugees who have fled the country as well as Afghani people still inside Afghanistan: We hear of humanitarian food drops for these people. What kinds of food? Canned vegetables, fruits; powdered milk, what? How does this food reach so many who need it. What kinds of foods are ‘dropped’ or shipped in or ? How and by whom is it collected? If it is flour for instance, how is it made into an edible food and who prepares it ? We’ve seen film footage of truckloads of sacks of wheat or flour or such along the border crossings but then what happens with it to make it edible? Does the International Red Cross set up camps for preparing these foods ; what other organizations? Certainly there must be a well-organized chain of organizations and people, but who and how do they do it?

Barbara Hiserodt

Answer (A): The food contained in the food drops by the U.S. Government vary in each packet, but basically they contain prepared items, including rice, beans, barley, potatoes, peanut butter, jam, crackers. They are intentionally meatless to fit in with dietary restrictions. Unfortunately it is not known how these packets are reaching people on the ground. They are dropped at high altitudes and there is no one on the ground to coordinate the distribution. However, since the areas chosen have high malnutrition rates, it is assumed that those picking up the packets will benefit from them.

Bags of wheat flour, biscuits and other items brought in by international aid agencies by truck do have distribution points and local staff still on the ground to coordinate deliveries. As for Afghan women, they well know how to make food for their families from the supplies distributed.

Q: The U.S. has already given quite a bit of food and aid to Afghanistan and its refugees. Yet we are still seen as evil and our aid workers are imprisoned. How can our humanitarian message and intentions be made clearer to the Afghan people?

Berl Hartman

A: Within Afghanistan, our aid and the aid of international organizations is welcomed and there are millions of Afghans who have and who will benefit from these deliveries. The policies of the Taliban, it should be emphasized, by most accounts do not represent the sentiments of all or most Afghan people. Unfortunately, the Taliban have arrested the staff of one aid group on charges that they were proselytizing, something which is forbidden by the Taliban. However, many other international organizations and non-governmental groups were active on the ground prior to the current emergency helping large numbers of Afghan people with food, medicines and supplies, and most continue doing so from across the border. They also employ hundreds, if not thousands of local Afghan staff.

Extremist groups in Afghanistan and neighboring countries do have a lot of pent up resentments against the West, its affluence and some of its policies but that is a question that should be explored in depth beyond the time we have here.

Q: Reports indicate confirmed cases of an ebola-like plague along the Afghan/Pakistan border, given the number of fleeing Afghan refugees in the area how will/should this be dealt with?

A: In Quetta, Pakistan, since June, there have been 40 suspected cases and 11 deaths from Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever. Should there be a refugee influx, the fear exists that this could turn into an epidemic. It is quite important, therefore, for the international community to make sure that medical supplies and medical staff are available in adequate numbers to address this and other serious health problems in refugee-receiving areas.

Q: One of the lessons we learned in Viet Nam is we cannot fight current wars with strategies meant for past wars. We did not understand the geography and attitudes of the Vietnamese people as we fought an opponent skilled in local guerilla tactics with conventional means that were inappropriate for achieving our military and political goals. Does this lesson now apply to Operating Enduring Freedom?

Do we understand what it takes to effectively end the formation of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan? The Soviet Union learned it did not. Are the caves and hiding places in the Afghan terrain so treacherous that we may be underestimating the difficulty of finding and fighting terrorist groups? Are we able to invade a country and successfully demonstrate, through humanitarian assistance and spreading of our views through pamphlets and radio broadcasts, that our fight is not with the Afghan people? What can we do to prevent the formation of future generations of terrorists?

In sum, have we failed to understand the Afghan people? If so, what mistakes are we making, and what should we do to correct these mistakes?

Leon Czikowsky

A: Clearly it is in U.S. interests to overturn the Taliban and to destroy the al Qaeda terrorist networks. Whether our military strategy in Afghanistan will work effectively is too early to tell. Avoiding bombing civilian centers and ensuring that food gets to starving people should help the Afghan people and also help the U.S. win support. Making sure that the Northern Alliance whom we are counting on to defeat the Taliban observes certain humanitarian and human rights standards is still another way to mobilize support. Overall, and in the long term, the U.S. will have to reach out to a broad range of Afghans in order to stabilize and rebuild the country. You are right that this is an enormous challenge.

Q: Dear Ms. Cohen,

While a great deal of concern and attention is at the moment focused, rightfully so, on the bombing campaign and its effect on civilians in Afghanistan, it should not be forgotten that over the past decade, the international community has paid little heed to pleas from ordinary Afghans to address horrendous abuses by the Taliban — and by other forces in Afghanistan who while less repressive toward women have committed serious violations, as pointed out by Human Rights Watch and others. Whether we are left with the Taliban regime or the Northern Alliance (which is not necessarily a cohesive alliance at all), serious human rights problems will remain given the number of different ethnic groups in the region and tensions between them. To date, irrespective of the tremendous humanitarian effort the U.N. has conducted over a long period in Afghanistan, the UN leadership in NY and Geneva has not supported efforts to set up realistic, effective human rights mechanisms for the region for frontline communities, IDPs, refugees in Pakistan, returnees, and ethnic minorities. What might the UN do to bolster its protection/human rights presence and influence in the region? Recognizing we do not yet know the outcome, most would agree that a new, interim government in Afghanistan would be ideal, but such a government would need to formally commit to respect for human rights and to permit an adequate international presence to ensure compliance. It is my view that in the interim, we have to work with the best option we have — the possibility that the Northern Alliance, together with a Loya Jirga, can begin to address nation-building issues. Yes, I know this is premature, but that does appear to be the best case scenario at the moment.

The Northern Alliance should be pressed now to sign a formal agreement with the UN Security Council committing to respect for international humanitarian law in the conduct of the coming battles and that the ICRC be fully consulted as the experts on the drafting of such a document. (Of course, the ICRC is working constantly on all sides to encourage the parties to observe humanitarian law). There should be specifics in this document, including a commitment not to recruit/utilize child soldiers, to respect the homes and property of civilians, to order troops to not commit summary executions of Taliban prisoners and to permit immediate access to those prisoners by the ICRC, to permit full and unrestricted access to humanitarian and human rights groups and observers, etc. The issue of accountability should also be stressed. The possibility of American troops on the ground underscores the importance of these troops receiving more than the brief training on humanitarian law they generally receive. What is your view regarding these issues?

Should the Northern Alliance take sufficient territory, what are the chances of support forces coming in to stabilize gains and to ensure respect for humanitarian law in those areas? What about the idea of using KDOM type observers, increasing the number of UNHCR protection officers, ensuring coordination on protection between military and civilian actors through the creation of protection focal points and liason units? What about the idea of creating a type of safe zone in the north, which could be expanded with the support of the international community? Obviously, given the mistakes of the past (Srebrenica, Operation Turquoise, etc) there would have to be strict guidelines. Promises should not be made that cannot be kept. Promises of no military operations being conducted from certain areas, defense issues, disarmament of those entering safe areas etc. would all have to be detailed.

Should some degree of stability be created in the north, what kind of assistance relating to the development of legal structures might be needed?

Should the Taliban retain control, the emphasis on human rights and impunity will be more difficult but must not be neglected, as it has been for so long by major UN agencies despite the lone voices in the wilderness — those on the ground. A comprehensive plan must be developed and put into place at once. Strict enforcement of the arms embargo and other measures are only a part of the scenario. There must be consistent monitoring, reporting, and action taken to address violations, and the Taliban should be placed on notice regarding war crimes. What suggestions do you have for this scenario?

The real question is, I suppose, how certain can we be of a continuing international commitment to the people of Afghanistan? The terror visited on the United States represents a fraction of what the people of Afghanistan have endured and are enduring now. I do not mean to sound callous to our losses, but they pale in comparison.

Should the U.S. or other forces capture Bin Laden alive, there is going to be another dilemma. Given that the US has the death penalty, a trial with the death penalty as the result of a finding of guilt will split the US from other countries and risk alienating many of our new-found allies, particularly if the trial is not completely open on the grounds of state security. I am sorry to say (being an opponent of the death penalty) that most Americans will clamour for it. And yet, I am not sure what this result would bring and am convinced that because of this problem it is unlikely we will see him brought in alive. Yet, there are others besides Bin Laden who should be brought to justice, including members of both the Taliban regime and certain commanders of other forces, for violations of humanitarian law and other crimes in Afghanistan. Would it not be best to have an independent Tribunal to address these crimes? Otherwise, we run the risk of making Bin Laden a martyr and we cast doubt on the American system of justice. Bring him in alive if at all possible, and let him be tried in a world-recognized independent court for his actions with the evidence there for all to see. I fear, however, that those who say he will be killed immediately if captured alive are correct — this, by the way, would constitute a violation of international law — unless he were indeed killed in battle. And Americans doubt the veracity of any accounts of his death, imagine what others will think.

Lastly, the U.S. has waged war on terrorism but are, as many of us expected, devastating once again areas of Afghanistan that have never recovered from the years of attacks they have already experienced. Can we count on the long-term involvement of the U.S., Great Britain and others to help rebuild and sustain the Afghan people, who may, in the best case scenario, have a chance to create a new country? As in Bosnia and Kosovo, this will not be a short term proposition, and yet given our history in creating some of the problems of the region, is there no obligation on our part to stay engaged for the long haul?

Thank you,
Diane Paul

A: I would agree with you that human rights protection will have to be a strong part of any new government set up in Afghanistan. That will involve local capacity building as well as international presence to ensure an accountable system of justice, rights for women, and overall respect for civil, political, economic and social rights. It is not too early to begin to plan for the best strategies for ensuring that a sustainable human rights system is set in motion. The UN human rights office, non-governmental organizations, and representatives of local Afghan groups should be consulting right now on the development of such a system.

Q: Dear Ms. Cohen,

In many complex emergency situations most of the humanitarian and human rights attention focuses on refugees rather than internally displaced persons. Does the current case in Afghanistan seem to be following this pattern?

Secondly, how might a post U.S.-Afghanistan conflict relief strategy for IDPs differ from or be similar to the long-term IDP relief strategy employed in the Sudan?

Eric Robinson
Ethiopian Community Development Council

A: In most emergencies, attention has gone, as you say, to one side of the border, that is to helping refugees. In this emergency, the U.S. and the UN have emphasized that it is a priority to assist people at risk inside Afghanistan. There are three basic reasons for this: 1) there is a humanitarian crisis within Afghanistan with up to 7.5 million people at risk of starvation; 2) the U.S. and its allies want to make clear that their military campaign is not against the Afghan people or the Islamic world and to that end has made humanitarian assistance to people inside a component of their military-political strategy; and 3) neighboring states have closed borders and are reluctant to take in more refugees. The result has been a strong focus on the humanitarian situation within Afghanistan.

A complete rehabilitation and reconstruction plan will be needed in Afghanistan once the war is over involving the entire population, including returning IDPs and refugees. This is different from the Sudan for many reasons, one being that the international community will be called upon here to reconstruct the country.

Q: Dear Mrs Cohen,

The acts of terror that occurred in USA are deplorable. But I would like to know your views on the effects that a ‘war against terrorism’ will have on civilians in Afghanistan & Pakistan. The hundreds of $millions that will be spent on this war could well have been used on humanitarian relief & assistance — had the USA not made such demands as unconditional handover of Osama bin Laden & rejecting the Taliban’s offer of negotiations and maybe a trial under Islamic law elsewhere … & if the Taliban had thought about their people and asked bin Laden to leave for the sake of the people this war & humanitarian catastrophe may not have occurred.

Additionally, I wonder if your of the view that these ‘humanitarian airdrops’ are significant, or, as most relief organisations say, they are just a token (I might add political) gesture which can not solve the problem.

Your thoughts?
W Javed, London

A: Given the brutality of the attack on the United States, it seems to me justified in defending itself through a war against terrorism. Many governments agree with the U.S. on this point. In the long term, U.S. action may save many more lives if it can end terrorist attacks around the world and help the people of Afghanistan to build a society that no longer requires large doses of humanitarian aid.

As for the air drops, they certainly are not the answer to staving off starvation, but given the difficulties of cross border deliveries of food and of the onset of winter, they certainly can be of some help to some people in need.

Q: Two related questions:

1) The U.S. Administration has said that this is not a war against the Afghan people and, as a gesture in this regard, has been dropping aid intended for them. Leaving aside from the issues surrounding the modalities of this method of aid distribution, a more fundamental problem is that aid simply is not enough: protecting the physical security of populations is absolutely vital, including for the efficacy of any assistance operation. Otherwise, as international involvement in humanitarian crises has made clear time and again, the humanitarian endeavour risks simply producing “well-fed dead” — a nuance that surely will be lost on the Afghan people. To what extent does “Operation Enduring Freedom” take into account the importance of protecting the safety and freedom of the Afghan people?

2) The establishment of safety zones or safe havens is a measure provided for under international humanitarian law (the laws of war) that appears extremely relevant to addressing the pressing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Such zones could provide safe refuge within Afghanistan to civilians who are unable to flee the country due to border closures and other obstacles and they could serve as centres for the delivery (air-dropped or otherwise) and equitable distribution of food supplies, ensuring that relief gets to those who need it. Many of the same countries participating in the military action in Afghanistan previously have supported this measure, for instance in Iraq and in Bosnia. Is there any possibility of it being repeated in Afghanistan and, if so, what safeguards need to be introduced to guard against the weaknesses of implementing this measure in the past, for instance in Srebrenica?

Erin Mooney
Mount Albert, Ontario, Canada

A: Protection of physical security is a critical issue. On the positive side, Operation Enduring Freedom has been extremely careful to avoid bombing civilians populations — which is an important form of protection in the middle of a war. Indeed, there seems to be some confidence on the part of the population that they will not be hit unless there is a military mistake. Another form of protection that has not been supported, however, is pressing for open borders so that Afghans at risk could more easily flee the country. Although there are legitimate security concerns, the UN is right to keep pressing neighboring governments to open their borders. A third way to enhance protection would involve close scrutiny by the U.S. of the Northern Alliance. In the past, the NA troops have committed many human rights abuses against civilian populations. As the NA expands its area of control, Operation Enduring Freedom should make sure there is adherence to international humanitarian and human rights standards, lest it lose the support of the population it wishes to win over.

As concerns safety zones, given the closed borders and the fact that not all Afghans can flee, safety zones within Afghanistan become important. Indeed this is an issue that the U.S. and its allies should address urgently. There are parts of Afghanistan that are outside of conflict zones – in particular in the northeast and west close to Iran – that already provide some safety. Indeed camps are being planned in the west of Afghanistan by UNHCR and the government in Iran to protect and assist civilians at risk. It will be incumbent on the US and its allies to ensure that protection is provided in any safe areas created in territory seized by the NA. This would have to involve U.S. and allied ground forces, as well, to be effective.

Q: Dr. Cohen,

The Bush Administration, following the advice of National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, remains opposed in principle to what they call “nation building.”

A women’s rights group called RAWA (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan) ( has been active for decades trying to forward the development of civil society both in Afghanistan and in the refugee camps in Pakistan, with schools and health programs, as well as advocating a secular and democratic government. Aren’t these indigenous organizations exactly the sort that U.S. foreign policy should support?

Would you agree that opposition to nation building implies an ethically questionable neutrality and isolationism?

Daniel Consolatore
Baltimore, MD

A: Although the Bush Administration came into office indicating that it would not get involved in nation building, it evidently is going to have to get involved in very big way in doing just that in Afghanistan. To this end, you are quite right that the U.S. and the international community will have to support the strengthening of civil society and help lay the foundations for sustainable political, social and economic structures. Until the current emergency, the international community was reluctant to support any kind of development or sustainable programs in Afghanistan because of the Taliban regime. Now, it will have to, as a matter of priority develop a serious plan for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the country. For the U.S., it will be a matter of its national interest.

Q: Dear Ms Cohen

I have two questions:

Once the military actions and reactions have finally run their course, what policy and infrastuctures — both for the Afghan government and the international community — will be needed to rapidly and effectively deal with the displacement crisis?

Displacement caused by military action is a tragic phenomenon of human history: what lessons have we learned on how to minimize the suffering of the population during and after the violence?

Thank you.
Claudia Seymour
SAIS Refugee Policy Forum

A: The returns of millions of refugees (there are 4 million Afghans outside the country) and of more than one million internally displaced persons will have to be organized. This will need to be part of a larger reconstruction and rehabilitation plan. From past experience, it is important that strategies go beyond providing emergency aid and rebuilding infrastructure to trying to address root causes of conflict. Ethnic divisions will need to be addressed, and political, social and economic foundations laid with human rights protections and the rule of law integrated into these systems. One caveat, however, is that donors have limited attention span and generally do not want to say involved more than 5 years; there are also financial constraints. It is therefore important that local capacities be strengthened so that national responsibility can be built and dependency ended.

Q: Doctors Without Borders is very critical about the linkage between the dropping of food to Afghan population, most of which is IDPs, and the dropping of bombs.

How do you see the possibility to help refugees and IDPs without being assimilated to the current military campaign, and thus contribute to blur the limits between state action and non state humanitarian aid?

Arnault Serra-Horguelin

A: Humanitarian organizations like to make sharp delineations between humanitarian action — which is supposed to be neutral, impartial and non-political — and political and military action, but these delineations do not always bear out on the ground, especially in war situations. In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies find that humanitarian interests coincide with their political and military goals. Therefore, they are providing humanitarian assistance in an effort to make clear that their war is not against the people of Afghanistan. Should they really be criticized for this?

Furthermore, aid organizations sometimes believe that if the U.S. sticks to military operations only and the aid organizations to aid, then the latter will not be identified with military goals and will be able to deliver humanitarian aid more easily. But this may be slightly delusional. In a war, aid can quickly be seen as helping one side or another, it is not always seen as neutral.

What is needed is a closer understanding and cooperation between the aid organizations and the military so that the humanitarian consequences of military strategy can be anticipated and better dealt with.

Q: We are a very generous people. The problem of food for the refugees is so enormous. Will the food drops over Afghanistan have any effect other than make us feel good?

A: The food drops will not stave off starvation in the country. They have to be part of a larger food security strategy but, in some small way, they may prove helpful to the people who secure these packets.

Q: Dear Ms. Cohen,

Given that the Northern Alliance has become our de facto ally in this conflict, do you know if they are currently being provided with arms or military advisors by the US or other governments? As well, has there been any discussion about deploying a human rights monitoring team to the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance?

Phil Orchard

A: The Northern Alliance in the past has committed serious violations of human rights, for which they have not been held accountable, in particular bombing and artillery attacks against civilians populations, indiscriminate use of land mines, reprisal killings, summary executions and rapes. In substantial measure, they helped destroy Kabul, the capital of the country. I would, therefore, agree with you that it is very important to have outside military observers monitor their conduct so that it conforms with international human rights and humanitarian standards. The NA is receiving arms from outside and is cooperating with the US and its allies, which should, therefore, make sure that the NA does not alienate the very population whose support the US and its allies are seeking.

Q: Charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Oxfam and Christian Aid have criticised the “bombs and bread” strategy because they argue that it will make aid seem like a weapon, and fatally compromise the independence and credibility of aid organisations.

Furthermore food dropped in the dark from several thousand feet is quite likely to fall on an empty mountainside far from where the people who need it actually are. Afghanistan is so rugged and roadless that even if its hungry citizens knew exactly where the food parcels had landed, the long walk to pick them up could burn up more calories than the parcels contain.

Could you comment on that, and on the antagonism between military action undertaken by states and non-state humanitarian aid?

Thank you,
Arnault Serra-Horguelin

A: My response to this question has largely been covered in earlier answers. I would only say here that there has not yet been any accurate reporting on how the food packets dropped over Afghanistan have been received. The US has said that its criteria for site selection has been need (widespread malnutrition in the area), the wind, and areas in which the Taliban is not active. We can only hope that they do some good for hungry people.

We’re out of time. Thanks for your excellent questions, and thanks to Roberta Cohen for taking the time to provide some insightful answers. Look for more chats with Brookings scholars in the coming weeks.