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Afghanistan’s long war: the humanitarian consequences of drawdown

Written by Ashley Jackson


As world leaders prepare for the NATO summit in Chicago on 20–21 May, uppermost in their minds will be domestic political priorities and the logistics of withdrawing their troops from Afghanistan.

High on the summit’s agenda will be exit strategies and the buzz words ‘security transition’. Few are likely to be paying attention to the humanitarian consequences of troop withdrawal or addressing the human cost of their departure. 

Since the fall of the Taliban there have undoubtedly been enormous gains: girls going to school, the establishment of major roads and infrastructure and a remarkable expansion in access to basic healthcare.

But that progress is unravelling and the humanitarian situation is beginning to deteriorate. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that internal displacement has risen sharply over the past year and Amnesty International estimates that an average of 400 Afghans are forced to flee conflict or disasters each day. In 2011 polio rates tripled after years of steady decline.

Women in public life have been increasingly threatened or attacked. Over 100 schools in eastern Afghanistan’s Ghazni province alone have been shut down in recent weeks and in some Taliban-controlled areas ‘underground’ schools have re-emerged – the only way girls can be educated. Many educated Afghans, the brightest hopes for the future of the country, are considering their own exit strategies. 

Although the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) continues its efforts to bolster Afghan forces and gain some ground before leaving, it is hardly certain that Afghan forces will be able to hold those gains or deliver security. Just 6% of Afghan National Army battalions are currently able to operate independently, and even these have the assistance of international advisors. The US has already announced that military funding will substantially decrease in 2015, and the possibility that the Afghan security forces will fracture is very real. Accountability also remains a key concern, particularly with regard to human rights violations, but is being ignored as ISAF seeks to hand over responsibility and withdraw.

There is also the risk of political fragmentation. The next round of presidential elections scheduled for 2014 will be critical, yet this is a largely neglected aspect of ‘transition’. It is by no means clear who might replace President Hamid Karzai, and still less clear how to prevent a recurrence of the fraud and violence that marred the 2009 elections.

While politicians and diplomats meeting in Chicago will publicly plug ‘transition’ it is hard to see this as anything more than political cover for cutting and running. When the troops leave, will aid money and international attention follow? There is good reason to be worried: the World Bank estimates that 90% of Afghanistan’s aid budget, which comprises 71% of the country’s GDP, will disappear by 2018.

Bland, blanket public statements about a long-term commitment ring false when it is clear that international forces are going to leave. If they are to amount to anything tangible these proclamations must be backed by diplomatic action and genuine political will. 

Establishing a more stable Afghanistan and a brighter humanitarian outlook for its people is admittedly a political task – not a military one. However, a long-term diplomatic and developmental commitment from the international community is essential if the hard-won gains of the past decade are not to be surrendered. The last thing Afghans want is for the world to forget about them once again.