As we progress into 2023, it has become apparent that no one has a clear strategy for Afghanistan. Reticent international interest aside, even humanitarian agencies can’t agree whether the greater good is served by helping as many people as possible or leaving in protest at rights abuses.
The result of this confusion is very low-key engagement, in which a few governments pay a few international humanitarian agencies to provide humanitarian relief, and sustain a few essential services such as healthcare, while anything beyond that is kicked into the long grass for future deliberation. As someone who has long engaged with this country, it seems clear to me that this minimalist strategy will come back to bite us.
Minimal investment and indignation from the international community are understandable given the severity of restrictions imposed upon women, and human rights concerns more broadly. The trouble is that the current approach is designed to pressure a handful of leaders in Afghanistan and appease domestic audiences back home, rather than form a strategy for what might be best for Afghans themselves, and for the future.
In some ways, Afghanistan is not doing as badly as was predicted in August 2021. Its currency is stabilising. Taxes are being collected. Salaries of civil servants are being paid. Debts to neighbours are being paid off, which has restored some power supply. Corruption is being clamped down on. Security threats remain prevalent, but for the most part, the country is more peaceful than at any time in recent history. Due to diminished conflict, humanitarian access across the country has vastly improved.
However, beneath the surface of these indicators, the picture is grimmer. Women are largely confined to their homes. More than 28 million people – some 70% of the population – need humanitarian assistance: Some may already be borderline starving. Unemployment is extremely high. Past conflict and ongoing drought have ravaged rural livelihoods. Drug abuse is endemic. And, what is becoming most worrying of all, there is a deficit of hope, especially in the cities and amongst women.
Where might this deficit of hope take Afghanistan in the coming few years? The following is likely: Anyone with an education who can leave will leave. Already the brain drain of doctors and teachers is reducing the effectiveness of whatever healthcare and education remains available. Women will be ever more excluded, and more girls will grow up with only a smattering of schooling. Men will progress their careers based on their fighting history, loyalty, and networks – and this may favour some ethnic groups over others. Those men who are unable to demonstrate such a history or take advantage of networks will be unemployed, and there’s a risk that the need to support their families may drive many of them into crime, opium cultivation, depression, drug abuse, or into armed opposition. At some point, another state or movement will finance one of these armed groups, and violence and conflict will escalate, again.
“I am convinced that not investing in the future, and sticking to the minimalist, humanitarian-only approach that has emerged since August 2021, will hurt everyone in the long run, especially Afghans themselves.”
If this is where we are heading, is there anything that can be done from the outside to change Afghanistan’s course? There are no guarantees. Outsiders don’t have a good track record of success in the country. But there are some people-centred interventions – currently off the table in this minimalist approach – that might just help.
Investment in youth activities and in vocational training – including for the tens of thousands of former fighters, will equip them with skills for self-employment and may limit temptation to join extremist groups. Investment in disaster preparedness, considering the inevitable increase in extreme weather events, may help protect livelihoods and reduce disaster-induced destitution and displacement. Investment in diverse approaches to education and learning: including informal, online education for girls, may bring hope that they will not be locked out of future career opportunities. And investment in job creation and in livelihoods, including for women, will enhance self-reliance and dignity. There are plenty of humanitarian organisations, including the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, who bridge the humanitarian-development divide that can support such work, including investing in Afghan institutions who can take over the services in time.
Such interventions may not penetrate deep enough into rural and remote areas, and some of the best intentions may end up filtered and changed by the ruling authorities upon implementation. Sadly, that is the current working reality. But with commitment, these developmental efforts may still bring some desperately needed hope.
I have been involved in Afghanistan too long to believe that well laid plans will work seamlessly here. Anything tried will go off course one way or another. Still, some seeds may bear fruit. And I am convinced that not investing in the future, and sticking to the minimalist, humanitarian-only approach that has emerged since August 2021, will hurt everyone in the long run, especially Afghans themselves, including women, who above all don’t want the international community to give up on them. It’s time for a rethink.