October 25, 2001

October 25, 2001 | Backgrounder on Democracy and Human Rights

The Best Humanitarian Aid for the Afghan People: Oust theTaliban 

Some humanitarian groups are criticizing America's military strikes on the Taliban for hindering the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. For example, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson and humanitarian aid organizations such as Oxfam International, Islamic Relief, and Christian Aid have issued a letter urging "a pause in the bombings to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid."1

Other groups claim that providing humanitarian assistance in conjunction with the U.S. war effort violates the spirit of humanitarian assistance and undermines the effectiveness of other aid efforts. Austen Davis of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), for example, has stated that,

while good intentions may suggest actions such as [U.S.] food drops, they may actually do more harm than good and restrict possibilities for future, more substantial and more meaningful, action on behalf of innocent and suffering people. It is our responsibility to demand that warring parties...avoid co-opting humanitarian actions for their own political and military aims.2

While such critics no doubt believe they have the best interests of the Afghan people in mind, undermining the U.S. war effort with such rhetoric will accomplish nothing for them. Even Doctors Without Borders points out that Afghans were suffering greatly before America began its war on Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaeda terrorist network, and its biggest supporter, the Taliban regime:

Over the past year [before the U.S. intervention], the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated sharply due to fighting and drought.... [Problems include] widespread malnutrition, outbreaks of scurvy, cholera, and measles, massive population displacement.3

Before September 11, in fact, Afghans comprised the world's largest refugee population, with an estimated 4 million refugees abroad and hundreds of thousands of displaced people within Afghanistan's borders.

Blame for this humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan lies squarely at the feet of the Taliban regime, not the United States--which prior to September 11 was the leading donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to the tune of $174 million a year, to which it added another $320 million on October 4.4 The Taliban, after decades of repressive economic policies under the former communist government and continuing conflicts that destroyed the Afghan economy, failed to implement policies to revive the economy once it took power. Worse, it implemented repressive policies that have further isolated the country.

Sadly, humanitarian aid alone cannot solve the crisis in Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan will continue to suffer unless the Taliban is removed from power and the postwar effort focuses on sound policies that will rebuild a fully functioning economy. Only then will the Afghan people be able to engage in activities that will help them lift themselves out of poverty.

Why Aid Alone Will Not Work
Afghanistan has been at war, in differing degrees, since the communist coup in April 1978. The combination of constant conflict and a lack of good government ruined the economy and infrastructure. Utilities were destroyed, leaving the country largely without power, water, and telephone service. Manufacturing and banking became nonexistent. The people became ever more desperate and impoverished.

Although reliable data are scarce, some basic indicators are available. Consider:

  • Communist policies implemented in the late 1970s and 1980s exacerbated the damage done by the continuing conflict in Afghanistan. These policies, which restricted land ownership, placed food and fuel imports under government control, and debased the currency (with triple-digit inflation), crippled the economy by removing economic incentives for entrepreneurs and investors. Professionals, such as doctors and engineers, fled the country.

  • Annual per-capita income in Afghanistan fell 65 percent in less than 10 years, from $200 in 1988 to $70 in 1997.5 Afghanistan, a country the size of Texas, had an estimated gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.55 billion in 1997--less than the total expenditures of the government of Harris County, Texas, in 1996.6

  • Exports other than opium fell more than 50 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.7 Poverty led many Afghans to grow opium, and the country has become the world's leading producer in recent years. Trade in drugs and arms encouraged corruption and lawlessness that continue to victimize Afghan farmers and merchants and to undermine stability in the region.

The Taliban, after claiming power in 1996, did not adopt an economic strategy to revive the economy. On the contrary, the regime increased its dependence on the criminalized economy that flourished in the lawlessness of the preceding two decades. The Taliban's reprehensible treatment of the Afghan people, especially of women and ethnic minorities, led to international condemnation, and the regime's support of terrorism led to economic sanctions by the United Nations, further aggravating the country's problems.8

Today, the Taliban often obstructs international aid efforts and harasses foreign relief organizations. According to a statement reported on the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Web site, the Afghanistan Support Group of 14 chiefly European donor-states as well as several large charity organizations found that

The regime's religious police, pretending to observe the rules of Islam, is creating intolerable conditions for the work of foreign humanitarian missions. There are increasingly numerous cases when foreign members of such missions and their Afghan employees were intimidated, arrested and even manhandled. "Due to this, the efforts of donors may prove abortive."9

The same statement also made clear that

The United Nations had previously warned against the negative consequences of Taleban's policy. If the Taleban continue to put up obstacles to UN representatives, the network of UN-sponsored bakeries, which supply bread to 100,000 residents of the Afghan capital, will be closed down....10

Most recently, Taliban soldiers disrupted the humanitarian aid effort by expropriating over half of the food designated for distribution to starving Afghans by the World Food Program.11 And there are disturbing news reports that the Taliban plan to poison U.S. food-drop packages and blame the United States.

The Taliban is the single greatest obstacle standing between the Afghan people and short-term humanitarian aid that could help alleviate the current crisis, as well as policies of economic and political freedom that are necessary for long-term economic recovery.

America's Two-Pronged Strategy
The Taliban, not the United States, is the primary culprit behind Afghanistan's humanitarian problems. As noted by the White House,

Before the September 11th attack, the amount of humanitarian assistance for the Afghan people had dramatically slowed due to...the Taliban. By destroying the Taliban's military capabilities, it is easier to deliver food and medical supplies directly to the Afghan people.12

That fact led the Bush Administration to develop a two-pronged strategy to set Afghanistan on a path toward future prosperity.

First , the Administration seeks to oust the Taliban, which is also harboring Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, as part of its war on terrorism. If it succeeds, there will be a need to make sure that the Taliban is replaced with a broad-based government that will adopt sound economic and political policies to create an environment conducive to economic growth. No amount of foreign assistance can replace the market's central role in spurring the country's economy. A functioning economy based on free markets, particularly agricultural products, must be erected if Afghanistan is to become a functioning state rather than a ward of the international community.

Second , the Administration seeks to minimize the suffering of the Afghan people during this process. Care must be taken to ensure that short-term assistance does not cause long-term problems. If continued indefinitely, food assistance would retard the development of the agricultural sector. Domestic farmers cannot compete with commodities that are subsidized or distributed free to the people. This undercutting of the market will discourage domestic farmers from productive efforts. Ideally, food assistance should be accompanied by seed and should cease once Afghan farmers begin harvesting so that the crop will have a market.

Conclusion
Some would have the United States stop the military action against the terrorist networks and their supporters in Afghanistan. But attacking the Taliban and simultaneously providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan addresses the two largest scourges faced by the Afghan people: imminent starvation and oppression.

Americans should not fool themselves into thinking that humanitarian assistance alone will lead the Taliban either to respect the people of Afghanistan or to allow the freedoms necessary for long-term recovery. In the long run, overthrowing the Taliban regime and replacing it with a government that respects economic and political freedom is the most important humanitarian aid that the United States, its allies, and the international community can provide for the Afghan people.

Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.


1. Amnesty International, "Afghanistan: Position on Humanitarian Aid Delivery," AI Index ASA11/021/2001, News Service Nr. 184, October 18, 2001, at http://web.amnesty.org/ai.nsf/Index/ASA110212001?OpenDocument .

2. "Q&A: Afghanistan's Humanitarian Crisis," Christian Science Monitor , October 11, 2001, at http://www.christiansciencemonitor.com/2001/1012/p25s2-wosc.html.

3. "A Dire Humanitarian Situation Worsens," Médecins Sans Frontières, Update, September 24, 2001, at http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/news/2001/afghanistan_09-2001.shtml.

4. The White House, "Humanitarian Action," at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/humanitarianactions.html.

5. 1988 GNP data from United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1991 , Table 2: Profile of Human Development, p. 123. 1997 GDP data from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, "Afghanistan," The 1998 Report on the Least Developed Countries , at http://www.unctad.org/en/subsites/ldcs/country/profiles/afghan.htm .

6. Afghanistan GDP data from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, "Afghanistan," The 1998 Report on the Least Developed Countries , at http://www.unctad.org/en/subsites/ldcs/country/profiles/afghan.htm . Harris Country expenditure data from U.S. Bureau of the Census, "County Governments--Expenditures and Debt for Largest Counties: 1996," State and Local Government Finances and Employment Table No. 523, Statistical Abstract of the United States , 2000, p. 329.

7. Economist Intelligence Unit, "Afghanistan," Country Report , August 2001, p. 28.

8. The Security Council has adopted many resolutions sanctioning the Taliban. The most recent, Security Council Resolution 1363 adopted on July 30, 2001, reaffirmed previous resolutions (Resolution 1333, adopted on December 19, 2000; Resolution 1267, adopted on October 15, 1999; Resolution 1214, adopted on December 8, 1998; Resolution 1193, adopted on August 28, 1998; and Resolution 1189, adopted on August 13, 1998) in establishing an air and arms embargo, restricting travel sanctions, and freezing the funds of Osama bin Laden and his associates. See United Nations Security Council, Security Council Resolutions Concerning the Situation in Afghanistan Pursuant to Resolution 1267, 1999, at http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/committees/Afghanistan/AfghanResEng.htm.

9. "Afghanistan Support Group Expresses Anxiety About Possible Obstacles to Aid," BBC Monitoring International Reports via NewsEdge Corporation (text of report in English by Russian news agency ITAR-TASS), June 9, 2001, at http://www.unhcr.ch/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/home.

10. Ibid .

11. Marc Kaufman, "Taliban Seizes Relief Food, Two Main U.N. Warehouses," The Washington Post , October 18, 2001, p. A23.

12. White House, "Humanitarian Action."

About the Author

Brett D. Schaefer Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom