Opinion by Taylor Smith
President Biden has promised that funding for Afghanistan will continue, but after what we’ve experienced with the U.S. departure in August, we can’t take such promises at face value. Biden’s vow to evacuate all Americans and allies devolved into a promise of all Americans who wished to leave to about 100 to 200 Americans left behind in about a week. Most vulnerable Afghans were left behind, particularly women, as they were unable to battle the crowds around the Kabul airport, despite promises that they were a priority. The promises of aid continuity while the State Department is simultaneously pausing programs in Afghanistan is a stark warning that the United States might renege.
The news of projects being paused and aid being frozen comes at a time when Afghanistan needs humanitarian assistance more than ever. More than 3.5 million people are internally displaced, and an estimated half of the population is dependent on humanitarian assistance. From a human rights perspective, Afghanistan’s acting Taliban government shows cause for worry as its cabinet is made up of only Taliban members and there have been reports in recent months of executions of political foes and minorities.
My organization, Free to Run, which works to develop female leaders in areas of conflict through sports and education, has been a recipient of U.S. funding for the past four years in Afghanistan and was on the cusp of signing another agreement for the next three when the pause on projects came into effect. We’ve worked in Afghanistan since 2014 and have built female, youth-led participatory programming with strong community support across five different provinces.
Stopping the flow of funding abruptly to organizations critical to humanitarian and human rights needs in the middle of such a crisis will only lead to more devastation for a country that has already seen too much destruction. And the truth behind the decision to freeze aid isn’t so much about security, but rather concerns over legitimizing the Taliban’s rule. While valid, such concerns should never block aid to people on the ground. And NGOs are still well-positioned to deliver across the country.
NGOs are also some of the biggest employers and a source of empowerment for developing leaders in Afghanistan. Some organizations have upwards of 1,500 local Afghan staff members across various sectors. Economically, it would be disastrous for thousands of Afghans, particularly women who are highly employed in the NGO sector, if these organizations were to lose their funding.
Organizations such as Free to Run, with a proven track record of success in promoting women’s rights and female leadership, should not permanently lose support over security or concerns of Taliban scrutiny. Closing our projects would force us all to close our doors in Afghanistan, making the fears of women forced to leave their jobs, girls’ school closures and movement restrictions a fait accompli. As a country that paid for girls’ education and development, the United States would effectively destroy their futures before the Taliban government even tries.
The Taliban has asked NGOs to continue working; we must hold them to that. But the reality is that we simply cannot operate if government donors pull back their support. The women in Afghanistan have demonstrated in recent weeks that they are not giving up their rights, by openly protesting in cities such as Herat and Kabul. These women have bravely faced guns brandished in their faces, shots fired to disperse them, and beatings to stand up for their rights. If they are not giving up, neither should we.
No doubt, it will take organizations time to restructure and reorient to the new government. This will mean new strategies of engagement and different tactics on the ground where we operate, but it is doable. Afghanistan fatigue and frustration are understandable, as is caution over funding with a Taliban government in control. But canceling agreements or ending direct funding to organizations that have been instrumental to progress, particularly for women and girls, is not acceptable.
Just as the world’s leaders say they are watching the Taliban and will judge the group by its actions, we must watch our government’s actions on this. To quote the State Department, “the world is watching closely,” and so are we.