Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Catastrophe is the Security Threat

Just Security

January 3, 2022

As commentators have noted, these Security Council sanctions regimes — particularly those with counter-terrorism objectives, designating individuals, undertakings, and entities (including now fourteen members of the de facto government in Afghanistan) — have resulted in a complex reality of an arms embargo, travel ban and asset freeze on individuals who are now responsible for the governance of a country with millions of people in dire need. In practice, broad interpretations of activities barred by these sanctions, including engagement with individuals in de facto positions of power, function to prevent the delivery of critically needed humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, including through engagement with government ministries. The sanctions regime under resolution 1988 – driven by security objectives and historically grounded in counter-terrorism strategies — has been consistently linked to a slew of adverse effects on humanitarian actors and vulnerable populations caught up in the maelstrom of conflict. And now, caught in the crosshairs are the estimated 1 million children’s lives immediately threatened by famine and 22.8 million people  (more than half the country’s population) facing life-threatening food insecurity this winter. This number far exceeds the combined total of civilian casualties from armed attacks in Afghanistan over the last twenty years.On the one hand, this new chapter VII resolution is a welcome development because it provides a badly needed humanitarian exemption to the sanctions regime. However, a zero-risk approach to terrorism perpetuates the sanctions regime at a devastating humanitarian and human cost. What’s more, close observers well understand that the recent Security Council action is both too little too late, and that a short-lived humanitarian exemption in a country facing a long-term economic and humanitarian crisis (which was also worsening prior to the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover) is akin to shuffling deck-chairs on the titanic.  In fact, the desk chair shuffling has 12 months to run given that the resolution enables the humanitarian exemptions to last only one year. That severely hampers, among other things, long-term investment in humanitarian aid and the structures required to deliver it.
The human disaster is still impending, and nothing less than sustained, intense and direct humanitarian action will prevent it. Tragically, this resolution gives the appearance of doing much but much more is needed. The drawn-out diplomatic fight over narrow and time-bound humanitarian exemptions exposes a yawning deficit of principles — a despairing unwillingness or inability on the Security Council to respond fully to a humanitarian catastrophe at hand in part engineered by its own prior actions. There is obvious anguish for many actors in this space — including human rights advocates, women’s rights defenders, children’s protectors, and humanitarian actors — when it is clear that the words of solidarity, “continued support” and “respecting the human rights” of the Afghan people ring hollow given the scope of the actions taken. There are no real answers on women’s rights and girls’ education. There are no statements of interest or commitment beyond what security actors may define as “basic needs.” And, there is no clarity as to how long this limited political will shall remain to implement a robust use of the exemption.
The passage of this resolution was both a symbolic and practical opportunity as we now mark a 20-year anniversary, and a potential turning point  to fundamentally alter course on human rights “lite” counter-terrorism within the United Nations and among Member States. The resolution may be counted as an achievement in the current political realities of the Council. However, this is not an achievement for which we should settle. Instead, history is being repeated along a callous and singular path that fails to squarely interact with the humanity of populations most affected by conflict, insecurity, and violence.

And, what I also observe, including during my recent Special Rapporteur mission to Central Asia is the lack of a comprehensive plan of prevention to deconflict UN and national level sanctions regimes which is then paired with the international community’s unwillingness to radically alter the trajectory of the situation in country. The combination is daunting.

During that two-week visit to Central Asia, I repeatedly heard from local security actors and governments in the region, that it was precisely the current humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan that constitutes a security crisis in the making. They were clear-eyed that notwithstanding legitimate concerns about the Taliban as the de facto authorities, it was the crisis of food, hunger, water, shelter, health, and economic collapse that would determine the security future of the region.

I returned to New York to hear a great deal from the United Nations counter-terrorism architecture about the security threats of ISIS-K and the Taliban (which is well-understood), but little meaningful understanding that humanitarian catastrophe is a boon to violent extremism and terrorism and must be directly addressed. That elemental fact of humanitarian crisis is treated as if it exists in a universe apart from the conditions that produce and enable extreme violence. The gap between what security analysis sees as “the problem” and what those on the ground see and experience as “the problem” is intensely worrying. Because it tells us that little if anything has been learnt along the way these past 20 years. We should understand by now that small, time-limited gestures in favor of principled humanitarian capacity are inadequate and do not meet the scale of the problem. The rest of world, especially including the region which is now headed toward a humanitarian and security catastrophe, knows this. Regrettably, the Security Council and the UN counter-terrorism architecture in New York has yet to internalize such lessons and act accordingly.

Afghanistan: The Humanitarian Catastrophe is the Security Threat