Three years after the US exit, Afghanistan still needs our help

Afghanistan is an example of the political constraints under which migration operates today, and the widespread ramifications of migration crises.

May 18, 2024
Noor Scavotto, Rodney Knight
Afghan refugees deported from Pakistan in January. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images.

Afghan refugees deported from Pakistan in January. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in The Hill on May 18, 2024 and was republished with permission on on May 30, 2024.

Numerous other crises in the world are overshadowing the one in Afghanistan. Yet forgetting that country may turn out to be malpractice by policymakers.

As we approach World Refugee and Internally Displaced Persons Day (June 20), it is important to keep Afghanistan in mind as an example of the political constraints under which migration operates today, and the widespread ramifications of migration crises.

Migration is never just about migration. There are political, governance, economic and environmental consequences that can rarely be contained within borders. The effects can be regionally destabilizing.

As one policy recommendation for Afghanistan’s continuing crisis, we are proposing that the U.S. shift more of its aid to development rather than humanitarian assistance, through both bilateral and international agencies. For our purposes, development aid promotes economic development and welfare, whereas humanitarian aid provides material assistance used to relieve suffering during emergency situations. The difference may appear slight, but it is significant. By providing more resources for development aid rather than humanitarian assistance, the international community, led by the U.S., can help Afghanistan achieve longer-term stability, becoming less prone to shocks such as the extremist activities of the sort that led to 9/11, as well as natural disasters, such as earthquakes and drought.

This may be a difficult or unpopular view for Americans, who saw hundreds of billions of their dollars spent in Afghanistan over the course of 20 years, not to mention the enormous military and civilian casualties suffered. But that doesn’t mean Washington can ignore this geopolitical hotspot. There is some historical precedent for this: the U.S. took its eye off the Afghan ball in 1989, after it had achieved its Cold War aim of ousting the USSR from the country. Destabilization and turmoil ensued, with disastrous consequences a dozen years later.

Earthquakes happen frequently in Afghanistan, with 23 in the last 20 years, all of which registered as 4.6 magnitude or higher on the Richter scale. However, on Oct. 7, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck western Afghanistan, levelling homes and killing almost 2,500 individuals. The earthquake resulted in thousands of Afghans migrating from their damaged or destroyed homes to locations with better conditions.

Unlike other countries, where those affected by a natural disaster migrate both internally and internationally, most Afghans could only move internally, due to the extreme policies of the Afghan government and its neighbors regarding movement of the Afghan people to other countries.

In addition to with these limitations, Afghans face an international community that has placed severe constraints on assistance to Afghanistan. The U.S. provides humanitarian assistance through international organizations like the UN and non-profits, but it restricts the use of money for reconstruction and other development efforts.

Without sufficient resources for reconstruction, Afghans refugees are left in limbo living in locations away from their homes, with little hope of return. Prior to the earthquake, Afghanistan already had the second-largest internally displaced population in the world with over 6 million living in internal displacement at the end of 2022, due to conflict and natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. The earthquake highlights the extreme conditions and constraints Afghans face politically and economically.

Long-term displacement and poverty internal to Afghanistan is no recipe for peace and stability in that country or in the region. Making matters worse, the earthquake has affected a part of the country key to the Afghan economy. The epicenter, near the city of Herat, is known for its pistachio and opioid production and has historically drawn migrant Afghans rather than produce refugees. The earthquake changed this.

Necessities such as food, shelter, and medicine have become hard to obtain hard to obtain. Afghans are sleeping outdoors, including right outside of mosques, in order to ensure their survival through the night. Mosques, not the government, often serve as the key source of local support for those affected by the earthquake.

Resource scarcity now has thousands from the affected region walking hundreds of miles south to take advantage of the opioid economy and opportunities that are there. If they were to follow other natural disaster migration trends, these individuals, if they had sufficient resources and ability, would continue on to other nations.

Pakistan and nearby former Soviet bloc nations would be target destinations for many, largely due to their proximity as well as cultural and ethnic ties. But this will not be a viable migration route for most Afghans for two reasons. The first is the Taliban regime, which has recently called for an end of Afghan emigration as an unsustainable brain drain burdening the nation. The Taliban hope to establish their legitimacy as a government, but cannot do so if everyone with skills and knowledge leaves. At this time, the Taliban emigration policy states that “only Afghan citizens with valid legal documents can enter the airport” for immigration purposes.

The second obstacle is the Pakistani government, which has cracked down on immigration and expelled 330,000 Afghans since November. This is setting a potential precedent for neighboring nations that would, historically, take in Afghan refugees and migrants. By pushing so many Afghans back into Afghanistan, Pakistan deepens Afghanistan’s existing problems, thereby pressuring Afghanistan to deal with the issue that Pakistan has raised of Afghanistan being a staging area for terrorist attacks on Pakistan.

Consequently, Afghans are trapped in a country unable to adequately respond to this crisis and denied the option to migrate internationally to seek better circumstances. Development aid is one tool the U.S. could employ. It is proactive — in comparison to humanitarian aid’s reactivity — which allows for key issues to be addressed at their source, such as lack of stable infrastructure. Not only would it generate more jobs and stability for Afghans, but also create less urgency when humanitarian aid is needed.

Other actors are stepping in. AidData’s Global Chinese Development Finance Dataset reports that from 2000 to 2021, China has provided $587 million in assistance to Afghanistan for food aid and disaster relief. While this number pales in comparison to other funding China has provided to developing countries, it is concerning from a US strategic perspective, for Afghanistan has pledged to join the Belt and Road Initiative, which promises an exponential increase in Chinese financial flows to Afghanistan in the future.

If the U.S. and the rest of the international community want to help the people of Afghanistan and compete with Chinese ambitions, then investing in the country’s foundation is crucial. It would result in less need for humanitarian assistance in the long run, especially with the country’s high frequency of high-magnitude earthquakes. It would also make Afghanistan more stable and consequently less likely to serve as a breeding ground for extremist activities. If we fail to provide this form of aid, and do so quickly, we may be ignoring Afghanistan’s calls for help at our own peril.

Noor Scavotto, a senior at the College of William and Mary, is a senior research assistant on the Global Research Institute’s AidData team, where Rodney Knight is a senior research scientist.