PrintPrint CiteCite
Style: MLAAPAChicago Close


Humanitarian Action in the Midst of Conflict: The Case of Afghanistan

Author: Arthur C. Helton
December 11, 2001
Council on Foreign Relations


Columbia University Peace Seminar

December 11, 2001

Speaker: Arthur C. Helton, Director of Peace & Conflict Studies, Senior Fellow for Refugee Studies & Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations


Prakash, Sinha, Acting Chair, spoke briefly about Professor Oscar Schachter's surgery, his speedy recovered and assured everyone he was doing well. He also mentioned Oliver Ulich's from the humanitarian region - last month's speaker. Then, he formally opened the meeting by introducing Arthur Helton, Council on Foreign Relations, Director of Peace and Conflict Studies. Mr. Helton also teaches a course on refugee law and policy at Columbia Law School.


I am a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations now where I've been for two years. Prior to that, for five years, I ran a project at the Soros Foundation, focusing on former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. For twelve years prior to that, I was at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, where I founded the Refugee Project at that time.

I was talking earlier today with the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, who has asked me to write an article on a thesis that I developed in a book that I have just finished, and which will be published in 2002 by the Council and Oxford University Press, The Price of Indifference: Refugees and Humanitarian Action in the New Century. There, I talk about the need for new policy and the need for new ways to organize policy. In a Foreign Affairs article, I explain how this could be done in the context of Afghanistan so I want to use this opportunity to begin talking about the points that I have in mind. Perhaps, you can then challenge me on it, as I make the case. Let me start with just a few moments on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. There is a lot of reporting on Afghanistan, but it's also quite interesting to realize how much we don't know about what's going on. I suppose if we were ourselves to think back to September 10, it would be with a sense of nostalgia in terms of what then happened on September 11. We were then awakened from an era of self-indulgence and comfort. But if we were thinking about September 10 in Afghanistan, we would have been in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. On that day, there were three and a half million refugees in nearby countries, namely Pakistan and Iran. The numbers vary anywhere from 500,000 to nearly a million people who had been internally displaced. Even though the Taliban then controlled ninety percent of the country, there was still fighting in the North. There were around six million people who were depending upon food from external sources to meet their requirements with winter beginning to loom on the horizon. This was a long festering situation. Those who have followed Afghanistan for many years, saw it, of course, earlier as a venue for a proxy conflict between the Soviet Union then and the United States, in which substantial support was given to the Mujahedin primarily based in Pakistan.

There was a refugee dimension from the outset in Afghanistan. It's not surprising to realize how driving an imperative that will be in the future. But, of course, what happened on September 11, followed by the air campaign, clearly complicated and aggravated the already serious humanitarian crisis. New kinds of ordinance were dropped - particularly cluster bombs - new kinds of mine awareness and clearing problems were occasioned. In the face of bombing, people fled from the cities and became internally displaced. There was quite a bit of damage to cities in connection with bombing. So there will be new reconstruction and recovery problems associated with ruined cities as people wish to return. You had, in addition, the disruption of the humanitarian system, which was slowly eroding anyway as donor governments were losing interest, international organizations had smaller and smaller budgets. In part, it was what people called “donor fatigue” or just being low on the priority for humanitarian action. In part, it was because the Taliban had imposed a number of requirements on humanitarian organizations making it increasingly difficult for them to function. This slowly eroding international response was seriously disrupted because all of the non-Afghan aid workers who were employed by UN organizations or by aid groups were withdrawn. This cut off local staff, primarily men, because the Taliban had refused to deal with women as local staff. Reportedly, international aid workers were often quite heroically trying to continue their activities, but the mechanisms to provide food aid were increasingly disrupted. This leaves us in a difficult situation with the Taliban destroyed, and a fragile political arrangement. We have an interim governance arrangement for six months, with phases thereafter for two years, and even a notion of elections at some point and time. The question then is how to revive the country and what would constitute a time line or a strategy for humanitarian action forward?

Next we should think about current institutional arrangements, and what they could or would be, for either formulating humanitarian policy or implementing it in this setting. At the international level, there are many different sets of actors. In the multilateral context – we have a group of agencies that are involved with humanitarian relief, such as the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, World Food Programme, UNICEF - programs that deal with immediate needs: food, shelter, and the basics of life. In addition to the UN system, we have other kinds of multilateral actors, such as the International Organization for Migration, which is active particularly in the Northern part of Afghanistan in dealing with camps of internally displaced people. In terms of policy, even prior to September 11 for some months, Iran and Pakistan had seen the writing on the wall, and had formally closed their borders to Afghanistan. In fact, from time to time they forcibly deported Afghans back from Pakistan and Iran. At that moment, the humanitarian actors were quite isolated in their dialogue, not only with the Taliban, but also with Iran and Pakistan. They were basically pleading for some degree of tolerance and forbearance on the part of those governments, in part, promising that they would help organize return to particular areas, and in fact, they tried to do that. They tried to find pockets of security and sustenance where they could organize the return of people in a piecemeal fashion. And those humanitarian actors are still present in the aftermath of September 11. Prior to the air campaign, the UNHCR warned that upwards of 1.5 million refugees could flee from Afghanistan. UNHCR, of course, did this in part because they had taken a terrible hit in terms of their credibility in Kosovo, where they under estimated the number of people who might be externally displaced. When 800,000 people were externally displaced, most of the international donors pointed the finger and said “why didn't you anticipate this?” UNHCR pre-positioned some material in Kosovo to help with refugee displacement, but it was located in Belgrade and was obviously not accessible during air campaigns in Kosovo. So, UNHCR faired badly in the Kosovo exercise. It was considered basically too little too late as a humanitarian responder. So, this time they decided to leap out ahead of the curve and they estimated that it would be 1.5 million displaced. It turns out that there were only about 150, 000, so there is also a danger in being too fulsome in your predictions because there is an element of credibility loss there as well. UNHCR also had a tussle within its own house to help internally displaced persons. The Pakistanis and Iranians did not let people cross the border, but they organized camps of internally displaced persons quite near the border. Some of them were under Taliban control, some of them were in control of the opposition groups and the Iranian Red Crescent had administration over some of them. So, they became way-stations for people who would be refugees but for the fact that the borders were formerly closed.

UNHCR and IOM, in particular, had now expanded their work to engage more broadly on the question of internally displaced persons. UNHCR has always had some nervousness about doing this, in the sense of compromising their advocacy of open borders and protecting refugees. But on the other hand, there seems to be little choice here. So it is one of those pragmatic choices that the UN humanitarian providers had to deal with. Another group of actors is emerging –we could call them the UN Development Group - UNDP, UNICEF - those organizations that seem to take a developmental view. We could include in that category the international financial institutions as well, the World Bank, in particular. Both on the humanitarian side and on the development side, there were a whole host of implementing partners - non-governmental organizations, which sometimes do both humanitarian as well as development work. The international organizations are somewhat distinctly divided to the point where there is persistent concern about what is called the “gap” between relief and development in humanitarian action responses.

This is also the case in Afghanistan at present. There are both multilateral as well as bilateral actors. US AID is a bilateral actor. Europe Aid and the European Commission are another set of donors, as are the European members. This illustrates one typical feature of these humanitarian action responses, namely, the existence of a blizzard of different kinds of organizations and different kinds of mechanisms that seek to address these questions. The consequence in terms of policy oftentimes is incoherence. You have relief oriented refugee policy, which is highly reactive because it is founded on the notion of responding to different kinds of needs as they emerge. The institutions are quite reactive in that sense.

Then, you have developmental actors who engage in long-term plans. They come up with strategies that span decades, in fact. It is difficult to undertake long-term development as well as short-term relief in Afghanistan, because currently there is a real deficit of security and infrastructure which makes it hard to deliver humanitarian assistance and because it is such a highly decentralized and localized setting. It is very hard to have a single interlocutor to engage in long-term strategic planning on the development side. Interlocutors will be numerous in this setting, depending on the activity, and quite localized and de-centralized.

So, we have a system that might be able to do the humanitarian part of the job, because the world has gotten used to this. There are nevertheless clear limitations in terms of the kinds of policies that we ordinarily see deployed, usually highly reactive. The various problems in organizing and coordinating policy are manifest. Each agency acts territorially in relation to the others within the system. Even within the UN system there is far less cooperation than there should be. There is the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs but it is without budget or program authority. It engages in a kind of information-sharing exercise as opposed to an effective action exercise. That office was created under another name in the early 1990s after the crisis in Northern Iraq - one of the first of the kinds of multifaceted international deployments that have characterized the decade. There will be an element of this approach in Afghanistan, although as a UN operation it is going to be predominantly humanitarian in character.

What might make the difference here? It was surprising to me in sitting in a recent US AID meeting, how little attention is given to the refugee question. These were the country development people in democracy, human rights, economics and governance. There is a lot of discussion about those things. Relatively little was discussed about the consequences or the management of the return of nearly four million refugees out of a population of twenty million or so now in the country. And how will they be accommodated in organizing the recovery of Afghanistan? It is such a large refugee population. Will the return be done well and astutely, for example, by trying to identify who among the refugees might have something to offer in rebuilding that devastated society? Will people be able to return in the face of conflicting land and property claims? Land is not cleared of mines yet, and Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world. A mine-clearance program that has lasted for about six or seven years has cleared only about 40% of the targeted land. So this may be quite a daunting endeavor.

Many people will probably return to the cities and that would also create certain dynamics that will be difficult, but important to manage because return is never to a place the way it was. It will be a new society to some extent.

In Cambodia, for example, the return of refugees created large groups of urban poor to the detriment of Cambodia. Certainly that was not anticipated at the time that it was organized. What should be done? In my view, there should be real coordination, the consolidation of UN humanitarian agencies. Our own government is actually divided in the same way. We have a refugee bureau at the State Department that engages mainly in multi-lateral humanitarian assistance, and we have US AID which has both a bilateral humanitarian assistance activity as well as a development-related activity.

There was actually somebody at this USAID meeting, that suggested that UNDP might be a more appropriate auspice for country recovery activities, which this fellow described as “heresy”. It seems quite clear that the U.S. policy objective is not necessary to rebuild Afghanistan. The U.S. objective is to destroy the Taliban regime and to destroy the al-Qaida network it hosted. U.S. is seeking a graceful, but early exit in terms of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We would like the UN to carry that activity. The Europeans may be a little more oriented towards reconstruction, but probably not much. What that means is, once again, we're going to see capable donor governments early on handing over the responsibilities to international organizations. They are really quite thinly staffed with not much capacity to do these kinds of daunting things, like creating legal systems, police forces, and economic systems. These are the kinds of things that people have in mind when they talk about state-building. The UN has not shown the capacity to do that as we saw in several operations from Cambodia to Haiti, to Bosnia, to

Kosovo, and now on to Afghanistan.

One of the practical ways that this effort could be made more effective, in my view, is by developing more of a like-minded state approach, in humanitarian affairs. This would include finding ways for donor and recipient countries to have a mechanism so that they can deal with each other and address their interests and needs. I think that is important, in part, because the UN system itself is plagued to some extent by a predictable wrangling between the haves and have-nots in the developing world, which has been one of the reasons that the capacity of the UN has not been allowed to become very effective on these kinds of questions. There are plenty of problems within the system itself in terms of agencies that do not like to see others become more capable, because there is a bit of turf battle as well. What this might mean in Afghanistan would be some kind of special authority, or at least a special way to go about planning the refugee repatriation, so that the return of refugees could be seen not just as moving them across the border, but to use the notion of refugee repatriation, from a regional perspective. It would involve not just Afghanistan, which has a very substantial internal displacement, but also Pakistan and Iran, as well as central Asia and India. So it would have quite a regional dimension. It is very clear that the surrounding states will push hard to have those refugees return - perhaps prematurely, given their interests.

If international attention wanes, and resources dry up they will push people back quickly. So, that might mean taking refugees, both as a potential for destabilization, as well as a potential for reconstruction, and finding ways to encourage their involvement, including the involvement of women in recovery activities. Even the humanitarian sphere has been quite limited and circumscribed in recent years in Afghanistan.

How Afghanistan would be - what I would call - an operation of humanitarianism plus and what that plus will be? Will there be enough of a dimension? Will enough resources be devoted to the recovery of a society and maybe even the development of rights respecting institutions within that society?

In some ways the international community find themselves drawn in because they are just connecting dots, and realize now they need security. Pretty soon, they will realize they need more security, then police, courts, then prisons, then laws and structures and institutions, and how far down that road the international community will walk is uncertain. In some ways, it depends upon how capable international institutions are in doing those things. At the moment, they are not very capable.


Question and Answer Period

Chair Person: You certainly have given us many ideas. We have several questions. It is suggested that the UN could handle this problem and, therefore, the donor-countries should take a more active role.

Helton: Yes.

Chair Person: How is that going to work? The donors are the ones to channel their efforts through the UN.

Helton: The reality is that they do that now. They channel some of their resources and some of their interests through the UN and at times they find the UN to be a very convenient chapeau for their work. It does provide an opportunity for withdrawal in some ways. But at the same time, often donor-countries are also proceeding bilaterally, and sometimes coordinating more or less effectively in this bilateral setting. Can that activity be more intelligently and coherently undertaken? There are some capacities outside of the UN - there is an institution proposed in my book which I call “strategic humanitarian action and research or SHARE” - Those kinds of capacities are already developing to some extent. This is now occurring mainly in the NGO world, but it needs to evolve in the intergovernmental donor setting for it to make a serious difference.

David: Is the UN in establishing the policies officially, trying to integrate the various societies into one system? What is the effect of the policies of reconstruction?

Helton: I think there will be some effect - the issue of gender, of women's rights will be impressed upon the international institutions to some extent. Although for those of you who saw that wonderful photo opportunity after the Bonn meeting in the NY Times last week, you had about thirty people who negotiated the agreement arrayed in the photograph - there was the German Prime Minister who was hosting it in the middle, and then Lakhdar Brahimi and Francis Vendrell the two principal UN negotiators on each side. And, when you looked around, there was one fellow with his back to the camera, two others pointing over that way, three people caucusing. I had to tip my hat to that photo journalist for really depicting well the challenge of governance in Afghanistan, because that is what it will be like. But in the lower left-hand corner was one woman, who was named minister for women's affairs. There will be some pressure, but it is going to be quite incremental. The way that this will be organized, in the fashion of the moment, is what the UN called “pillars”. There will be a humanitarian pillar, which will be gigantic because basically it's a food problem, and to some extent medical and those kinds of questions. Then there will be security dimension, and that will be a small force for Kabul and maybe some surrounding areas. There will be “governance”, “reconstruction” economic pillars and those will be tiny efforts in view of the lack of national infra-structure. What are called “small projects” will predominate. All these policies will have to be mediated through various institutions.

Participant: A new NGO has sent me a book on the Swiss Constitution, and I am a little afraid she is going to send me another sixty copies, so if there are people who are interested in it because I don't want sixty books on my hands. She's basically saying, using Switzerland as a model with different languages and the British don't like the Germans, don't like the Italians, what have you, in seeing that there is a lot of similarity in Afghanistan, the different language groups. And, when you were talking, it occurred to me that what happened in the next several years, is also going to be determined by the development aid that come. And, I'm wondering whether in the development, humanitarian community, there is an awareness who you are dealing with on the local level, you are empowering in a way because you are providing the resources. And, whether there would be any thoughts of trying to build up locally, community institutions that could actually result in the kind of thing she is feeling should happen - that the government would be locally based and it will only be kind of coordinating or, as the only way having peace.

Helton: I think there is a pretty good collection of experience and a lot of sensibility among development actors, including humanitarians more broadly, about those kinds of effects on the localities. There is actually a burgeoning literature, mainly by anthropologists, who look at the impact of development on culture and local society. People talk about that in their settings, but the reality is the political constraints are fierce. Development assistance is often deeply imbued with the foreign policy preferences of the donor-countries. Some are different, so you get a mélange of different issues - Swedes like to do this and the Danes, you know, that sort of thing. But it can go pretty far and can be quite incoherent in some sense. Afghanistan will force this because there will be no national interlockers. Whatever national government there is will at best be a kind of municipal government in Kabul - very weak. There would be many different interlockers in many different parts of the country. Donors will be cautious and limit resources. There are many hard lessons learned in the former Soviet Union where resources reinforced certain kinds of local structures.

There will be both tribal structures and there will be what I would call non-state actor structures, probably based mainly on the drug trade in Afghanistan. And, all of those things will go into the mix of what the future Afghanistan will be. Now what I thought you were going to say is that - when you were talking about Switzerland, and how the country was stitched together, is how the neutrality enjoyed by Switzerland protected to some extent from the surrounding countries. This is the setting in which the great game has been played by others in the internal affairs of Afghanistan. The other model that sometimes people talk about in the government context is Austria. (I happen to think that the only thing Austria and Afghanistan share is the letter “a”). It would be naive to expect that the powers in Afghanistan would not pursue their self-interest. Iran is very interested, Pakistan remains keenly interested, maybe most interested. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, all will be interested, Russia will remain interested to some extent as proxy for the central Asian republics. The reality is that Afghanistan will have many players surrounding it, including the international humanitarian development actors.

Participant: Would you mention the difficulty of estimating the problems, I thought back to the period of what you could call “displaced persons” at the time. And, I wanted to get a better handle on the present Afghanistan problem, do you have any recollection on what the numbers were or had to be dealt with after World War II in terms of refugees, displaced persons . . .?

Helton: At the end of Word War II in Europe there were ten million refugees. The modern refugee regime was developed to repatriate them. But, the cold war emerged and repatriation became politically infeasible and resettlement became the norm. But, there were residual cases, well into the 50s, just before the Hungarian uprising, which created the next European refugee emergency. While there is greater access to Afghanistan, security will always be somewhat an impediment. It has not turned out to be the worse nightmare yet for humanitarian workers, although eight journalists have been killed. So far, humanitarian workers haven't had those kinds of experiences. That is one of the main reasons for lack of access. Now that international personnel are going back, it will take some time to learn what is actually happening. It is reportedly a famine-like situation in the central highlands.

The information you get now is highly anecdotal - for the most part, out of an abundance of caution, there has been a real campaign to requisition a lot of food. But it does not always get distributed very well, because of security problems. The Friendship Bridge from Uzbekistan into northern Afghanistan, while technically open, doesn't seem to be facilitating aid. It will take time.

More on This Topic


The Way Forward in Afghanistan (Audio)

Speaker: Carl M. Levin
Presider: Thomas D. Shanker

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin discusses U.S. strategy in Afghanistan and a congressional perspective on the way...