Timeline for Humanitarian Action in Post-Taliban Afghanistan

November 20, 2001



Events on the ground in Afghanistan are evolving rapidly,and prospects are growing for thedisintegration of the Taliban. This raises the possibility of the repatriation to their homes in Afghanistan of millions of refugee and displaced persons. This paper discusses what should be done now to facilitate voluntary return, and what should be done over the long-term to sustain return.

Executive Summary

Policy over the next six months

  • Avoid further unwarranted population displacementsin Afghanistan by providing humanitarian relief inside the country
  • Under United Nations auspices,conduct a consolidated needs assessment and funding appeal once access to the territory of Afghanistan has been secured in whole or in part.
  • Consider deploying an international force to protect the delivery of humanitarian assistance from disorder and banditry - not as an occupation force
  • Strengthen the work of international humanitarian organizations in the surrounding countries by ensuring the necessary visas, travel permits, customs waivers, etc.
  • Initiate small-scale agricultural projects under UN auspices in Afghanistan designed to repair irrigation canals, pre-position appropriate seed, etc.
  • Re-focus UN mine awareness and clearance programs to take into account new locations and types of ordinance.
  • Manage the pressure for premature return by the governments of Pakistan and Iran through a combination of relief and development assistance

Policy over the next twelve to eighteen months

More on:


Humanitarian Intervention

  • Ensure complete registration by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees of populations of new and old refugees in Iran and Pakistan
  • Establish UNHCR encashment program to facilitate voluntary repatriation, building on experiences over the past decade
  • Develop quick impact projects under UN auspices designed to ease re-integration and manage tensions between returnees and those who remained in Afghanistan
  • The special situation of urban returnees will likely require targeted re-construction projects
  • Inventory the leadership attributes and skills of Afghan refugees in the Diaspora, in countries of first asylum and local staff who could play a useful role in the future of Afghanistan

Policy from eighteen months on

  • Enhance donor government coordination and planning through the Afghanistan Support Group in order to link relief progressively to rehabilitation in the most effective way
  • The United States should take a leadership role in termsof financial and political commitments in this difficult and daunting endeavor

More on:


Humanitarian Intervention



This paper presents a plausible timeline for the return to their homes in Afghanistan of displaced persons and refugees after the Taliban has lost the capacity to govern, and has been supplanted by a different political arrangement. The question of return implicates many aspects of humanitarian action, and Afghanistan's dislocated persons will clearly need considerable short-term humanitarian relief and longer-term relief and development assistance. This paper recommends specific international and US government policies to enhance the effectiveness of humanitarian action.

The paper begins with a statement of assumptions, and then addresses three components: 1) immediate concerns (six months), 2) medium-term issues (12 to 18 months), and 3) longer-term prospects. In each part, the paper discusses the decisions that will have to be made, who will make them, what the obstacles will be, and how they can be overcome.

Prior to the horrific terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, Afghanistan was already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Over four million refugees were being aided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, mainly in Iran and Pakistan. Approximately one million internally displaced persons had been uprooted by conflict and hunger, and some six million persons were dependent upon external humanitarian aid from the World Food Programme for subsistence. A well-established aid effort was slowly being eroded by a difficult operational environment for humanitarian agencies imposed by the Taliban, which inhibited donor support.

After September 11,foreign humanitarian workers were evacuated in the face of military action by the US and its allies; information today about current conditions on the ground in Afghanistan is fragmentary at best. Much of what little infrastructure there was will have been pulverized by a prolonged bombing campaign, although roads and smaller-scale infrastructure such as irrigation canals and wells are likely to remain intact to some degree.Nevertheless, there will be daunting challenges to the continuation and expansion of relief efforts and the prospect of sustainable return in a recovering Afghanistan.


1. The US-led military campaign will continue, but the Taliban will not collapse all at once. Rather, there will be a piece-meal process of disintegration over a period of weeks or months. A fragile coalition government could be assembled shortly. But the post-Taliban coalition of political factions will not be able to establish a centralized government and authority will remain largely decentralized and localized. At the same time, the humanitarian needs of the Afghan people, already great, will continue to grow.

2. International aid will continue to be deployed by governmental donors on both a multi-lateral and bi-lateral basis to assist the people of Afghanistan, not only through this immediate emergency period, but also through a period of recovery and reconstruction.However, the level of funding may fall as the emergency eases, even though there may be political pressure to keep funding levels higher than would normally be the case in post-emergency recovery operations. This will place a premium on achieving a high degree of effectiveness in humanitarian action, an outcome that will be crucial to shaping a future Afghanistan conducive to the return of refugees and displaced persons.


Immediate concerns (the first six months)

The overriding immediate concern will be to avoid further unnecessary displacement by providing basic humanitarian relief to the Afghan people during the first six months, especially food, shelter, clothing and medical services.The logistics of delivering aid and relief operations will be more difficult than before, and will grow increasingly difficult. The Afghan winter is now in its early stages. Temperatures will plunge, and snow falls will make already difficult delivery efforts nearly impossible in some remote locales. The logistical capacity of military forces may have to be used to meet this objective.

Depending on local conditions, the means of delivering aid will vary from cross-border programs based in surrounding countries and land transport, to deliveries by air. In particularly remote areas, airdrops may be required if it can be ensured that these airdrops actually reach needy people.

Nevertheless, things are likely to get worse before they get better. Even a partial collapse of the Taliban could precipitate large-scale internal and cross border movements if widespread anarchy ensues,particularly if there is fighting for the control of cities. This would again raise concerns about border closures and access by Afghans to the territories of Pakistan and Iran, and sharing the humanitarian burdens of the front line states.

While emergency relief operations will need to continue during the period of immediate concern, post-relief planning should begin and include programs to encourage Afghans to return to their homes and strive for self-sufficiency. The precise timeline for action relative to repatriation will be dictated by a variety of factors having to do with the security situation, the seasons, and the capacities of both returnees and the society to which they will return to absorb them.

Clearly the authorities in Pakistan and Iran will put pressure on Afghan refugees to return once the Taliban has been substantially supplanted. But it is highly unlikely that four million refugees and one million internally displaced persons will be able to return swiftly to their homes. Afghanistan has limited absorptive capacity and is likely to remain dependent upon external assistance and migrant remittances for the foreseeable future. Donor governments, including the United States and European Union, should ensure that aid to refugees is coordinated with, and supplemented by, development assistance to host governments.

The return of refugees and displaced persons is likely to be piecemeal. Refugee families are not likely to return on a wholesale basis during this period. Past experience has shown that it is more likely that young men will venture back to visit their former homes, and, if conditions permit, to plant crops, and repair or rebuild housing. Women, children and the elderly may remain in the relative safety of whatever refugee camp or internal refuge they have found. Only when the men are convinced that it is safe are whole families likely to relocate.

Agriculture will be a key determinant of repatriation. The exact period of the Spring planting season in Afghanistan varies from place to place. A variety of other factors will affect the prospects of cultivation, including whether the seed available is appropriate for the land parcels in question, depending on whether they are rain-fed or irrigated. Nor will the infrastructure likely to be adequate to support the distribution of large quantities of seeds, poultry, livestock and farming equipment. In addition, there will be an urgent need to rebuild agricultural irrigation systems and to repair roads in order to give farmers access to markets. But it would be necessary to work on the rehabilitation of irrigation systems when river levels are low. Work would be difficult in the Spring when rivers become flooded.

A premium will thus be placed on small-scale projects from the very outset. Similar projects were utilized in the past decade in places like Cambodia and Central America, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) undertook joint efforts.

The quality of public security will have particularly profound consequences for the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid as well as refugee return. The history of Afghanistan shows that no external force is likely to be able to provide a sufficient degree of protection if the presence of that force is contested. An international protection force, whether based on paramilitary police or the military, could be needed to guard against banditry - but not as an occupation force. This would require UN Security Council authorization, and such an initiative would have to overcome a clear reluctance by many countries which are capable of contributing police or troops. But there may be little real choice if a minimal level of public security is to be established and maintained.Contingency planning on this issue should continue.

The deployment of forces in Somalia in 1992 to protect the delivery of food assistance may be instructive. This is particularly so before the mission there evolved into a political objective and ended badly.

Afghanistan is afflicted with tens of thousands of land mines, a circumstance that clearly will inhibit the return of refugees and displaced persons. Nor is this a new problem. A landmine clearance effort has been underway in Afghanistan for more than seven years, which has resulted in the clearing of 240 square kilometers. Another 350 square kilometers have been identified for clearing. One new feature is the new types of ordinance that have been dropped in the current campaign - namely, unexploded cluster bombs - which will necessitate new training for awareness and clearance. Also, a major focus in the future will be around the areas of the present front lines in northeast Afghanistan and in the Shomali plain north of Kabul. Planning for this should begin now. Problems associated with landmines in Afghanistan must be addressed early in any humanitarian action plan, with sufficient resources to undertake the task.

Cross-border relief and post-relief efforts will have to be launched, not just from Pakistan, but from all of the surrounding countries, including Iran and Uzbekistan. Diplomatic efforts should be undertaken now to strengthen the access of international organizations and NGOs to necessary facilities in these countries, including visas, travel permits, customs waivers, etc. The objective should be to secure a variety of routes for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The importance of close coordination between the efforts to prepare and encourage refugees to return and the efforts to rehabilitate and reconstruct infrastructure in Afghanistan cannot be over-emphasized. Past Afghan refugee repatriation efforts show the utility of appointing a UN special envoy with authority and responsibility for planning the return of refugees in both the host countries and the country of return. This official should be associated with a broader UN recovery effort.

A consolidated humanitarian needs assessment will have to be undertaken as soon as access inside Afghanistan has been re-established. In order to promote accountability, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) should, as is normal, oversee this effort with a view to preparing a revised consolidated funding appeal. Governments and humanitarian NGOs should cooperate with this effort, but this outcome will depend on a closely coordinated group of donor governments, notably the US and European Union, to make this a disciplined strategic process.

In addition, US bilateral approaches will support particular foreign policy objectives. US objectives to eliminate terrorist networks with a global reach and to promote a stable post-Taliban Afghanistan which does not harbor and support them in the future could be served by particular assistance strategies. The design of these strategies will be informed by the ways in which the political and security situation evolves in Afghanistan. In order to achieve this goal, the US would have to play a serious role in the recovery of Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. Nevertheless, coordination with other donors and international institutions will be necessary.

An inclusive coordination structure for humanitarian work already exists in the region. Building on past experiences and existing structures, a recovery office should be established under the auspices of the United Nations, led by the UN humanitarian and development agencies under the overall coordination of OCHA. A broad assemblage of agencies would be needed to address not only issues associated with refugee return, but also internally displaced persons and civilians who were never displaced but were trapped during the winter in remote locales. The leadership of the UN Secretary General with the concerted support of donor governments will be needed to overcome the policy coordination cacophony that typically characterizes the UN system in the midst and immediate aftermath of a humanitarian emergency. This is particularly so in relation to the problem of linking together the work of agencies involved in relief and development assistance activities. An early endeavor of this recovery office would be to prepare and revise on a continuing basis a consolidated assessment and appeal process for recovery activities. A process is needed, not a static document, in order to ensure a sufficiently strategic element in the planning, implementation and evaluation of projects.

This has implications for the United Nations. The current integrated mission task force dealing with Afghanistan is limited to the UN system. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary-General's special representative on Afghanistan, has assembled a small cadre of advisors. There is need for a broader process which systematically draws upon governments and the independent sector to think and pre-position ideas for the difficult policy formation and implementation tasks ahead with respect to the return of refugees and displaced persons.

Such an arrangement also has implications for the US government.The merger of US AID over the past decade into the State Department and the erosion of the State Department's budget, including its planning functions, have weakened the capacity for development assistance policy coordination. Development "strategy" has given way to the necessity of handling immediate crises and managing food aid along with other humanitarian assistance.The thinking on the development-related aspects of refugee return must be strengthened on an urgent basis, including by establishing appropriate liaison relationships between those in government who are formulating and implementing policy with think tanks, NGOs, and scholars.

Besides designing and implementing recovery programs, a consolidated UN recovery effort would facilitate communication and consensus-building between local leaders, NGOs and donors. One of the tools that could be very useful in Afghanistan is"quick impact projects". These are small projects which could be focused on improvements in things such as irrigation canals, seed distribution, income generation, education, and health infrastructure, etc.Such programs should pay particular attention to Afghan women because they have suffered systematic discrimination in their access to employment and social services.

While small projects do not address structural problems such as weak governance institutions or an undeveloped economy in Afghanistan, they will not only be of genuine help, but they will also be a means towards confidence building for returning refugees and displaced persons as well as the surrounding local community. Such an approach would be particularly apt in Afghanistan which is likely to be without significant national-level infrastructure for the foreseeable future.

Medium-term issues (12 to 18 months)

Depending on local conditions, especially security, it may be possible to set in motion a large-scale voluntary repatriation program for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. To be successful, any such effort should include material incentives (seeds, oil, edibles, grain, farm implements, and money) to be given to refugee families as they return.

In this regard, it should be recalled that in the period 1992-93, some 2.9 million Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran. In 1992 alone, approximately 1.6 million Afghan refugees returned home, approximately 1.4 million of whom from Pakistan. In 1993, approximately 1.3 million returned to Afghanistan, more than one million of whom from Iran. UNHCR provided each returning family with 300 kilograms of wheat and $130 in cash.

This earlier repatriation effort was compromised by civil war that broke out between factions competing for political supremacy. Many Afghans who had returned once again went into exile where they remain to this day. In addition to an encashment program,well-crafted small-scale reintegration programs will also be needed to help sustain return.

A major new complication in the present Afghan displacement is the number of refugees and displaced persons who have fled their homes in urban areas in the wake of the bombing campaign. A significant commitment of funding as well as technical assistance and material aid will be essential if Afghan urban life is to be re-constituted. Not only homes but also hospitals, schools, public administration facilities and houses of worship will need to be re-constructed if the basic urban infrastructure is to be restored.

Once again, the recurrence of winter will highlight the most urgent needs of this recovering society; medical and food aid will be needed, depending on the drought.

These medium-term recovery issues in Afghanistan should be addressed as well in the development of a strategic framework process administered by the UN.

Longer-term prospects (18 months on)

A substantial, multi-year program of reconstruction, rehabilitation, economic development and institution building will be critical to any effort to make refugee return in Afghanistan sustainable.In this connection, particular attention should be paid to the indigenous human resources that have emerged by reason of past international action. This would include men and women from the Afghan Diaspora as well as refugees educated while they were in Pakistan or Iran, or introduced to organizational or business methods as members of the local staff of international humanitarian organizations. A highly participatory approach will be needed in Afghanistan in order to move from relief to recovery. This cohort of several thousand persons is likely to be a key resource for achieving a peaceful and stable future for Afghanistan.An inventory of the leadership and skills of these persons should be undertaken immediately. Special attention should be given to women in this exercise as they have been systematically excluded from public life in the past. The experience of the UN transitional mission in encouraging refugee repatriation and the growth of indigenous NGOs in Cambodia in the early 1990s could be instructive.

Afghanistan is one of the poorest nations in the world and has suffered through modern times as one of the last battlefields of the cold war. The largely subsistence agricultural sector has been depressed and increasingly devoted to drug production; men and boys have been recruited for war; health care and education for women and girls has been limited by the Taliban. Afghanistan's people have the lowest annual incomes anywhere. Millions of displaced persons and refugees have been exiles for over a decade.

Afghanistan and its people have been virtually ignored by development agencies (e.g., the World Bank does not include Afghanistan in the Tables of World Development Indicators that it provides for 130 economies because available data for Afghanistan is too sparse). A limited number of UN agencies and a handful of humanitarian NGOs have worked inside Afghanistan as well as with Afghan refugees, especially in Pakistan, and assisted with clearing landmines left by the Russians.

Development assistance and continuing humanitarian aid in post-Taliban Afghanistan will be difficult and daunting. US bilateral initiatives will be needed. Also, the World Bank, which is preparing a far-reaching reconstruction plan, and a variety of international organizations in the United Nations system (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, World Food Programme, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations Children's Fund, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Programme), as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and a variety of NGOs, will be involved in the effort to re-build Afghanistan. Policy coordination will be a key determinant of effectiveness. United States leadership will be essential.

The international efforts for the recovery of Afghanistan are likely to be undertaken in a predominantly humanitarian mode. Humanitarian assistance will likely be accompanied by relatively light political, security and economic development deployment. These efforts would be assisted by re-animating an established international humanitarian policy coordination structure, the Afghan Support Group (ASG),a collection of donor governments, international organizations and NGOs supported by the UN (OCHA in particular).This would contribute to the enhancement of the effectiveness of longer-term relief and development assistance. The ASG is scheduled to meet shortly in Berlin. Again,leadership by the UN Secretary General and disciplined action by donor governments, particularly the United States and European Union, would be required to strengthen the ASG.

A consolidated longer-term needs assessment should be conducted under the auspices of the ASG in standard sectors for development activities, such as economic management, agriculture, infrastructure, social services, health, education, housing, water and sanitation, etc. This assessment should provide the baseline for longer-term strategic recovery efforts undertaken by the UN and World Bank.


To successfully create conditions conductive to the voluntary return of Afghan refugees and displaced persons, the international community will have to be willing to make long-term commitments. The people of Afghanistan have been brutalized by war, civil strife, oppression and draught for over 20 years. Past experience has shown that half-way measures of relief and rehabilitation do not sustain return.

The United States, which is taking the lead role effort to bring down the Taliban, has an equal lead role to take in creating the conditions for return and recovery. This will require a sustained commitment of financial and material aid, and support for the United Nations in coordinating, planning, and implementing the overall endeavor. There is no guarantee of success, but a determined and sustained effort by all parties will maximize the prospects for a satisfactory outcome.

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