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central asia can serve as channel for u.s. humanitarian assistance to afghanistan

Central Asia Can Serve as Channel for U.S. Humanitarian Assistance to Afghanistan

Author:Dante Schulz

Dec 20, 2021

Image source: Shekib Rahmani/Associated Press

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan coupled with the rapid withdrawal of NATO troops and Western-backed humanitarian assistance has left the country in a state of despair. The United Nations estimates that 22.8 million people in Afghanistan are facing food insecurity, including 14 million children. This figure constitutes about 55 percent of Afghanistan’s total population. This number is expected to increase because Afghanistan lacks the necessary infrastructure to keep houses insulated throughout the upcoming frigid winter temperatures. Severe drought, a series of poor harvests, and the loss of incomes due to women being forced to shelter at home under the Taliban administration has placed considerable financial strains on families. UNICEF officials report that there is a 30-50 percent increase in the number of severe malnutrition cases being treated in hospitals located in Western Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the government in Kabul is diverting scant resources to feed Taliban commanders and their troops while $9.5 billion of Afghanistan’s assets are frozen under the directive of the U.S. Department of Treasury and the International Monetary Fund. Afghanistan’s populace is in dire need of humanitarian assistance, but Western countries are wary to deliver much-needed supplies to avoid granting legitimacy to the Taliban leadership in Kabul. Instead, humanitarian aid is funneled through numerous independent humanitarian organizations. The United States can utilize its regional offices across Central Asia to alleviate the strain placed on these humanitarian organizations to provide relief for Afghan families. Currently, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officers for Afghanistan are billeted at the USAID regional office in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

The United States agreed in October to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan for the first time since the Taliban takeover, according to Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen. After meetings between American and Taliban delegations, the United States decided to allocate resources for Afghan families without recognizing the political legitimacy of the Taliban. Similarly, the European Union pledged $1.15 billion in Afghan humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, a banking and payment system held in limbo by foreign powers impedes the effectiveness of aid from these countries to Afghanistan. 

Over the past decades, U.S. presidents have authorized humanitarian aid deliveries to assist citizens living under oppressive regimes. Millions of Ethiopians, North Koreans, and South Sudanese received U.S. food aid. However, President Biden’s administration appears paralyzed in its decision to allocate humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to prevent political fallout domestically. Instead, President Biden has remained steadfast in his defense of withdrawing U.S. troops from the country earlier this year. On August 29, President Biden delegated the Department of Homeland Security to support vulnerable Afghans and allow them to resettle in the United States under Operation Allies Welcome. However, the Biden administration fears that approval for humanitarian aid for Afghans still residing in the country could be perceived as an indicator of regret by his political opponents. To circumvent the potential for domestic fallout, President Biden should work with the Central Asian republics to provide aid for Afghan families.

The United States already maintains a large humanitarian presence in Central Asia. The USAID office in Almaty, Kazakhstan, consistently partners with local institutions to allocate aid throughout the region. For example, USAID inked a memorandum of understanding with the Kazakhstan Agency for International Development (KazAID) to support development assistance in Central Asia and Afghanistan. So far, Kazakhstan has granted the United States space in the region to continue allocating humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. In November, USAID staff, previously based in Afghanistan, were reassigned to the Almaty office to continue facilitating humanitarian assistance deliveries to Kabul. The UN Mission to Afghanistan was also relocated to Kazakhstan.

Regardless of the potential for domestic political backlash, President Biden should ensure that the Afghan people receive necessary humanitarian assistance to mitigate the effects of the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, crippling economy, and famine-like conditions. By building on the relationships the United States has already fostered among its allies in Central Asia and working with those governments, it could channel humanitarian assistance through the region to Afghanistan, without the perception of legitimizing the Taliban leadership, even while it makes public its support for the people of Afghanistan. In addition, the Central Asian republics could promote themselves as bastions for humanitarian aid in the region and elevate their standing within the international development community by assisting the United States – and other Western nations – to allocate aid to Afghanistan. The Central Asian governments are eager to work with the United states. This would be a win for all but most importantly for the people of Afghanistan., which could further legitimize Central Asian aid organizations. 

The door is open.  It’s up to the Biden administration to act quickly to provide the kind of support the United States has always offered in the past to suffering populations.

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