The reconstruction of Afghanistan presents a variety of unique problems, but it also illustrates the larger dilemmas that characterize most modern humanitarian emergencies. Around the globe, more people are displaced today than ever before, and the costs of assisting them are rising. The source of the problem, increasingly, is internal conflicts, in which Western powers often intervene. Indeed, both the concept of sovereignty and the nature of war are evolving, altering the landscape for humanitarian action in the process. Unfortunately, the institutions that deal with refugees have not yet adapted effectively to these new realities. The time has come for innovation.

Refugee crises now require new kinds of responses: feeding civilians while dodging bullets and bombs, using military force to organize safe havens, and even nation building alongside refugee repatriation. But the exclusively reactive international system for handling refugees is not designed to predict such changes and prepare for them. And the narrow focus on providing relief to the uprooted who have crossed national borders fails to acknowledge the fact that tens of millions of people around the world today are displaced within their home countries. The result is unnecessary expense, instability, humiliation, and suffering.

The old distinction, derived from U.N. treaties, between externally and internally displaced people is simply no longer viable. Nor is it any longer possible to ignore the link between crisis response and long-term development, or the need to coordinate policies among a bewildering array of national and international bodies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The U.N. has introduced a new mechanism for Afghanistan to deal with this latter problem, but it only scratches the surface of what is really required. How coordinated can the effort be when donors will give money through both multilateral and bilateral channels, international organizations and NGOs will jockey for roles and money, and relief work will run up against recovery and development plans? Making matters worse, all of this commotion will play out in a country without an effective national government, where programs and recipients will be highly localized. The system for dealing with refugees and humanitarian crises is broken, and it cannot be fixed from within.


Many Americans look back to the pre-September 11 era with nostalgia, but in Afghanistan a dire humanitarian crisis has existed for decades. Long before the U.S. troops arrived and the Taliban departed, the country had already been devastated by more than twenty years of war, widespread human rights violations, and the longest drought in modern times. Out of a total population of 26 million, hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, 7 million were made vulnerable to food shortages, and 4 million had sought shelter abroad.

Refugees, in fact, have been central to recent Afghan history. The 1979 Soviet invasion created a prolonged and highly politicized refugee emergency. Vast numbers fled to Pakistan and Iran, from where mujahideen refugee warriors launched cross-border forays against Soviet forces until they withdrew in 1989. In December 1990, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCHR) estimated that more than 6.3 million Afghan refugees were living in neighboring countries, 3.3 million in Pakistan and 3 million in Iran. Overburdened by this influx, both countries grew progressively weary of shouldering the responsibility. Islamabad and Tehran pressured the exiles to leave and even deported some who refused to comply. The pressure worked: there are now 1.5 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and 2 million in Iran. The plight of those in Pakistan grew worse in late 1995, when the UNHCHR and the World Food Programme terminated food aid to most camp residents, prompting many to migrate to Pakistan's cities. It is thus unsurprising that both countries had closed their borders to new Afghan entrants long before September 11 and have resisted calls to reopen them.

The international humanitarian response to Afghanistan, meanwhile, was as well established as the crisis. The largest bilateral aid donors were the United States and the European Union. International assistance, totaling approximately $200 million annually in recent years, flooded in for humanitarian relief, mostly in the form of food aid. But all these laudable efforts were crucially limited: relatively little assistance went to providing basic social infrastructure. Funding was given for the removal of land mines, which kill and maim many hundreds each year, but fewer than half of the areas identified for clearing had been demined as of September 11.

The gap between relief and social development efforts was partly filled by the substantial private humanitarian network that also existed in the country, with approximately 40 sizeable NGOs each spending at least $1 million annually, along with hundreds of smaller organizations. These groups employed several thousand locals, carrying out a wide range of activities in Afghanistan and across the borders with Iran and Pakistan. Even at the height of its repressive power the Taliban never really provided a functioning national government, so for years the NGOs have been the main actors in several sectors, such as primary education, health care, demining, and supplying water to rural communities.

Before September 11, therefore, the donor community confronted what looked to be a perpetual assistance effort -- and after the Taliban came to power in 1996, one increasingly complicated by official obstructionism. The Taliban restricted access to the needy, arrested aid workers, and severely limited communications with the outside world. These impediments made it more and more difficult to reach populations in need, particularly women and children. The result was diminished relief and a slow erosion of funding.

Coordination of international humanitarian operations has been a problem in Afghanistan for many years. The U.N. tried to set out an overall strategic framework for aid to the country in 1997, but a November 2001 World Bank report concluded that this effort had been ineffectual because there was no budgetary process in place to distribute resources according to the priorities identified. (In international humanitarian operations, as in much of the rest of life, money often dictates coordination and effort.)

The system was all the more inadequate, therefore, to handle the rapid deterioration of conditions in Afghanistan immediately after September 11. All foreign U.N. staff and other non-Afghan aid workers left the country voluntarily or were expelled, leaving stripped-down local teams to deal with an increasingly hostile Taliban. Even before the bombing began on the night of October 7, many Afghans, particularly those in cities, had begun abandoning their homes and dispersing throughout the country. As of early January 2002, approximately 200,000 Afghans had made their way to Pakistan, and 1.2 million more were estimated to be internally displaced. The bombing ruined much of the country's remaining infrastructure, and now approximately 50 percent of the houses in major Afghan cities are destroyed or damaged. New unexploded ordnance, including 25,000 cluster bomblets, was added to the many hundreds of thousands of land mines and shells with which Afghanistan has been seeded over the past two decades.

By late December 2001, the Taliban had been defeated and, for all practical purposes, had ceased to exist. A political agreement among contending factions brokered by the U.N. in Bonn, Germany, created an interim government and launched a process of state building. A British-led International Security Assistance Force with a six-month charter was deployed in January. Twenty-nine new ministries are being organized, and ministers have been appointed. A new constitution and elections are planned once the situation stabilizes. These interim political arrangements should pave the way for recovery and reconstruction, but the hard part is yet to come.

In the wake of the Taliban's collapse, the relief system is reviving. International aid workers are returning to the country and funding commitments have increased dramatically. In January, U.N. agencies alerted donors that $1.33 billion would be needed to address the basic needs of 9 million Afghans over the next year. But some may still die this winter from famine, cold, or disease. The U.N. is nominally an adviser to the interim government, but it will have to play an active role at the outset, given the lack of indigenous infrastructure, trained personnel, and government institutions. It must help ensure public safety, facilitate the return of refugees and displaced persons, establish a judicial system, provide at least minimal public services, rebuild the country's infrastructure, create a sustainable public administration, manage the transition to democratic governance, and spur economic growth. If the global experiences of the past decade are any guide, however, expectations in most of these areas should be realistically modest.


The reasons to worry about Afghanistan involve both the intractable nature of the problems themselves and the inadequacy of the institutions responsible for addressing them. The hard work of good people within the U.N. system is often smothered by a cumbersome and dysfunctional bureaucracy, and international action is often hamstrung by politicized disputes between industrialized and developing countries. A typical example is the wrangling over the implementation of a 2000 report on reform of U.N. peacekeeping operations authored by Lakhdar Brahimi, currently the secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan. In that report Brahimi, the former Algerian foreign minister, bluntly concluded, "Over the last decade the United Nations has repeatedly failed to meet the challenge; and cannot do any better today."

This failure arises from both policy and international architecture. Although over the past decade the U.N. has been thrust into dealing with postconflict situations in places such as Cambodia, Kosovo, and East Timor, member states have been reluctant to grant it the capacity needed to accomplish much on the ground. No doctrine exists to regulate state building, and even if one did, the U.N. would not be able to apply it. Its operations are invariably ad hoc, with the system struggling to address a wide variety of responsibilities ranging from international policing to economic reconstruction. Reams of "lessons learned" reports are prepared, but they are rarely followed and may not even be applicable in new situations. Action often comes too late, local human resources are frequently ignored, and a lack of public order and personal security often frustrates operations.

The best response to these problems would be to find a way of making the U.N. system work well in the field. But successful reforms are unlikely. Even relatively modest adjustments in U.N. personnel rules designed to better match staff to emergency needs have not been put into effect, thanks largely to institutional torpor and complacency. Much of the direct action these days, moreover, takes place outside the U.N. system -- including the work of not just NGOs, but also international bodies such as NATO, the European Union, and the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Individual donor governments also undertake a wide variety of bilateral humanitarian initiatives, and they increasingly coordinate these actions in informal forums outside more cumbersome U.N. structures.

Even if improvements in the international humanitarian action system can somehow miraculously be made, they will be too late for Afghanistan. According to the World Bank, $10 billion to $15 billion will be required for Afghan reconstruction over the next decade. The country is desperately poor, and its people have suffered long. The will and capacity exist to help them, but the present array of humanitarian and development agencies can neither mobilize nor effectively direct that help. A new, more flexible mechanism is needed through which the United States and others can organize and channel humanitarian action.

A major step toward this goal would be the creation of an intergovernmental policy research center designed to enhance the international humanitarian action system. Such an organization -- let's call it SHARE, for Strategic Humanitarian Action and Research -- would identify impending crises before they erupt, promote preventive action, support comprehensive protection for all displaced people, and devise strategies to secure their lasting return. All these activities would fill gaps in the current system of international humanitarian action.

How would SHARE work? Like a think tank, it would have a deep research capacity with a small core staff who could draw on expert consultants. It would be a repository of expertise related to managing humanitarian crises. It would complement the work of others and be linked to the U.N. system as well as international financial institutions, NGOs, and the private sector. It could even be conceived of as a standing advisory mechanism for the U.N. secretary-general.

This new entity could initially emerge from the NGO sector. But ultimately, only an intergovernmental agreement would ensure both its political legitimacy and sufficient funding from donor governments. Support from the United States and other major governments would be crucial, as would be involvement by NGOs and independent scholars. SHARE would be an intellectual resource, not a political body; it would identify and categorize issues and bundle tasks that could then be addressed by like-minded donor and recipient countries.

Some international agencies may assert that they are already doing such work, and others may question the need for yet another layer of intermediaries. But SHARE would be a small and nimble collection of experts, not an unwieldy bureaucracy. It would fill gaps in the current patchwork and establish and promulgate "best practices" in the field. Indeed, international organizations could use SHARE to support and enhance their work, turning it into an advocate for devoting greater attention and resources to humanitarian problems. The new center should also appeal to governments by serving as an intellectual resource that could help plan more effective and efficient interventions. And, finally, the serious pursuit of this new alternative could serve as a welcome stimulus for existing institutions inside and outside the U.N. system to get their houses in order -- if only for fear of losing resources, responsibility, and prestige.


An entity such as share could improve the response to the crisis in Afghanistan in a number of ways, primarily by bringing intellectual and historical perspective to bear on contemporary challenges. It might, for example, stress the need for a regional framework for refugee repatriation and reintegration, develop quick-impact projects linking short-term relief and long-term development, fashion strategies to strengthen the local NGO community, and design rule-of-law packages that marry general principles to the specific features of the Afghan case.

Refugees are not merely passive beneficiaries of humanitarian aid. Depending on how their cases are handled, they can contribute to either instability or reconstruction. In Afghanistan, where the displaced constitute nearly 20 percent of the country's population, they will have important effects on societal recovery. Afghan refugees, moreover, are a regional problem, not merely a national one, and require an appropriately regional strategy. They are located not just in Iran and Pakistan but throughout Central and South Asia. They participate in the economies of host countries and send an estimated $1 billion a year back home to support their extended families. What happens to them, therefore, will have a dramatic impact not only on Afghanistan but also on its neighbors.

Approximately 80,000 Afghan refugees had already returned to their homes as of early January 2002 without international assistance, and many more may follow by spring. The authorities in Pakistan and Iran will undoubtedly apply pressure on refugees in their countries to go back now that the Taliban has been deposed. But the vast majority of the refugees will not be able to repatriate soon -- because of the deep roots they may have established in their host countries, Afghanistan's limited absorptive capacity, and its dependence on external assistance and migrant remittances for the foreseeable future.

An entity such as SHARE could assemble the historical lessons derived from similar situations and work out how best to incorporate them into the evolving international response. In 1992-93, for example, some 2.9 million Afghan refugees returned from Pakistan and Iran, and their experiences have much to teach about what kinds of policies may be in order. But officials on the ground or in chancellories back home rarely have time to analyze the past or link it to the present, and at best may call in a few experienced practitioners for a quick tutorial and brainstorming session. SHARE could ensure a more careful and systematic process, and the result could well be more effective operations.

In addition to a vast refugee population, Afghanistan also has a large number of internally displaced persons who will have to be reintegrated. Unlike with refugees, no single international organization has a mandate to protect internal exiles and help them re-establish themselves, and this situation is bound to raise complicated coordination issues among a variety of agencies. The pace of repatriation, furthermore, will need to be managed through a careful balance of humanitarian and development assistance for Afghanistan and its neighbors. Here, too, SHARE could provide an expert setting in which decisions could be negotiated to mutual advantage, while at the same time building a body of expertise that could be drawn upon during future crises.

Afghanistan will need a substantial, multiyear reconstruction program to make any kind of refugee return sustainable. Such efforts should draw on the available local talent and address local priorities wherever possible. As the U.N. Development Program puts it, "Afghans must be in the driver's seat." The initial focus will naturally be on discrete measures designed to bring tangible benefits to as many Afghans as possible. These efforts will be supplemented and followed by a wide variety of quick-impact programs involving such matters as education, power and water supply, health, employment, irrigation, agriculture, and drug control. According to the World Bank, such programs will probably cost many hundreds of millions of dollars over the next couple of years. An organization such as share could improve the odds of success by drawing on the lessons of reintegration projects in Cambodia, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Mozambique. Little literature exists on which quick-impact initiatives worked and which did not, but SHARE could convene the people who designed and implemented these projects and serve as a conduit for their advice as the current crisis unfolds.


Another critical task in Afghanistan will be to overcome the disjuncture between relief activities, which have a long history there, and development activities, which have been largely dormant since the 1970s. Relief programs address basic humanitarian needs immediately, leaving everything else for later; development policy works the opposite way, looking at how to build the capacity for governance and economic growth over the long term. But rarely has there been a focus on how to link the two. Relief and development organizations are beginning to cooperate, but there is as yet no institutional bridge between them. Share could provide it.

The development challenges will be daunting. Afghanistan's central and commercial banking system has collapsed. Electricity consumption is among the lowest in the world, and there is only one telephone per 500 people. Less than one-quarter of the population has access to safe water, and only half of that total has adequate sanitation. A largely subsistence agricultural sector has been destroyed and is increasingly devoted to growing poppies for drug production. Child and maternal mortality as well as fertility rates are among the highest in the world. Only 38 percent of boys and 3 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school. The roads are shoddy, and environmental degradation in rural areas is widespread. To address these issues, a new policy research center such as SHARE could pool relevant experience from international operations elsewhere and produce approaches suited to Afghanistan's unique circumstances. The goal would be not sets of static planning documents, but rather a well-functioning process to anticipate potential unintended consequences and enable flexible responses to rapidly evolving events.

Local human rights NGOs are likely to play a crucial role in Afghanistan's future, and the international community should do what it can to nurture them. SHARE could help by disseminating and building on important lessons learned from the U.N.'s experiences in Cambodia and elsewhere. A U.N. peacekeeping operation with broad powers was deployed in Cambodia in 1992. The mission's small human rights unit recognized the importance of encouraging local NGOS so that it would have somebody to whom it could hand over responsibilities at the end of the mission. It offered financial, technical, and administrative assistance -- and the impact of all these efforts turned out to be perhaps the most tangible legacy of the entire Cambodian mission.

In Afghanistan, local human rights NGOs could be an important constituency pressing to reverse the pervasive exclusion of women from public life under Taliban rule. NGOs could also step in to fill the gap when foreigners move on to the next emergency. In places such as Kosovo and East Timor, international operations have found it difficult to cede authority to local officials. Afghanistan is more likely to exhibit the reverse problem: a temptation by outsiders to get out early, letting the problems persist while the world's attention wanes. Not far down the road, a robust NGO sector that insists on official accountability could be an important antidote to local officials who prove corrupt or abusive.

Public security and the rule of law, finally, will be crucial issues for Afghanistan in the wake of the crisis; insecurity can thwart humanitarian assistance as well as the return of refugees and internally displaced persons. An institution such as SHARE could collect information and disseminate advice on how to combat lawlessness and restore public security. Some 4,000-5,000 multinational peacekeepers are to be initially stationed for six months in and around Kabul, but questions about their mission are certain to arise. Will the peacekeepers intervene and arrest locals who commit murder or mayhem against other locals? If so, what will they do with those they arrest? Similar issues vexed international operations in Haiti, the former Yugoslavia, and East Timor.

Afghanistan lacks even the rudiments of a formal judicial system, and the U.N. has little capacity to deploy effective police, much less court and prison personnel. Brahimi's 2000 U.N. peacekeeping report included a package of recommendations for how to establish the rule of law, but little real progress has been made in thinking through how to develop them. Here the international community may have to again reinvent the wheel to be an effective adviser in Afghanistan. The problem is that although building sustainable legal institutions rooted in local traditions is a long-term project, the failure to address such issues early on, before indigenous law enforcement is established, can cause an interim government to lose much of its credibility. An organization such as SHARE could not only identify the problem but also take a stab at addressing it, developing packages that could be applied in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Merely listing the sorts of challenges that the international humanitarian action system will confront in and around Afghanistan during the months and years ahead is disheartening. Matching an understanding of the problems with an understanding of the weaknesses of the institutions set up to tackle them only makes it worse. Still, there are silver linings. As bad as Afghanistan may have it now, conditions are finally improving for the first time in two decades. The country's future will inevitably be brighter than its past. Slowly but steadily, moreover, knowledge is accumulating about how the problems of refugees and development can best be addressed, what kinds of partnerships are necessary among humanitarian organizations, and how operations can be carried out most effectively. Until that knowledge can be assembled in one place and brought to bear on specific tasks, however, it will not have much positive impact. The creation of a small but responsive entity such as SHARE might just have such beneficial consequences. For the sake of the millions of poor, suffering, and displaced people ill served by the current system, it is an experiment worth trying.

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  • Arthur C. Helton is Senior Fellow for Refugee Studies and Preventive Action and Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming The Price of Indifference.
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