Unveiling the Unprecedented: Understanding Afghanistan’s Devastating Humanitarian Emergency

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Unveiling the Unprecedented: Understanding Afghanistan’s Devastating Humanitarian Emergency

Written by Anant Gupta
Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur

Table of Contents


After two decades of protracted conflict, a plethora of terrorist incidents, and the unfortunate toll of civilian casualties, we direct our attention to Afghanistan, an expansive landlocked nation ranking third in size on the Asian continent. The humanitarian quandary within Afghanistan has considerably deteriorated over the past couple of years since the withdrawal of U.S. military forces. One can anticipate the gravity of this situation by noting that over 50% of Afghanistan’s colossal 390 million population confronts the spectre of acute food scarcities this forthcoming winter season.

Since the Taliban’s ascent to governmental authority, nearly every nation across the globe has severed diplomatic ties and withheld formal recognition. Even Pakistan, which purports to maintain amicable relations with the Taliban, has not extended the approval of acknowledgement. Concomitantly, international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have enforced financial embargoes on Afghanistan.

How bad is the situation?

Prior to the U.S. troop withdrawal and the ensuing Taliban resurgence, Afghanistan had already grappled with one of the globe’s most intricate Complex Humanitarian Emergencies (CHEs). However, post-withdrawal, the circumstances have drastically exacerbated, to an extent where a staggering 23 million individuals find themselves in a state of dire exigency for sustenance, as reported by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). Of this populace, an alarming 9 million confront the edge of an acute food shortage at the emergency level. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns that 3.2 million minors face the imminent peril of acute malnourishment, among whom, tragically, 1 million are at grave risk of succumbing. This portends a stark reality where the likelihood of an Afghan infant experiencing the pangs of hunger and perishing is currently at its highest in two decades. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proclaims that come mid-204, Afghanistan may confront the ominous threat of “universal poverty,” signifying that a staggering 97% of the Afghan populace will be residing below the internationally defined poverty threshold, as designated by the World Bank at a meagre $1.90 per diem. The unrelenting deterioration of these circumstances foreshadows an impending transformation, wherein Afghanistan is poised to overtake Yemen, heralding the emergence of the world’s most expansive humanitarian catastrophe.

End of the U.S.’s 20-year war

The genesis of this chronicle can be traced back to September 11, 2001, when a terrorist organization, under the leadership of Osama bin Laden, was implicated in orchestrating an assault on the World Trade Centre in New York, within the United States. During that epoch, Afghanistan was under the rule of the Taliban, a regime that had held sway since 1996. President George W. Bush of the United States, discerning the need for intervention, devised a strategic plan to initiate military incursion into Afghanistan, which he subsequently executed.

After this pivotal juncture, two decades have transpired, marked by transitions in leadership both in the United States and Afghanistan, yet the presence of U.S. armed forces on Afghan soil remained unabated. A pivotal moment arrived during the administration of President Trump, who, in 2019, convened negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, to deliberate upon the partitioning of authority between the democratically elected government, led by President Ashraf Ghani, and the Taliban.

However, it was during President Biden’s tenure that a diminishment of military deployment in Afghanistan materialized, culminating on September 11th as the final departure date for any U.S. military personnel from Afghan territory.

Taliban’s takeover

Numerous conjectures had arisen concerning the Taliban’s ascendance in Afghanistan following the United States’ withdrawal and the expeditiousness of this transition. Various geopolitical analysts and erudite scholars posited that it would necessitate an approximate duration of 150 to 180 days for the complete subjugation of Afghanistan. However, the global community was profoundly disconcerted when the Taliban effectively wrested control of Afghanistan in a mere decimation of 10 days. In the wake of this staggering seizure of power, a mass exodus unfolded, as individuals sought to escape the country due to apprehensions stemming from the Taliban’s brutal historical governance from 1996 to 2001. The Afghan populace made perilous attempts to reach the airport, leading to an unfortunate tally of inadvertent fatalities and widespread suffering. Nations worldwide, India included, dispatched aircraft to repatriate their citizens trapped within the throes of the Afghan turmoil.

Following the cessation of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, over 120,000 Afghan individuals were evacuated and resettled globally, with approximately 76,000 having entered the United States as of August 2022. Those who opted to remain within the territorial jurisdiction governed by the Taliban witnessed a regression, marked by the erosion of advancements in liberal and democratic rights accrued over the preceding two decades. Notably, the reimplementation of prohibitions on girls attending secondary schools, the imposition of travel restrictions on women necessitating a male-relative companion for substantial journeys, and the compulsory veiling of faces in public are indicative of the curtailment of individual freedoms. Furthermore, the prescription of music and the reinstatement of punitive measures such as flogging, amputations, and mass executions contribute to the substantial reversal of societal norms.

An investigative report by The New York Times reveals that, within the initial six months of Taliban governance, nearly 500 government officials and members of the Afghan security forces have either been killed or subjected to forced disappearances. Additionally, the Afghan populace remains exposed to elevated risks of terrorist activities, exemplified by the August 2022 mosque bombing and the September 2022 bombing of the Russian Embassy in Kabul, both attributed to the actions of the Islamic State.

Violation of IHL Principles

All entities involved in the conflict are obligated by Article 3, a provision common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which establishes the minimum standard to be upheld. This provision mandates humane treatment without discriminatory practices for all individuals who are not actively engaged in hostilities or no longer participating in them. Additionally, customary international humanitarian law, pertinent to non-international armed conflicts, is binding on all parties.

Beyond international humanitarian law, international human rights law remains applicable during armed conflicts. According to human rights law, the state controlling the territory is responsible for preventing and investigating alleged violations, even when perpetrated by non-state actors. It is essential to emphasize that, despite the Taliban assuming power, the pre-existing obligations of Afghanistan under international humanitarian law persist due to the principle of the continuity of the State.

Constraints on the rights of women, the autonomy of the media, and the liberty of expression experienced a substantial surge. Entities established to uphold human rights encountered severe constraints, including complete closure. Individuals engaging in peaceful protests were subjected to arbitrary arrests, instances of torture, and enforced disappearances. The Taliban carried out extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture, and unlawful incarcerations of perceived adversaries with impunity, fostering an environment of intimidation.

The prevalence of dire economic circumstances intensified, exacerbated by factors such as drought and other natural calamities. Public executions and floggings were employed as punitive measures for offences like homicide, theft, involvement in “illegitimate” relationships, or contravention of societal norms. The assault on women’s rights persisted, with a marked curtailment of women’s involvement in public affairs. Nearly all establishments established to combat gender-based violence during the previous administration were shuttered by the Taliban is a gross violation of the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL). The primary apprehension of the international community revolves around the persistence of foreign militant entities that historically sought refuge under the auspices of the Taliban. This is exemplified by the U.S. strike on 31 July, resulting in the demise of Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, within the confines of Kabul.

Whether economic rupture in Afghanistan constitutes a crime against humanity

The Rome Statute does not specifically include economic disruption as a crime against humanity. According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute, crimes against humanity are generally characterised as acts of murder, torture, persecution, and other inhumane treatment carried out as a component of a large-scale or deliberate assault on a civilian population. The Rome Statute does, however, acknowledge that crimes against humanity might include “other inhumane acts” in a broader sense.

While economic difficulties can undoubtedly lead to severe humanitarian crises, determining whether economic rupture alone constitutes a crime against humanity within the current framework of the Rome Statute may be challenging. The statute focuses on acts that involve direct physical harm or egregious violations of human rights. Economic policies or actions that lead to widespread suffering, deprivation, or denial of fundamental rights might be considered in a broader context of human rights abuses, but defining them as crimes against humanity would necessitate a careful examination of legal principles and international agreement.

For economic actions to be considered crimes against humanity, there would likely need to be a clear connection between those actions and the widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population. Questions of intent, scale, and the resulting impact on the basic rights and well-being of the population would be crucial in such an analysis.

The violations of human rights as a result of Taliban actions necessitate expanding the scope of the Rome Statute to include crimes that strategically and structurally decimate the basic rights of citizens that are not fully addressed by the existing categories of crimes. In the context of issues like economic rupture or other forms of systematic oppression, legal scholars and advocates may argue for the inclusion of additional crimes or the refinement of existing definitions.

Legal and international discussion may be warranted if the Rome Statute’s purview was explicitly extended to cover economic disruption or other types of systematic harm to people’s fundamental rights. Previous revisions to the statute have taken into account advances in international law. The International Criminal Court (ICC) may propose amendments to the legislation, or the nations parties to the Rome legislation may do so on its initiative.

International humanitarian response

A convocation presided over by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened to scrutinize the prevailing state of affairs in Afghanistan and to furnish immediate succour to its inhabitants. A total of 1.2 billion U.S. dollars was amassed through the collective contributions of participating nations, of which 606 million U.S. dollars were promptly disbursed by the conclusion of 2021. Notably, a third of the Afghan populace grapples with an exigent state of food insecurity, and over fifty percent of Afghan children teeter on the brink of severe malnutrition.

China has offered humanitarian relief, including sustenance and Covid-19 vaccines, amounting to 30 million U.S. dollars. India, on its part, has committed to dispatch 50,000 metric tons of wheat to Afghanistan as a measure to alleviate the burgeoning hunger crisis. Regrettably, the delivery of this aid has been impeded due to Pakistan’s non-compliance with regard to permitting Indian conveyances to traverse its terrain, a situation stemming from their ongoing border disputes with India.

While the Taliban insurgency remains a paramount challenge, Afghanistan contends with an array of other adversities, encompassing widening impoverishment, migratory flux, internal schisms, climate change-induced floods and arid spells, in addition to the persistent threat of the coronavirus. The United Nations’ approach to provisioning immediate relief may furnish short-term respite; however, it may prove ineffective in mitigating a protracted and catastrophic humanitarian crisis. Over-reliance on external assistance has the potential to foster adverse incentives, thereby rendering the nation increasingly dependent on foreign support.

The Way Forward

Numerous challenges have arisen as a direct consequence of a singular event: the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan last year, coinciding with the ascension of the Taliban to governance. Subsequently, the imposition of U.S. sanctions on Afghanistan, coupled with stringent constraints on international aid, has exacted a severe toll on the Afghan economy. Despite commendable efforts initiated by both the United Nations and the United States to provide humanitarian relief and support to Afghan civilians, the assistance extended falls far short of the essential requirements. Regrettably, no quantum of food and medical aid can adequately redress the extensive harm incurred due to surging inflation, the collapse of the banking system, the cessation of civil servants’ wages, and sundry other harmful repercussions that disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments of Afghan society.

A state is accountable for any violations of international humanitarian law that may be linked to it, according to Rule 149. This covers transgressions carried out by its armed forces and other organs. Should the Taliban be regarded as the de facto government of Afghanistan, it would be accountable for any acts carried out by its military forces or other organisations with the authority to exercise certain aspects of governmental power. Since the Taliban is the real power in Afghanistan, it would be their responsibility to make sure that their armed forces abide by international humanitarian law. This entails safeguarding people, stopping and punishing war crimes, and making sure that detainees are treated humanely.

As acknowledged by several international legal treaties, commanders and superiors are accountable for stopping and prosecuting war crimes perpetrated by their subordinates. In the case that Taliban military personnel violate international humanitarian law, commanders may be held personally liable for their failure to take appropriate action to stop or punish the infringement.

Whether the transgressions were carried out following directives or instructions is irrelevant to this principle. According to the concept of command responsibility, leaders are responsible for making sure their subordinates follow the laws of war and can be held accountable if they don’t. It is crucial to remember that commanders’ acts or inactions may be held accountable to the state itself if the Taliban, acting as a de facto government, is determined to establish effective control over its military forces.

Over the preceding two decades, the Taliban had pledged a regime characterized by welfare, prosperity, and a marked departure from their prior governance. However, their actions have egregiously deprived them of these assurances. Notably, the absence of female representation in their recently constituted cabinet, coupled with the prohibition of girls’ access to education, stands as a stark testament to this disconnect. If the Taliban evinces an unwillingness to provide for even the most basic requisites of Afghanistan’s populace, they should be held answerable for this dereliction.

Primarily, we must ensure the composition of the ruling government established by the Taliban reflects equitable and comprehensive representation across all social strata, encompassing diverse ethnic groups, women, and the youth. Such an objective can be realized through diplomatic engagements within the international community, for it is evident that unless the underlying root causes of the escalating humanitarian crisis are addressed, the ramifications thereof extend beyond regional stability and encroach upon broader global peace and security. We have already borne witness to the consequences of leaving the prior Taliban regime to its own devices, an occurrence that culminated in an assault on the world’s preeminent superpower, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives.

In conclusion, the requisite course of action is not to perpetuate the disbursement of humanitarian aid to the nation in perpetuity, nor to wholly disengage from the situation, but rather to pursue a lasting resolution by establishing an inclusive government committed to the essential well-being of the Afghan people. These individuals have endured nearly four decades of conflict, and the international community must ensure that their rights remain inviolate, and their fundamental requirements are adequately met. Such an outcome will serve to engender peace and stability, not only within the region but across the wider global landscape.

Keywords: Afghanistan, Humanitarian Crises, Taliban, US