Sunrise Over the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan
Sunrise over the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan with mountains in shadow. Credit: Rebecca J Becker

The long shadow: Re-examining Afghanistan two years after US withdrawal

The swift collapse of Afghanistan’s government and takeover by the Taliban in August 2021, following the withdrawal of US and NATO troops, ended 20 years of military intervention.

However, it has also precipitated a devastating humanitarian crisis that demands renewed international engagement.

Over the past two years, the Afghan people have been plunged into a waking nightmare. More than 80% of the population now lives below the poverty line as the economy continues to contract, jobs vanish, and government services crumble. Malnutrition threatens over 1 million Afghan children as food insecurity engulfs the country. Healthcare systems are failing, with substantial drops in essential services and immunisation rates.

Far from enabling stability, the 2021 withdrawal of NATO and US forces plunged Afghanistan into turmoil, triggering a devastating humanitarian emergency that continues unchecked. With over 28 million people now dependent on humanitarian assistance, Afghanistan faces a crisis of staggering proportions. However benign its intentions, foreign disengagement has proven calamitous.

The heavy toll on women and girls

For women and girls, the Taliban’s severe restrictions have been devastating. Young women once optimistic about becoming doctors or teachers are now being denied access to secondary and university education. The taboo around working outside the home has left many skilled women jobless, their ambitions suddenly meaningless in the eyes of the authorities. Women who once ran businesses now witness their livelihoods being ruptured, plunging their families into poverty. Public space feels dangerous, with strict rules curtailing movement and attire. The future stretches ahead bleakly as youthful aspirations meet authoritarian barriers.

Across Afghanistan, in big cities and small villages, women and girls carry on stoically, their resolve held intact even as their freedoms unravel. They know first-hand the far-reaching consequences as Taliban dictates undermine women’s advancement and Afghanistan’s development. Though hope is difficult to nurture, many cling to a vision where one day their rights and ambitions can flourish freely again.

Plunging humanitarian assistance despite desperate need

Humanitarian assistance shortfalls are another harsh reality. In March 2023, the UN launched a $4.6 billion appeal to assist 23.7 million people in 2023, although it predicted 28.3 million would need support. This was the largest appeal in UN history. As of May 2023, it was only 7.2% funded. Donor weariness has left real lives hanging in the balance. This shortfall might be the last straw for Afghans, who are already suffering from conflict. Maintaining global engagement and overcoming donor fatigue requires deep reserves of empathy and moral imagination.

We cannot ignore the significant reduction in the United Kingdom’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Afghanistan at this critical time, as the reduction rate reached approximately 46.6% for 23–24, dealing a real blow to relief and development efforts in Afghanistan.

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The impossible task facing humanitarian workers in Afghanistan

For humanitarian workers, the immensity of Afghanistan’s crisis feels personal. They work without rest, striving to provide food, medicine, and essential goods to communities in need, fully aware that people’s lives are at stake. These humanitarian workers know that the international community, despite good intentions, contributed to the current instability.

They find themselves stuck in an impossible situation. They urgently want to provide relief but are trapped between the policies of the Taliban and the politics of the international community. One day a Taliban official approves a programme, and the next day he blocks it. Organisations face confusing layers of permission, rejection, and bureaucracy. Staff endure harassment by armed guards at checkpoints, never knowing what reaction to expect. Local people grow frustrated as planned projects get endlessly delayed.

Coherent guidelines would ease constant uncertainties. Humanitarian workers feel that international reluctance to formally engage the Taliban makes their perilous work even riskier. They understand the desire to uphold principles but believe pragmatic engagement could better serve suffering communities. After all, local people don’t need speeches or posturing from afar, they need access to food, shelter, and medicine.

Policy ambiguity means even basic acts like vaccine delivery or nutrition programmes become politicised quagmires. Clear, unified guidelines oriented towards Afghanistan’s welfare could streamline practical realities. Until then, workers continue manoeuvring through layers of red tape and suspicion, trying to funnel help through cracks rather than open channels. For Afghans desperate for relief, time lost to political complexities can cost lives.

An ongoing moral duty: The UK’s continued obligations to the Afghan people

The future remains uncertain. Afghans have endured invasions, occupations, and withdrawals. They know transition brings the unexpected. Their resilience is remarkable. Still, the rotating door of foreign engagement must be demoralising. I hope the lessons of the withdrawal include more farsighted solutions that truly empower local communities.

As a leading NATO member, the UK bears particular responsibility. The British withdrawal contributed to the security vacuum, allowing a Taliban resurgence. The UK government must avoid total disengagement. It should maintain diplomatic ties with Taliban leadership to push for humanitarian access, girls’ education, and human rights reforms.

The UK should also continue development and humanitarian projects through trusted NGOs targeted at women, children, minorities, and other marginalised groups. Financial and technical support for livelihoods, healthcare, schooling, and community initiatives can make an immense difference. Increased refugee intake and resettlement schemes for at-risk Afghan citizens would equally demonstrate continued commitment.

As a top donor historically, ‘global Britain’ must recognise its ongoing duties towards Afghanistan during this perilous time. Turning away will not isolate the UK from the crisis, whether through mass migration flows or terrorism risks if instability grows. Staying engaged at the humanitarian level, with civil society partners on the ground, provides the only ethical and pragmatic way forward.


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