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[Research Reports] Humanitarian Crisis after the Collapse of the Afghan Government and Japan's Role

Daisaku Higashi (Professor, Center for Global Education, Sophia University (and the Sophia Institute of International Relations))
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Research Group on 'Global Issues' FY2021-# 5

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

State Building After 9/11 and the Collapse of the Ghani Government

After fighting the Afghan government for years, the Taliban finally besieged the capital Kabul on August 15, 2021. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and the Afghan government collapsed.

Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the United States concluded that the international terrorist organization al-Qaeda was responsible and urged the Taliban government to immediately hand over all al-Qaeda members to the United States. The Taliban government replied that it would cooperate with the investigation but could not immediately concede to the extradition request, following which the US launched a military attack in October 2001. Taliban officials fled to Pakistan and Hamid Karzai took over as interim president in Afghanistan, marking the start of new state-building.

The Taliban, which had controlled 90% of the country until then, were completely excluded in the state-building efforts that were undertaken, and popular opposition to the corruption of Karzai's regime increased. From around 2005, the Taliban reorganized and expanded their territory rapidly, mainly in the south and east. Peace negotiations subsequently began. However, after the withdrawal of US forces had been officially announced in April 2021, the Taliban accelerated their military offensive across the country, launching simultaneous attacks on the capitals of 34 provinces in early August. Government forces resisted for several days in Kunduz and other provinces, but soon surrendered. There was no subsequent military resistance in any province as control was voluntarily handed over to the Taliban. The day after Ghani fled the country, the Taliban entered Kabul unopposed and took control of all of Afghanistan.

In this article, I would like to describe (1) the history of, and challenges in, the Afghan peace process, (2) the security situation since the return of the Taliban to power on August 15, (3) economic sanctions against Afghanistan, humanitarian catastrophe and the risks and contradictions of these sanctions, (4) the resumption of Japanese NGOs' activities in Afghanistan, and (5) the role that Japan can play in the future.

Afghan Peace Process and Its Failures

Karzai was elected interim president of Afghanistan at the end of 2001, with a formal government established following a presidential election in 2004 and parliamentary elections in 2005. However, from around 2005, the Taliban, whose messages asking for dialogue with the Karzai government had been repeatedly rejected, turned around and went on the offensive, rapidly expanding their territory. [*]1

Amid the rapidly worsening security situation, I conducted field research for about three months in 2008 in the capital city of Kabul, the central provinces of Kapisa and Wardak, and the southern province of Kandahar, and interviewed about 70 people, including Cabinet ministers and senior UN officials. A questionnaire survey of a total of 260 persons was also carried out in the three provinces above. In 2008, the Taliban already controlled nearly 70% of the eastern and southern parts of the country, and I visited the centers of these provinces (their provincial capitals) with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Afghan government escort vehicles; and I requested local villagers to gather to take part in the survey.

The details of this survey can be found in the report published by the then United Nations Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in 2008 and in my book entitled Heiwa kōchiku ("Peacebuilding") published by Iwanami Shinsho in 2009. [*]2 The most surprising finding was that senior Afghan government and the UN officials as well as civilian representatives of the ISAF all agreed that "[i]t is impossible to destroy the Taliban militarily or drive them out of the country, and the only way is to reconcile through political negotiations".[*]3 In a public survey, 98% of the respondents in Kandahar and Kapisa provinces, home to the Pashtuns, the main ethnic group of the Taliban, and 69% of the respondents in Kapisa Province, populated by Tajiks, answered that they would even support a coalition government between the Karzai government and the Taliban. Thus, it became clear that the vast majority of the population hoped for an end to the civil war and the resolution through political reconciliation.

Based on these research, I proposed that Japan play a leading role in creating a framework for political negotiations toward reconciliation with the Taliban. Dr. Sadako Ogata, who was the president of JICA at the time and who supported the survey, gave copies of my book to senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I had the opportunity to discuss the proposal with several directors-general in charge of Afghan policy, the special envoy to Afghanistan and the foreign minister. As a result, the Japanese government officially announced support for reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan as one of the three pillars of its assistance to Afghanistan in November 2009.

Because of my field research conducted in cooperation with UNAMA, I applied for and was offered a position of senior political officer in UNAMA. After arriving in Kabul in December, I became the head of UNAMA's Reconciliation and Reintegration Team to assist the Afghan government in establishing a new reconciliation program. At the end of 2010, the Afghan government established the Afghan High Peace Council, an international trust fund for Afghan reconciliation, and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Programme, to which major donors including the United States, Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and Australia decided to contribute funds. The international community and the Afghan government agreed to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.

After 2011, however, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government and between the United States and Pakistan (Pakistan has consistently supported the Taliban) were repeatedly interrupted, and eight years were wasted without any lasting peace negotiations. For this reason, the Taliban demanded that the United States negotiate with them first on a bilateral basis. Although the United States was initially opposed to this, President Trump, who did not feel bound by diplomatic convention, made the decision to do so, and bilateral talks between the United States and the Taliban began in October 2018 with Qatar as the mediator.

A total of ten rounds of talks were held over one and half years, and the Trump administration and the Taliban reached an agreement at the end of February 2020. Under the agreement, the United States would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan within 14 months and the Taliban would do its best to prevent international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda from operating there. It should be noted that the Trump administration accepted the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan only on the promises by the Taliban that it would not allow any international terrorist organization to operate and that it would discuss future governance with the Afghan government.4

Following the agreement between the U.S and the Taliban, in September 2020, negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban began in Qatar. In conjunction with this development, I began a series of online seminars on the Afghan peace process with Mr. Nadir Naim, former Vice Chairman of the Afghan Peace Council (now the head of Kabul Institute for Peace) in January 2021. The first session had Dr. Naim, Mr. Peter Due, Director in Asia and Pacific Division at UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and Department of Peace Operations (DPO) at UN Headquarters, and Mr. Akihiro Tsuji, then Director of the Second Middle East Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan as panelists and attracted more than 300 participants from around the world. The second seminar was held on May 12, with Ms. Habiba Sarabi, a former member of the Afghan government's negotiating team and a prominent female figure, as well as Mr. Kansuke Nagaoka, then Deputy Director-General (now Director-General) of the Middle East and African Affairs Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, and Mr. Stephen Brooking, Head of of Peace and Reconciliation in UNAMA. They discussed, together with Mr. Naim, the issue of peace negotiations after the withdrawal of US forces. For the third seminar, I requested, together with Mr. Naim, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (No.2 in the previous Afghan government and the head of the Afghan peace negotiation team at the time) to speak for the seminar and we received his acceptance; but the Afghan government collapsed while we were arranging the schedule. Consequently, the Afghan peace process itself failed.

The Collapse of the Afghan Government and the Security Situation

Security itself has improved dramatically since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, with fighting coming to an end across the country and strict governance for common crimes, according to UN reports, senior UN officials, the BBC reports and other sources as well as Mr. Naim, who remains in Kabul continuing his civic activities. Until the summer in 2021, around 20,000 fighters and thousands of civilians were estimated to be killed each year in fierce fighting; thus the improvement in security is very significant. Now people can reach Wardak and Kandahar in unescorted cars, and shops can stay open into the night.

The only exception is the indiscriminate mass attacks against civilians carried out by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). Indiscriminate attacks by ISIS-K were carried out at Kabul Airport on August 26, at a mosque in Kunduz Province on October 8 and at a mosque in Kandahar Province on October 15. Nearly 200 people died at Kabul Airport, and other attacks killed dozens at a time. The Taliban and ISIS-K have been engaged in fierce fighting over the last few years, and containing ISIS-K has become a major challenge for the Taliban.

It is important to recognize the difference between the Taliban and ISIS-K. The Taliban has always aimed to govern Afghanistan as a nationalist movement and has not carried out attacks outside the country. In addition, as examined, the Taliban has continued negotiations with the US since October 2018 and cooperated with the US military at checkpoints around Kabul Airport during the evacuation operations conducted by the US from August 15 to August 30 in 2021. At a press conference after completing the evacuation operations, General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of US Central Command, stated that he was frankly grateful for the cooperation of the Taliban.5 The United Nations has repeatedly emphasized at the UN Security Council that the Taliban is cooperative on humanitarian assistance. On the other hand, the Islamic State is a radical group that carries out terrorist attacks outside the country with the aim of subverting the global order and does not allow UN staff to enter areas it controls, and it absolutely rejects dialogue with the United States and other western countries. These represent some degree of fundamental differences between the two groups.

Economic Sanctions and Humanitarian Catastrophe

Since the collapse of the Afghan government on August 15, the United States and other countries have frozen some 9 billion US dollars of the Afghan Central Bank assets held in their countries (about 7 billion US dollars of which is in US side), and in principle have banned remittances from overseas (although an exception was made for humanitarian aid, actual remittances remain extremely difficult due to financial institutions' fears that they will violate the financial sanctions). As a result, Afghanistan has run out of foreign currency, and the banks have effectively stopped functioning. Ordinary citizens do not get their salaries paid and cannot do business. They have sold furniture and clothes to get food, but they are running out of these as well. Some Afghan began selling their children or their kidney. The United Nations, including the WFP, has warned on numerous occasions that, if this situation continues, 23 million people will be starving, and several millions may die by March 2022. The BBC and the New York Times have repeatedly reported on the appalling hunger in Afghanistan since October 2021.

In response to this situation, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres hosted an international conference on the Afghan humanitarian crisis in September 2021, at which a total of approximately 120 billion yen was pledged by the United States and other countries. For the whole of 2021, Japan contributed approximately US$200 million (22 billion yen) in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the supplementary budget passed at the end of December 2021 included an additional US$100 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. Thus, Japan has been making a significant contribution for humanitarian assistance. However, as long as the banking system in Afghanistan remains paralyzed, the economic hard times will be worsened. [*]6

There seems to be three contradictions in the US financial sanctions. The first is that the imposition of economic sanctions to compel the Taliban to protect the human rights of Afghans is actually driving millions of completely innocent people, most of whom are women and children, to face death by starvation; this contradiction has been criticized by many US media outlets. [*]7

The second contradiction is that, if the Taliban were to be cornered and collapsed by economic sanctions, Afghanistan would almost certainly return to civil war, and it is projected that ISIS-K would capture one-third to one-half of the country's territory. This would be a worst-case scenario for Afghans as well as for the United States and the international community in their effort to contain the international terrorist organizations in Afghanistan.

Third, if millions of Afghans were to die from starvation, China and Russia would undoubtedly denounce the US and other Western countries of having used sanctions to result in the death of millions of innocent people; it is an urgent issue that would impact credibility in all democratic countries, including Japan.

Japanese NGOs Resuming Activities

In the middle of this tense humanitarian situation, Japanese NGOs have resumed operations in Afghanistan after consulting with the Taliban. Peace Medical Services (PMS), which was represented by the late Dr. Tetsu Nakamura until 2019, resumed all aspects of medical care, agriculture and irrigation projects (construction of irrigation canals) on October 7, 2021. Since 2001, PMS has succeeded in restoring 16,500 hectares of land that was deserted by global warming to farmland through the construction of canals and other irrigation approaches using traditional Japanese methods when the previous Afghan government was in power. Now 650,000 farmers are cultivating and living on new farmland, revived by PMS. By the end of 2021, textbooks as well as DVDs of this irrigation approaches by PMS were completed in Japanese, English, Dari and Pashtun to teach PMS techniques throughout Afghanistan. From 2022, JICA, FAO, and PMS were supposed to start a project to spread these techniques throughout Afghanistan, using the textbooks, but the project was put on hold after the collapse of the former regime. The resumption of this nationwide project in collaboration with international organizations is very crucial and will be a unique contribution by Japan to support starving Afghan population to make their own living. The basic principle of Japan's assistance to developing countries is to help enable people to live with self-reliance and stability. In Afghanistan, where 90% of the people are estimated to be farmers, the expansion of this irrigation system is extremely important considering the rapid desertification of agricultural land in Afghanistan due to global warming. (The amounts of waters coming from snow in mountains continue to decline in past two decades in Afghanistan.)

The other Japanese NGO, called "Karez Health and Educational Services," based in Shizuoka Prefecture, has provided medical and educational support in the southern province of Kandahar. It has also been in constant consultation with the Taliban, who have welcomed the activities, and its staff of 13 women continues to work as usual. The Taliban have also asked that the clinic's activities be expanded across Kandahar. Other prominent Japanese NGOs, such as the Association for Aid to Refugees (AAR) and Peace Winds Japan, have also resumed humanitarian aid after consulting with the Taliban de-facto government. The biggest challenge, however, is that it is extremely difficult to transfer funds, including staff salaries, to Afghanistan due to economic sanctions.

Roles that Japan Can Play

In response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, the Japan Parliamentarians Federation for Population (JPFP), a non-partisan group by parliament members in Japan, chaired by Ms. Yoko Kamikawa, former Minister of Legal Affairs, held an emergency meeting on December 8, 2021. At this meeting, I explained the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the contradictions of economic sanctions, and made the following five policy recommendations regarding the roles that Japan can play:

  1. Japan should expand humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan to save the lives of starving population as many as possible.

  2. While much of this funding will go to international organizations (such as the WFP and UNHCR), Japanese NGOs also want to expand humanitarian assistance so Japan should increase its assistance through Japanese NGOs.

  3. Japan should define humanitarian aid as broadly as possible, supporting not only food and health care but also education and agriculture (irrigation canals/networks). Japan, for instance, had a record of providing agricultural assistance to Sudan as part of its humanitarian assistance. Saving the lives of millions of starving Afghan people through the revival of agricultural lands serves the ends of human security as well.

  4. Japan should privately inform US President Joe Biden that, at the very least, lifting financial sanctions is urgent in terms of saving lives and combatting international terrorist organizations (containing ISIS-K).

  5. In cooperation with Central Asian countries (C5) and Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia and Qatar), the Japanese government can co-host an "Afghan Humanitarian Conference" in late 2022 or 2023 with the United Nations, having some focus on the revival of agriculture. Japan can create momentum to support the Afghan people to become self-reliant and help the country to be stabilized so that it will not become a base for international terrorist groups again. Japan's contribution to the stability of Afghanistan should be welcomed by the United States and other western countries.

I believe these roles are a concrete policy by which Japan can serve as a "global facilitator (promoter of global dialogue)" as I have long advocated; JPFP President Yoko Kamikawa and Secretary-General Hitoshi Kikawada met with Minister for Foreign Affairs Yoshimasa Hayashi and Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara on December 23, 2021 and submitted the five proposals above as their policy recommendations. (I accompanied these meetings to explain the details of the proposals.).

Summary - Support for "Self-reliance and Stability"

The Taliban allows girls to receive compulsory primary school education across all of Afghanistan, but only about 10 of the 34 provinces have resumed middle/high school education (these two levels are combined in Afghanistan) for girls; university education for women has restarted in only a limited number of places. The Taliban announced that they would resume all education for women in all provinces by the end of March 2022, but the resumption was postponed, and the situation remains unpredictable. Even before it took over the country, the Taliban promised to promote education and employment for women and to suppress international terrorist organizations, and it is extremely important for Japan to continue encouraging the Taliban through dialogue to ensure that they maintain these two pledges and become an internationally recognized and tolerant government.

While most countries in the Middle East and Central Asia maintain undemocratic and authoritarian regimes, Japan maintains very friendly relations with those countries (as other Western countries do), which is an important asset to Japan. Regarding Afghanistan, Japan can play a unique role in facilitating partnership in the Middle East and Central Asia to promote the self-reliance and stability of Afghanistan. This support will be appreciated by the Afghan people as well as by the United States and the international community as a whole, as Afghanistan will not once again become a base for international terrorist organizations.

Continuing sanctions, and trying to support the people while preventing any funds from going to inside of Afghanistan, is unrealistic since the Taliban already have complete control over both the central and local governments, and 97% of government employees are reported to be the same officials from the former regime who continue to work under the current Taliban regime (it is practically impossible to normalize the economy by excluding all such government officials; and international organizations and NGOs are providing assistance in consultation with the government officials, who are currently a part of the Taliban de-facto government). It is also not sustainable that humanitarian agencies keep bringing in wheat and oil purchased outside the country to maintain the lives of 40 million Afghans while economic activities are frozen.

Regardless of whether the Taliban will be recognized as a government in any time soon, it is important to normalize the economy and finance first so that the Afghan people can survive and live on their own. In parallel, Japan should continue dialogue with the Taliban and encourage it to become an internationally tolerant and acceptable regime.

(This article generally follows the argument of a paper published in Japanese under the same title on 28 February 2022, but contains some modifications.)

1 For details of the process and the peace negotiations, see Daisaku Higashi, "Inclusivity in Mediation and Peacebuilding: UN, Neighboring States, and Global Powers" (Edward Elgar 2022). The peace process of Afghanistan is examined in Chapter 4.
2 Daisaku Higashi, Challenge of Constructing Legitimacy in Peacebuilding: Case of Afghanistan (September 2008),
3 Daisaku Higashi, "Challenges of Constructing Legitimacy in Peacebuilding: Afghanistan, Iraq, Sierra Leone, and East Timor" (Routledge 2015).
4 Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America, signed on 29 February 2020.
5 You could see the press conference at C-SPAN, "Defense Department Briefing on U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan, 30 August 2021" at
6 BBC October 25, 2021 report Afghan baby girl sold for $500 by starving family.
7 New York Times columnist Max Fisher "Is the United States Driving Afghanistan Toward Famine?" October 29, 2021; MSNBC columnist Zeeshan Aleem, "Afghan Hunger Crises is a problem the U.S. can fix." (November 11, 2021); New York Times, "A looming hunger catastrophe: In Afghanistan, aid groups fear millions could die, and calls grow to end passages" (December 7, 2021).