E.g., 09/26/2023
E.g., 09/26/2023
Reconstructing Afghanistan: Lessons for Post-War Iraq?

Reconstructing Afghanistan: Lessons for Post-War Iraq?

As Iraqi civilians begin to feel the impact of their country's third major conflict in two decades, international policymakers concerned with humanitarian aid in Iraq have the opportunity to apply lessons from yet another war-torn nation — Afghanistan. Though their efforts have by no means yielded unqualified success, Afghanistan's transitional government, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations have together presided over the return of millions of displaced Afghans and are dealing with the security concerns of an immediate post-totalitarian, post-war state. The challenges facing Afghanistan are similar to those that are likely to be faced by humanitarians with the end of war in Iraq. From the role of the military in distributing relief supplies to the importance of security for reconstruction and development, there are lessons to be learned.

Current Conditions in Afghanistan

Twenty-three years of conflict, four consecutive years of drought, and a repressive government unconcerned with economic development or other basic communal needs combined to produce the exodus of over six million people from Afghanistan between 1980 and 2001. An estimated one million Afghans were thought to be internally displaced as well, a number that increased during the early weeks of U.S. military action in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.

Since the final collapse of the Taliban in early 2002, over two million refugees have returned to Afghanistan. But not all have returned "home:" the majority — 60 percent — of the returnees have gone to the capital, Kabul, and the immediately surrounding areas (Kabul Province and Nangarhar Province to the east). Significant numbers of refugees are also returning to the tribal areas along the southern and south-eastern border with Pakistanm where sporadic fighting continues. A large influx of people into these insecure areas can have negative implications for the overall safety of civilians in the region.

However, over 70 percent of the total number of returnees are the relatively "new," mostly urban refugees who fled Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban between 1994-1995 and 2001. "Long-stayer" Afghans who fled during the Soviet occupation and civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal have been less enthusiastic about returning than those who fled the Taliban. There are various reasons for this reluctance. Many Afghan refugees have settled into lives in Pakistan during their 20 years abroad, have children who were born in Pakistan, or have seen their property and livelihoods destroyed in Afghanistan and are fearful of what would await them on return.

Regardless of the reasons such refugees may be hesitant to leave, it is clear that Pakistan's government is anxious to see them go home. Public acceptance of Afghan refugees in Pakistan has deteriorated sharply in recent years, and calls by the government for the refugees to return home have become louder. Swayed by these pressures, on March 17, 2003, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) signed a "historic" tripartite agreement on the return of such long-stayer populations, establishing a formal, three-year process for the "gradual and sustainable" voluntary repatriation of the estimated 1.5 million Afghan refugees remaining in Pakistan. UNHCR officials estimate that 600,000 Afghan refugees will return over the course of 2003 alone.

Returns have been difficult to "manage" because the numbers have proven to be substantially higher than anticipated. UNHCR was forced to reduce the rations given to both refugees and internally displaced persons. Though necessary in light of the fact that many international donor states had not yet lived up to their pledges, the diminished reintegration assistance may have compounded the social and economic pressures already felt both in urban centers and in villages, as well as adding to the strain of having to feed and support thousands more people in drought-stricken rural areas. The past year was been marked by cautionary statements from UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and international NGOs providing assistance in Afghanistan, which suggested that returns should be facilitated but not encouraged until needs assessments and regional profiles were completed to arrive at a full understanding of actual conditions in areas of return. Their reasoning was that people returning too hastily to agriculturally unstable areas lacking basic community infrastructure, agricultural inputs, and/or other means of livelihood support were likely to become displaced again once the inadequacy of local food supplies and international relief assistance became clear.

Physical security has been another profound concern in a country with a fledgling central government and judicial system. Many areas are under the control of warlords, and armed opposition to the central government continues, particularly in the south of the country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, in a report to the UN Security Council on March 21, 2003, cited security as the "most serious challenge facing the peace process in Afghanistan — the re-establishment of the rule of law, elimination of human rights abuses, reconstruction and political transformation are all impeded by the uncertain security situation."

As a result of such pressures, in early spring 2003 UNHCR announced a "shift in focus" on return from one of maximizing the number of returnees to one of ensuring the sustainability of return. Additionally, more attention will be paid by UNHCR and partner NGOs to assisting returns and reintegration to rural areas in order to avoid overburdening the cities.

Demobilization of combatants is another key concern. A July 2002 study conducted by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) estimated that there are 200-300,000 armed people in Afghanistan, most heavily concentrated in the north. Demobilizing these people and decommissioning their weapons is crucial to creating a more secure post-war environment. However, the demobilization issue poses a dilemma: in a tense security environment such as Afghanistan, with several armed groups competing for power and spoils, pushing too hard for demobilization too quickly can be destabilizing. At the same time, however, a lack of demobilization is destabilizing as well. In this light, security is as much a question of economics as of power or loyalty. Demobilization is much less destabilizing when done with a provision of economic and employment alternatives. The time nexus between demobilization and the creation of a national army, therefore, is crucial, particularly in terms of integrating former combatants, militias, etc., into the national army and thereby "solving" the twin problems of decommissioning and lack of alternatives.

Applications in Iraq?

What lessons can the international community learn from the situation in Afghanistan and apply should large-scale return and reconstruction begin in post-war Iraq?

Iraq will likely pose many of the same challenges for humanitarians as has Afghanistan: large displaced populations (estimated at up to one million internally displaced persons and 300-500,000 recognized refugees even before the recent war), profound insecurity, remnants of a low-intensity war, ethnic and regional grievances, emergence of factions competing for power, meddling by foreign governments, and difficulty in obtaining and sustaining concerted donor support, particularly for longer-term relief activities.

There is, however, at least one fundamental difference between the situation in Afghanistan and that predicted for post-war Iraq — namely, the level of international support for the war and therefore the willingness of international donors to participate in emergency relief and longer-term reconstruction. Both the conflict to remove the Taliban government from power in Afghanistan and the subsequent creation of the Afghan Transitional Authority (ATA) enjoyed the backing and significant material and human resource support of the UN, NATO, and a large international coalition. The controversial circumstances of the war in Iraq have led to a significant push by officials in the UN and the European Union for control of humanitarian operations and reconstruction efforts to be turned over as quickly as possible to the UN and/or an international coalition. The willingness of other actors to get involved or, failing that, the willingness of the United States to involve itself in the long-term humanitarian concerns of Iraq, will have profound consequences for the success of post-war reconstruction.

Narrowing the range of issues that are likely to confront humanitarians — whether from the U.S., the UN, or as part of an international coalition — down to three broad questions may provide a useful framework for applying lessons learned in Afghanistan to the situation in Iraq:

  • What is an appropriate role for the military in terms of humanitarian relief?
  • How can security and development/reconstruction be made mutually reinforcing?
  • How can relief and development aid best be linked to actual need and capacity, rather than existing only on a hypothetical "continuum"?

The Military and Humanitarian Relief. The question of the role of the military in humanitarian operations is far too broad a subject to address in detail here. However, even at this early stage of the war in Iraq, policymakers can draw specific lessons from Afghanistan.

A multitude of problems — some minor, many potentially deadly — are created when a military assumes traditional humanitarian roles such as relief aid distribution. Though military planners are quick to point out that the military's organizational and logistical capacities make it an "obvious" choice for aid distribution, this argument ignores the fact that militaries are rarely (if ever) seen as neutral actors. This perception has important consequences for NGO workers and civilians receiving aid — the traditional actors in the relief sphere. In a situation such as Iraq, for example, in which a significant portion of the population can reasonably be thought to harbor negative feelings toward an invading military force, it is crucial that the military not do anything to endanger those neutral actors who come in afterward to deal with the humanitarian dilemmas it has left behind. Further, NGO staff inevitably remain in-country for a much longer period of time and do not benefit from the heavy arms and back-up security of military convoys.

The potential for confusion is at its worst when, as has happened in Afghanistan, soldiers are seen to be distributing aid in civilian clothes, thus eliminating any distinction on the part of both civilians and potentially hostile elements as to who may be a soldier and who may be an NGO worker. Not only does such a practice interfere with the neutrality of humanitarian aid, but it can put NGO staff at risk of being mistakenly targeted by armed groups. According to the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN), this is precisely what occurred in Afghanistan in December 2002, when one aid worker was killed and two others injured in a suicide bombing apparently intended for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) military hospital.

The U.S. army has already begun distributing aid in Iraq. This practice has sparked riots in some places since food, water and other supplies have been distributed off the backs of trucks rather than through established distribution channels that take into account the actual needs of the populations. Rather than going to the most vulnerable, therefore, the aid is instead getting into the hands of those strong enough to push and intimidate their way to the front of the crowds. In such situations, relief aid is even more likely to fall victim to corruption as those who have wrestled it off the back of a truck may attempt to capitalize further by selling it on the black market or to people who were unable to get to the aid truck themselves. NGOs, though by no means perfect, are more prepared to work with community leaders in order to establish both mechanisms and criteria for aid distribution — focusing, for example, on particularly vulnerable populations such as female-headed households, the elderly, and the sick. It is equally important to discuss both the criteria and the reasoning behind such criteria with local populations to avoid the types of disorderly and untargeted distribution that have occurred in Iraq.

Security and Development/Reconstruction. The second question is that of the relationship of security to development and reconstruction. Too often, the two are seen as either/or: either development will help to create security, or security must exist before economic development can take root.

Rather than seeing one as necessarily being "complete" before work on the other can begin, however, the two can and should occur in tandem. This has been the case in Afghanistan, where state institutions are continuing to be established under the protection of ISAF even as international military forces continue to wage a low-intensity war against remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The question, therefore, should be: How can economic development and security reinforce each other?

For example, it can be agreed that there may be no way to detach people from making a living with the gun without any other economic prospects in the country. But likewise, people are more apt to remain or become violent if they see no other opportunities in life. Creating alternatives to violence is thus crucial. Skills training and job creation programs can be vital to ensuring that employment is found or created for people, for example, who have been fighting in militias nearly all of their adult lives. One example of a program serving several important purposes is the Recovery and Employment Afghanistan Program (REAP), run by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the ATA. REAP is an employment-generating public works program, which not only creates needed alternatives to violence for both civilians and former combatants, but is focused on the rebuilding of national infrastructure.

The Relief to Development "Continuum." There has been much discussion in recent years in humanitarian circles about the so-called "relief to development continuum." But can the two really be thought of as on opposing ends of a spectrum, or rather are they inseparable parts of a whole? As with the security/development debate, this question yields the best answer when asked in a slightly different way: how can relief and development aid best be linked to both needs and capacity?

In Afghanistan, emergency relief is still "trumping" development, which encourages dependency and may distort local economies. It also means that government salaries cannot compete with those offered by NGOs and the UN, too often causing the "best and brightest" employees to shun public service in favor of work for international organizations and corporations. Meanwhile, far too many families are still subsisting on food provided to them by relief agencies.

Dependency caused by an over-reliance on relief aid may be an even bigger problem in Iraq, where nearly 60 percent of the population has been dependent on the UN and government-run Oil-for-Food Program since December 1996. Filling emergency needs is of course critical, but there is concern that such aid may be coming at the expense of equally necessary, longer-term reconstruction and peace-building projects.

The Afghan example highlights the need for donor governments and humanitarian policymakers to examine who should provide assistance and how quickly assistance should start to come from development accounts (such as those of the World Bank and/or regional authorities such as the Asian Development Bank or the Islamic Development Bank) rather than from emergency-relief coffers such as those of UNHCR.


At the time of writing, there is still no coherent, multilateral humanitarian strategy for the provision of protection or assistance to either Afghanistan or Iraq's war-affected civilians or displaced persons. Nor is there yet a clear strategy for the critical transition from relief to development assistance. Several initiatives, including the creation of a "returnee protection monitoring network" throughout Afghanistan as well as the identification of priority areas for intervention (drought-stricken areas, areas of high refugee return, and areas with severe protection concerns, such as the north), were met with hope on the part of UNAMA and could in theory prove useful in Iraq as well. However, as the recent experience of Afghanistan is teaching the international community, as the number of implementing partners (NGOs) and sectoral activities continues to expand at an accelerating rate, and as more and more people wish to return to their homes, the need for coherent strategies will grow. All humanitarian actors — in both Afghanistan and Iraq — will benefit from a clear framework for action reaching from emergency relief through to recovery and development.


Migration Policy Institute (MPI), United Nations Foundation and the Center for International Cooperation, New York University (CIC). September 2002. "Displacement and Development: Afghan Reconstruction in Regional Perspective." Unpublished roundtable report.

UNAMA — Kabul. July 2002. "Afghanistan, ITAP and Beyond: Update of Urgent Humanitarian and Recovery Needs." Unpublished.

UNHCR, "Focus on sustainable returns for Afghans, urges Lubbers," UNHCR News Stories, March 3, 2003.

Various UNHCR News stories and UNHCR Public Information Section Humanitarian Updates, September 2002 - March 2003. See www.unhcr.ch.

UN OCHA, Internal Displacement Unit. March 2002. "The IDP Situation in Afghanistan; Report of a Mission by the Internal Displacement Unit, OCHA." Unpublished.

UN OCHA Integration Regional Information Network (IRIN), various wire stories. See www.irinnews.org.

UN Wire, "Historic Repatriation Accord Signed with Pakistan, UNHCR," March 19, 2003. See www.unwire.org.

UN Wire, "Annan Cites Security Problems as Chief Threat to Peace," March 24, 2003. See www.unwire.org.