Remembering Afghanistan: Humanitarian Crisis

This brief covers the aftermath of the US military’s exit from Afghanistan in 2021, highlighting the ongoing refugee and humanitarian crisis within and internationally. It also recommends solutions to address existing and potential humanitarian problems.

Published by


October 26, 2023

At YIP, nuanced policy briefs emerge from the collaboration of six diverse, nonpartisan students.

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Executive Summary

Afghanistan is an example of how the US’s efforts to democratize a foreign country failed to materialize. What once was a move for counter-terrorism instead turned over to a liberal state-building mission. Later, as the US gradually moved to pull out of the state, it became a target for an autocratic regime takeover by the Taliban. Since then, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group has been able to reassert oppressive control of its citizens, affecting their livelihood and migration. This brief analyzes the post-US pull-out conditions of Afghanistan, reveals the efforts of the international community and NGOs, and provides policy descriptions for working with the new regime.


Recent reports indicate that Afghanistan has temporarily gained control over the world’s strongest currency this quarter. However, beneath this surface-level economic development lies the grim reality of persistent apprehension and uncertainty for the nation’s 40 million citizens. Afghanistan has experienced a disturbing surge in restrictions doubling down on fundamental rights, focusing on women’s rights, freedom of the media, and freedom of expression. Human rights institutions have been severely curtailed or wholly shuttered.

Across Afghanistan, extreme poverty has risen, exacerbated by drought and natural disasters. Public executions and floggings have been employed as punishments for various offenses, from murder to “illegitimate” relationships or violating societal norms. Women’s rights have been relentlessly attacked, and their participation in public life has been severely limited, notably with the exclusive ban on girls attending schools. Moreover, nearly all institutions dedicated to addressing gender-based violence have been dismantled by the Taliban.

Needless to say, Afghanistan’s pre-existing economic challenges have deepened due to international isolation and the upheaval of the Taliban’s takeover in 2021. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an alarming 97% of Afghans lived in poverty, a stark increase from 47% in 2020. The absence of social safety nets has forced families into desperate resorts, including child marriages and organ trafficking. The economy continues to dwindle due to the freezing of Afghan foreign reserves and plummeting development assistance from the international community post-Taliban takeover.

Pointed Summary

➢ Afghanistan has been dealing with several issues like human rights violations and environmental disasters

➢  Taliban has reinstated some of the strictest rules according to Sharia law, negatively affecting the civil liberties of citizens.


While humanitarian aid in 2022 targeted starvation, it failed to address other pressing social needs, resulting in diminished access to healthcare, employment, and education for Afghani citizens. The mass exodus of skilled professionals across various sectors has further strained essential services.

Moreover, Afghanistan grapples with escalating numbers of environmental perils, such as ash floods, earthquakes, and other natural disasters, some of which are intensified by climate change. In a particularly concerning development, the Taliban leadership imposed sharia law in November 2022, leading to a wave of public executions and floggings.

The extrajudicial execution of individuals associated with the former government, members of armed groups, and those perceived as non-compliant with the Taliban’s rules became alarmingly widespread. These actions have extended to civilians, as exemplified by a tragic incident in Ghor province where innocent Shia Hazaras were killed. Despite this, the Taliban has consistently evaded accountability without proper investigations or transparent proceedings.


Ever since the Taliban takeover, media houses have been shut down. The media landscape has witnessed a drastic shrinkage as the Taliban imbues an apprehensive environment that has staunched freedom of expression. Journalists are facing mounting restrictions, including arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions, and torture, which have led to self-censorship and the fleet of  reporters from the country. Remaining female television reporters have also been coerced to conceal their faces, undermining gender equality in media representation. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) remains shuttered, and civil society organizations have seen their capacity to document and report on human rights almost redundant. The Taliban’s relentless crackdown extends to social media, particularly Facebook, where those criticizing the regime are subject to arrest and unlawful detention. Furthermore, the Taliban has obliterated even the conception of peaceful assembly, demonstrations, and gatherings. Excessive and unwarranted force has been used against demonstrators, with peaceful protesters subjected to arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture, and forced disappearances. 

Women’s and girls’ rights have faced severe setbacks, exemplified by the closure of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and its replacement with the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Girls have been barred from primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and numerous restrictions on university attendance for women have made higher education almost inaccessible. Women and girls have been denied access to public spaces through measures including dress codes and chaperone requirements. Male relatives have been entrusted with “monitoring and penalizing” women and girls for purported violations of these restrictions.

The Taliban’s dismantling of former government structures, the proselytization of the judicial system into a religious-based sharia regime, and the erosion of protections for women  have normalized domestic violence and forced marriages. A lack of reliable mechanisms for addressing gender-based violence has left victims without recourse, while community-level resolutions have often punished women for reporting domestic violence. Taliban barred women and girls from working with NGOs in December, leading to severe economic repercussions, particularly for households where women are the sole provider amidst rising food insecurity.

In addition to these human rights abuses, Afghanistan has grappled with unlawful attacks and killings, with UNAMA recording 2,106 civilian casualties between August 2021 and June 2022. IS-KP, a splinter group, has systematically targeted minority  communities through bombings and attacks on religious and educational institutions. The Taliban’s failure to address these attacks has exacerbated the situation, as existing security measures were removed under the new regime. As a result of ongoing armed resistance in various provinces, civilians have continued to face death, arbitrary arrests, torture, and restricted movement enforced by local Taliban authorities. Forced evictions have also been reported, further intensifying the plight of affected communities. The Taliban’s governance has devastated Afghanistan’s healthcare system, with ambiguous policies regarding women healthcare workers and a severe shortage of human resources, particularly in rural areas. The freezing of international aid, which previously supported healthcare, has left hospitals and clinics severely under-resourced, impeding access to essential medical services. Nearly 3.6 million Afghans have fled the country due to well-founded, substantive fears of persecution by the Taliban. However, some countries such as Tajikistan and Iran have continued to deport Afghan refugees and asylum seekers, exposing them to inconceivable risks. Impunity remains a significant issue, with the Taliban’s governance structure lacking mechanisms for justice, truth, or reparation for crimes under international law. Courts and prosecutors have failed to investigate extrajudicial executions or hold perpetrators accountable. The judicial system’s independence has been severely compromised, as the Taliban has replaced judges and courts with its own justice systems.

In October 2022, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Pre-Trial Chamber authorized the ICC Prosecutor to resume its investigation into the situation in Afghanistan, emphasizing the need to consider all alleged crimes and actors.of armed forces and security and intelligence services of non-state parties. The scope for investigation is a notable development compared to the Prosecutor’s earlier focus on crimes committed solely by the Taliban and IS-KP. While previous years saw humanitarian needs primarily driven by conflict, the current crisis is multi-faceted with causes, including drought, climate change, protection threats (especially for women and girls), and a slumping economy.

Despite Afghanistan fading from the headlines, it remains one of the world’s most severe humanitarian disasters. Two-thirds of the population grapples with food insecurity, and a staggering 875,000 children face acute malnutrition, with women and girls bearing the worst of these challenges. The ongoing crisis has thrust the United Nations into the arduous position of balancing Afghanistan’s vital yet seemingly contradictory responsibilities: maintaining humanitarian assistance for those in dire need while exerting pressure on the Taliban to halt their grievous human rights violations.

The abrupt reduction of international aid following the Taliban takeover in 2021 initially triggered this crisis. However, the regime’s increasingly oppressive policies, such as banning women from working for the UN and non-governmental organizations, have made the situation abysmal. Humanitarian aid organizations are steering through the treacherous waters of delivering vital assistance while avoiding reinforcing the Taliban’s oppressive dictates. This is a complex situation that defies simplistic solutions or hashtag campaigns. These are trying times for aid workers committed to saving lives while upholding principles of neutrality and impartiality.Humanitarian organizations operating in Afghanistan have historically relied on operational flexibility and adaptability to ensure the persistence of crucial assistance. This flexibility has been vital for activities ranging from negotiating access across conflict lines to running girls’ schools during the 1990s. It also allowed for unofficial exemptions allowing women to work in the health, nutrition, and education sectors.

However, recent statements by UN agencies have led to confusion and allegations of inconsistency, as some have permitted male staff to continue working while women are excluded in a bid to appease the regime. While acknowledging the need for local flexibility, crucial agency heads must maintain a firm, uniform, unwavering stance asserting that the Taliban’s actions contravene not only the caveats of the international human rights law and the UN Charter but the very natural rights of a human being espoused by Aristotle.

A recent meeting of UN special envoys in Doha resulted in an agreement to engage with the Taliban, with de jure recognition being contingent on progress made on human rights issues. While some Afghan civil society groups have rejected all engagement, others view it as a glimmer of hope to alleviate the economic crisis. However, these efforts will only bear fruit if humanitarian funding levels improve significantly. A severe reduction in aid would plunge many Afghans deeper into poverty and hunger, compounding the already dire situation.

As Afghanistan is in the midst of a multifaceted crisis characterized by severe human rights abuses, economic turmoil, and a burgeoning humanitarian catastrophe. The international community must remain engaged and resolute in addressing these challenges. The fate of millions of Afghans hangs in the balance, and concerted, coordinated action is the need of the hour.

Current Stances

A. Internal

When the Taliban assumed power over Afghanistan, they reinstated the government as The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, a title used previously when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. In this government structure, the emir is considered the supreme leader, their responsibilities endowed by God. The Taliban has provided unspecified details on its rule according to “Islamic law and unspecified traditions.” Immediately after the takeover, a Taliban senior leader was appointed as a cabinet leader within each ministry. Many internal characteristics of the Afghan government were altered in this process. One notable example involves the revival of the “Ministry of Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.” This ministry was infamous for its moral policing. In the 1990s, it targeted the rights of women and girls, enforcing harsh and austere restrictions through beatings. Despite these devastating steps, the Taliban rule is yet to establish a permanent constitution. The implication is that there is no formal rule of law to determine what constitutes a crime. Rather, the Taliban forces decide what is punishable then and there. Resistance to the Taliban authorities is met with overwhelming force, including detainments and executions.

Women are especially impacted by the Taliban rule. The newly instated government has passed many decrees to restrict womens’ mobility and freedom. For example, women are not permitted to leave their homes unless they are wearing a full veil and are accompanied by a man. Devastatingly, Women who face gender based and sexual violence receive no protection from the Taliban government. In fact, the administration is releasing many prisoners who were convicted for crimes such as rape. This cycle of sexist oppression is only perpetuated over time, as the Taliban has banned girls from attending secondary schools. This education gap puts women at an economic disadvantage, as the chances of finding a good job are diminished. 

Extreme poverty in Afghanistan doubled to 34 million after the Taliban takeover. To put this astounding figure in perspective, this constitutes 90% of the Afghan population. This is partially caused by international reactions– many countries refused to do business with the Taliban government, halting aid and trade agreements. These extreme circumstances led impoverished Afghans to rely on drug trading to make a living. Although the Taliban banned the production and sale of illegal drugs, illicit Afghan opiates are now trafficked into nearly every continent in the world, with the exception of South America. 

Another social catastrophe in Afghanistan concerns the shocking increase in refugees in recent years. With 1.6 million Afghans in neighboring host countries, Afghan refugees are the third largest refugee population in the world. This widespread displacement can be attributed to four decades of food insecurity, natural disasters, and exacerbated violence and conflict caused by the Taliban rule. 

The atrocities occurring in Afghanistan are underexposed to the rest of the world due to the Taliban crackdown on the press. Afghan journalists are repeatedly censored and detained for reporting factual information. Crucial issues are being overlooked, including poverty, womens’ rights, and natural disasters. While the Taliban attempts to cover up its extremism and abusive regime under an international gaze, Afghanistan has lost over 60% of its journalists since Kabul fell. 

B. International

U.S. President Joe Biden claimed the Afghanistan takeover marked “(the end) an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” While many blamed Biden for his troop withdrawal from Afghanistan prior to the takeover, he defended it saying he was left with no other choice. Biden’s administration claimed that former President Trump had begun the withdrawal, and there was no plan to execute the process. He argued that an Afghanistan pullout would allow for more resources to potentially deal with issues in Ukraine and China . In the end, “President Biden refused to send another generation of Americans to fight a war that should have ended for the United States long ago.” However, Biden admitted that troop withdrawal was chaotic and messy. This has led to an adjustment in U.S. evacuation protocol when experiencing a dire security crisis. In Ethiopia and Ukraine, earlier evacuations are now prioritized. 

After the takeover, the Biden administration ended all financial assistance to the Afghan state. Rather, it has adopted an approach centered on humanitarian aid to individually target poverty in the country. Through the UN and various NGOs, the U.S. has been spearheading international aid assistance in Afghanistan, funding US$775 million in Afghan food security, education, and healthcare. American programs are actively working to improve the human rights situation in Afghanistan, specifically to address the oppression of women under Taliban rule. 

As part of the U.S. evacuation post-crisis,  the U.S. processed over 78,000 Afghan evacuees. Their parole status means that they are only permitted to stay in the U.S. temporarily. As a result, the Afghan Adjustment Act was introduced in the House and Senate on August 22, but failed to pass. The reintroduction of this bipartisan act in July 2023 is part of a larger effort to protect Afghans left in danger. If passed, the act would help to acquire permanent residential status for those evacuating Afghanistan. 

The Pakistan government denies military support to the Taliban, despite its financial, intelligence, and military assistance to the regime. However, since the Taliban ascent, the Taliban has acted against Pakistani interests. Specifically, the Taliban has contested border claims between the countries and provided a haven for an anti-Pakistan militant group. 

At the same time, Pakistan has hosted over one million Afghan refugees since the Taliban invasion. However, the visas that many used to enter Pakistan with visas are now expired, as of December 2022. The termination of visas has been difficult for many refugees, who are constantly under the threat of arrests, harassment, and potential deportation. In September 2023, more than 250 Afghans were arrested on the basis of racial profiling. Only a few weeks later, the situation grew even more dire, with the foreign minister claiming that the Pakistani government aims to expel all Afghans living in the country. This decree is predicted to affect one million refugees living unlawfully in Pakistan.

Tried Policy

President Biden inherited a difficult situation in Afghanistan when he took office on January 20, 2021. At this time, the Taliban was in its strongest military position since 2001, controlling or contesting nearly half of the country. The previous Trump government had negotiated a deal with the Taliban, the Doha Agreement, where Trump committed to pulling out all American troops from Afghanistan in exchange for Taliban security guarantees and a "vague commitment to reduce violence and pursue peace talks." President Biden consulted with his intelligence professionals on whether it was possible to keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan and defend against a renewed Taliban. However, his intelligence professionals stated, "The United States would need to send more American troops into harm's way to ensure our troops could defend themselves and to stop the stalemate from getting worse.

After careful consideration, Biden withdrew all US forces from Afghanistan, though he could not meet the May deadline set by the Doha Agreement. President Biden stated that he believed it was no longer worth further attempting diplomacy with military presence when, after a decade of failed attempts proved this method was ineffective. Biden remarked, "I know there are many who will loudly insist that diplomacy cannot succeed without a robust US military presence to stand as leverage," but "We gave that argument a decade. It's never proven effective, not when we had 98,000 troops in Afghanistan… Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm's way, US boots on the ground. We have to change that way of thinking."

Policy Problem

A. Stakeholders

Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, the US has provided over $1B in funding to provide refugees with humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and neighboring countries. The US provided funds through the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Such funding has not given refugees permanent solutions, however. 

Due to the Congress’s inability to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act (AAA) legislation that would give permanent residence status to refugees, many refugees are on temporary parole status. The Biden Administration has attempted to help refugees  by renewing parole for two additional years, permitting them to remain in the US until 2025. This is the situation for many Afghans that resettled in the US from Afghanistan through the Operation Allies Welcome evacuation program in 2021. 

Another possible route for entry to the US would have been through the US’s P-1 and P-2 program which refers Afghani refugees in Pakistan to the US. It is estimated that to date 20,000 refugees in Pakistan have such referrals for resettlement, but they are not being processed due to a stalemate between Pakistan and the US. Despite the influx of refugees into Pakistan in 2021, Pakistan is not taking active measures to help Afghan refugees. As such, Pakistan is wary of creating a Resettlement Support Center (RSC) in case it promotes more refugee settlement into Pakistan. The US believes an RSC in Pakistan would, rather, catalyze the process of Afghan resettlement out of Pakistan.

B. Non-partisan Reasoning

When the US military retreated two years ago, they left behind around $7.2 billion worth of equipment. These weapons are now turning up in underground markets across regions of conflict in the Global South. From US-made automatic assault rifles to weapons from Austria, Russia, China, Turkey and Pakistan, merchants with Taliban permits run a thriving arms business. The issue of these loose arms and who benefits from the Taliban's arms sales is of paramount concern. These arms are falling into the hands of various terrorist groups, both within and outside Afghanistan and have the potential to hurt American allies and fuel further conflicts, not only within the country but also across borders. Moreover, there is a looming fear that the Taliban is using these arms internally to suppress dissent and control Afghan citizens’ lives, threatening the region’s fragile stability.

This poses a significant security dilemma to the US, which is already grappling with the thorny issue of aiding Afghan refugees. The U.S. faces a delicate balancing act of safeguarding its national security interests while upholding its humanitarian obligations. US State Department officials met with Taliban Representatives in Doha, Qatar on July 31, 2023. However, the primary topic of discussion during the two-day talks was the status of women’s and girls’ education, without addressing the Taliban’s weapons trade.

However, the arms deal presents a more considerable danger to Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan. The nation’s ill-equipped police force has been badly impacted by the Taliban’s access to sophisticated weapons. Northwestern provinces of Pakistan, like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have faced the most attacks.

Moreover, the Taliban’s ability to act as an arms dealer to other terrorist groups can facilitate stronger relations and could exacerbate the worsening conditions for women minorities in Afghanistan. History has shown that extremist alliances reinforce regressive ideologies and repressive policies like the return of public flogging and reduced access to education for women and girls. The Taliban’s partnership with Al-Qaeda is being observed by security officials worldwide.

Worsening living standards, like tighter restrictions and violent crackdowns on dissidents, could also result in larger waves of emigration as people seek safety and freedom elsewhere. The international community, particularly countries advocating for human rights and gender equality, will face a moral dilemma in responding to such a situation. Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors and the EU have adopted drastic preventive measures in fear of a repeat of the 2015-2016 ‘refugee crisis’.

Ultimately, the future of Afghanistan remains highly uncertain, and its evolving dynamics have far-reaching implications. It necessitates a delicate and adaptive approach from the international community to balance security and humanitarian concerns and promote fundamental human rights.

Policy Option

To overcome the ever-worsening humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, the international community, led by the United States should drop some preconceived ideological and geostrategic grievances they uphold towards the Taliban government. Clearly, without effective cooperation and even collaboration with the Taliban government, goods from the outside world whether it be trade or international aid would be denied access to the inherently poor and infertile nation. According to the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, the international community ought to establish a clear consensus on how to equitably distribute aid, engage with the Taliban and not to overlook or underestimate any issue, especially since women and children are proven to be harmed disproportionately. It is crucial to develop a certain degree of mutual trust between the US-led West and the Taliban government. For the Taliban, doors should be opened to external aid and efforts focused on addressing the worsening socio-economic and humanitarian crises its people are facing. It is time for both parties to drop ideological and geostrategic concerns and strive for the Afghan people, whose pain and suffering are the result of both Taliban and Western incompetence. 

The withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan in 2021 represented numerous humanitarian problems for the war-torn nation. With the Taliban takeover, democracy, freedom of speech, press, religion, and expression were all under severe threats or completely overthrown. The Taliban regime continued its Islamic fundamentalist approach with education, public policies, and cultural perspectives for Afghanis, enabling religious dogmatism to imbue the life of every single resident of the nation. Personal liberty is a great stake, especially for women, non-Muslims, and minority groups, to whom the Taliban regime practiced merciless oppression and persecution. Needless to say, encroachments upon personal freedom and the rule of law also spilled over to economic affairs. Following the US exit and Taliban take-over, Afghanistan’s pre-existing economic problems such as severe socio-economic and geographical inequalities were only exacerbated. The Taliban’s oppressive measures stifled the free economy, property rights, innovation, and business freedom, while sanctions from the West led to the freezing of its overseas assets and foreign exchange. The people of Afghanistan now live in isolation, with international negligence and domestic tyranny.

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Chanhee Joy Park

Director, Policy Media

Chanhee (Joy) Park is a Foreign Policy Co-Lead based in Texas and Michigan, specializing in the history and politics of East Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Sanjay Karthikeyan

Lead Analyst, Foreign Policy

Sanjay Karthikeyan is a high school senior based in Singapore and the Co-Founder and CEO of GovMetrix, a youth-led, solution-oriented organization that strives to solve the world’s most pressing problems through collaboration, incisive analysis, and candid discourse.

Rusmiya Aqid

Policy Analyst

Rusmiya is a freshman at the University of Rochester. She is interested in international development and policy, and draws inspiration from social entrepreneurs like Runa Khan.

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