Aid, conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan. What lessons can be learned?

Originally published


Haneef Atmar and Jonathan Goodhand
International Alert is an independent non-governmental organisation which analyses the causes of conflict within countries,enables mediation and dialogue to take place, sets standards of conduct that avoid violence and helps to develop the skills necessary to resolve conflict non-violently. International Alert conducts policy-orientated research and advocacy aimed at promoting sustainable peace.

The Development and Peacebuilding programme examines the relationship between violent conflict and the agents and processes of development. Its aim is to provide development and humanitarian actors with knowledge-based, gender-sensitive policy prescriptions, best practice and tools. Drawing on action research methodologies,lnternational Alert aims to increase understanding in this area, as well as producing resources to aid in the formulation of pro-active responses. In our work we engage with, and help to build the capacity of partner NGOs, governments, bilateral agencies and intergovernmental organisations.

Note to Reader

This report summarises and comments on the status of international aid engagement in Afghanistan prior to the events of 11th September 2001. Evidently, the picture has now changed. At the time of writing, significant financial commitments had been made by the donor community to support post-conflict humanitarian assistance and long-term social and economic reconstruction, both in Afghanistan and in the wider Central Asia region. In the light of these changed circumstances, International Alert and the report's authors believe that the issues and recommendations in this report have, if anything, greater relevance than before, if the promised aid is to be effective. International Alert confidently expects that by recognising past failures, and by learning and applying the lessons of pre-September 11th engagement, the positive impact of the international community's long-term engagement in Central Asia can be assured.

© International Alert, February 2002.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,or transmitted in any form or by any means,electronic, mechanical,photocopying, recording or otherwise, without attribution.


This paper, which has been funded by International Alert builds upon earlier field research, supported by ESCOR/DFID and conducted by the University of Manchester/IDPM and INTRAC on, the contribution of NGOs to peacebuilding in complex political emergencies. We are grateful to the agencies and individuals, who are too numerous to be named, that kindly agreed to be interviewed as part of this research. Special thanks are due to Norwegian Church Aid and theWorld Food Programme, Afghan istan,who were case study agencies for this study. We would also like to thank the following people for giving substantive feedback on earlier drafts of this report: Jawed Ludin (BAAG), Manuela Leonhardt (International Alert), Thomas Thomson (DACAAR) and Andrew Wilder (Save the Children, US).

The authors would like to thank Eve Naftalin, Matt Suntag and Andrew Sherriff of International Alert for their support in the editing of this paper.

About the Authors

Haneef Atmar has been working with international NGOs on relief and rehabilitation programmes in Afghanistan for the last 8 years. He has completed his post-graduate studies (MA) at the University of York, UK and written on issues relating to institutional development of NGOs, conflict and humanitarian aid policy and practice. Haneef Atmar is currently working with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Pakistan/ Afghanistan.

Jonathan Goodhand has worked for several years managing NGO programmes, conducting research and doing consultancy on NGO issues in Southern and Central Asia. He is currently a lecturer at SOAS in the Development Studies department.


The dynamics of the Afghan conflict have been transformed as a result of recent events. In the space of three months the negative military and political stalemate of the previous three years has been shifted. From being an `orphaned' conflict,Afghanistan has become the focus of world attention. For the first time in the history of the war there appears to be the collective will and the promise of sufficient resources to get to grips with the dynamics of the conflict.

The chain of events which culminated in the fall of the Taliban started when, on September 9th, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leading military commander of the United Front, was assassinated by suicide bombers in North Eastern Afghanistan. Attacks two days later on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon, allegedly by Al Qaida focused world attention on Afghanistan. Military strikes began on October 7th with the twin objectives of destroying AI Qaida's networks and undermining the Taliban's military capability.

On 9th November, Mazar-i-Sharrif fell to the United Front which was quickly followed by Kabul, the capital and the main provincial cities, with Kandahar being the last major centre to fall in early December. This marked the military and political defeat of the Taliban.The security situation, however, remained fluid and uncertain. At the time of writing Osama Bin Laden, many of his foreign fighters and the Taliban leadership, including the leader Mullah Omar had not been captured. War-lords from the pre-Taliban years have re-emerged and established themselves as de facto power holders in many areas. Tensions between Pakistan and India have increased following an attack on the Indian parliament on 13th December by radical Islamic groups thought to have bases in Pakistan. Furthermore, there is uncertainty over whether the `war on terrorism' will be extended to include other `rogue states' such as Iraq and Somalia. In addition to the security and political crisis there is a profound humanitarian crisis.The World Food Programme has estimated that between five to seven million people are in danger of starvation during the winter months due to a combination of factors; including a three year-old drought and internal displacement resulting from military activity, which has in turn prevented effective aid delivery.

Following talks in Bonn an Interim Authority, led by Hamed Karzai,came into power on 22nd December. This will be in place for six months until a loya jirga (Grand Council) decides on the composition of a Transitional Authority, which will hold power until elections take place within two years. Discussions are also taking place, led by UNDP and the World Bank, with the aim of developing a long-term reconstruction plan for Afghanistan.


While there is room for cautious optimism given the current international alignment behind the peace agreement, a broad-based government and a reconstruction package, this optimism should be tempered by a realistic assessment of the task ahead.The underlying causes and dynamics of the conflict have yet to be addressed. These include the competing agendas of regional powers, the continuing Talibanisation of Islamic groups in Central and Southern Asia (in spite of the demise of the Taliban), an expanding war economy, the crisis of states within the region and deepening poverty. Unless these interlocking crises are addressed, violent conflicts will continue to be a feature of an extremely volatile regional conflict system.

Winning the peace therefore necessitates an approach which addresses root causes and entails a transition from peacemaking to peacebuilding. Peace processes elsewhere have often not been sustained as key actors have failed to look beyond the peace settlement. Evidently, peace involves more than simply ending the fighting, and peacebuilding must involve a debate around what kind of peace should be built: How is it defined? Who is involved in this debate? Experience from elsewhere (and the lessons of past failures in Afghanistan) suggest that these debates should be as inclusive as possible - peace processes which marginalise groups in society are likely to generate grievances which lead to renewed conflict.

Given the deep-seated nature of the regional conflict system, there is unlikely to be a smooth transition from war to peace in Afghanistan. The most likely scenario, in our view, is chronic political instability for a number of years to come. In many `post conflict' settings there has been a shift from militarized violence to wide spread social violence, as has been the case for instance in South Africa.The worst case scenario (apart from a major armed confrontation between Pakistan and India) would be a return to the warlordism of the mid-1990s.There are indications that this is already occurring with war lords establishing their power bases and reports of road blocks, robberies and the looting of aid in a number of areas.

Which scenario is acted out will depend to a great extent on whether international engagement is sustained and whether it is the right kind of engagement. In the past, international action has often been part of the problem rather than the solution. It has been half-hearted, unco-ordinated, often one-sided and has frequently created the wrong kinds of incentives. Continued support by the international community for a UN-led peacebuilding process is essential. If Western powers are not in this for the long haul, and international attention moves on, the competing interests of neighbouring powers and the negative dynamic of the war economy will reassert themselves.The track record of the international community is poor in terms of the gap between the promise and the delivery of reconstruction packages.

Even if international attention is sustained, it must be the right kind of engagement.There are dangers that a major injection of aid resources into a conflictual and resource-scarce environment will exacerbate tensions and renew the cycle of violence. Aid actors should avoid at all costs the mistake of recreating the Afghan rentier state, in which a small group of `shareholders' benefit from the peace dividend.


This report emphasises the contingent,complex and historically rooted nature of the Afghan conflict. We also highlight the past failures of international engagement.The international community has limited understanding of why states collapse, and even less about how to put them back together again.The need for realism and humility should therefore be emphasised - international action cannot engineer long- term peace, but the right kinds of intervention may increase the probability of this happening.

Although our focus has been primarily on the international community, we recognise that the key actors are the Afghans themselves. International support should be geared towards creating the pre-conditions which enable legitimate representatives of the Afghan people to make decisions about their future without external interference.1

It is beyond the scope of this report to map out in any detail the short-term and long-term priorities. However, all forms of intervention - whether in the security, political, socio-economic or humanitarian spheres - need to apply the following peacebuilding principles:

Provide sustained support: The key question is, are the Western powers in this for the long haul? Can the diplomatic and political momentum be sustained? We are not talking here about two year programmes but a decade or more of sustained and consistent support - politically and financially. In 1992 there was transient support for an Afghan Interim Government. Similarly, in 1993 the UN developed comprehensive reconstruction plans. But neither initiative stood a chance without coherent and robust international engagement.The major powers must make concrete commitments for long-term support, which they should be held accountable to.

Tackle underlying causes: Whilst the war has changed over time, leading to new dynamics and incentive systems, the central task remains the reconstitution of a legitimate state with a monopoly of force. It was the crisis in the legitimacy and capacity of the state which led to the outbreak of war in the first place and, if unaddressed, is likely to contribute to renewed violence. Short-term priorities should not distract attention from the central task of rebuilding institutions (a political transition), transforming the war economy into a peace economy and dealing with the legacy of violence (a socio-economic transition).

Address the regional dynamics: Our analysis has highlighted the regionalized nature of the Afghan conflict, and peacebuilding strategies must be developed within a regional framework. The right kinds of incentives and disincentives must be applied to ensure that the regional powers do not continue to pursue short-term,self-interested strategies in relation to Afghanistan. Robust support for attempts to resolve neighbouring conflicts (eg. Kashmir) and to prevent renewed or emergent conflicts (egTajikistan, FerghanaValley) should be provided.This must be complemented by efforts to address the conditions which continue to create instability in the region including state crises, Talibanisation and growing poverty.

A comprehensive approach: Previous efforts at peacemaking and peacebuilding lacked coherence - policies tended to undercut one another, creating the wrong types of incentives/disincentives. Efforts must be directed towards developing a common analysis, leading to a comprehensive and coherent peacebuilding framework.This does not mean repeating the mistakes of the Strategic Framework which attempted to create a monolithic management framework. There needs to be room for separate but complementary approaches and initiatives. However the overall vision and rationale of the SF remains valid - a patchwork of unrelated and unco-ordinated interventions in the name of `independence' and `flexibility' is simply not good enough.The UN agencies and NGOs must be prepared to sacrifice a level of sovereignty to ensure better co-ordination. There will be new actors entering the field (not least the Afghan state, but also new international donors), leading to overlapping co-ordination and accountability mechanisms. Strong UN leadership and particularly the role of Brahimi will be central, as will the development of a centralised funding mechanism, perhaps in the form of a Strategic Recovery facility.

Conflict sensitivity: All forms of assistance should be designed and implemented so that they are sensitive to the dynamics of conflict and peace. Peacebuilding is not necessarily synonymous with development; the wrong kind of development may be conflict producing. Conflict sensitivity is likely to mean a range of things and could include: developing the capacity to conduct high quality analysis; monitoring the distributional effects of aid (particularly impacts on inter-group tensions), building in ownership and inclusiveness to aid programmes, developing `do no harm' and peace and conflict impact assessment (PCIA) tools, disseminating information through the media about peacebuilding efforts.

Accountability, ownership and learning: Our previous analysis highlighted the lack of accountability and learning as systemic problems within the international system. In the rush to establish programmes and profile, there is a danger that agencies will not place a sufficient premium on understanding the context or reflecting on lessons from the past. The Strategic Monitoring Unit (SMU) established in 2000 to improve learning and accountability should be a central player, but it is likely to be sidelined by new and more well-resourced actors. We recommend that sufficient political and financial backing be provided to the SMU so that it has the profile and capacity to ensure that learning and accountability are built into the aid effort from the beginning. We have already pointed to the dangers of a small group of `shareholders' being the main beneficiaries of the potential peace dividend. Donors need to develop high standards of accountability and transparency for themselves. Similarly they must set clear standards in terms of governance to ensure that the new Afghan state is accountable and responsive to its citizens.

Executive Summary

This paper focuses on aid, conflict and peacebuilding in Afghanistan. It examines the history of humanitarian assistance (HA), maps out some of the key actors and main characteristics of the aid system, and analyses the interaction between aid provision and the dynamics of violent conflict. In particular, it asks whether and how HA can support efforts to promote conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The report is one in a series of four working papers which consist of three country studies (Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Liberia) and a synthesis report that provides a comparative analysis and overall recommendations for aid actors.

Afghanistan represents a potent example of the challenges and dilemmas facing the international community in the so-called `new world disorder'. Neither an inter-state war nor a classic civil war, the Afghan conflict has moved through several phases and might now be characterised as part regional proxy war and part civil war. After more than twenty years of fighting leading to over one and a half million dead, mass displacement and the break down of the institutions of state and civil society, Afghanistan appears to be no closer to a resolution of the conflict.

The humanitarian aid programme over the last two decades has constituted a major part of the international response to the Afghan crisis.There has however, compared to many other protracted crises, been limited research and writing on humanitarianism in Afghan istan.This report represents an attempt to highlight some of the experiences and lessons from Afghanistan which have wider relevance and could usefully inform current debates and attempts to improve humanitarian practice in war zones.

The report is divided into the following five sections:

1. History of the Afghan Conflict and the Diplomatic and Humanitarian Response

An historical overview is provided of the Afghan conflict, which highlights its complex regionalised and enduring nature. It is argued that in the post Cold War phase of the conflict, economic agendas have become increasingly important as the war economy has expanded, and this in turn has had a destabilising effect on economies and polities in the region.

The United Nations has played the lead role as peacemaker in the region, but has experienced limited success due, in the main, to a lack of concerted international support and the `spoiler' role played by neighbouring powers. These problems were compounded by the limitations of traditional diplomacy in a constantly changing environment characterised by multiple,`free wheeling' elements who were often unaffected by diplomatic sticks and carrots.

The humanitarian response to the conflict has matched the waxing and waning of international interest in Afghanistan. During the Cold War years, aid was the non-lethal component of the war against communism. In the post Cold War period,Western interest declined and humanitarianism became the primary form of international engagement. In recent years, the Taliban,narcotics and terrorism have put Afghanistan back on the map leading to a new foreign policy consensus. Humanitarian assistance is very much part of this emerging consensus, and with the advent of the Taliban there has a been a're-politicisation' of aid as Western donors have attempted to place new conditions on humanitarian assistance linked to human rights criteria and behavioural change within the Taliban.

2. Mapping the Aid System

An overview of the main aid actors and forms of assistance are outlined.The majority of aid provided to Afghanistan continues to be short-term relief assistance. There is limited, long-term donor funding and particularly in recent years, donors have been reluctant to support capacity building activities in the belief that this may legitimise or strengthen the capacities of the Taliban regime.

The UN-led Strategic Framework (SF) and Principled Common Programming (PCP) processes have been given mixed assessments by those involved. Some argue that they represent an innovative attempt to develop a more coherent approach to Afghan istan,which overcomes the historical disconnection between the political and humanitarian responses. However, in practice the focus has almost solely been on the humanitarian strategy with almost nothing being done to develop a robust political track. `Coherence' in practice has meant that humanitarian assistance should be coherent with the political agendas of western powers. Political agendas, it is argued by aid workers, are a corrupting influence on aid as assistance is no longer provided on the basis of humanitarian need but on political agendas determined in Washington, Moscow or London. To a great extent aid has become the primary policy instrument because political leaders are unwilling to get to grips with the political dynamics of the conflict.

Dealing with the Taliban has presented the aid community with the challenge of engaging with the "unlike-minded". Taliban policies relating to terrorism, human rights, gender, international humanitarian law, drugs and pursuit of a military solution are fundamentally incompatible with the world view and strategic interests of the international community. Aid has been used as one of the primary instruments to encourage behavioural change within the Taliban. However, confrontational conditionalities and political pressures on aid workers have, by and large, proved counter-productive.

3. Humanitarian Assistance and Peacebuilding

Two broad approaches to conflict reduction and peacebuilding amongst aid donors and operational agencies are identified: Working in Conflict and Working on Conflict. The former relates to agencies attempting to develop a conflict-sensitive and principled approach to delivering humanitarian assistance. The later relates to agencies with an explicit conflict reduction/peacebuilding agenda. Aid agencies have focused on developing programmes which are more principle-centred and sensitive to peace and conflict dynamics. Few, however, have adopted an approach which involves working more explicitly `on conflict'. Initiatives with peacebuilding objectives tend to be quite small-scale and disparate.

Donors and operational agencies have a limited understanding of the impact of aid,both in terms of achieving its immediate objectives, and its wider impact on conflict and peace. The lack of strong contextual analysis continues to prevent the development of more intelligent approaches from donors and aid agencies.

The overbearing influence of donors on the aid system comes out very clearly in Afghanistan. The lack of downwards accountability is a systemic problem that needs to be tackled. Since NGOs have moved increasingly towards service delivery, relying on official aid flows, their ability to conduct independent analysis and challenge donor positions has been eroded. This `crisis of conformity' within the NGO sector also means that Afghan voices are not sufficiently heard and accounted for in aid policy and programming.

4. Case Studies of Humanitarian Action in Practice

Two case studies are described and analysed:

Case-study 1: WFP Kabul Bakery Project: A food distribution programme for vulnerable groups in Kabul.

Case-study 2: Norwegian Church Aid Peacebuilding Programme: A developmental programme involving peacebuilding and capacity development of Afghan NGOs.

The two case studies are illustrative of the political and operational constraints on aid agencies in Afghanistan, whether they are working `in' or `on' conflict.They also highlight the importance of a pragmatic approach which involves a heightened sensitivity to conflict dynamics and an ability to adapt responses to changing contexts.

5. Conclusions and Recommendations

It is argued that humanitarian aid cannot be viewed in isolation from wider international policies towards Afghanistan. The over-riding policy response from the Western powers in the post Cold War years has been either one of strategic withdrawal and containment or an aggressive single issue focus.The focus on excluding, rather dealing with a `pariah state', is a short-sighted policy based on a poor analysis of the situation. It is not possible to ring fence the problem. The long-term costs of not engaging have not entered the calculations of Western governments, or at least not sufficiently to change the current policy of strategic disengagement.

Aid by default has therefore become the main policy instrument by which the international community engages with Afghanistan. It is argued that policy coherence has little meaning in practice if there is no long-term political or economic strategy to address the underlying dynamics of the Afghan conflict. A robust track one process and a substantial development package are an absolute precondition for a meaningful peacebuilding process in Afghanistan. Humanitarian aid cannot by itself create the preconditions for peace.

Recommendations are divided into those for (1) International governments who have an important influence on the formulation of donor policy, (2) Aid donors and (3) Operational agencies who influence how donor policy is implemented in practice.

5.1.1 Recommendations to Governments

Engage with carrots, as well as sticks

Sanctions, missile diplomacy and aid conditionalities fail to get to grips with the political dynamic of a complex, multi-layered conflict system. There is a need to rethink current sanction regimes and explore how they might be complemented by providing positive incentives for peace. Current policies on drugs for instance focus on tightening controls, but not on providing viable alternative livelihoods to poor farmers.The international community needs to take a system-wide and regional approach. We support recent recommendations that UNSMA should explore with Afghan actors the options for institution building and reconstruction and the international conditions for assistance.2

Provide long-term and sustained support

International and neighbouring powers have based their policies towards Afghanistan on short-term, expedient interests. This has often backfired on these actors, particularly since Afghanistan has become a major exporter of drugs and radical Islam. Afghanistan requires long-term and sustained support in the interests of structural stability. International and regional governments must develop joint strategies based on the long-term interests of the region, rather than short-term, self-interested agendas.

Develop a more balanced approach

The current response is unbalanced with its focus on aid conditionalities as a substitute for robust and sustained political action. Different donor governments and different policy instruments tend to undermine one another and even within the UN, the Security Council, UNSMA and UNOCHA are pursuing three mutually conflicting policies.3

It may be time to revisit the original objectives of the Strategic Framework and examine how greater complementarity can be developed between different policy instruments. Aid can play a supportive role within a wider response, but it should complement rather than lead a peacebuilding process

5.1.2 Recommendations to International Donors

Develop systems of consultation and accountability

Accountability within the international response system is a systemic problem. Mechanisms need to be developed to ensure that Afghan voices are heard and that there is much greater downwards accountability and transparency within the aid system.

This problem might be rectified by examining the potential of an aid ombudsman, with the setting of standards and codes of conduct and a complaints procedure. More work should be done to develop a rating system for assessing the quality of aid and to provide comparative analysis of donor performance. Finally, mechanisms should be developed which ensure much greater public consultation with Afghans, both inside and outside Afghanistan.

Strengthen analysis and learning

Donor and agency analysis has improved, but more value needs to be attached to developing understanding; adequate time and resources should be allocated for this purpose. Coherent approaches require a more coherent and joint analysis.

Donors should be prepared to pay for better analysis by providing resources for pre-project and post project assess ments.They should also allocate more money to give staff adequate time to generate and share lessons. Finally, more resources should be allocated to system wide evaluations, which put an emphasis on learning rather than on making funding decisions.The Strategic Monitoring Unit could represent an opportunity to put some of these ideas into practice; we would strongly recommend that it be seen as a learning resource for the aid community, rather than a watchdog or monitor.

Develop internal and external capacities

The sheer lack of manpower is a major constraint for most donor agencies. Unless donors take Afghanistan more seriously - and this means putting more people on the job - none of these recommendations can be put into practice. A related problem is a lack of deep regional expertise. Careers in aid are often too shallow, involving frequent moves from one `hot spot' to the next. Donors should encourage, within their own organisations and their partners, the development of a cadre of regional specialists with deep experience and understanding of the South and Central Asian region.

Develop more flexible approaches

Donors need to look at new funding mechanisms. Agencies are continually trying to develop longer-term approaches, but with the wrong kind of funding.There is a need for donors to develop more flexible, long-term funding, which enables agencies to make longer-term commitments to communities and develop more innovative approaches. This may mean rethinking standard operating procedures that have been applied in other contexts.The World Bank, for example, could reconsider its `watching brief and support a proactive investment package in Afghanistan.

5.1.3 Recommendations to Operational Agencies

Develop conflict-sensitive approaches

Agencies should continue to work on developing intelligent and conflict-sensitive approaches. We have argued for a pragmatic approach involving an ability to respond flexibly, match responses to changing contexts and to grasp opportunities. More work should be done on developing monitoring and evaluation systems which analyse the interactions between aid and the dynamics of peace and conflict.

Strengthen capacity development activities

Agencies have made more progress in recent years in the area of service delivery than in the area of capacity building.The unhelpful (and politically driven) distinction between relief and development activities should be challenged.Whilst recognising the real constraints, there are enough examples of successful capacity building with local govern ment,Afghan NGOs and community-based organisations that could be learnt from and used to develop a more systematic approach.

Strengthen advocacy work

Aid agencies should develop the capacity to conduct independent analysis and use that analysis to challenge the policy consensus on Afghanistan. It is recognised that aid agencies are doing this, but in a rather piecemeal and often reactive manner. A more strategic, joined-up and proactive approach is required in which aid agencies draw upon their 'on the ground' knowledge to challenge policies that are being formulated in Geneva, NewYork, Moscow or London. Aid agencies could also develop a more proactive approach in engaging with the media to challenge negative stereotypes of Afghanistan and Islam, which in turn have an important influence on policy formulation.


This report represents a contribution to a wider International Alert study that explores the role of humanitarian assistance (HA) in areas of violent conflict.4 This is one of three case studies which aim to contribute to and develop current understandings of the nature and impact of humanitarian interventions on the dynamics of violent conflict and peace. More specifically, it addresses the question of whether HA can contribute to long-term stability and peace. Currently there are broadly two schools of thought on this issue. First, the 'humanitarian maximalists' argue that agencies need to expand their mandates to address the underlying causes of complex political emergencies (CPEs). Conflict reduction and peacebuilding are the 'missing ingredients' that need to be mainstreamed into humanitarian policy and practice. Second, the `humanitarian minimalists' argue for a return to traditional 'pure' humanitarianism, based on the Red Cross principles and international humanitarian law. It is argued that a `back to basics' approach is the most appropriate, realistic and honest approach in situations that require political solutions from state and military actors.

Afghanistan was chosen as a case study as it helps bring these debates into focus.The conflict currently lacks empirical studies exploring both the potential for, and the practical constraints on, a more expansive approach to HA. Afghanistan is a country that has been under-researched, which is surprising since it represents a potent example of the challenges and dilemmas facing the international community in the so-called `new world disorder'. Neither an inter-state war nor a classic civil war, the Afghan conflict has moved through several phases and might now be characterised as part regional proxy war and part civil war. After more than twenty years of fighting leading to over one and a half million dead, mass displacements and the breakdown of the institutions of state and civil society, Afghanistan appears to be no closer to a resolution of the conflict.

Since the early 1980s HA has constituted an important part of the international response to the Afghan conflict. Delivering HA to Afghanistan over the last two decades has provided the international community with a variety of challenges and experiences which have wider relevance. These include:

  • co-ordination of a major relief effort in a collapsed state context
  • delivery of relief to the world's biggest caseload of refugees, in camps that became a rear base for militant groups
  • implementation and monitoring of semi-clandestine cross border operations
  • negotiating access with competing warlords
  • politicisation of aid by state and non-state actors
  • achieving gender equity in an environment where such principles are systematically denied
  • attempts to develop more co-ordinated and coherent approaches through a UN Strategic Framework process

There is evidently a great deal of rich empirical material to be mined from Afghanistan. In some respects, it illustrates many of the worst aspects of the international response to violent conflict and in other respects some of the most innovative and `cutting edge'. It offers both positive and negative scenarios from which lessons can Iearnt.There are perhaps few other places where the constraints have been so great or the clash between theory and practice quite so jarring.

This study was conducted over a six month period in 2000 and 2001, involving field work in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a UK-based desk survey. It has drawn extensively upon a DFID-funded research project conducted by the University of Manchester/INTRAC entitled,`The contribution of NGOs to peacebuilding in complex emergencies', in addition to a number of recent studies of aid in Afghanistan.5 It also incorporates learning generated from several related International Alert research projects on HA and conflict impact assessment.

The paper is structured as follows: In Chapter 1, we provide an historical analysis of the Afghan war and diplomatic and humanitarian responses to the conflict. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the aid system in Afghan istan,mapping out the key actors and the defining features of the system. Chapter 3 analyses humanitarian assistance through a conflict reduction and peacebuilding lens and maps out a number of emerging policy positions and responses. In Chapter 4, we analyse two case studies of humanitarian action in practice and attempt to draw out some wider lessons for policy. Finally in Chapter 5, in the light of our previous analysis, we outline our key conclusions and provide a number of tentative recommendations in terms of donor policy and practice.


1 Fieldon and Goodhand, Peace Making In the New World Disorder, 2001
2 Rubin, Ghani, Maley, Rashid & Roy. Afghanistan: Reconstruction and Peacemaking in a Regional Framework, 2001
3 Ibid.

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